Humans like alphabetically ordered lists

Well, humans that use a latin-based alphabet do. But this can present challenges for the presentation of certain types of content.

Why do we like alphabetically ordered lists?

We’re taught from an early age to expect long lists of things we encounter to be listed alphabetically. And, apart from some mild weirdness on lists where the first word isn’t the one being use to alphabetise the list (for example, last name instead of first), it makes a great deal of sense.

Other options are simply more complex to understand. For example, we could have a list of downloadable documents as follows:

  • Important document (140kb)
  • Superb document (200kb)
  • Average document (1.1Mb)
  • Dull document (1.7Mb)
  • Excellent document (2.1Mb)
  • Really long document (4Mb)
  • Even longer document (4.1Mb)

This list – because it’s short – is quite easy to take in. But, if it was four times as long, we wouldn’t be happy about having to read every line to find the item we’re looking for. It’s listed by document size, but that is unlikely to matter to anyone. Listing it as follows instantly makes the list easier to scan.

  • Average document (1.1Mb)
  • Dull document (1.7Mb)
  • Even longer document (4.1Mb)
  • Excellent document (2.1Mb)
  • Important document (140kb)
  • Really long document (4Mb)
  • Superb document (200kb)

Basically, alphabetisation gives us a brilliant and super-quick method of searching and filtering long lists of things. Imagine trying find your country in a list of all the countries in the world if the list was ordered by, say, population size. It would take rather longer than an alphabetical list.

So, what’s the problem?

We’ve found, particularly working with law firms, that alphabetically ordered lists don’t always work. This is principally down to ego.

What should happen when we click on the “People” link in the website menu of law firm X? (Let’s say law firm X has 500 lawyers, as opposed to five).

We could argue about the purposes of a people section; you could say it’s there to promote depth of bench, diversity of the firm, skillsets, etc., but really its prime purpose is to enable users to find the bios of people.

I propose that most users would expect to see links to people; something like:

  • Jane Abbott
  • David Adams
  • Michael Anderson
  • Sarah Andrews
  • And so on…

But what happens if Jane, David, Michael and Sarah are all junior associates? What sort of impression does that give of the company?

Some of us would say it doesn’t matter at all, but it seems most law firms care deeply about this sort of thing.

Looking at just three different firms we’ve worked with there isn’t really a common theme.

The Buckley Lawyers page doesn’t show any people at all. The user has to make some sort of selection before being presented with any lawyers. This makes for a slightly confusing experience where the user could be asking “where are the people?”.
The Blank Rome people page lists senior ‘Firm Leadership’ people under the search tools. Though this demonstrates how people will be presented, and shows some ‘stars’, it may be confusing for some users simply because it isn’t what they expect to see.
The Katten site lists attorneys alphabetically.

We think it’s fine to show an alphabetical list of people. The main reason why goes back to us humans expecting things to be listed alphabetically. No-one is going to arrive at one of these pages and think “wow, this outfit is staffed by a bunch of juniors”.

They won’t think anything. That’s the point. They’ll be seeing what they expected to see.

Finally, I’m left wondering what the ordering preferences are for those who don’t use a latin-based alphabet?

Author
Marcus Lillington
Date
12 February 2020
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