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July 27, 2009

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It's interesting that in web and computer based information systems alphabetical organization is quickly losing relevance again. Amazon and Google return results based almost completely on popularity rather than a more arbitrary alphabetical system. The need for alphabetical organization quickly decreases when the primary method of finding things is keyword searching rather than subject searching. Of course, as long as we still have physical objects on our shelves some sort of mostly arbitrary organizational system is necessary. When almost everything is born digital, is it is already happening, these organizational systems will become less and less relevant.

Thanks for your comment, Alex. In the online world, there are many uses for multiple organizational structures, including alphabetical order. Amazon, in its Arts and Photography section, places an alphabetized list of subjects in prime real estate – top of the page, left side. One of the subjects is "Artists A – Z." Effective organizational structures must vary with the material being organized and with the use. Sometimes an arbitrary alphabetical system is simply the most efficient.

That's very odd. Particularly since I don't see an easy way to drill down a level below the first few dozen most popular authors. So if you're looking for Goya or Giger and didn't remember hot to spell their names, that might be helpful but if your artist is slightly more obscure you're back to keyword searching by name and hoping your spelling is correct or at least close enough.

It’s not an either/or situation. When receiving search results, it could be that a researcher would prefer the results presented in alphabetical order, or chronological order, or length of the document. There are many ways to present information. It’s a matter of selecting the best structure for the task at hand. In a drop down list of American states should we use alphabetical order or should we use popularity (i.e. population)? With alphabetical order, everyone always knows where to find their state. If we use popularity, users must know their state’s population in relation to other states, a statistic that varies with population changes.

You're right that it doesn't have to be either/or and particularly in a drop down list of states an alphabetic list is probably the way to go (although lists of countries often break out the United States and put it at the top when a website knows most of its users come from the US).

Very glad you mentioned the position of the United States in a drop-down list of countries. This exemplifies arrangement decisions. We must assume a site with an international drop-down list has international users. If the majority of the users are from the U.S., placing the U.S. at the top, in an otherwise alphabetized list, saves time for those users, but also sends the message that the U.S. is the most important country in the world. Placing the U.S. with the U countries says the United States is just one among many countries, but it does make all of us in the U.S. have to scroll way down to the bottom of the list. Which is better? Personally, for social and political reasons, I prefer the U.S. in the U’s, but when I don’t have to scroll all the way down to the U’s, I don’t object too loudly.

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