The Intriguing World of Complex Categorization

A Design in the Life #6

The Difficulty of Categorization

When I first went to the United States in the 1990s, I was surprised by the size of the shopping malls and the enormity of the items being sold. Nowadays, we have relatively familiar warehouse-style superstores like Costco, IKEA, and home improvement centers. However, back then, the vast stores that stretched up to high ceilings were extremely shocking to me. There were shelves stacked with bottles of olive oil larger than a gallon, packs of thousands of straws that I might never use up in a lifetime, and flashy packages of dozens of varieties of orange juice. I was amazed by the sheer quantity and variety of items. Even in such a massive warehouse-like store, products were organized according to certain rules, allowing you to find what you needed.

IKEA Product Tags. Use these numbers and shelf codes to locate products.

At IKEA, products are organized and located using easily readable “three-three-two digit” arrangement numbers and shelf codes, along with categorized information based on their intended use. This system of “three-three-two digit” segmentation is designed with human short-term memory in mind, making it more convenient than searching for or memorizing an eight-digit consecutive number. Inside the store, products are displayed and sold in separate sections for categories like food, clothing, fruits, and meats. In the warehouse, you rely on these numbers to find items.

While you might quickly locate items in familiar stores you visit often, it can be challenging to figure out where things are in a new store, like a small convenience store or a bookstore. This difficulty persists even if the items are logically organized into categories. Moreover, if you can’t determine where something might be categorized or can’t recall the relevant category, it becomes even harder to locate items.

Self-Categorization and Collective Categorization

Most things in the world can be categorized using the LATCH principle, which stands for Location, Alphabet (alphabetical order), Time, Category, and Hierarchy. This means you can categorize items based on their location, alphabetical order, size, weight, age, and so on.[1] Among these, alphabetical order and size order are objective categorization methods that remain the same regardless of who does the categorization. However, categorization involves how items are categorized and which categories they belong to, making it a subjective categorization method that can vary from person to person.

[1] Reference video:Richard Wurman – Interview TNP

When you try to categorize accommodations such as hotels or inns, what categories would you use? As a user, what criteria would you consider when choosing a place to stay? Price, location, service, size, view, or perhaps convenience of transportation? And of course, your criteria might differ depending on whether it’s a vacation trip or a work-related business trip.

A bold service that has become popular worldwide, “Airbnb”, categorize accommodations by emphasizing the experience of “staying” itself. Their categorization revolves around the very experience, and just imagining it can be exciting.

They also have categories such as castles, treehouses, windmill cottages, and vineyards.

There is a Japanese handmade platform called “minne,” which allows for the sale and purchase of handmade goods. The category classification is thoughtfully designed to prevent users from getting lost. Though it might not be immediately noticeable, there’s a clever aspect to the way the categories are organized. For instance, categories like “writing material & stationery”, “knitting & crocheting”, and “plush toys & dolls” have overlapping classifications. This is done so that even if people have different names or interpretations for similar categories, both names are listed to ensure user-friendliness.

Similar words are listed in both categories, ensuring that everyone can search without confusion.

Similarly, on the global platform “Etsy,” which is also known for the sale and purchase of handmade goods, sellers can categorize their products using tags among the millions of listings. However, due to the difficulty of determining suitable tags, Etsy allows up to 13 tags per listing and allows users to create their own original tags for classification. It’s reported that Etsy has about three information architecture experts solely dedicated to classification. (Reference: Crafting an Etsy Taxonomy — IA Summit 2016)

When dealing with a large amount of information or products, categorization is essential. But what is the proper way to do this? Here are several key points to consider:

  • Be comprehensive and avoid duplication. (e.g., avoid vague categories like “Other” by using specific terms to divide items.)
  • Maintain consistency within the same classification axis (e.g classifying based on common criteria without bias, such as categorizing by 12 colors.)
  • Use appropriate labels to prevent multiple interpretations and misunderstandings.
  • Create meaningful sets of categories. (e.g., having “Animals” in the “Zoo’s Animal” category is overly broad to fit in this.)
  • Maintain balance to prevent over-concentration in specific categories.
  • Use specific terms and avoid using emotionally charged words (e.g., avoid descriptions like “beautiful plate” that can be interpreted differently by different people)

Valuing the Complex Categorization

While most things can be categorized using the LATCH system introduced earlier, there are also information categories that are difficult to classify. For instance, categorizations related to people or categorizations within narratives are among those where precise categorization using LATCH can be difficult.

Especially when it comes to complex real-world situations, like cities and their representations on maps, unique strategies are required to organize and categorize the chaotic nature of reality. There are books that provide perspectives on understanding such chaotic and challenging information. One of my favorites is the “ACCESS” series of guidebooks, and the travel guide series “MONOCLE,” a global information magazine which originates from the UK. The ACCESS series that offers travel guides for explorers is supervised by Richard Saul Wurman, the father of information architecture who proposed the LATCH classification method.

In recent times, we have become heavily reliant on smartphone map apps to navigate everywhere, but these apps might not help us easily find less common places, spontaneously take detours, or discover recommended spots unknown to us. These tasks can be time-consuming to achieve using map apps.

TOKYO/ACCESS | Wurman, Richard Saul | Published in 1984
The book features a clear map of the Marunouchi area and explanations of key facilities. It also includes details about the streets of Ginza, and even provides the layout of hall seats on these narrow pages. 
Tokyo: Monocle Travel Guide | Published in 2015
Guide to Marunouchi, Yanaka and other areas. Introducing not only the conventional tourist destinations but also a diverse range of interesting and uniquely Japanese matters.

These two books have a time gap of over 30 years in their publication dates, yet their essence remains unchanged. Packed within limited pages is a wealth of condensed information. Through the lens of expert insights and editing, the information is presented in a way that is neither too much nor too little, with appropriate order and arrangement, making it easy to find and comprehend. This approach presents complex information in an understandable manner while retaining its complexity.

Of course, “TOKYO/ACCESS” provides information from 40 years ago, so it’s understandable that there are buildings and stores that no longer exist. Nevertheless, it’s a reminder that aspects related to human cognitive abilities and desired information haven’t changed significantly in the age of smartphones.

However, it’s crucial not to forget that things get lost when we classify things unnecessarily. For instance, when a process crafted by an individual artisan is standardized and divided among multiple people, there’s a sense that nuanced details that weren’t verbalized might unintentionally vanish.

In Aesop’s fables, elements like the “bat” that traversed between the realms of birds and beasts lost their way due to the extreme and inflexible classifications they encountered.

In this age of information overload, it might be beneficial to reflect on how we categorize the information or services we possess and how we can convey them in an understandable manner. Such considerations might very well be at the core of design.

・・・

In “A Design In The Life” series, we will provide hints on improving the resolution of the design experience from the perspectives of both designs in daily life and design in digital space. If you have a topic you would like us to cover, please let us know.

Written By

Yukio Andoh

Yukio is an UX Designer, UX Writer, Design Sprint Master. He has worked on a wide range of projects from web design, information appliances, smartphone applications, VR systems, giant stereoscopic dome theaters, digital signage, and media art. He loves movies and science fiction novels, and is buried in books in his everyday life.

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