Thereâ€™s an old joke: Where does â€œfinishâ€ come before â€œstartâ€? In the dictionary.
Alphabetizing a list jumbles items. So while alphabetical lists look simple, theyâ€™re often hard to use. If users donâ€™t know the correct word for what theyâ€™re trying to find, theyâ€™re lost. Are you looking for a jacket or a sport coat? Do you want to speak to someone in Marketing or Sales and Marketing? Alphabetical lists work well for indexes of proper nounsâ€”where thereâ€™s a â€œcorrectâ€ word to describe somethingâ€”like surnames or countries.
Arranging items by popularity is also problematic since weâ€™re unlikely to know what other people like. If Iâ€™m looking for pasta in an online supermarket, then I expect to find capellini, linguini, and spaghetti near each other (because theyâ€™re all long and thin). And Iâ€™d expect to find an 18oz packet of spaghetti next to a 9oz packetâ€”even if the 18oz packet is twice as popular. A list of popular pasta types would feel as random as an alphabetical list. Look at the shelves in a supermarket, and you wonâ€™t see a label saying â€œlong, thin pasta,â€ but thatâ€™s how itâ€™s organized. Uncovering those â€œhiddenâ€ categories of metadata is important in creating simple experiences.
Arranging content by format (words, pictures, videos) is another way of categorizing that looks simple but turns out to be unhelpful in the real world. If youâ€™re reading about Hawaii, you want to see photos and videos then and there. Going back to the start to find videos is just too much work.
There are a few situations Iâ€™ve come across where organizing by format makes sense. Examples are conference programs in which some formats, like tutorials, require a different registration process. In other words, some formats were used differently by the participants. But these are exceptionsâ€”itâ€™s usually simplest to organize conference information by time.
What matters is arranging items according to relevant indexes. Alphabets make sense for staff names, popularity makes sense for top-100 movies, format makes sense for conferences. Choose indexes relevant to the task.