I spend many hours each day in front of a computer screen. I have used many computer programs with graphical user interfaces (GUIs) over the years. It seems that there is still no common consensus on a very common user interface strategy. Which way should the arrows point on a sorted column?
Let’s look at a few examples to see what I’m talking about…
The Bookmarks Manager in Firefox has the arrow pointing down when the items are listed from smallest to largest.
Apple’s Mail.app has the arrow pointing down when the items are listed from largest to smallest, and up when the items are listed from smallest to largest.
Windows Explorer also has the arrow pointing down when the items are listed from largest to smallest.
From the three applications shown here, only Firefox is the odd one out. It’s important to note that the other two, Apple and Microsoft, are pretty consistent in maintaining their user interface regulations across their operating systems and products. However, I have still seen it many, many applications that do it the way Firefox does it.
I will now explain how I think it should be, and why.
I think that Apple and Microsoft do it correctly. When the list is from smallest to largest, the arrow should point up, thereby properly representing the smallest part of the arrow (or triangle) at the top, and the largest at the bottom, just like the data is. And the same goes for sorting in the reverse. When the list is from largest to smallest, the arrow should point down.1
In elementary school, I was taught how to remember which is “less than” (< ) and which is “greater than” (>) by thinking that the symbol was a hungry, greedy crocodile, and he always had his mouth open to the biggest number. This is the same thing.
I could maaaaybe see the logic of doing it the other way if you think of the icons as actual arrows pointing in the direction that the items are listed, rather than a triangle graphically representing the sizes of the values. So when you have it smallest to largest, the arrow would point down because you are “listing the items downwards”, and when it’s largest to smallest, the arrow would point up because the items are “listed upwards”.
However, I still conclude that the way that Apple and Microsoft do it is best, and should be made standard across all applications.
What are your thoughts? Do you care? Did you even know those arrows/triangles meant anything?
1This fellow here makes the argument using the terms “ascending” and “descending” in his complaint to the Firefox developers.