Recipe for Success

A recent Content Strategy meetup raised two faces of information design.  One was information analysis and modelling, very dry someone said.  The other was voice and tone, more user centered.  In this post, we will see that even simple information design such as organizing recipes can look astonishingly different (e.g. for Martha Stewart and the BBC), because of the different way they regard themselves and their users.

In BBC Food, the BBC talks about Cuisines, Occasions and recipes from their cooking shows, among other things.  Very organized.

In the Martha Stewart website, she talks in terms of Hors D’Oeuvres that are “Crowd Pleasing” and Dinners that are “Better Than Takeout”.  Very touchy-feely.

Martha Stewart’s organizational schemes, embodying her style and view of the user, would feel out of place on BBC Food, and vice versa.

There are two considerations when designing an organizational scheme: a useful concept (e.g. Cuisine, Occasion), and good execution (i.e. what values do we use for the scheme).  Both involve user considerations.

Let’s start with the concepts.  The BBC seems more logical, with Cuisine and Occasion as organizing schemes.  The BBC could envisage use cases where these would be valuable in accessing a large set of recipes, and if we were informants in their user research, we would probably agree.

Martha Stewart is quite different.  She has two sets of terms that fit the sentence “I’m in the mood for {Hors D’Ouevres, Dinner, Cocktails, …} that are {Crowd Pleasing, Better Than Takeout, Bubbly, …}”.  There are dependencies between the two sets of terms, ruling out Bubbly Hors D’Ouevres for example.

The whole thing is very high on voice and tone.  A taxonomist would grumble that the sets of terms are not mutually exclusive and don’t cover all cases, but how much does this matter?  Maybe not too much in this case.  The whole thing feels like an elegant hostess showing a dear guest what’s available at a party.

Once a concept has been chosen, we have to deal with the execution.  This depends on the stance we wish to take with the user.  Personas help.

If our role is to help users find recipes as quickly as possible, we will try to mirror their way of viewing the world of cuisines.  This is likely to be in sharp focus in some areas (Italian, Chinese), but less clear when it comes to African food, say.

To align with these users’ mental model, our categorization scheme would mix levels of granularity.  BBC Food takes this approach.  They have categorizations at both country level (“French”, “Italian”) and the regional level (“Turkish and Middle Eastern”, “Nordic”).  The term “Turkish and Middle Eastern” is made up, but accessible.

A foodies organization might want to offer a mega-recipe site for food enthusiasts, be exhaustive, and cater to users who are prepared to be educated and work to fulfill their passion.  In this case, we might have a comprehensive hierarchical structure based on geographical or political distinctions.

  • Asian
    • Bhutanese
    • Chinese
      • Hunan
      • Sichuan
    • Japanese
  • European
    • French
    • Italian
    • Spanish
      • Basque

Where did voice and tone go?  It seems as if they take a back seat when it comes to large scale, exhaustive, hierarchical categorization schemes, especially when categorization schemes already exist as common knowledge.

To be sure, there is no shortage of possible terms for Cuisines (or Regions).

“The Land of the Free”
“The Far East”
“Rising Sun Recipes”
“Food that will make you say ‘Ole’”.

Putting terms like this into the comprehensive hierarchical structure would result in something inconsistent and incomprehensible, failing the “Don’t Make Me Think” test and other criteria of reasonableness.  Poor execution.

On the other hand, in a smaller setting, a restaurant in Arizona would be able to get away with sections in its menu called “South of the Border”, and perhaps “Across the Pond”, (but probably not “Our Friends to the North”).

Bon appetit!

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