Detail in grocery list items

I used to think I wasn’t a picky eater, but then after watching When Harry Met Sally a couple of times (it didn’t sink in until the second viewing), I realized that the digital grocery list I share with my wife started to resemble Sally Albright ordering at a deli in When Harry Met Sally. Here are some actual items I have on our family grocery list:

  • Jam or preserves, some kind of berry. Low sugar but not with fake sugar. Not Polaner All Fruit. World of Chia brand is good.
  • Chips, no milk products, no vinegar. Russet potato, sweet potato or beet chips if available. Lays don’t count. Otherwise, tortilla chips are okay

I refine these list items over time as my wife completes the task and I uncomplete it when we run out of the thing again. Based on what actual item we got, I might refine the list item after I try it. So the descriptions tend to grow over time, showing the paths where we clarified something.

Aside from the fact that I’m picky and it took me a long time to realize it, my point is that this is a tricky scenario in which to communicate a choice. The grocery store changes what they carry periodically, and sometimes my wife will go to a different store than usual. In any case, I don’t see the whole list of options the store has when adding to the grocery list. Also, I’m usually okay with the same brand of chips or jam every time, but my wife likes to try new things.

When making a purchase in the store, a shopper gets feedback about what options are available and gets to look at ingredients, prices, packaging, quantities, ripeness, and whatever else they have in mind. When preparing a list ahead of time, there is none of this feedback. There’s the option for the person shopping to communicate with the person who made the list item and provide this feedback and ask more questions, but neither of us want to do this.

So I end up with conditional logic and verbose explanations that I try to make as unambiguous as possible to avoid requiring clarifications like the one Sally has to make with the server when they ask what Sally means by “if [the whipped cream] is out of a can, then nothing” (did she mean no pie or just no cream?). It starts to resemble a decision tree and defensive documentation.

One solution to the grocery list problem is just list “jam” or “chips” and be happy with what you get. But in some situations like tech support tickets, the same scenario (little opportunity for real-time feedback) exists and you have to be exact in order to solve the problem. In these cases, I also don’t want to have to go back and forth any more than is necessary, so I include as much relevant detail initially as possible – software and operating system versions, screenshots / screen recordings, exact error messages, and sometimes a statement like “Please do A if possible, but otherwise, do B”. Stack Overflow has a help article on how to ask a good question, and they link to this from the question form since a well-written question makes a huge difference.

Also, like Sally, I like what I like.