Fighting with computers

Computers are not always friendly.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Drop down lists for country selection


I am sure you've used many times a drop down list to chose from a set of limited choices. One common use is to mark the country when specifying a shipping address.

Some websites default to your own country, which is a good thing for the locals but eventually other people will have to select another value from the list.

As I am currently based in Spain everything I buy from other countries does not default to my country so I am forced to go down the list. There is a shortcut that works on different operating systems which is pressing the first character of the word you are looking for to go to the first, second, third element, and so on of names starting with that same character. Sometimes this can be much faster than using the mouse.

However, I have discovered that the common way of storing this lists does not make my life very easy when searching for my own country. There are several problems:
  1. Not all the site use the same list so you never know what is the location of the item you are looking for.
  2. Although alphabetic sorting is common it is not always the case.
  3. Have you ever seen how many country names start with "S"? (if not have a look at the USPS list). It takes much longer to search that to write and keyboard shortcuts does not help too much, as you can easily run over the one you are looking for.
After thinking about the problem for a while I reckon site designers should consider a "user-friendly" sort order. I would define such a sorting order in a way that on average users have to press the minimum number of times their country name first character to get it right. I know that alphabetic order seems a good choice, but after using it for a while I am not so sure.

Naturally, to achieve such an order, population numbers come into play. In order to minimize the average mentioned above you need to sort the countries alphabetically using only the first character and in a decreasing order of population.

There are 72 different entries starting with character "S" on USPS country list. In case you wonder it is country names starting with "Y" the ones that render the shorter list.

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