Application of a List
Lists are frequent design elements used to help organize and present content. We can find these design elements in technical documentation, marketing materials, reports, presentations, and other document types that benefit from lists. Ordered lists are numerically numbered or alphabetized lists that show content in a sequential or sorted manner. The sequencing highlights a logical hierarchy or relationship of content to assist the reader with understanding the presented information.
Examples of ordered lists are step-by-step procedures (numerical lists) and indices (alphabetical lists). In contrast, unordered lists break down content as a simple bulleted or plain line-by-line list to help with the structural organization. This differentiation between ordered and unordered lists also reveals the proper application of lists in content design, which we occasionally tend to ignore.
A Real-World Example
Indeed, sometimes we apply ordered lists for the wrong reasons. This can minimize content reuse potential and add unnecessary ambiguity. The following example illustrates an inappropriate use of an ordered list, which I came across when shopping for a new kitchen range.
This particular example is straight from the Use & Care manual for one gas range:
Now one might think that the numbers correspond with callouts in a drawing, but they don’t. I can imagine that the content author may have numbered the display features to indicate that there are three total display features. In this case, numbering each display feature is not necessary because the list is very short and there is no logical sequence or apparent hierarchy for this information. Moreover, the numbering reduces the reuse potential of the content. This affects both the source content and every target language into which the content is translated.
An unordered, bulleted list would accomplish the same thing while boosting the reuse potential. My point is that numbering items or content should have a clear application and purpose: If numbering items is not relevant for the understanding of content, then don’t number items. Otherwise, the numbering could inadvertently imply a relationship or hierarchy even when none exists.
The Challenge of Alphabetical Lists
What about alphabetical lists? The same general rule of thumb applies here as well. However, alphabetical lists represent another design challenge for global content: Not all languages use a traditional alphabet that allows a straightforward sorting by letter such as the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets.
In contrast, many Asian languages use scripts instead of western-type alphabets. This makes alphabetical sorting impossible. But even for alphabet-based languages, the sorting sequence can differ since the number and order of individual letters varies across alphabets.
There are also technical challenges that alphabetical lists impose. Unless authoring tools support the specific sorting rules for a given language, we might have to manually sort information. For example, sorting in Chinese is usually based on the phonetics of a word or the number of strokes of the first character of a word. And if we use alphabetical numbering for procedural information, let’s say to number substeps, we will encounter issues for some languages.
The following example depicts a procedure with alphanumerical numbering:
One approach is to avoid alphabetical lists and alphabetical numbering altogether. Or use it only when content is limited to alphabet-based languages. I recommend using numeric lists whenever you need to sort or sequence content. Numerical lists provide the lowest common denominator for all languages. This is also a good approach when a potential future expansion of a language set is likely. Since we usually do not always know which languages we might have to consider down the road, planning ahead is critical.
Speaking of alphabetical lists such as indices: These feel like an old-school design feature, which I usually associate with large, printed documentation. Basically, indices offer a granular list of keywords to find information of interest more quickly. They compensate for the search limitations of printed documentation compared to digital documentation.
Adopting a New Design Mindset
We often hold on to known design patterns as technology evolves. For example, when structured authoring emerged as a new design approach, many technical publication teams initially tried to replicate the look and feel of their existing manuals. This of course undermines the potential that XML and structured authoring offers. It took a while before content designers changed their approach and adopted a new design mindset.
Unfortunately, this instinctive reaction to change delays our decision to take full advantage of new technical possibilities. Moreover, as we increase the distribution of digital content, the need for selected traditional design elements declines as well. Technology can assist with the search for specific keywords or information. Therefore, it makes indices irrelevant for digital content. In fact, the search feature, for example in a PDF document, easily outperforms a traditional keyword index.
Nevertheless, some regulated industries—such as the medical device industry—still have to provide selected product documentation in printed format. The primary reason is to ensure that product users don’t have to rely on a device or complex infrastructure to access product information at any given time. And for the device manufacturer, it also represents a liability concern should users not have access to product information. However, one could easily make the case for digital documentation given the many benefits and flexibility it offers compared to printed documentation.
Lists are an important content design element and help improve readability as well as organization of content. To ensure their effective use, you should assess the added value and purpose of such lists. Not all content benefits from or requires an ordered list. In addition, sorting rules across languages impact content design and should drive your decision on whether to use sorted lists. Numeric sorting has advantages over alphabetical sorting when designing global content for many languages. Unordered, bulleted lists provide the greatest flexibility and improve the reuse potential of content compared to ordered lists.