The Power of Lists: A Listicle

In or out, first or last, top or bottom: inclusion, rank and order are just part of the power of the almighty list.

People love lists. They help us to order the world, prioritize what matters most and remember what needs doing. But lists have many interesting properties and implications, especially when it comes to data and decision making.

One of my favorite lists:

Jorge Luis Borges’ list of animals from the fictitious book Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. The list challenges us to try and fathom its taxonomy and reminds us that all classification carries with it a point of view.

a) those that belong to the Emperor,
b) embalmed ones,
c) those that are trained,
d) suckling pigs,
e) mermaids,
f) fabulous ones,
g) stray dogs,
h) those included in the present classification,
i) those that tremble as if they were mad,
j) innumerable ones,
k) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
l) others,
m) those that have just broken a flower vase,
n) those that from a long way off look like flies.

The way you organize your list says a lot about your data #analytics:

  1. Why we love lists
    When it comes to processing information, knowing what you’re working with makes all the difference. The list format is a model we understand and know immediately how to read. We can scan it quickly, and that’s attractive as it feels like an efficient way to take in information. Lists also have a built-in imperative that suggests importance and a definitive set of information, not to be missed. They appeal to our curiosity and we simply have to know who’s top, bottom, first or last. We also can’t help our own assumptions: guessing who or what made it onto the list, and if we’re right that makes us smart, right?
  1. Top # - where to draw the line
    Is that a “Top 5”, “Top 10”, “Top 20” or “Top 100” list? Where we decide to cut the available data matters. As soon as we reduce and exclude items we reduce available information. The “Top 10” list is the king of “Top” lists. A quick googling for it shows that its popularity is way ahead of the rest, on page hits alone.
    It’s been suggested that this is closely tied to our cognitive preference for round numbers. Truncating results is useful as it supplies a manageable set of information. But just missing the Top 10 means that perceptually an item falls into the next tier, thus is more easily disregarded, even if it is still a valid candidate. One study found that the largest perceived vs. actual differences in value was between items ranked 10 and 11.

    Be careful where you draw the line, if you want to use a “Top” set, then where possible cut the set based on how significant the information and difference is for each item. And always state what the decision is based on. After all a “Top 13” list, may not be popular but it could well be more meaningful.
  1. Whose ranking is it anyway?
    Being first, numero uno or at least in the top 3, makes all the difference, whether that’s in the Olympics or Google's search results. But those positions are dependent on how we choose to sort the set. A list of names naturally gets ordered A-Z but if another value is used to rank them (say a score or location or other associated value) the position of the name will change, layering on the meaning associated with the other value. But that meaning is only relevant in that context. It’s important to be transparent about what is determining the sort order, don’t leave it unstated. Better still, give people the capability to apply their own criteria to sort the list and help them see the data in ways that may matter to them.

    And we can’t forget how incredible being able to sort and resort a list is. Imagine hand-sorting 1000s of items! The mechanics of programmatic sorting are fascinating, here’s a geeky example showing how quickly different sort approaches perform:

    Most of the data we work with is held as collections of lists in the form of tables that contain rows (list items for the table) and columns (a list of associated attributes or characteristics for an item). When we present or work with data the way we present those lists also carries meaning. It frames how that information is processed. So next time you create a Top 5 for that dashboard, take a few extra moments to think about whether you might be implying a significance that isn’t really there.
Photo credit: sk8geek via / CC BY-SA

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