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Everyday IA - The Search for Hot Sauce

Picking up a bottle of hot sauce led me down an interesting path.

Today, I was tasked with picking up a bottle of Frank’s RedHot Sauce for supper. Once I entered the grocery store, I began scanning the large hanging boards that list the 6-8 types of items found in each aisle. My previous shopping experience lead me to look for the hot sauce near the ketchup and I know that ketchup is usually classified as a condiment. Unfortunately, I could not see “Condiments” on any of those large hanging boards. I did, however, see “Mexican” on one of the signs and thinking that perhaps hot sauce wasn’t far from salsa (they are both spicy), I ventured down that aisle. Alas, no hot sauce.

So I began wandering to see if I could find the product I was looking for. Baking aisle? Nope. Soup aisle? Nope.  Where on earth was the hot sauce? And come to think of it, why hadn’t I seen the ketchup yet?

Eventually, I had to ask a store clerk where I would find the hot sauce: “The aisle next to the produce, beside the pickles” she said.

Of course, that is completely logical (I hope you sense my sarcasm here)! Condiments are located next to the produce in a 1/2 aisle that has no large hanging board…why didn’t I think of that?

The funny part is that her answer actually gave a small indication as to why I should have figured it out; pickles: the great bridge between produce and condiments.

IA, Information Architecture

There were several information architecture concepts at play in this anecdote:

  1. Global Navigation – The large signs that hang from the ceiling. These are meant to give some semblance of what you might find in those aisles. This is similar to how the top navigation or main menu works for a website.
  2. Previous Experience – I felt the hot sauce should be with the ketchup and other condiments. We need to be aware of our users previous experience and life situation when designing IA.
  3. Way Finding – If users can’t immediately find what they are looking for, they need some method to scour the rest of the available information. In this case, I was able to walk around from aisle to aisle looking for the item I required.
  4. Search – By asking the clerk where the hot sauce could be found, I was enacting a search function. Luckily for me, the search results were intuitive enough to follow. In some stores, staff are trained to walk you right to the product you are looking for. This is very similar to how search on a website should work. I would also hope that if the store did not in fact carry Frank’s RedHot Sauce, the clerk would offer me an alternative hot sauce.
  5. Meta Data – The hot sauce was indeed classified as a condiment and was grouped with the rest of the condiments.

The unfortunate part of this story is that I needed to ask the clerk for help. When we consider the digital world or web design, there are two possible outcomes related to this situation. The first is that the user does in fact use the search function and the results get them to where they need to be. The second possibility is that the user gives up and leaves your site. If I had not come across a clerk to help me in my search, there is a chance I might have eventually found the condiment aisle by eliminating all other possibilities, but in today’s world of instant gratification it is more likely that I would get fed up and leave the store.

So in summary, when working in IA always remember to:

  • help your users with global navigation,
  • don’t place items where there is no global navigation option,
  • and ensure that your search is highly visible and effective.

Originally posted by Mark Morris on Everyday IA.