Alphabet soup

01May08

Say you’re designing a list of features that people will access from a menu on the left side of the screen. When you only have a few items to include, ordering them by popularity or frequency of use probably makes the most sense. But as this scales beyond ten or so items, it becomes cumbersome for users to find what they need.

At this point, many designers would switch the list to alphabetical order. The downside, of course, is the lack of priority for the most popular or useful items. The compromise I suggest takes a little bit of each approach: start by listing up to five tools that are used most often at the top, in whatever order you like. Then, provide a subtle separator line of some sort, and place all the remaining choices below that in alphabetical order. You could also make the text style or accompanying icon a bit different for the first set of options versus the second set.

With this method, you help users quickly find the things that they use most often, as well as those things that might be more obscure. And it’s way better than the approach that I see on most sites, which is simply putting every choice in a giant list with no logical order at all.



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