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In anticipation of a phone meeting I woke up early and headed to a local Starbucks. I continued some of my morning reading about IA and its roots in cataloguing, archival and library science. Interesting stuff. As I read, I thought it would be interesting to see how they decided to organize the information on their menus. I was surprised by what I found. Their drink menu was spread across three panels each with a faux chalk header and an assortment of drinks underneath each with their prices, calories and sizes. Across the top of their tasty triptych menu it said:

Espresso | Frappucino | Teavana

Where does the classic cup of coffee fit into this? There is no espresso in Coffee nor is it a whipped sugary confection aka Frappaccinpo (pronounced “Milkshake”). It also didn’t seem to fit into the idea of tea. So where would it go? I assumed Espresso would be the closest thing.

As I skimmed across the menu I noticed that it wasn’t really organized at this level either. It started with the seasonal items, which makes sense but past that I couldn’t find any other organizing principles. It wasn’t alphabetical, nor was it by price. I was left to assume it was by popularity but then why wasn’t coffee listed? Why could I not find the listing for a single cup of roasty toasty goodness?

I looked over the caffeine fueled catalog of confectionery concoctions and saw no such thing as “Cup of Coffee”, “Drip Coffee”, “Coffee”. Why could I not find coffee? After close to 5 minutes I found it. Halfway down the “Espresso” menu listed as “Freshly Brewed Coffee”.

Why did this take so long?

According to an article by Susan Weinschenk:

A saccade [a rapid movement of the eye between fixation points] spans about seven to nine letters, but our perceptual span is actually double that. In 1996, Kenneth Goodman found that we use peripheral vision to see what comes next when we read. We read ahead about 15 letters at a time, viewing the characters to the right (assuming we’re reading left to right), although now and then a saccade jumps us backward and we reread a group of letters. Although we read ahead about 15 letters at a time, we only get the meaning for part of that span. We pick up the semantic cues of letters 1 through 7, but merely recognize letters 8 through 15.

So according to this. We only read about 7 letters in and only around 15 letters at time. So it stand to say that when we read a menu it might as well be:

Pumpkin …
Caramel…
Freshly B…
Mocha F…
etc.

This explains why I had such trouble finding the items. In the statement “Freshly Brewed Coffee” my brain wasn’t even getting to the coffee part it was looking for. I was seeing “Freshly Brewed C…” and moving on to continue the search. This whole problem was only exacerbated by the fact that according to the heading I was looking in the wrong place anyways. Even though I wasn’t.

I don’t want to discount the designers at Starbucks. I am sure they are all great and there were probably numerous factors that dictate the design. I am sure they have their reasons for sorting the menu this way. Maybe they want you to purchase a more expensive item than their $2.00 cup-o-joe. Perhaps they hope that you are drawn to the fancy and oh so popular definitely-not-a-coffee-milkshake aka Frappaccino. Maybe the good ol’ mug of coffee isn’t their most common item and their information architecture perfectly meets the needs of their customers. Maybe the denizens of the dark roasted caffeine cult no longer need the menu and it is actually a vetting process for the uninitiated. I still have lots of questions but no answers. Either way, I didn’t want coffee that bad anyways.

Written by

A UX Designer in Atlanta focused on mentoring, modular UI and using python as a research method. www.alexgregorie.com

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