A to Z or not?

by Yeevon Ooi on 12 January 2011

A question was raised during a recent presentation on why we recommend avoiding using alphabetical lists for organising the content pages for a website. It was an interesting question because alphabetical lists are rarely used except under specific circumstances. So when exactly and why do we use or not usealphabetical (A to Z) lists?

Why A to Z lists don’t work

The simple answer is we don’t hold mental models of the world around us in an A to Z list.

If we want to go to a store, we don’t populate an A to Z list of the stores in our heads. Instead we make decisions based on criteria which we deem as important while choosing which store to go to (e.g. distance from home, opening hours, availability of products we’re looking for, price etc).

Similarly, when we navigate around a website, we have specific goals in mind.

Think trying to pay council tax online. Most of us will probably look for keywords such as  ‘Pay …’ or ‘Council Tax’ on the homepage (which could potentially be in two different places if it were to be listed in alphabetical order). It’ll make little sense to us if a list of options on a council website is being presented in a long alphabetical list. In fact, most council websites now have standard ‘Pay it’, ‘Report it’ and ‘Apply for it’ sections to make it easier for site visitors to complete main tasks online. In this case, if one is trying to pay council tax online, he or she will most likely go to the ‘Pay it’ section as it clearly reflects the user goal of wanting to pay one’s council tax.

How should we organise information if not from A to Z?

User research such as interviews and usability testing while thinking-aloud can reveal how people search for information, suggesting ways to organise content according to people’s mental models.

Card sorting is also an effective method in finding out how people organise a set of specific items. By understanding how site visitors expect items to be organised on a site through a card sorting exercise, a better site structure can be created to match that mental model.

When does an A to Z list actually work?

It can work if people know what they’re searching for. It can also be effective for listing items from avery specific category which has fixed terminology (e.g. a list of all the countries in the world).

Having said that, most information can be organised based on other criteria apart from A to Z. This is because we have different experiences and goals which account for the way we organise and search for information. Providing sorting options (e.g. by relevance, price, popularity, recency, and etc) is a popular way to cater for these different needs that people have while browsing a website.

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