It’s easy to think of examples of well-structured information: websites, cook books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc. But when recently challenged to think of an example of a poorly structured information source, I struggled. By definition, every worthwhile information source has some kind of navigable structure that allows you to bypass what’s of no value and zero in on what is valuable. Then, as I was thinking about catalogs that still arrive in the physical mail, it hit me: Signals.
Anyone who’s ever donated money to PBS or NPR will be familiar with Signals (and its sister catalog Wireless), the catalog of stuff that the managers of PBS and NPR think their patrons are likely to order as gifts. Signals as a well-structured website, but you can’t say the same for the corresponding paper catalog which is organized in a haphazard fashion with a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired scarf here, a Shakespeare-themed mug there, and an autographed copy of “Lake Woebegone Days” over yonder.
When does a vendor not want a customer to immediately find the content they want? When they want them to accidentally find other stuff that they didn’t even know they wanted when they began their search. That’s how brick and mortar stores are designed; the merchandise aisles are arranged so that customers can’t simply head for the back of the store, pick up their widget and make a bee line for the cashier. No, to escape the store, the customer has to avoid dozens of other objects which might pique their fancy and open their wallet. The Signals catalog encourages leisurely browsing, its pages never giving the reader a hint about what might be on the next page. Everything they offer for purchase is in there, but you won’t know what’s available until you’ve examined each and every page. Exactly what you want if you’re a retail catalog designer.
The Signals website, by contrast, presents the very model of well-structured information. Similar objects are grouped together using a labeling system with easily recognized terms like “clothing,” “jewelry,” and “t-shirts.” It has a navigation system which allows the site user to work her way through the content in a methodical way, quickly narrowing their search to the items of interest. It even has a search system augmented with dynamically suggested matches based on whatever string the user has typed, mid-entry. The designers who built the Signals website know that its users will expect certain online catalog conventions. Leaving them out, or deliberately forcing them to scan unwanted content as the paper catalog does, would be unacceptable. What works in the physical world often fails to translate to the online experience.