Indexes as a navigation tool

I’m always interested in the ways that readers navigate through documents – whether in a print or electronic environment. How can we produce documents that are easy for readers to access … without getting lost, and without getting frustrated? And how can we produce documents that readers can refer back to?

Contents lists and indexes are perhaps the most common navigation tools that function at the whole-document level. The quality of the contents list and, in particular, the index, can be the difference between a document that is functional and easy to use and a document that is inaccessible.

I can’t help but wonder how often authors/publishers bother to put effort into generating good indexes.

Recipe books without workable indexes are a frequent source of frustration for me. I might stumble across a good recipe and try it out, only to fail to ever find it again. I have recipe books that are only usable because I’ve assembled my own index at the back, or because I’ve filled the book with little bookmarks.

My most frequent frustrations with recipe books are:

  • Indexes that are assembled by category, not by recipe (so, to find a particular recipe, I have to remember whether the author categorised it as a main, a salad, or a side – or, in an even sillier example, whether it was categorised as a dessert, a cookie, or a cake)
  • Indexes that are assembled by recipe name only, not by dominant ingredient (so to find a tuna bake, for example, I have to remember that the author called it a Cajun tuna and rice loaf, because it’s only indexed under ‘c’).

In one recipe book, I have particular trouble finding the ‘crunchy chicken bits’ recipe – and for my children it’s a real favourite. In the book, the recipe sits in the ‘kids’ section, not with the other main meals. In the index, the recipe is listed in 6 separate sections – ‘low chemical’, ‘wheat free & gluten free’, ‘dairy free’, ‘egg free’, ‘nut free’, and ‘egg/dairy/gluten/nut free’. Each time, it appears under ‘crunchy’, not under ‘chicken’ – and, for me, this makes the recipe almost impossible to find. There is no overall index for the book, and no cross-referencing of ingredients and recipe names.

Perhaps the greatest contrast to this is Stephanie Alexander’s ‘Cook’s Companion’ – which is beautifully indexed and cross-referenced. It’s impossible to lose a recipe in this book, even though it’s the biggest recipe book on my shelf. And I’ve just found out why … Stephanie Alexander has a background as a librarian.

Long live professional indexers and authors who really think about how readers access their documents.