Doing Today’s Job with Yesterday’s Tools

Written by: Patrick Dubroy

The Problem

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m hopelessly disorganized in my digital life. My inbox is overflowing with email. My documents are scattered across a half dozen hard drives, none of them backed up. When I recently needed an up-to-date resume, I had to write it from scratch, because I couldn’t find a copy anywhere.

Most people would say that it’s my own fault. It’s true; I should take greater care in organizing my data. But honestly, I’m just too lazy to spend the time to sort all my files into the proper folders. And I’d like to think that I have more important things to worry about than when I ran my last backup.

There’s an old adage in software development that says laziness is a virtue. By laziness, we mean only avoiding unpleasant work. For a programmer, the most tedious work to do is work that could be done by a program. Rather than spend an hour on a repetitive task, a programmer will spend 59 minutes writing a program to complete the task in 30 seconds. As Abraham Lincoln said, “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” In the same spirit, I justify my laziness because I think software should do most of the work of information management for me.

itunes metadata
iTunes uses formal metadata fields
flickr tagsFlickr prefers freeform “tagging”

There are plenty of great information management tools out there. Certainly, iPhoto has made it easier to organize my digital photos. Flickr and Del.icio.us have popularized tagging—organizing items by simply marking them with keywords—and created a new way to navigate large amounts of data. And iTunes is a definite improvement over manually organizing MP3s into folders.

But as helpful as these applications are, they can be frustrating to use, because each one implements a slightly different set of features, even though they are basically solving the same information management problems. For example, iPhoto allows you to tag a photo with keywords, but iTunes doesn’t allow you to do the same thing for a song. Subtle incompatibilities like this can contribute to a frustrating user experience, because the interface doesn’t behave like you expect it to.

Even worse than slight incompatibilities between applications, is that they often support entirely different data models. In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman explains that when we use a tool—like a drill, a car, or a computer application—we have a mental model in mind of how the tool works, and how it will react to our actions. This mental model guides how we use the tool. With so many different applications to manage our data, we have to keep track of several different data models, and it’s easy to get confused. For instance, when I’m browsing my photos, I might see a photo that I want to send to a friend. In both Picasa and iPhoto, I can click a button that allows me to email the photo to them. But I can’t do the same thing with a song in iTunes, or a bookmark in Firefox. What’s so different about each of those things? In my mental model, they are all just objects that I want to send to my friend. Unfortunately, this data lives in a balkanized world, and what we are allowed to do with the data depends on what form it is in.

This balkanization of our data also makes it more difficult to find things. Before being able to search for something, you have to know what form the data is in, so that you can search in the right application. Did I store it as a Del.icio.us bookmark? Did someone email it to me, or was it in an instant message? Applications like Google Desktop and Apple’s Spotlight help address this problem, but they support a limited number of data formats, and they aren’t able to search across multiple machines.

Another usability problem occurs when trying to share data between applications. A really simple example: my friend Ryan asks me to email him the photos from our last trip to Mt. Washington. I have no problem finding the photos in Picasa, because I’ve got an album called “Mt. Washington Trip 2006”. I can open the album and browse through thumbnails of the photos, looking for that great one that I took from the summit. But when I try to email it to Ryan from my Yahoo! Mail account, I have to browse through the file system to find the file. Even though I have the photo up in Picasa—Right there! That one!!—I can’t communicate that in an intuitive way to the web browser. Luckily, I know how to map from a photo in Picasa to the corresponding file on disk, but many people would not. Picasa provides a great abstraction: instead of thousands of files with unintelligable names like IMG_1792.jpg, it lets us work with the pictures, captions, and albums. But Picasa’s abstraction is like a dialect private to an isolated town: as soon as we leave, we are forced to use the computer equivalent of grunts and hand signals.

All of these problems are caused by the fact that by using many different specialized applications for personal information management, the data is segregated based its form. Using the term segregated isn’t an exaggeration—in some ways, the data is literally not allowed to mix together. For example, I’d like to gather a digital scrapbook of my trip to Europe. It would have emails that I sent and received during the trip, contact information for the people that I met, bookmarks for various places that I stayed, and of course, lots of digital photos. On most systems, this is difficult, if not impossible. It can be done in a crude way by copying some files into a folder and cutting and pasting into text files. But then I would lose all the features of the specialized applications, like captions on the photos.

