Alphabetizing Should Be Simple

Jared Spool

October 5th, 2005

(Warning to our non-US readers: this is a definitively US-centric post!)

Would you consider the following sequence to be alphabetical order: E, H, D, A, I, N, S, O, T? Well, according to American Express’ travel site, it’s how you alphabetize all the states that begin with the letter “M”.

Almost always, alphabetizing things on web sites is a bad idea. It’s usually the equivalent of random order and rarely produces anything users expect.

However, one instance where it always works is when listing states. Typically, states are listed in a pulldown, such as this one from the Sharper Image web site’s checkout form:
SharperImage.com's state list

Occasionally, sites will use the two letter state abbreviation, such as Embassy Suite Hotel’s reservation search form:
Embassy Suites States List

Note that these two lists have the states in slightly different order. That’s because the abbreviation for Maryland (MD) is alphabetically after the abbreviation for Massachusetts (MA), even though, when spelled out, they would appear in the other order.

So, confusion occurs when the two are combined, as in the American Express Travel site:
American Express Travel states list

The problem comes when a user is scrolling through the list. They come to ME or MH and say, “Wait, why isn’t Massachusetts listed?” I’ve seen this happen multiple times in user testing over the years.

Of course, Amex isn’t the only one with this problem FedEx exhibits the same behavior:
Fedex.com state list

Moral of the story: if you’re going to alphabetize, start at the very first character of each line.

18 Responses to “Alphabetizing Should Be Simple”

  1. Daniel Szuc Says:

    Forms that make you choose a US state when you want to enter an international address only. Help! 🙂

  2. Maria Rubio Says:

    How about displaying the name of the state (spelled out) and the abbreviation immediately after (i.e. Massachusetts-MA) instead of the other way around? That way users can see both listed in correct (and expected) alphabetical order.

  3. Eddie Says:

    If the zip code is a required field- why make the user enter city/state at all for US addresses?

    I understand there may be cases where the user may not know the zip code- I think the zipcode should be entered first and autofill in the state and city for the user.

  4. Steve Fisher Says:

    I’ve seen this horrible alphabetizing when it comes to finding the state of Nevada. I have found Nevada listed after New York a number of times and it is very annoying.

  5. Rein Groot Says:

    I would say, choose one or the other: two letter state abbreviation or the full state name.

    Because you want people to choose from a list of options. I assume (since I’m a european who lived only for 5 months in the States) that the majority of the Americans know the two letter state abbreviation aswell as the full state name. So as a designer you should choose for either one form or the other.

  6. Jared Spool Says:

    Rein wrote:

    I assume (since I’m a european who lived only for 5 months in the States) that the majority of the Americans know the two letter state abbreviation

    It’s not unusual for someone to know their own state’s code, but many people do not know other states. Normally, for purchases and the like, it’s not a problem. But for sites like FedEx, where you may be specifying a shipment to someplace you’re not familiar, you can get into trouble.

    I’ve seen many usability tests where users had trouble with this. People from the west coast who look at MA and say, “That’s Maryland, right?”

  7. Patty Says:

    I’m looking for a little more info on the use of alphabetizing on web sites. Im trying to make a general recommendation on how to order groups of 5-7 links that may be related to the main page’s content. Anyone have any thoughts?

  8. Michael Says:

    Jared: Everyone on the West Coast knows that MA is Maine, not Maryland.

    😉

  9. Patrick Moss Says:

    What about having users enter their two-letter abbreviation? This is what Nielsen was recommending, at least as of 2000:

    Drop-Down Menus: Use Sparingly

  10. Jared Spool Says:

    The problem with Nielsen’s elimination of drop-down recommendation is that it postpones validation and puts more burden on the user and the designer.

    It works fine as a solution in a context where you can count on the user always entering correct data (or in a place where validation isn’t important). However, in the case of state entry, where accuracy in the address is critical, using drop-downs limits the users choices to only possible choices.

    Again, with the addresses, we’re working with two likely contexts: One where the user is entering an address they are intimately familiar with (their own, for example) and one where the user is entering one that isn’t as familiar (a remote address of someone else or a destination they are visiting). Eliminating drop-downs in favor of a type-in solution may work in the former context but is unlikely to work well in the latter.

    (This is the problem with general guidelines that are insensitive to contexts. That’s why we’re leaning more towards a patterns approach to these types of problems. Patterns are designed to take context into account.)

  11. Dave Feldman Says:

    In both the contexts Jared lists (but the second in particular) it seems like what you really want is the efficiency of a type-in with the validation of a drop-down – in other words, a combo box or type-in with autocomplete. Neither is native to the Web, but both can be done and are common enough to have preexisting code libraries.

    (A lot of focus in this area has been on Ajax-enabled versions, but that’s probably overkill in this case since there are only 50 or so items with short names.)

  12. Aaron Gray Says:

    Eddie, I like the idea of using the ZIP code to grab the city and state…in theory.
    When I’ve encountered this feature on a site (I don’t remember for sure, but memory tells me this was an Intuit site) where I was shipping something to myself, I was presented with a multiple choice screen where I had to select the correct city and state from among options that included my actual city and state (Portland, OR), my post office branch name and state (Kenton, OR), and a city across the river in a different state (Vancouver, WA).
    Of course, you can argue that you have to know your shipping address to be able to ship something. But that begs the question, does this feature end up making it any easier to do?

  13. The Content Wrangler Says:

    […] In Alphabetizing Should Be Simple, web usability guru Jared Spool aks: “Would you consider the following sequence to be alphabetical order: E, H, D, A, I, N, S, O, T? Well, according to American Express

  14. Todd O'Neill Says:

    Isn’t this kinda missing the point of it all? Why not list the states in the most recognizable form for all, the full name — working to the lowest common denominator so to speak. Then let the, what do they call that thing, oh yeah, the computer(s?) fill in the two letter abbreviation if that’s what is needed by the system to process. If screen real estate is a probelm, then boohoo, rearrange the screen real estate.

    The “fill in the ZIP” (+4?) (Postal code too?)” seems elegant also, especially if it’s _my_ zip code. (I wouldn’t know my cousin-in-California’s zip code off the top of my head.) Again, let the machine be a tool to do the work of entering an accurate address. Heck, with “ZIP+4” you should be able to get it down to the house number.

    Wow. Realized this was coming out pretty sarcastically. Too early in the morning maybe. Uh, Jared. Right on.

  15. Jhonatan Says:

    It’s not so big probleb, people fill allways find neccessery information, because they need to find it, they even don’t think that MD and MA situated uncorectly

  16. Dimon Says:

    I’ve seen this horrible alphabetizing when it comes to finding the state of Nevada. I have found Nevada listed after New York a number of times and it is very annoying.

  17. ESTELA Says:

    RESPONSE REGARDING: “Michael Says:
    October 8th, 2005 at 5:43 pm
    Jared: Everyone on the West Coast knows that MA is Maine, not Maryland.”

    Actually, the following is correct.
    MA is Massachusetts
    ME is Maine
    MD is Maryland

  18. The Content Wrangler » Blog Archive » Alphabetization Hell: Which State Comes First? Says:

    […] Alphabetizing Should Be Simple, web usability guru Jared Spool asks: “Would you consider the following sequence to be […]

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