Select Box Usability Madness | May 30, 2006

Select boxes are difficult to use at the best of times, especially when you have to navigate down a very long list, such as a list of countries. Luckily, information architects normally order their lists alphabetically. This helps support known-item searching, as you can quickly scroll down to the entries starting with the same letter as the one you’re looking for, making things easier to find.

I was signing up for a new AIM account recently, and had to fill in my country details. This was the first usability gotcha in my mind as I really couldn’t see why an IM service would need to know which country I’m from. However I let that one slide as a clicked on the select box, and was presented by the following screen.

Screenshot of a select box showing the United States, Caneda and then a list of countries is an almost alphabetical order

I’m based in England, which is part of Great Britain as well as the United Kingdom. However most websites use the United Kingdom, so this was the label I was searching for.

Some companies with a large UK user-base add a United Kingdom option near the top of the list, usually below the United States. This makes a lot of sense as there is no point forcing people to scroll down a long list of options, if the majority of visitors are from one or two countries. I did a quick scan for the United Kingdom at the top of the list, but couldn’t see the option, so assumed the user base was more diverse.

As a side note, it would be a nice usability touch if sites checked your IP address, made an educated guess at your location, and displayed this as the first option. Just a thought!

If this was a short list, I’d probably scroll down to the entries starting with my letter of choice. However as this was a long list, many people would type the first letter of the word they are looking for and be taken to that point in the list. I dutifully typed in “U” and expected to be deposited somewhere near the United Kingdom option. This is where things started to get a little confusing.

Screenshot of a select box showing countries starting with the letter U. United Kingdom is not there.

As you can see from the image, there was no United Kingdom option. Knowing that some people list it as Great Britain, I typed in “G” to see if was there. After a quick scan I couldn’t see Great Britain, but I did notice a listing for the United Kingdom.

Select box showing United Kingdom listed where Great Britain should be alphabetically.

You may think this was a small issue, as I did end up finding my country. However the whole process left me feeling a little confused, annoyed and mistrustful of the application.

I was expecting an alphabetically ordered list, and in most places that’s exactly what I had. However the UK was in the alphabetical position of Great Britain, despite being listed as the United Kingdom. I was happy to stuggle through, but that wouldn’t be the case for everybody.

Looking down the list, I noticed a lot of similarly annoying anomalies. For instance, in the first screenshot you’ll notice that the United Arab Emirates (commonly known as the UAE) is listed in the alphabetical position for Arab. Similarly the Netherlands (or Dutch) Antilles are listed in the position of just Antilles. In the second screenshot, Saint Vincent is listed in the “V” position, and in the third screenshot, Micronesia is listed under “F” for Federated States of Micronesia.

It looks like somebody has tried to be extremely clever with the naming convention on this list and ended up making the whole thing confusing for everybody.

Posted at May 30, 2006 7:12 PM


Peter Parkes said on May 30, 2006 7:24 PM

Of course, there’s no need to stick the UK (or the USA) at the top of the list at all - I’ve never understood why developers don’t just have them in alphabetical order and use the ‘selected’ attribute to set the preferred option as the default.

Of course, this is primarily a selfish desire, as if everyone did this, it’d save a lot of scrolling from USA to UK…

Wilson Miner said on May 30, 2006 7:41 PM

The web needs a standard type-ahead combo box widget for long select sets.

Come to that, it would be great to be able to specify alternate wordings or acronyms in an attribute of an option that would be matched by typing even if it wasn’t displayed. (i.e. typing “UK” or “Great Britain” would match “United Kingdom”)

Lance E. Leonard said on May 30, 2006 7:47 PM

Being from the US, I appreciate having the US at the top of the list because it makes my search relatively easy. However, this is by no means a standard, and is usually irrelevant if I find myself consistently hitting ‘U’ to auto-scroll.

However, if you DO put the US (or any others for that matter) at the top of the list, PLEASE duplicate it in its expected position in the list so I don’t confuse myself if I scroll to the U section and can’t find it. Pick 3-5 (US, CAN, UK), add them to the top of the list, put a separator, and continue with the full list including the ones at the top.

seth said on May 30, 2006 7:55 PM

potential reason for this:

Somewhere deep in the heart of the AOL machine lives a database lookup table that includes at least these two rows:


The sinister developer who is using this table to generate the select box options is sorting on one row, but displaying the other.

There for, when his iteration gets to “Great Britain” which is the country_name, he is showing you the country_display_name “United Kingdom.”

just a guess.

Phil Sherry said on May 30, 2006 8:02 PM

Madness, indeed!

The whole attitude of “USA runs the world, so let’s put them at the top” is really annoying. A-Z is fine with me, as that’s the alphabet I learnt in school, and not U-A-Z.

aj said on May 30, 2006 8:05 PM

yup, I agree with Wilson, a Spotlight-style function that automagically begins to suggest matches would rock. Useful for states and provinces, too.

Sheldon Kotyk said on May 30, 2006 8:37 PM

I’d love it if Canada was always three Cs into the drop down, that way when I hit the C button three times, I would always get it. Moving it to the top or just under the US always makes me have to rescroll back.

Adam Schilling said on May 30, 2006 8:50 PM

Proving once again we can be too clever for our own good.

I’m with Phil: A-Z please. Andy, your IP address guess would be even better.

Generally, I hit Country drop-downs in zombie mode: ‘Tab’ to select, ‘A’ for Australia, ‘Down-Arrow-Key’ a couple of times … if it isn’t there: “Grrr. Argh!”