In short, I believe that there are several usability problems caused by the fact that we use many different specialized applications for managing our data. We can become frustrated and confused by incompatible data models and inconsistent features. It’s harder to find the information we are looking for, because we have to remember what form the data is in. Communication between applications is awkward because they don’t speak the same language. The data is stuck in silos, segregated by its type. This prevents us from using perfectly natural ways of organizing our data.

Towards a Solution

Now that we’ve established what the problem is, the question is: what can we do to fix it? Obviously we can’t expect to have a single application which will support all of our needs. We still need specialized software like iPhoto for managing photos, and GMail for email. I think that the problem is not really with the applications themselves, but with the platform they’re built upon.

In software terms, a platform is a collection of common routines, and a set of interfaces allowing applications to use the routines. Normally, an application is built directly on the routines provided by the operating system. Developers and designers have long understood that an inconsistent user interface is difficult to use, so the UI is built into the platform, resulting in applications that mostly look and feel the same. In order to achieve the same kind of consistency with information management features, we need a platform designed for the manipulation of rich information.

While the amount of information that the average person deals with has increased dramatically in the last 20 years, file systems have hardly changed at all. All modern operating systems do in fact provide a common way to manage information: the file system. Unfortunately, while the amount of information that the average person deals with has increased dramatically in the last 20 years, file systems have hardly changed at all. We are still stuck with the old file and folder model. The problem with this model is that an increasing amount of data just doesn’t fit into it. For example, a single email usually does not correspond directly to a file on the local disk. Another example is bookmarks—many people collect and organize hundreds of bookmarks, but a bookmark is not a first-class object like a file.

In a broad sense, this new information management platform that I am proposing is really just a new kind of file system, based on the needs of today’s users. We need a system that will make it easier to manage and navigate the large amounts of rich and diverse information that people deal with every day.

In the first part of this article, I identified five distinct usability problems, all caused by the fact that we use many different specialized applications for managing our data:

1. Inconsistent features between applications
2. Incompatible data models
3. Difficult to find data, because we have to know where to look based on the type of the data
4. Awkward to share data between applications
5. Inability to mix different types of data together

In the same way the user interfaces are much more consistent because applications all use the same toolkits, then having a common information management framework that other applications can build upon will go a long way towards a more consistent set of interactions. I’d like to outline what I think are the key requirements for such a framework to be successful.

Requirement 0: Be a useful and usable framework

Only if it’s actually used can an information management framework help solve the problems I’ve identified here. The framework must be easy for application developers to build upon, and it must be useful enough to be worth their effort. By building on this framework, application developers would be able to focus on the core functionality of their applications, rather than wasting their time reinventing common information management features.

Requirement 1: Extensible for new kinds of data

By having applications build upon this framework, we eliminate the problem of having incompatible data models. But the platform must be extensible to be able to handle new types of data. The reason that we have to deal with the different data models of specialized applications is because the existing platform (the file system) was not suited for managing the rich data that today’s applications require. If the framework I’m proposing is not built from the ground up to be extensible, we will quickly find ourselves in the same situation we are now: trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools.

Requirement 2: Comprehensive search capability

The third problem I identified was that it’s difficult to find data, because you have to know where to look depending on what form the data is in. If it’s in an email, you have to search in one place, but if it’s in a file on your hard drive, you have to search in another place.

While search is not the answer to all our information management problems, it is a very useful feature. Now that Google is a verb, most people are comfortable using search as a primary way to find data. A new platform for information management should provide advanced search capability. Apple has done the right thing by building Spotlight’s sophisticated search functionality into the operating system, and allowing applications to build upon it.

But in order for search to be truly effective, we need to be able to search all of our data at once, instead of having to search in each of the individual silos. Having a single framework for managing rich information means that it will be able to search through all different kinds of data, no matter what form it takes.

