In Search of Apple Pie

A picture of an applie pie and rolling pin.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 / Unsplash

This week we explored the interdependent concepts of information architecture and user-centered design. Information Architecture is the process of organizing and labeling content to enable users to access and understand this information most readily. User-centered design focuses on anticipating and meeting users’ needs as the central aim of content creation, and it is both a mindset and a process. While these two models can facilitate effective writing in any medium, we considered how they relate to digital documents and, particularly, websites.

A Community for Cooks

A screen shot from the Bon Appetit website showing a plate of pasta.

I examined which is the website for the magazine of the same name. I am an avid cook from a family of cooks, and I get a little nostalgic thinking of the print magazine. There were always back issues scattered around my parents’ house, and I remember countless conversations with my dad about recipes I tried.

These days, I get most of my Bon Appetit content via an electronic newsletter. Typically, I access the site using a link to a specific article. Because of this entry point, I was unaware that the site demonstrates mixed results regarding basic components of information architecture. As detailed below, visual cues and responsive web design effectively guide the user in accessing content, but ill-defined labels and a lack-luster search function can make it difficult to generate the desired results.

Organization and Navigation

The navigation of the site is familiar and easy to follow, but content labels are sometimes unclear.

Homepage, Menus, and Submenus

The home page has various articles categorized by menu tabs, with the latest content located at the top. Scrolling down the page, there are other sections, such as “What to cook tonight,” or “What to read.”  

The desktop menu is organized horizontally and includes the following tabs: recipes, ingredients, cooking, culture, shopping, restaurants, videos, podcast, and merch. The first two tabs, “Recipes” and “Ingredients” have two-tiered drop-down menus that allow users to search for recipes using predefined categories. “Culture” and “Shopping” do not have drop-down menus, but visitors can filter the content of these pages. The remaining tabs have no mechanism to narrow the content, and the user is limited to what is available by scrolling.

Visual Cues and Labeling

The site does a good job of providing visual support for the content. Article tags effectively denote the connection between the article topic and the related content category. Visual cues demonstrate a relationship between the content and the image, and offer actionable content users can engage with rather than merely read. Clicking on a photo of a pasta dish, for instance, takes the user to the recipe for that dish.

Some of the labels or terms used to identify the content can be confusing. For example, since it is a food website, I thought “Culture” might relate to international cuisines and related customs. But according to the website, this tab’s content is about “pop culture, features, and trends in the food world.”

Search Functionality

A picture of search results on the Bon Appetit website.

A primary purpose in visiting the site is to search for recipes, and I think the search functionality could be improved. Say I want to browse apple pie recipes. I begin by typing “apple pie” in the search bar and receive hundreds of results. Many, such as shoefly pie or roast turkey, are outside the scope of my search. To narrow the list, I must use one of four pre-defined categories, each with a drop-down menu. I can select “Meal and Course,” but there is no option to choose dessert. Or I could try “Popular,” which requires me to decipher such categories as “healthyish” and “basically.” Even choosing the “Ingredients” drop-down menu doesn’t help because while “apple” is an option, other ingredients of apple pie (butter, flour, sugar) are not. Additionally, searching via the “recipe” tab also does not allow me to efficiently narrow the results.

It seems the missing component in the search feature is a logical structure, known as information taxonomy, that allows the user to taper results from a broad category (desserts) down to a specific result for apple pie.

Responsive Design

The site is a good example of responsive web design. From desktop to tablet to phone, text and images are optimized for the screen size at which they are displayed, and there is a clear hierarchy in how content is delivered. Each day, a new set of “top stories” is posted to the top of the website. The article in the center column is prioritized as the lead, followed by the four articles that surround it. This content order is maintained across devices.

Implications for Bon Appetit and for Me

Visitors to must often decipher how the content is labeled or structured, which is the opposite of a user-centered design that anticipates their needs. Given the size of the organization, it is hard to imagine the web designers did not follow the guidelines for good user design outlined in Dr. Lucas’s User-Centered Design in Digital Documents. My guess is that some of the labels came from performing user research to identify the audience’s interests and preferences. However, perhaps the step of usability testing—which assesses if site interactions address the needs identified by user research—requires further attention.

Analyzing the Bon Appetit site helped me realize that visitors to my site may have trouble interpreting and interacting with my content too. Specifically, in my About section, I state that I can help users enhance how they share mission, but I don’t spell out what that means.

To address this concern, I added a section to my site that details the services I offer. I link to this section from my About page, which provides a (small) way for visitors to engage with the content. Right now, I cannot provide online samples of my most recent work due to copyright concerns. As I develop new content, my goal is to build a downloadable portfolio that will allow for greater user engagement or interaction with my site.

Beth Kennedy

Beth Kennedy

Beth Kennedy has spent more than 25 years in nonprofit communications, helping organizations connect with their supporters. Currently, she is graduate student in Technical and Professional Writing.
North Carolina