Organizing Web sites and intranets

A poorly organized Web site may have few repeat customers. Don't let it happen to you.

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Ambiguous Organization Schemes

Now for the tough ones. Ambiguous or “subjective” organization schemes divide information into categories that defy exact definition. They are mired in the ambiguity of language and organization, not to mention human subjectivity. They are difficult to design and maintain. They can be difficult to use. Remember the tomato? Do we classify it under fruit, berry, or vegetable?

However, they are often more important and useful than exact organization schemes. Consider the typical library catalog. There are three primary organization schemes: you can search for books by author, by title, or by subject. The author and title organization schemes are exact and thereby easier to create, maintain, and use. However, extensive research shows that library patrons use ambiguous subject-based schemes such as the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classification systems much more frequently.

There’s a simple reason why people find ambiguous organization schemes so useful: we don’t always know what we’re looking for. In some cases, you simply don’t know the correct label. In others, you may have only a vague information need that you can’t quite articulate. For these reasons, information seeking is often iterative and interactive. What you find at the beginning of your search may influence what you look for and find later in your search. This information-seeking process can involve a wonderful element of associative learning. Seek and ye shall find, but if the system is well designed, you also might learn along the way. This is web surfing at its best.

Ambiguous organization supports this serendipitous mode of information seeking by grouping items in intellectually meaningful ways. In an alphabetical scheme, closely grouped items may have nothing in common beyond the fact that their names begin with the same letter. In an ambiguous organization scheme, someone other than the user has made an intellectual decision to group items together. This grouping of related items supports an associative learning process that may enable the user to make new connections and reach better conclusions. While ambiguous organization schemes require more work and introduce a messy element of subjectivity, they often prove more valuable to the user than exact schemes.

The success of ambiguous organization schemes depends upon the quality of the scheme and the careful placement of individual items within that scheme. Rigorous user testing is essential. In most situations, there is an ongoing need for classifying new items and for modifying the organization scheme to reflect changes in the industry. Maintaining these schemes may require dedicated staff with subject matter expertise. Let’s review a few of the most common and valuable ambiguous organization schemes.

Topic

Organizing information by subject or topic is one of the most useful and challenging approaches. Phone book yellow pages are organized topically, so that’s the place to look when you need a plumber. Academic courses and departments, newspapers, and the chapters of most nonfiction books are all organized along topical lines.

While few web sites are organized solely by topic, most should provide some sort of topical access to content. In designing a topical organization scheme, it is important to define the breadth of coverage. Some schemes, such as those found in an encyclopedia, cover the entire breadth of human knowledge. Research-oriented web sites such as Consumer Reports (shown in Figure 5-5) rely heavily on their topical organization scheme. Others, such as corporate web sites, are limited in breadth, covering only those topics directly related to that company’s products and services. In designing a topical organization scheme, keep in mind that you are defining the universe of content (both present and future) that users will expect to find within that area of the web site.

This topical taxonomy shows categories and subcategories
This topical taxonomy shows categories and subcategories

Figure5-5.This topical taxonomy shows categories and subcategories

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