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Getting the Burrito You Desire – A Case for Clear Information Design

The line at Chipotle stresses me out.

When Chipotle is busy (which is most of the time) the line must keep moving—it’s imperative. Like most people, I enjoy a smooth, efficient process and I’ve never wanted to be “that guy” who brings the line to a grinding halt.

In a recent excursion to the famous fast food restaurant, I volunteered to pick up lunch for my wife, daughter, and son-in-law. “Text me your orders,” I called out, grabbing my coat and heading out the door. A few minutes later, with seven people ahead of me, the texts came rolling in.

Zip. A tiny text balloon appears on my phone with a string of text—my wife’s order.

Zip. A second balloon pops up, a longer paragraph of text—my daughter and son-in-law’s orders combined.

I look up. Suddenly, I am face-to-face with a smiling person behind Plexiglas, poised over a tortilla press.

“What can I get started for you today?” she asked.

First, the easy part. I rattled off my standard order with confidence. Then I began to fumble through the texted orders, scanning through each bubble, pointing at ingredients as I went.

When I got home, two of the orders were wrong. I missed the Guacamole “on the side” and asked for pinto beans instead of black beans.

“Next time, give it to me in bullet points,” I declared a little too grumpily.

Two weeks later, I offered to grab Chipotle for my daughter on my way home from a client meeting.

“Text me your order,” I said, as I pulled into the parking lot.

She sent me the following text:

It was a thing of beauty—information design at its best. Not only was the information easier to decipher, she organized the ingredients in the order of appearance along the Chipotle assembly-line. Her text combined clarity and the environmental factors of the restaurant.

Her reward for this beautiful text? A nice hot veggie bowl with three corn tortillas (on the side) with ALL the correct ingredients including guacamole (on the side)

Three Takeaways from this Take-Out Tale

You may find my enthusiasm for a bulleted text message to be out of character. As a presentation designer, I spend most of my time trying to dissuade clients from using bullet points. In most cases, when a client hands me bulleted text, I will do everything in my power to simplify the information and format it in a more interesting way. Sometimes, however, the bulleted list is the best way to deliver information for maximum understanding and utility.

#1 - Faster Information Processing Through White Space and Organization

When organizing text on a page or screen, the human eye needs space. Stringing words together with little space between makes it difficult for our brains to separate the symbols and quickly grasp the intended meaning. When time is of the essence, simplification and separation helps your audience quickly understand what you’re presenting. Paragraph breaks are a great example of dividing up the page and giving our brains some cognitive traction. And despite my own desire to limit them, bulleted lists are sometimes the best way to break down and organize information.

#2 - Order Matters

I once downloaded a shopping app for a grocery store chain. I wanted to use my iPhone to check items off as I pulled them from the shelf and dumped them into my cart. The only problem was the lack of sorting. I would get to the bread section in aisle 7 and realize the next item on my list (the order in which I had entered it) was back on aisle 3 and I’d have to circle back. What I wanted was an app that knew where everything was located in my local store and would sort it by aisle.

When designing information, consider the order your audience needs the information to be delivered. Is there a timeline to your data? Organize the data by date. Are there logical steps? Organize the data in steps. Is there a range of difficulty? Organize the data from easy to hard. Seek out patterns and ways for sorting your information.

#3 - Simplicity is Key

Think about the term: bullet point. The little dingbat to the left of the text is what most people think of as the bullet point. I like to think of the bullet point as the point you are trying to make. This means you need to get to the point—and quickly.

A true bullet point, in my mind, should be as short and simple as possible. Even though the human brain is limited in its capacity to process and understand more than three things at a time, we also have a wonderful ability to close gaps, fill in information and connect dots.

I don’t need a bullet point to read “fire-roasted peppers with thinly sliced, sautéed Vidalia onions” when “Fajita veggies” will do. As silly as this example seems, we’ve all seen, and perhaps written, bloated bullet points like this.

Look for ways to cut and reduce. Read your words out loud. Listen for repetitive words and use them once. Simplify. Edit down sentences to words. Give your audience credit for their ability to bring closure to your meaning.