Information comes in all shapes and sizes. Some is simple. It’s copy that goes on a page. It’s an image. It’s a sound file. It’s a single PDF. It’s whatever atomic piece of information you can imagine. Then there is the molecular level, for instance, whole web pages with mixed content. Then there is listed information: movie titles, collections of documents, retail products, animals with feathers, types of beer, whatever.
Listed information can get tricky. I poked around the web to see how people were describing their lists and presenting them to the world. In the end I came up with a set of STEPS to help break off bite-sized pieces to digest. I even came up with a cute little acronym in the process.
Here’s how it works: STEPS is Sort, Transform, Eliminate, Paginate and Search. It goes in that order, even.
The first thing to do with the list is sort it. Generally you’ll want to sort in order of general importance. Sometimes alphabetically will be better. Other times a different sorting algorithm may be useful. Depending on the sheer volume of the information you may be able to do this by hand or, much like the meat in Chicken McNuggets, your information will need to be mechanically separated. I won’t dictate the correct sorting algorithm since it will vary, but it needs to be sorted first. Sorting will make life easier through the coming steps.
Once you have the basic sorting figured out, you’ll need to run a basic transformation on the resulting list. This transformation usually includes chunking the sorted list into manageable portions, and preparing the set for display. It is key, at this point, that you have already assessed personas for your project. The personas you have developed, along with your understanding of business goals will be key in understanding how to effectively transform your information into something your users can use.
This is the first presentation step. Elimination may be done accessum priori or it may be done on the fly. This depends on your use cases. Often you will know something about what your user needs before they start digging in, so why not make their lives easier and pitch the stuff they don’t want?
Even after eliminating all of the information your user doesn’t need, there may well be a large list left to sift through. Fortunately they are already sorted! Pagination helps to trim what the user is looking at and makes each group manageable. It’s easier to skim a short list without getting tired eyes, the same cannot be said for a list hundreds of items long. Keep the displayed list short.
Even after doing all of this, you may still have page after page after page of information the user has to wade through. Don’t forget that users are generally search-oriented. If they can just type in keywords and get what they want, or at least get close, they will be much happier. Preparing information for search is at least a post in itself, so I won’t talk about it here, but this last step could be the critical piece that makes or breaks your user experience when looking for something.
This is just a skeletal framework you can use to help focus each step along the way when you are organizing long lists of information for your users. In the end, the way each step works will be defined by the scope of your project, the amount of information, business goals and chosen personas. The same information could look radically different depending on these factors. In the end, though, working step-by-step will help to focus efforts and steer you away from analysis paralysis. Try my 5 STEPS process and make the web a better place.