Is a hot dog a sandwich? This question was posed to me and my TELUS Digital colleagues on Slack earlier this month and a vigorous debate ensued. Responses ranged from “A hot dog is many things, including a sandwich” to “Technically a hotdog is a salad”. The discussion then veered into formal definitions of sandwiches and, further yet, of bread. (We’re all just a bunch of word nerds over here and love a good debate over semantics). At the end of the day, a poll was launched and the results (see below) suggest a deep divide across our team, with a slight tendency towards a hot dog NOT being a sandwich. You’ll note, however, that not very many people were neutral on the subject.
The TELUS team is hardly the first group of people to wade into this debate. Not only was I asked this question when I was interviewing for my job here at TELUS, but a quick glance at Google Trends (see below) shows that many other people have been debating this question for years with its popularity increasing steadily since 2015. If you Google “Hot dog sandwich debate”, you’ll find more than 2.7 million results returned, with conflicting declarations from a range of authoritative sources, including the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Maple Leaf Foods, USA Today and even the ultimate word nerds at Merriam Webster.
This past September, the fine folks at dscout dove into the reasons why we can’t settle the great hot dog debate. Their reasoning echoes my response in the aforementioned Slack discussion and job interview - it depends. Oh yes, that dreaded non-answer that seems to be the answer to most questions in the human-centered design space. In January 1996, Bill Gates suggested that “content is king.” In other words, “unique, high-quality, interesting and relevant content contributes significantly to the success of companies on the Internet” (Source). While that is certainly true, how does an organization ensure that its content is “unique, high-quality, interesting and relevant” as well as findable and usable? I would argue that knowing your users’ and their contextual understanding of both your organization and your products and services is how that is ensured. So rather than placing content on the throne, let us consider that “CONTEXT is king”.
What we are looking at in the great hot dog debate is a question that arises repeatedly in taxonomy design. Taxonomies and controlled vocabularies are collections of labels used to classify and organize things into a meaningful structure within a given domain. Here we have a label - “sandwich” - which may or may not be used to classify a thing - “hot dog”. This label exists within an ecosystem of other labels that represent other food options. We are trying to find a single label that can be used to represent that item, along with other items that are similar but as both our internal poll and the greater global debate demonstrates, a single label can be challenging to create when everyone’s individual context is so unique.
So if context is king, how do we ensure that we have a rich understanding of our users and their context and that this understanding is shared across our team before we start writing content and designing interfaces? We start by getting to know our users, their motivations, their underlying beliefs and values, and their experiences. There are many different ways that we can do this, but I’ll highlight five research methods that are especially pertinent to taxonomy design.
Field studies involve one or more researchers observing a user in their natural environment where more realistic situations can be examined. By studying users in their natural environments rather than in a lab, researchers can get a deeper and richer understanding of the challenges that users face and place the focus on solving those challenges rather than designing specific features. Field studies can take a variety of forms, including usability testing, user interviews, task/process shadowing, or a combination of these, and depending on which format that is chosen, the amount of interaction that the researcher has with the user can vary significantly. Throughout the study, the researcher takes notes; rarely are these interactions recorded. Once a series of field studies have been completed, qualitative analysis of the notes and researcher recollections is conducted to identify themes and patterns across multiple users.
A field study for the great hot dog debate could focus on posing the question to customers at a baseball stadium food vendor or to participants, officials and spectators at the annual Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island, followed up by a simple “Why?” and then synthesizing the findings (including non-verbal cues) into themes and patterns.
User interviews typically involve one researcher and one user sitting down and having a conversation about a particular topic, whether face-to-face or using a digital interface. Before the interview begins, the researcher identifies the objectives of the research and generates some key areas of conversation to focus on. The conversation is then carefully guided by the researcher in order to remain focused on the research objectives at hand and to dig deeper into areas of particular interest, while retaining flexibility to accommodate for the natural flow of conversation. The researcher, or an additional facilitator, takes notes throughout the conversation and the interview may be recorded (audio or video) for internal purposes only. Once a series of interviews has been completed, qualitative analysis of the research notes and recordings, along with the researcher recollections is conducted to identify themes and patterns across multiple users.
