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When is a sorted list not a sorted list?

One of the things I like the most about OS X 10.4 is Automator, Apple’s new tool to help automate routine tasks. There’s an amazing amount of power hiding beneath a relatively simple user interface. The fact that users can create their own Automator actions (not workflows, but the actual actions that show up in the Action column), as described in this hint published today, means that Automator can be easily extended by those with a bit of programming experience.

Considering both Actions and Workflows, there are already over 100 entries on Apple’s Automator Actions download page, which is quite cool. (This does, however, pale in comparison to the 1,289 Dashboard widgets currently available for download.) In any event, Automator is a good tool to have around, and I’ve already put it to use on a number of occasions.

Automator sort orderThere is, however, something that irks me about its interface. Consider the screenshot at right of the Actions associated with the Finder Library entry (hover and click to zoom).

If you scan the list of Actions, you’ll find that they’re not in alphabetical order. Well, they’re sort of alphabetized. Look a bit closer, and you’ll see that the list is actually sorted by the relevance indicator, just like the search results in Mac Help. While this makes sense in Mac Help, as you’re searching for something that’s not definite, it makes no sense at all in this context. What is this list relevant to? The Finder Library entry? If that’s the case, then how come “Get Selected Finder Items” sits at the top of the list with 100% while “Filter Finder Items” (which sounds very similar) scores 0% and is sitting down near the bottom?

Within the relevance sort, the sort is then alphabetic, so with some practice, you can eventually find what you’re looking for. But Apple’s use of the seemingly-undefined relevance criteria makes the task much more difficult than it should be. Consider the iTunes Library entry; it has four levels of relevance, which means the alpha sort restarts four times—and one of those times is for one lousy item! It takes way too long to find a given entry in a list ordered in this manner, and there’s no reason for it at all that I can see.

You might think that using the Applications Library entry (the first one in the list) would solve the problem, since it selects all actions and displays them at once. But no, even in this situation, the relevance sort order is maintained! As a result, I never use this entry, as it’s really, really hard to find anything.

The solution seems simple to me: Apple, please sort the Automator actions by alpha, not relevance. If you’re going to insist on a sort by relevance, then at least give us the option to sort by alpha instead…

Sept 16th Update: I emailed Sal Soghoian, the AppleScript Product Manager at Apple (and all-around good guy!) to ask for some clarification. I asked “can you shed any light on exactly how Automator sorts its action lists?” He told me that Automator does indeed sort on relevance, and that “relevance is based on input/output types, keywords, keyword order, categories, and the related actions parameter.” He also mentioned that an alpha sort has been a popular request, so hopefully we'll see it soon...

11 thoughts on “When is a sorted list not a sorted list?”

  1. "as described in this hint published today"

    The link in this sentence leads to the comment box on the hint, not the hint itself.

  2. In this case its not sorted by relevance but by how commonly a certain action is used, therefore the one you are looking for is most likely at the top of the list.

  3. Thanks for that insight ... though I'm not sure I understand fully how it's supposed to work -- for instance, I've *never* used an iTunes action. So shouldn't that list be in alphabetical order? But it's not; it's relevance-sorted.

    Now that I'm paying more attention to it, I see that the relevance figures do keep changing -- my Finder Actions now are almost all 100% relevant. But I'm not sure this is a Good Thing, as I'll now really never figure out where something is in the list.

    I guess I see what Apple was trying to do (make often-used actions move to the top of the list), but I think a simple alpha list would prove much easier to use, given that we'd eventually memorize the items' names and positions in the list.


  4. There are very few things that should be sorted in that way, and Automator actions are not one of them.

  5. So last night, I quit Automator and put the machine to sleep. I woke it up this morning, relaunched Automator, and went back to the Finder section.

    I was quite amazed to see that the relevance scores, many of which were at 100%, were now all back to the settings shown in the above screenshot.

    Just what IS happening here with this sort order???


  6. So for example if you look at the address book section with an empty workflow, initially "Group Mailer" has 0 relevance, because it requires some contacts or groups in order to function.

    After you add "Find Address Book Items" to the workflow, suddenly "Group Mailer" is the most relevant action.

    Hope that helps

  7. oh whoops. I left off the first paragrpah apparently.

    I meant to say that the sort order seems to be by what input the action takes. Actions taking no input are originally the most relevant. After that, it depends on what output the last action in your workflow spits out.

  8. Basically, the list of actions sort by the items that are most relevant to what you are currently doing.

    If you select the iTunes actions in a completely empty workflow, the most relevant action is "Find iTunes items". If you add that action, the list is moved around so that the most relevant action is the most relevant to the output of the action you just added.

    The output of "Find iTunes items" is "iTunes sources", and "add files to playlist" is the most relevant action to that output.

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