Monday, August 10, 2009

Formatting Tables, or Answering the Right Questions

I spent the weekend fighting with a set of tables that were designed to answer questions that no one would ever ask. This weekend was my town's folk festival (you should come--it's great). In between acts, I was flipping back and forth through the programme for the festival trying to figure out what I wanted to see next...and being defeated. The reason that I spent so much time flipping was because the schedules in the programme--which listed which acts were performing when and where--weren't set up to answer my questions.

The festival has four stages (that I was interested in--I didn't go to the dance stage). Each stage's schedule appeared on a separate page with a column for each day and row for each time. So, for instance, there was one page with the table for the acts on the Main Stage. The table had a column for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The table also had a row for each time that an act would start at: 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, etc. The table's cells held the name of the act that was starting at that time on that day.

This is a great design--but only if the question you want to ask is "I'm going to spend the day at the Main Stage: What am I going to see?" Or, possibly: "Each day I'm going to pick a stage to spend the day at: which is the best stage for today?" Unfortunately, I didn't want to ask that question.

The reason that I don't want to ask that question is because I won't spend the day at one stage. The four stages are about a five minute walk from each other so I tend to wander from one stage to another, catching the acts I want to see and skipping the other acts. The question that I want to ask is "What's on at 3:00?" Or, more accurately, "What's on at 3:00 and at which stage?" That way I can go to the stage where, of all the acts currently playing, I can see the one I like the most.

The structure for the tables that I want starts by having one table for each day. Each column in the day's table would represent a single stage. The rows, as before, would represent a start time for an act and the cells would contain the name of the act. With this design, I could open the program to the page for the current day (e.g. Friday), scan down to the time that I was interested in (e.g. 3:00), and scan across to see what acts were playing at that time. After I picked an act, I would read the column title to see what stage the act was on.

I shouldn't criticize, though, and it's easy to see why the programme's authors picked the format I didn't like: The stages ran on different schedules with different start times. On some stages, the acts started on the hour and each act played for an hour; on other stages the acts had only 45 minutes so the start times varied through the quarter hours (e.g. 12:00, 12:45, 1:30, 2:15). With my design, each column would have have had a different set of start times. Creating a schedule with all of these overlapping times and still be readable would have been a challenge.

But it would have been nice.

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