Requirement 3: All data on equal footing

One of the problems I identified with current information management systems is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for different types of data to be mixed together. You can’t create a folder that contains an email, a photo album, and some bookmarks. This problem is also related to the problem of inconsistent features and data models. Things that can be done with one type of data, like a file on the file system, can’t necessarily be done to other kinds of data.

In other words, there is an artificial distinction between different types of data. What a bookmark, an email, and a text file all have in common is that they are distinct, discrete pieces of information. If the purpose of the file system is to allow the user to store and organize information, then it should be able to treat these kinds of items equally. All types of data must be on equal footing. Anything that can be done with a file—like copying, searching, or sorting—should be possible with other pieces of information. If all data is on equal footing, then it would be possible to have a folder containing several different types of data.

Requirement 4: Flexible organization features

The folder (or directory) is the most common organizational metaphor used on computers. Originally, this concept was designed to be analogous to a physical file folder, so a document could only ever be in one folder. But it often makes sense for a document to be in two different folders at the same time. For example, if you had tickets to take a client out to a hockey game, should you put them in the “hockey” folder, or the “work” folder?

In information architecture, it’s good practice to support several paths to a piece of information. This is generally because we need to support many different users, who might have a different mental models. But even with a single user, there are sometimes several different mental models involved. Just today I went looking for my wallet, and couldn’t find it anywhere—although I’m sure I put it somewhere that made sense at the time.

The idea that an object could exist in multiple folders is known as multiple classification, and it has recently become popular in the form of tags. Flickr, Del.icio.us, and many other web services allow you to associate several keywords with your data. By doing so, you are indicating that the data falls into various categories, with the idea that this will help you or someone else more easily find the data later.

Providing support for multiple classification is just one example, but in general, for a new information management platform to be successful, it must be flexible enough to allow you to organize your data however you want.

Conclusion

In the first half of this article, I identified several usability problems with the current state of information management software. We use many different specialized applications for dealing with different kinds of information, and the applications have inconsistent features and incompatible data models. It is harder to find our data, because we need to know what form it is in, so that we can look in the right place. It’s awkward, and sometimes impossible, to share data between applications, and to mix the data together outside of the specialized applications.

To solve these problems, I proposed a platform that could be used to build the next generation of information management applications. Having a common platform for developers to build upon would give us greater consistency between applications—they would have the features we expect, and these features would work in the same way. Integration between applications would be much easier, as they would have a lingua franca for exchanging rich information. Different kinds of data could be mixed together, allowing users to easily organize their data in a way that makes sense to them.

I proposed five requirements for such an information management framework:

  1. Be a useful and usable framework. This should go without saying, but it’s important to keep in mind that this framework can only help solve our information management problems if it is useful, and it is attractive for developers to build upon
  2. Extensible for new kinds of data. If the system is not built to be extensible, we will soon find ourselves right where we are now: doing today’s job with yesterday’s tools.
  3. Comprehensive search capability. This one should speak for itself. With the overwhelming amounts of information that we have to deal with, advanced search capability is an indispensable feature.
  4. All data on equal footing. Several of the problems I identified stem from the fact that in current systems, certain types of data are not first-class.
  5. Flexible organizational features. You should be able to organize your data in whatever way works best for you.

I believe that these requirements provide a good starting point for an information framework that application developers could build upon, and ultimately give us an easier, more usable set of information management tools.

And then I would have no more excuses for being disorganized.

Four Modes of Seeking Information and How to Design for Them

Written by: Donna Spencer
“Observe how your users approach information, consider what it means, and design to allow them to achieve what they need.”

I discovered the concepts in this article while preparing material for an introductory information architecture workshop. In the workshop, I thought it important to highlight that one aspect of designing for users was to understand the ways in which they may approach an information task. I was already familiar with the concepts of known-item and exploratory information seeking: they are common in the library and information science literature and are also discussed in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.

In my work on intranets and complex websites, I noticed a range of situations where people didn’t necessarily know what they needed to know. Additionally, when I opened my browser history to look for examples from recently-visited sites, I noticed that the majority of my own time was spent trying to find things that I had already discovered. These two modes didn’t fit into the concepts of known-item and exploratory information seeking. I call these “don’t know what you need to know” and re-finding.

