Column Sorting Arrows

September 13, 2006 By: erik Category: Geeky, Musings 4,284 views

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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…

Firefox Bookmarks Manager

The Bookmarks Manager in Firefox has the arrow pointing down when the items are listed from smallest to largest.

Apple Mail.app descendingApple Mail.app ascending

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

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.

 
  • Betsy

    Since it was one of the choices, I don’t really care :~)

  • Paul

    Well, today was my first day noticing, as I sorted directories by date or by file name, whether the triangles were pointing up or down.

  • http://australia-day-and-night.blogspot.com Tony Court

    It is even trickier in iTunes (titles, no #), but here is the logic.

    Arrow pointing up :ascending order (A-Z or 1-9)
    Arrow pointing down :descending order (Z-A or 9-1)

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

    Tony, that makes sense to me. If the smaller end is at the top, then the smaller numbers should be at the top. And vice versa. iTunes does it the standardized Apple way, which is the version I prefer.

  • http://v2logic.com van

    Erik,

    Good article, and yes we should all care, at least if we’re in the business of creating interfaces. :)

    Tony Court definitely has it correct… the arrows represent Ascending and Descending – but I like the thought of it as a pyramid with less and more as you described…

    The arrow is also used, like in the first graphic, to indicate that there is *more … such as in folders, they only go to the right when the folders are compressed (or closed) and then when pointing down, open to show the list.

    Cheers,
    Van

  • John Byrne

    My thoughts are that the way the arrow points is not how the list is CURRENTLY sorted but rather which way it WILL be sorted AFTER you click on the title (button)… which reverses the reasoning for most of the explanations I have read.

    • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

      That’s very intriguing, John, but the problem with your assumption is that, if that were true, there should then be arrows on all column headers that are sortable, not just the one that is sorted. The arrows most certainly indicate the current status.

  • James Drewry

    When triangles are used…  Then the smaller items should be at the tip of the triangle. However…  When stick arrows are used, then the tip of the arrow should be pointing in the direction that the items are getting larger.

  • James Drewry

    When triangles are used…  Then the smaller items should be at the tip of the triangle. However…  When stick arrows are used, then the tip of the arrow should be pointing in the direction that the items are getting larger.