October 17, 2017

Alphabet soup

Alphabetical structure isn’t as easy as ABC

I find myself once again on Weight Watchers. (Sigh. Why can’t I make that brie-on-brioche diet work for me?) Which means that I often find myself amused by the structure the company uses to organize information.

First, some food for thought

Weight Watchers, for those of you who aren’t members-for-eternity like I am, is essentially a bunch of nutritional research wrapped in a math problem.

ABC's: 'Alphabetical sorting must (mostly) die,' says Jakob Nielsen, 'king of usability.' (Photo By Tom Magliary)

It’s like a budget: You get so many points a day (29 for me) and have to decide how to spend them. The two brownies I ate on Sunday, for instance, came in at 51 points, or 175.862 percent of my daily allotment.

All of which means that the Weight Watcher spends a lot of time looking up how many points foods cost — sometimes with a simple “find” function on her iPhone app, other times browsing lists trying to figure out, say, which kind of cracker gives her the biggest bang for the point.

And that brings me to the problem with Weight Watchers’ organizing structure for food lists: It’s alphabetical.

‘Alphabetical sorting must (mostly) die’

Sometimes organizing information alphabetically works, says “king of usability” Jakob Nielsen. When it does, the A-to-Z structure delivers two important benefits:

  • If readers know the name of the thing they want — the name of their state, for example — they can usually find it pretty quickly.
  • Communicators don’t have to develop a structure. Because we all know the alphabet, it’s easy to put the information in the right order.

But too often, Nielsen says, alphabetical order doesn’t work. Usually, that’s because of one of two problems:

1. The information already has an inherent structure: smallest to largest, say, or earliest to latest.Alphabetical order obscures that structure, making it harder for readers to find what they’re looking for.

Zappos, for instance, organizes shoe width alphabetically: 3E, 4A, 4E, AA, AAA, B, C, D, E, EE. But narrowest to widest — 4A, AAA and AA to 3E and 4E — actually makes better sense.

2. Users don’t know the name of the thing they want. Or writers don’t know what readers call the thing they want. And that’s a huge issue in alphabetical structure: It only works if you use the words in the reader’s head, not the words in your head.

Where’s the thing I want?

Weight Watchers suffers from both of those problems:

1. Categorical structure probably makes better sense than alphabetical for foods and food groups. Weight Watchers starts out organizing food by category, such as:

  • Beverages
  • Bread and baked goods
  • Dairy and eggs
  • Meat and poultry
  • Vegetables

But another level or two of categories would probably make sense. For instance, under “meat and poultry,” you might have categories like:

  • Meat
    • Beef
    • Bison
    • Buffalo
    • Game
    • Pork
  • Poultry
    • Chicken
    • Cornish game hen
    • Ostrich
    • Turkey

This approach would help people work their way through maybe three levels of categorical lists before they got to a much smaller alphabetical list of individual items. Remember: It’s easier for people to think in decision layers — three lists of three items each, say, instead of one list of nine items.

And note: You can use two types of organizational structure in one list. The broad structure here is categorical, but you can also alphabetize the categories.

2. The words in my head aren’t the words on the list. The second problem with the Weight Watchers food lists is that the name the company uses for the thing I want isn’t the name I use.

For instance: Would you look up Aidells Andouille mini sausage under sausage? Andouille? Aidells? Mini? Weight Watchers votes for Aidells — a problem if you, like me, have never heard of the company.

Instead, I’d start with the main subject and add detail to the right:

Sausage, andouille, Aidells mini.
  • Frankfurter or hot dog? I’d look for it under “H”; Weight Watchers puts it in the F’s. Unless, that is, you think to look for “Hebrew National Beef franks.”
  • Skinless Cornish game hen? It’s right where it belongs: in the S’s.
  • Whole raw turkey with skin and bones? Look in the W’s, for “whole.” There you’ll find it listed at a whopping 13 points. Which is great, because there’s nothing like a whole raw turkey with skin and bones to tide you over that 4 p.m. slump.

Categorical: A good place to start

Organizing by categories is often a good place to begin. But there are other structures, too:

  • Location, or geographic structure
  • Time, or chronological organization
  • Hierarchy, or order of importance
  • Ordinal, or in an ordered sequence, such as smallest to largest or narrowest to widest

Tip: If you can use one of these approaches, don’t use alphabetical structure.

“Alphabetical sorting must (mostly) die,” says Nielsen. “Typically, when you reach for an A-Z structure, you should give yourself a little extra kick and seek out something better.”

Where, oh, where, would they look for this?

All of this reminds me of a story told by Skip Boyer, ABC, the late, great executive producer and senior writer for Best Western International Inc. He wrote:

“My sister, Barb, … bought a new Subaru. After a time, she had reason to change a tire on it. Not having done so before, she got out the owner’s manual and looked in the index under ‘tire.’ After a lengthy and frustrating search, she finally found the information she needed in the index under ‘I,’ for ‘If you have a flat tire …’”

Don’t let this happen to you.
How are you organizing your information?

  • Hook ’Em With a Savvy Structure

    Our old friend the inverted pyramid hasn’t fared well in recent research.

    According to new studies by such think tanks as The Readership Institute and The Poynter Institute, inverted pyramids: 1) Reduce readership and understanding; 2) Fail to make readers care about the information; and 3) Don’t draw readers across the jump. In short, researchers say, inverted pyramids “do not work well with readers.”

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    • Three elements of a great lead — and five leads to avoid.
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