I spent a while letting this rattle around my head, talking with IAs and designers, and realized that most only thought in terms of known-item searching. When discussing the other types of tasks, they’d ask with a horrified look, “So how do you design for that?”

Let’s look at the modes of seeking information in some depth and their implications for web design.

1. Known-item
Known-item information seeking is the easiest to understand. In a known-item task, the user:

  • Knows what they want
  • Knows what words to use to describe it
  • May have a fairly good understanding of where to start

In addition, the user may be happy with the first answer they find (though not always) and the task may not change significantly during the process of finding the answer.

Some examples include finding out whether Katharine Kerr has a new novel, learning about how the CSS color:transparent attribute works, and getting a copy of the travel form. These are all clearly defined, easy to describe, and the starting point is straightforward.

There are a number of design approaches to help with this type of task:

  • Search. This is a particularly good solution: people can articulate what they need and are able to type it into a search box. As long as the search results show the word in context or show a clear description of results, they are likely to recognise suitable pages from the search results.
  • A-Z indexes. These are great at supporting this mode, as users are able to articulate the word that they are looking for. As long as the A-Z contains the word the user is thinking of, all they need to do is read down the list and spot the right item. One way to make sure that the list of terms in an A-Z index matches the words that users think of is to look at the terms used during user research or in the search logs.
  • Quick links. Links to frequently used items allow easy access to them. Again, the terms in the list must match the users’ terms.
  • Navigation. Browsing via navigation can support this behavior. It is most likely to be effective when the user can clearly identify which navigation heading to choose from.

For this mode, it is important that people are able to answer their question quickly.

2. Exploratory
In an exploratory task, people have some idea of what they need to know. However, they may or may not know how to articulate it and, if they can, may not yet know the right words to use. They may not know where to start to look. They will usually recognise when they have found the right answer, but may not know whether they have found enough information.

In this mode, the information need will almost certainly change as they discover information and learn, and the gap between their current knowledge and their target knowledge narrows.

As an example, a few years ago I was looking for information on the cognitive mechanisms that allow people to navigate the physical world (I was comparing the concept of online and physical navigation). I knew what I was after, but couldn’t describe it (‘navigation’ in a search engine would return results for web navigation). I had no idea where to start. I tried a number of places and didn’t succeed at all. (Six months later I stumbled across some wayfinding papers and realised that was the term I needed).

Other examples of exploratory tasks include looking for history on the technique of card sorting, finding examples of sites with complex forms laid out using CSS, and finding music I like.

The first challenge can be getting the user to a good starting point (this was the main problem in the navigation example). This is less of a problem on an intranet as staff may only have one place to explore. Portal sites, subject-based directories, or sites with a wide range of content (such as Wikipedia) can provide avenues to follow on the open Web.

Design approaches for this mode include:

  • Navigation. The most successful design solution will be browse, via navigation of all types. Browsing allows people to take some chances and follow a path, exploring, discovering, and learning as they go. Users may go deeper or broader in a hierarchy, or to related information.
  • Related information. Related links may be created from a list of related topics, a manually created list of relevant pages, or lists based on items purchased or recommended by other users. Contextual links may also be included in the body of the content.
  • Search. Search can be useful for exploratory tasks, but can be problematic due to the user’s inability to articulate what they are after. An initial search can help the user to learn about the domain and get some ideas for keywords. It can also be useful to provide synonyms for the search term as they may help the user to better articulate their query.
    For this mode, it is critical that there are always avenues for exploration and that the visitor never reaches a dead end.

3. Don’t know what you need to know
The key concept behind this mode is that people often don’t know exactly what they need to know. They may think they need one thing but need another; or, they may be looking at a website without a specific goal in mind.

This mode of seeking information occurs in a number of situations:

  • Complex domains such as legal, policy, or financial. For example, a staff member may want to know how many weeks maternity leave they are entitled to, but may need to know the conditions surrounding that leave. We should read the terms and conditions of new products and services as there maybe important restrictions, but they are too often buried in legal garble that we don’t read.
  • Any time we wish to persuade the user. For example, we would love people to know more about information architecture and usability, but they often don’t know that the concepts even exist. They may think they want to know how to make an accessible nested fly-out menu; we think they need to know more about organising the content properly.
  • Unknown domains. For example, when someone is told by friends that he or she should check out a new service, product or website, but does not yet know why he or she would want to know about it.
  • Keeping up to date. People often want to make sure they keep up to date with what is happening within an industry or topic, but are not looking for a specific answer.

