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The System, the Search, and the Food Bank

Imagine a warehouse, half the length of a football field, with a looped conveyer belt down the center.

On the belt are plastic bins filled with assortments of shelf-stable food—one may have two bags of potato chips, seventeen pudding cups, and a box of tissues; the next, a dozen cans of beets. The conveyer belt is ringed with large, empty cardboard boxes, each labeled with categories like “Bottled Water” or “Cereal” or “Candy.”

Such was the scene at my local food bank a few Saturdays ago, when some friends and I volunteered for a shift sorting donated food items. Our job was to fill the labeled cardboard boxes with the correct items nabbed from the swiftly moving, randomly stocked plastic bins.

I could scarcely believe my good fortune of assignments. You want me to sort things? Into categories? For several hours? And you say there’s an element of time pressure? Listen, is there some sort of permanent position I could be conscripted into.

Look, I can’t quite explain it: I just know that I love sorting, organizing, and classifying things—groceries at a food bank, but also my bookshelves, my kitchen cabinets, my craft supplies, my dishwasher arrangement, yes I am a delight to live with, why do you ask?

The opportunity to create meaning from nothing is at the core of my excitement, which is why I’ve tried to build a career out of organizing digital content, and why I brought a frankly frightening level of enthusiasm to the food bank. “I can’t believe they’re letting me do this,” I whispered in awe to my conveyer belt neighbor as I snapped up a bag of popcorn for the Snacks box with the kind of ferocity usually associated with birds of prey.

The jumble of donated items coming into the center need to be sorted in order for the food bank to be able to quantify, package, and distribute the food to those who need it (I sense a metaphor coming on). It’s not just a nice-to-have that we spent our morning separating cookies from carrots—it’s a crucial step in the process. Organization makes the difference between chaos and sense, between randomness and usefulness, whether we’re talking about donated groceries or—there it is—web content.

This happens through the magic of criteria matching. In order for us to sort the food bank donations correctly, we needed to know not only the categories we were sorting into, but also the criteria for each category. Does canned ravioli count as Canned Soup? Does enchilada sauce count as Tomatoes? Do protein bars count as Snacks? (Answers: yes, yes, and only if they are under 10 grams of protein or will expire within three months.)

Is X a Y? was the question at the heart of our food sorting—but it’s also at the heart of any information-seeking behavior. When we are organizing, or looking for, any kind of information, we are asking ourselves:

  • What is the criteria that defines Y?
  • Does X meet that criteria?

We don’t usually articulate it so concretely because it’s a background process, only leaping to consciousness when we encounter a stumbling block. If cans of broth flew by on the conveyer belt, it didn’t require much thought to place them in the Canned Soup box. Boxed broth, on the other hand, wasn’t allowed, causing a small cognitive hiccup—this X is NOT a Y—that sometimes meant having to re-sort our boxes.

On the web, we’re interested—I would hope—in reducing cognitive hiccups for our users. We are interested in making our apps easy to use, our websites easy to navigate, our information easy to access. After all, most of the time, the process of using the internet is one of uniting a question with an answer—Is this article from a trustworthy source? Is this clothing the style I want? Is this company paying their workers a living wage? Is this website one that can answer my question? Is X a Y?

We have a responsibility, therefore, to make information easy for our users to find, understand, and act on. This means—well, this means a lot of things, and I’ve got limited space here, so let’s focus on these three lessons from the food bank:

  • Use plain, familiar language. This advice seems to be given constantly, but that’s because it’s solid and it’s not followed enough. Your menu labels, page names, and headings need to reflect the word choice of your users. Think how much harder it would have been to sort food if the boxes were labeled according to nutritional content, grocery store aisle number, or Latin name. How much would it slow sorting down if the Tomatoes box were labeled Nightshades? It sounds silly, but it’s not that different from sites that use industry jargon, company lingo, acronyms (oh, yes, I’ve seen it), or other internally focused language when trying to provide wayfinding for users. Choose words that your audience knows—not only will they be more likely to spot what they’re looking for on your site or app, but you’ll turn up more often in search results.

  • Create consistency in all things. Missteps in consistency look like my earlier chicken broth example—changing up how something looks, sounds, or functions creates a moment of cognitive dissonance, and those moments add up. The names of products, the names of brands, the names of files and forms and pages, the names of processes and procedures and concepts—these all need to be consistently spelled, punctuated, linked, and referenced, no matter what section or level the user is in. If submenus are visible in one section, they should be visible in all. If calls-to-action are a graphic button in one section, they are the same graphic button in all. Every affordance, every module, every design choice sets up user expectations; consistency keeps those expectations afloat, making for a smoother experience overall.

  • Make the system transparent. By this, I do not mean that every piece of content should be elevated at all times. The horror. But I do mean that we should make an effort to communicate the boundaries of the digital space from any given corner within. Navigation structures operate just as much as a table of contents as they do a method of moving from one place to another. Page hierarchies help explain content relationships, communicating conceptual relevancy and relative importance. Submenus illustrate which related concepts may be found within a given site section. Take care to show information that conveys the depth and breadth of the system, rather than obscuring it.

This idea of transparency was perhaps the biggest challenge we experienced in food sorting. Imagine us volunteers as users, each looking for a specific piece of information in the larger system. Like any new visitor to a website, we came into the system not knowing the full picture. We didn’t know every category label around the conveyer belt, nor what criteria each category warranted.

The system wasn’t transparent for us, so we had to make it transparent as we went. We had to stop what we were doing and ask questions. We’d ask staff members. We’d ask more seasoned volunteers. We’d ask each other. We’d make guesses, and guess wrongly, and mess up the boxes, and correct our mistakes, and learn.

The more we learned, the easier the sorting became. That is, we were able to sort more quickly, more efficiently, more accurately. The better we understood the system, the better we were at interacting with it.

The same is true of our users: the better they understand digital spaces, the more effective they are at using them. But visitors to our apps and websites do not have the luxury of learning the whole system. The fumbling trial-and-error method that I used at the food bank can, on a website, drive users away—or, worse, misinform or hurt them.

This is why we must make choices that prioritize transparency, consistency, and familiarity. Our users want to know if X is a Y—well-sorted content can give them the answer.

About the author

Lisa Maria Martin is an independent consultant based in Boston. She practices content-driven information architecture, helping organizations to understand, organize, and structure their web content for empowering user experiences. She has worked with clients and agencies such as Carnegie Mellon University, Vectorworks, the Posse Foundation, Gettysburg University, Brain Traffic, and Happy Cog. Lisa Maria is a speaker, writer, and workshop facilitator, as well as managing editor at A Book Apart. Follow her on Twitter @redsesame, or learn more about her work at

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