Using structured content in lists

Structured content creates the building blocks for great user experiences. One of the best ways to help people get things done online is by providing lists of things to buy, tips to remember, or articles to read later. And structured content makes creating lists much easier.

Michael AndrewsPublished on May 25, 2020

“Lists are popular because the editors have organized the thinking for the reader. They tabulate information and are therefore shortcuts to understanding,” notes designer Jan White.

Because lists are ubiquitous, we often don’t bother to think about the many ways we use them every day. Yet lists support a range of activities; authors should consider how they invite interaction and can encourage users to engage with content. 

Another topic that we don’t think much about is: Where do lists come from? People often talk about making a list—writing down items so they won’t be forgotten. But online, lists are more like living things. They are designed for online interaction, and the contents of the list will often be changing. Users can access lists and manipulate them.

Even today, many online lists are individually curated—if the items in the list link to content elsewhere, that link may need to be manually entered. Clearly, such an approach doesn’t scale and is hard to maintain.

When content is structured by a content model, the task of creating lists is far easier—they can be generated from structured content. The items in a list can be populated by elements in the content model. For example, if the list is of titles of blog posts, those titles will be elements associated with the blog content type. 

What’s in a list?

A list is both a conceptual grouping of items as well as a presentational format. When planning online lists, authors decide what to include, taking into consideration how those elements will be displayed.

A list presents selected details relating to multiple content items, and the details for each item in the list can be simple or complex. Each item could be just one line of text. Or each item could have several lines of information and could even include an image. Lists can be presented in diverse ways. They are most often strips that are stacked vertically, but they can also be squares that are arrayed horizontally.

One of the most familiar lists is items in a shopping cart:

A shopping cart is a dynamic list. Buyers can add and remove items from their cart. The items in your shopping cart almost always include a product name and a price, but they sometimes also include images, availability, and other details.

Why people use lists

People use online lists to support the tasks they have. These include:

  • Getting reference information
  • Making choices
  • Following activities
  • Doing activities

Reference lists often provide instructional information or advice. They are fixed rather than dynamic. Unlike the other kinds of lists, they will generally be manually created, reflecting editorial judgments. Examples of reference lists would be:

  • Questions to ask your financial advisor
  • Tips to avoid getting a cold
  • Dos and don’ts of adopting a pet

As the last example shows, it is possible to create pairs of list items that contrast with one another. 

Many online lists support users making choices. After scanning the list, the reader decides which item to choose based on the information they see. The goal of the list should be to present the most important information that people consider when making a choice to explore further. These could be lists of:

  • Title of articles
  • Photos of clothing and their prices
  • Podcast programs and their ratings

Another use of lists is to help users follow an activity, especially the changes in popularity of things. Most of us have seen lists of the most popular movies in the past week. Such as a list is an example of a leaderboard, a ranked list of items that changes over time. A leaderboard list can be applied to many situations involving fluid rankings, such as the cheapest airfares between two destinations. A leaderboard showing the highest-rated wines under $20 would involve two variables: the ratings of the wines within the category and the pricing. Any changes in prices of wines could change which ones are included in (or excluded from) the under $20 category. 

With the widespread use of touchscreen devices, lists have become more interactive. Users will tap, swipe right or left, and pull on items in lists that now support various user activities. Users can:

  • Create collections of items to review later.
  • Create and work through a checklist of items.
  • Drag items within a list to order priorities.

Planning lists

Lists are built from elements in the content model. To create lists that can be displayed in different ways and on different touchpoints, authors need to structure the elements of content to enable that to happen.

Users like lists because they help them get tasks done. Authors should identify the kinds of lists readers find useful, and structure their content so that these lists are easy to generate. 

Written by

Michael Andrews

I’m Content Strategy Evangelist at I appreciate the value of great content. My mission is to help others produce the best content they can.

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