The challenge is providing an answer while exposing people to the necessary information, thus showing what they may need to know. This can be achieved by:

  • Straightforward answers. Simple, concise answers allow people to have their initial information need met. For example, in the four situations above the websites could include a summary of the maternity leave benefit, the key issues of concern in the terms and conditions, an outline of the benefits of the new website or service, and a list of latest releases respectively.
  • More detailed information. Make more detailed information easily available. This may take the form of related links or contextual links in the body of the content.

The solutions allow people the satisfaction of getting an answer and then the opportunity to get additional information.

4. Re-finding
This mode is relatively straightforward—people looking for things they have already seen. They may remember exactly where it is, remember what site it was on, or have little idea about where it was. A lot of my personal information seeking is hunting down information I have already seen. I don’t know how prevalent this is, but discussions with others indicate that I am not alone.

Design solutions can be active (where the user takes explicit action to remember an item) or passive (where the user takes no action but items are remembered).

Active solutions exist on many web sites: wishlists (amazon.com), “save for later” (emusic), and favorites (Pandora). These solutions work well but require a conscious effort from the user, who needs to know they will want to return to an item in the future. Del.icio.us is another example of an active solution for the web as a whole.

A good passive solution allows users to see items they have seen before, order them by frequency of use, easily get to the content, and the information within it persists over time (longer than the current session).

Domains where passive solutions offer value include the following:

  • Shopping sites. Users may look at a number of products and may comparison shop before purchasing (e.g. Target, drugstore.com, Anthropologie, Classy Groundcovers, Expansys).
  • Weblogs. Readers may revisit favorite posts and watch comments on a post.
  • Article sites. Sites like Boxes and Arrows may have readers returning to their favorite articles frequently.
  • Support sites. Readers need to return to the same help topics.
  • Real estate sites. Potential buyers look at their favorite house over and over.
  • Complex search facilities. Users may wish to retain their search, modify it, or rerun it.
“The most important issue is not whether you notice a mode of seeking information that fits into one of these categories, but that a range of modes exist.”

Identifying the modes
Once you understand the modes, examples are easy to spot during user research.

Known-items show up in heavy use of search with accurate keywords, when users can easily list what they need from the site and support e-mail will ask for specific content.

Exploratory information seeking shows up in search when vague phrases or repeated searches for similar keywords are used; when users express that they are researching, looking for background information, or “finding out about” something; and when support e-mails ask for general information.

“Don’t know what you need to know” is a little harder to identify. In interviews, users may express that they just want to keep up with things. It may also be clear that users do not have sufficient background knowledge or have not read information they should have. You can identify gaps in content by walking through the content, acting out a scenario from the user perspective, and checking that sufficient information is available.

Re-finding is easy to identify if your site has user registration and the logs show what pages people visit. You can also look at the number of items in wish lists.

Conclusion
The most important issue is not whether you notice a mode of seeking information that fits into one of these categories, but that a range of modes exist. Observe how your users approach information, consider what it means, and design to allow them to achieve what they need.

Note: Thank you to IAI members for suggestions for sites that offer navigation for the re-finding task.

The ABCs of the BBC: A Case Study and Checklist

Written by: Helen Lippell
“We felt the need to make the A-Z more like a supermarket (comprehensive and well-organized) and less like a junk shop (random and gems buried amidst the clutter).”

It is said that a tenth century Grand Vizier of Persia took his library of 117,000 volumes with him whenever he toured his kingdom. He trained his caravan of camels to walk in alphabetical order so that he could always find what he wanted. Luckily, these days it is somewhat easier to organize and present your content in alphabetical order.

A-Z indexes are sometimes seen as the less desirable counterpart to other navigational elements such as sitemaps and, especially, search. However, A-Z indexes can be a valuable secondary navigation tool, especially for large sites with a lot of granular content.