As an aside, you wouldn’t believe how many times I accidentally click ‘Austria’. ;-)

Justin Perkins said on May 30, 2006 9:11 PM

What about a select box that dynamically sorted itself based on what previous users have selected. That way whatever is most common will work it’s way to the top of the list :)

Rimantas said on May 30, 2006 9:32 PM

As I suspcected, there is no confusing logic, only sorting by th wrong field (I’ve changed angle brackets to square ones, and left end tag):

[option value=”AD”]Andorra
[option value=”AE”]United Arab Emirates

[option value=”AN”]Netherlands Antilles

[option value=”GA”]Gabon
[option value=”GB”]United Kingdom
[option value=”GD”]Grenada

Josh said on May 30, 2006 10:49 PM

looks like it’s ordered by country code, which as Rimantas has discovered sometimes has different letters than you would find in the name.

i’ve made quite a few country lists recently and i agree with Andy about the logical ordering suggestions. i’ve tried to follow those conventions before.

basically all it takes is the ordering in the database to be changed from the country code to the country name, sorted. then to add the specific convenient countries depending on your audience.

another case of laziness. very sad.

it’s these little touches that i like to think makes us good webdesigners. just like sound engineers, the little things we do like that are rarely noticed and hardly ever praised. of course if something like this is spotted by a client it’s suddenly the most important thing inthe world to fix!

i’d call this invisible design, it’s only noticed when it’s wrong, but otherwise taken for granted subconciously :)

Tanny O'Haley said on May 31, 2006 12:40 AM

Firefox allows you to type more than the first character in select boxes. If you type “uni” it would go to United Kingdom. It’s another very cool feature of Firefox.

Chris said on May 31, 2006 6:46 AM

I’m from germany and have noticed on similar ocassions that germany is sometimes listed under “d”, since the german word for germany is “Deutschland”. But it’s weird to display one word and order by another.

Geert Leyseele said on May 31, 2006 8:54 AM

I am always getting frustrated on most airline sites when filling out dates and forms. And about the countries, move to Belgium Andy and you are always on top ;o)

Rosie Sherry said on May 31, 2006 2:05 PM

I come across these kind of issues regularly (QA & Software Testing background), where it is often thought during development that these are not important issues.

Logics, basic best practice and usability issues are frequently overlooked by those closest to the project.

Jason Berry said on June 1, 2006 4:49 AM

@Adam Schilling,

For Australia, try “B” (usually get Bahamas) then up arrow 3 times :)

Works 99% of the time!

Mike Stenhouse said on June 1, 2006 3:55 PM

If you don’t know what label you are looking for, alphabetical is no better than random. I think the last one that got me was signing up for an Apple ID on a mate’s computer - I looked for UK, United Kingdon, Great Britain to no avail but eventually found England. Maybe it’s our fault for having so many names for our little island!

My favourite method for country boxes is to take the top 5 countries that your customers hail from and put copies of these items in a ‘Most common’ optgroup at the top…

Justin Thorp said on June 1, 2006 11:01 PM

I totally agree that finding your country in a select box is a total usability pain.

Richard Conyard said on June 2, 2006 10:22 AM

In regards to combo boxes why not just code one up in javascript? They aren’t much of a problem, just make sure it has appropriate failover if JS isn’t available.

i.e. alphabetical select list, dom created top input and registered events.

Bramus! said on June 2, 2006 11:05 AM

A proper solution would be to add the 3 different names for the country (England, United Kingdom, Great Brittain) and giving them each the same value. This way the user can enter his naming of choice and the file that handles the request will have 1 and the same entry for the chosen name.

Bramus! said on June 2, 2006 11:05 AM

A nice and clean solution would be to add the 3 different names for the country (England, United Kingdom, Great Brittain) and giving them each the same value. This way the user can enter his naming of choice and the file that handles the request will have 1 and the same entry for the chosen name.

josh said on June 2, 2006 5:23 PM

how about a live search, predictive input for country?

start typing and it fills the rest as you type..

and obviously just show a select box without javascript.

Julian Schrader said on June 3, 2006 10:01 AM

That’s really weird. I’m sorry, but who is that blind not to notice such madness?

Paul Solecki said on June 5, 2006 10:18 AM

England, UK and GB are not the same, England is part of the UK it isn’t the UK.

Alphabetical is best, Firefox can get confused when things aren’t alphabetically ordered when you try jumping to them.

There are also plenty of IP/country lookup services around that are easy to use on dynamically generated lists :)

Parastina said on June 6, 2006 5:02 AM

I am a Kurdish and have been living in US. When a dropdown menu asks me about my country I should pick up Kurdistan, shouldn’t I? Unfortunately, there is no Kurdistan in all dropdown menus. You have a country in the dropdown menus wherever it is but I dont have one. What should I do? I have just one solution. I add Kurdistan choise in dropdown menus which I’ve created. Pretty creative huh?
Sir Andy, I bought your book recently. It helps, I was too late for photo competition, (I want to cry) but it’s ok. Thank you.

Aaron Allport said on June 6, 2006 9:14 AM

I agree that there is confusion that leads many websites to display different names for the same place. Maybe limiting list entries to the ISO country list would help? This may annoy certain users that their country isn’t listed (i.e. GB and England), but it is a standard list that’s used worldwide.

Andy, Thanks again for the training back in April. Switzerland is starting to warm up finally!