For the great hot dog debate, user interviews could consist of speaking with a collection of food industry experts and amateur hot dog enthusiasts in one-on-one settings around the definitions and criteria for a variety of terms, including hot dog, sandwich, bread, filling, etc. These more in-depth conversations will give the researcher more insight into the reasoning and thought process that shape each participant’s response.
Diary studies are a great alternative to field studies when it is not feasible to conduct in-person research. In a diary study, users are asked to keep a diary of their experiences and are prompted to complete diary entries at given times - whenever they use a particular website, when they receive a reminder notification, etc. Diary studies are longitudinal studies, so they take place over an extended period of time, anywhere from a few days to months. Diary entries can be text-based, either physical or digital, or audio- and video-based, using digital research platforms like UserZoom. Most diary studies use specific prompts to focus users’ entries around what is most helpful for you. While there are drawbacks to diary studies, such as not being able to ask follow up questions, they are a good substitute and can provide a glimpse into the user’s context.
Diary studies for the great hot dog debate could explore different aspects of the debate over the course of several entries. For example, one diary prompt might be “What makes a sandwich a sandwich?” while another could be “How do sandwiches, hot dogs and hamburgers fit in relation to one another?”
Card sorting is a taxonomy-specific research method that all information architects and content strategists have in their toolkits. Card sorting asks for users to group different topics, usually between 50 and 75, into categories, either pre-defined or left for the user to define. Topics are generated by reviewing existing site content and other related materials - print or digital, competitors’ websites, and other research outputs from the same project. Card sorting can be done manually using index cards or sticky notes but using digital research platforms like UserZoom is often faster and easier to set up and is substantially easier to evaluate at the end of the study. Card sorting can also be done in person or remotely and both have benefits. In-person sessions allow the researcher and the user to converse throughout the session and often generate rich insights. Remote sessions allow for a much larger and diverse user base and users are able to complete the activity at a time that is most convenient for them. At the end of the study, the researcher has a much deeper understanding of the mental models and the preferred terminology of their user base.
A card sorting activity that includes hot dogs might include listing all of the different items on a restaurant’s menu (including hot dogs, hamburgers, and specific types of sandwiches) on separate cards and asking restaurant patrons to group the cards into logical categories and then label the categories as they see fit.
While the four previous research methods have been generative in nature, tree testing is more evaluative in nature. That doesn’t make it any less valuable though; on the contrary, when used appropriately, it allows researchers and designers to validate their interpretations of generative research findings. It is also a valuable tool for building a business case for redesigning a taxonomy and for establishing benchmark measurements upon which future iterations can be compared. Tree testing is always conducted using a digital research platform like UserZoomm which allows for efficient and effective testing and evaluation. Users are provided a tree structure that reflects the taxonomy of a website structure along with a series of tasks. They are then asked to identify where in the structure they would expect to find the information that will allow them to successfully complete each task. Upon completion, the researcher is able to see whether or not the user selected the correct destination, as well as the path they took to arrive at their destination. These results can help the researcher and designer to better structure and/or label their taxonomy to help users arrive at the correct destination more easily.
To tree test the hot dog debate, you might create a tree structure for a catering business menu that includes “Sandwiches” and several other labels as main sections and then ask customers to identify where they would expect to find “Hot dog” within the structure.
A final bite
While Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest declares a winner each year, the complexities and nuance of both human beings and language make such a declaration in our taxonomy debate inadvisable without having first undertaken the work of understanding a specific context in which the debate exists. This context includes many factors, all of which involve our users at a specific point in time. Once that context is understood, a taxonomical declaration can be made for that particular context. But do not forget that both our users and the language they use are complex and dynamic organisms which necessitates a periodic revisiting of our understanding of their context and possibly a subsequent revision of the labels we ascribe to various objects and concepts within that context.