Because there are already a number of excellent articles online that talk about the value of A-Zs, I’d like to outline instead what we did at bbc.co.uk in the first half of 2005: namely, repositioning the site index as a viable secondary navigation tool. I’ll also offer a checklist of eight areas to consider when thinking about creating an A-Z site index. The list has already proved useful in advising BBC colleagues with no background in indexing or information architecture on how to painlessly create local A-Zs for their particular areas of content.

Project background
The project to overhaul the bbc.co.uk index began in late 2004. There was a push to change the visual design to make the user experience more aesthetically pleasing, and a need to address known usability issues with the existing A-Z index, including a lack of understanding of the multi-page format and lack of awareness of the special page for numeric entries. Unlike many web design challenges, the goal of the pages was to send the user off somewhere else as quickly as possible rather than keep them on the page.

We also needed to tackle the hybridized nature of the index, which was part alphabetic listing, part directory, and did not serve either of those models well. Research had shown that users had confused expectations about and varied success in using the index.

The huge size of bbc.co.uk precluded providing a granular index that could support comprehensively categorized headings. However, a more achievable goal was to enable most pages on the sprawling site to be reached within three clicks of a link in the index. One of the other key goals for the project was to create and communicate editorial guidelines to the rest of BBC New Media. For the first time, we defined a definite level of granularity beyond which content would not be considered for inclusion. Our site has over two million pages; for this reason, we decided not to consider single pages of content for inclusion in the index. This was an easy guideline for stakeholders and content authors to grasp.

“More supermarket, less junk shop:” Defining design objectives
There is more to index development than sorting out words and phrases on a page. The success of the BBC project also hinged on using proven user-centered design techniques. This included developing personas, using a creative brief, and working with a visual designer. The ultimate aim was to create an attractive yet functional page.

Personas
The project team developed two personas for the project. The secondary persona was someone who would never use the A-Z, except as a last resort: Stephen, who is 22 years old, from London, and who most definitely has a search mentality. The priority, however, was our primary persona (based loosely on a real participant from the first round of testing), who would help the team imagine how a real person would use what we were building. We named her Sheila.

Sheila is 59, retired, and lives in Newcastle. Her web experience is mainly limited to genealogy and browsing kids’ content on bbc.co.uk with her grandchildren. She has used email and has bought online, but without great confidence. She doesn’t really like searching, and prefers to scan a list of links even if it means scrolling.

Design concepts
A creative brief document cemented the business objectives and ensured that the tone, look and feel, and personality of the index would meet branding needs. As simple as the pages are, with extensive use of white space to aid scannability and legibility, they also look friendlier just from having a little color. The blue also means the A-Z is in sync with the wider bbc.co.uk brand color, as chiefly seen on the homepage.

Lippellhelen_img01
Top of a page of the A-Z index, showing the use of blue to match the bbc.co.uk brand color

When thinking about personality, we realized that there was nothing different about the A-Z as compared to any other navigation tools on the site. Everything should be “warmly informative” or “approachably organized,” wherever you’re browsing. Specifically, we keenly felt the need to make the A-Z more like a supermarket (comprehensive and well-organized) and less like a junk shop (random and gems buried amidst the clutter). Not all junk shops are like that, of course, but it was hard to see the bbc.co.uk A-Z as one of the good ones before the project!

Two further enhancements are worth mentioning. Statistical analysis had shown that many users of the previous version of the index never visited any page other than “A,” because that was the first one they would come to on clicking the A-Z link from somewhere else on the site. We decided to develop a new front page that had no alphabetic entries (other than Popular Links) but had links to each letter page instead.

Secondly, we introduced new “filters” for certain link types, such as those to web pages about BBC shows, some of which also have video or audio content. These pages are in addition to the 27 main letter and number pages, which show only TV or radio program page links. The special filtered pages are intended to aid browsing for A-Z users coming to the index from virtually anywhere on the site, and also to be the first destination from broadcast-specific areas of the site (most notably, from www.bbc.co.uk/tv).

