An IA adventure at Elliott Bay Book Company
When it comes to finding the book you are looking for, what’s the experience like in a brick and mortar bookstore? How are books organized? What is the “user interface” that helps you find the desired title? How do you learn from finding the first title and apply that learning to finding the next?
I visited Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington. It is an iconic bookstore that has been around since 1973 and is the one and only bookstore in Seattle with a huge fan club of regular visitors. My goal today was to take a closer look at the information architecture in a traditional bookstore, and I chose this one as it’s a Seattle favorite destination.
When you walk in, you are greeted by friendly staff at the front desk. There are a few large tables with newest releases, organized by fiction and non-fiction, and at the back wall you see a big shelf with staff recommendations. I start there to find a book that I may want to take to my next vacation. It’s a pleasant browse experience inside this store, the recommended books have been annotated by staff members with compelling summaries. I get lost in space and the next time I look at the clock, I have been in here for 30 minutes already and have already found five different books I want to read right away.
I feel good about the many options I was presented with and am happy with my experience so far. The store makes it impossible to walk out empty handed if you just want to browse for something new. You always end up buying something, usually not just one book.
I proceed to the next task: Find a specific item. How easy is it to find a copy of Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think”? I now need to guess which category they may have this book organized in. I first go to the Design section in the store, a place I am intimately familiar with. I need no cues to get there. I notice that they nudged the design section a couple of shelves over to the right. Seems like the art section to the left has been expanding. I find that slightly annoying, but quickly get used to the new location. It’s always tough to go to a place that you thought you knew, just to find out they reorganized it and things are no longer where you last remembered them. The books are organized alphabetically — except a few that have not have been put back correctly by browsing customers — and I quickly realize that the book I am looking for is not present here. While this store has neatly labeled all shelves with the respective category, I have no idea what other category than Design they may have associated this book with, and decide to not continue by trial and error. Time starts to drive my behavior, as I only fed the parking meter for one hour. I walk up to the information booth and ask a clerk. He quickly types in the title and author and tells me that he has one copy in the store, but it’s set aside for a customer who called earlier in the day. He offers to order a copy for me, which would arrive the next day. I decline but ask what category it would normally be in and find out it’s Computers.
Now it’s time to find a dictionary. There is a big chalkboard on the main floor which lists all the sections upstairs.
The category Foreign Languages is displayed quite prominently, so I go up, look around and quickly spot the label on top of a large shelf. It’s extremely easy to find the dictionary here as these books tend to be rather thick and the spine has a lot of width to display the title. This is a very different experience from the other sections where you have to study the books closely to be able to read their titles. I am also familiar with certain dictionary publishers and find a cue in color, like yellow and blue for Langenscheidt. I feel my process worked flawlessly for this last example, it was efficient and straight to the point, but the other two experiences were just fine, too. I walk out with four new books and look forward to reading them.