Alphabetizing Should Be Simple

by Jared Spool

(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:'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: state list

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