Lippellhelen_img02
Part of the bbc.co.uk/tv portal page, with ringed link to TV program-only part of the A-Z index

Competitor analysis
The team looked at around 20 other indexes from both elsewhere on bbc.co.uk and on the wider web. As well as recording subjective impressions of how well these indexes worked, we compared the indexes against a set of criteria such as intra-letter navigation, link readability, use of icons, use of color and/or whitespace, quality of link labeling, relevancy of content, and availability of other navigation tools (e.g., sitemaps).

From the set of bbc.co.uk indexes surveyed, BBC Health’s A-Z of illnesses and conditions stood out, particularly for offering different approaches to browsing and for clean, attractive design. Of the non-BBC indexes, the American Association for Artificial Intelligence’s index was strong on cross-referencing (“See” and “See Also” references). It was also very usable due to its mix of scientific and non-scientific terminology to help support the site’s goal of making complex ideas accessible to a general audience.

From this design and research work I realized that some of the nuances of compiling an A-Z could be distilled into a short checklist for non-specialists and specialists alike. The list is illustrated with examples from throughout the bbc.co.uk A-Z index. I hope that the areas covered below are general enough to deal with scenarios from all kinds of knowledge domains.

Eight-point checklist for creating terrific A-Z indexes

1. Know your audience
It’s vital to understand the way that your audience interacts with your website and your index. There are many ways of doing this; three that can be particularly useful are search log analysis, persona development, and user testing.

Search logs have been invaluable throughout the lifecycle of the A-Z to highlight the areas of interest to users. They also shed light on the language used by people trying to find things on the site. Even though the A-Z is a browse tool and search is a search tool, don’t ignore the common goals of their respective users: finding stuff easily.

As outlined earlier in the article, creating personas helped guide the development of both visual design and information design for the project. They’re a fun, powerful design technique that helps provide a framework for a successful project.

More tangibly, do user testing on new designs or newly created indexes, ideally at interim stages and not just at the end of the project. There were two rounds of user testing in the BBC project, one with participants recruited by an external agency, and the second with BBC staff who weren’t involved in the project and weren’t in the wider user experience design team.

2. Show your numbers
Don’t make your users guess: even if there’s only one non-alphabetic entry, show that it exists. Many indexes fudge the challenge of entries that begin with numerals by shoving them, for example, in under ”A” or “Z.” Chances are, the entries will only ever be found by serendipitous browsing or lucky guessing.

We used the label “0-9” because there were no entries beginning with a punctuation character. It’s not ideal because, as one participant in testing suggested, users wondered where all the numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.) would be. That said, nobody else questioned the label, so it seemed a good solution. I’ve also seen the hash symbol (“#”) used to encompass both numeric and punctuation character entries, as well as “num” for numeric-only entries.

Whatever it is labeled, make the numbers section or page prominent by placing it in front of the letter “A.” This is a convention in computer books that index technical concepts. In the row of letter blocks that appears at the top of every bbc.co.uk A-Z index page, “0-9” resembles the double door for Christmas Day on an advent calendar. This may seem to give it undue prominence, but doing so gives the page a better chance of being spotted and used, illustrated in image 3:

Lippellhelen_img03
Top of an A-Z index page, showing double size box for the numbers page

The site indexes of technology companies can be good sources of inspiration in dealing with non-standard entries; a good example is http://java.sun.com/a-z/.

3. Acknowledge articles
The question of how to deal with entries that start with “the,” “a,” or “an” became important for bbc.co.uk because of the sheer volume of program titles that needed to be added to the index. Eventually we decided to double-post entries under both the first letter of the article word and whatever letter the next word started with, hence entries for both “The Apprentice” and “Apprentice, The”.

As with the previous tip, why make users stop to think about how the indexer might choose to see the content? The beauty of an A-Z over a directory or a sitemap is that different mental models can be supported and the same thing can appear in more than one place. This gives it an advantage over, say, the Grand Vizier’s camels.

4. Include synonyms
Synonyms, in the form of “See: XX” references, appear throughout the bbc.co.uk index. As in the traditional thesaurus, they are used to show equivalence between a word or phrase and its preferred term. Synonyms in an A-Z add richness to the list of entries–and can often allow you to speak your users’ language without losing the ability to call entries by their correct names. Equally, synonyms play a role in educating users as to what those correct names are.

