Design Matters (5): the information architecture of a water dispenser

Here are three water dispensers:

  1. … may not be a thing of beauty but it’s clean and relatively well designed in terms of the aesthetics of household appliances, but it obscures important information about the level of the water inside the dispenser.
  2. … is my trusty water dispenser, which benefits from a clear analogue display showing the water level (that is, you can see the water level in the bottle), so you know when the water’s going to run out. More than that: the reservoir at the bottom holds a reserve of water even after the bottle runs out, so if you like cutting things fine you can wait to order new water until the bottle is empty, enabling you to refill all your bottles at once, and so order water less frequently. Off camera: unopened water bottles stored behind the fridge.
  3. … is still my trusty water dispenser but it has an extra feature: an unopened bottle of water is visible next to the dispenser. This provides a visual indicator that there’s more water in stock if the bottle is full, or that it’s time to order more if the bottle is empty.

Isn’t this just common sense? Yes and no. Yes, because it’s exactly the sort of arrangement people come to when they are responsible for ordering their own water. No, because thinking about it explicitly in terms of information architecture helps us see new possibilities and identify the shortcomings of various arrangements, with the result that we can make more informed choices between tradeoffs.

The questions to ask are:

  • “What is the key information here?”
  • “How can I organise things to make the key information immediately and intuitively self-evident?”
  • “What supplementary information would be helpful?”
  • “What important information is being concealed, or is hard to grasp intuitively?”

Beyond any specific problems, the idea of information architecture becomes gives us a helpful lens that we can use to notice possibilities for improvement in other areas, and a generalisable handle that we can use to make things better.

See also:

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...