For bbc.co.uk, many synonyms are used in the A-Z to provide alternative access paths to branded content. For example, the radio station Five Live is always written with a word rather than a number, but a user scrolling through the numbers page will see the pointer:

5 Live:<br />    See: Five Live homepage

Synonyms are often abbreviations or acronyms of phrases, as in this entry for the well-known cricket commentary program:

TMS:<br />        See: Test Match Special

Synonyms can also help users who think in terms of categories or subject areas (rather than those looking for a known item). They may not know exactly what content they want, but can be directed to something appropriate by considerate use of “See:” references. For instance:

Family History<br />    See: Who Do You Think You Are?

5. Properly index proper names
People should be indexed by surname rather than first name, as per book indexing convention. There are of course some exceptions; for example, the names of monarchs (“Charles I”), certain celebrities (“Mel B”), or people from cultures where the surname appears before the first name (“Mao Tse-Tung”).

(The bbc.co.uk A-Z does not contain any entries for people’s names, unless they are part of a site name or program brand. Thus, there are entries for “The Jeremy Vine Show” under both “T” and “J,” but not “V.”)

Much more detailed information about name indexing can be found at Martin Tulic’s site.

6. Consider your cross-references
In general, the bbc.co.uk A-Z avoids excessive cross-referencing, which could make already long pages less usable and less attractive to casual browsers. However, bringing closely-related concepts together can add value to the index and promote content in different places. Cross-references are shown as “See Also:” pointers in entries, as in this example from bbc.co.uk, where a country name is linked to content about the languages that are spoken there:

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka (Country Profile)

Sri Lanka (Cricket)

See Also: Sinhala (World Service)

See Also: Tamil (World Service)

7. Use qualifiers and extra information
Besides synonyms and cross-references, there are other ways to make your index more user-friendly. Qualifiers are extra bits of information in parentheses, attached to index entries, often for clarifying concepts. For example, the bbc.co.uk A-Z qualifies dance as “(Performing Art)” in order to differentiate it from dance music, which is also covered in depth on the site.

Qualifiers can also be used on large sites where a subject is covered in more than one place, a particular issue for bbc.co.uk. The entry for “Comedy” is:

Comedy<br />     Comedy homepage<br />     Comedy (BBC 7)<br />     Comedy (BBC Two)<br />     Comedy (BBC Film Network)<br />     Comedy (Radio 4)

It is also possible to supply extra information in the form of what would be called scope notes in a thesaurus. These could be useful in a website index where an entry for a new or growing brand, or an unusual concept, might benefit from further detail. For example:

BBCi – Information about interactive TV

8. Take pride in the index
Dealing with everything mentioned in the other seven tips will give your index a fighting chance of being successful. None of it will matter, however, if users cannot find it.

Make the A-Z index available from all parts of your site if you can, preferably linking to it in a consistent, prominent place on every page. This might be in a toolbar or as part of the navigation. Whatever you do, don’t follow the example of some sites that put the link to the A-Z at the bottom of the page, in tiny size 1 font, with other links that very few people (apart from lawyers) ever see, let alone click on.

Take pride in your index, and be like the owners of this second-hand bookshop in London, who clearly wanted customers to know they cared about organizing their stock!

Lippellhelen_img04
Sign from a London bookshop promoting beautifully organized stock

For more information

There is a wealth of information on the web about indexes of all sorts, not just A-Zs.

The following are good places to start:
A-Z Indexes to Enhance Site Searching
A-Z Website Indexes Explained
IA Wiki WebSiteIndexes
Beyond Book Indexing

There are many books, especially from the field of library science, that cover the concepts and practice of indexing. I have found the Art of Indexing, by Larry Bonura, a useful introduction.

Lastly, Indexers and Indexes in Fact & Fiction, edited by Hazel K. Bell, is a reminder that indexing isn’t just about dry, meticulous text analysis. The book contains dozens of idiosyncratic, political, useless, or just plainly wrong-headed indexes.