WebReference.com - Part 1 of chapter 5 from Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 2nd Edition. From O'Reilly (2/8). | WebReference

WebReference.com - Part 1 of chapter 5 from Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 2nd Edition. From O'Reilly (2/8).

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Information Architecture for the WWW, 2E. Chapter 5: Organization Systems


Classification systems are built upon the foundation of language, and language is ambiguous: words are capable of being understood more than one way. Think about the word pitch. When I say pitch, what do you hear? There are more than 15 definitions, including:

  • A throw, fling, or toss.

  • A black, sticky substance used for waterproofing.

  • The rising and falling of the bow and stern of a ship in a rough sea.

  • A salesman's persuasive line of talk.

  • An element of sound determined by the frequency of vibration.

This ambiguity results in a shaky foundation for our classification systems. When we use words as labels for our categories, we run the risk that users will miss our meaning. This is a serious problem. (See Chapter 6 to learn more about labeling.)

It gets worse. Not only do we need to agree on the labels and their definitions, we also need to agree on which documents to place in which categories. Consider the common tomato. According to Webster's dictionary, a tomato is "a red or yellowish fruit with a juicy pulp, used as a vegetable: botanically it is a berry." Now I'm confused. Is it a fruit or a vegetable or a berry?[2]

If we have such problems classifying the common tomato, consider the challenges involved in classifying web site content. Classification is particularly difficult when you're organizing abstract concepts such as subjects, topics, or functions. For example, what is meant by "alternative healing," and should it be cataloged under "philosophy" or "religion" or "health and medicine" or all of the above? The organization of words and phrases, taking into account their inherent ambiguity, presents a very real and substantial challenge.


Heterogeneity refers to an object or collection of objects composed of unrelated or unlike parts. You might refer to grandma's homemade broth with its assortment of vegetables, meats, and other mysterious leftovers as heterogeneous. At the other end of the scale, homogeneous refers to something composed of similar or identical elements. For example, Ritz crackers are homogeneous. Every cracker looks and tastes the same.

An old-fashioned library card catalog is relatively homogeneous. It organizes and provides access to books. It does not provide access to chapters in books or collections of books. It may not provide access to magazines or videos. This homogeneity allows for a structured classification system. Each book has a record in the catalog. Each record contains the same fields: author, title, and subject. It is a high-level, single-medium system, and works fairly well.

Most web sites, on the other hand, are highly heterogeneous in many respects. For example, web sites often provide access to documents and their components at varying levels of granularity. A web site might present articles and journals and journal databases side by side. Links might lead to pages, sections of pages, or other web sites. And, web sites typically provide access to documents in multiple formats. You might find financial news, product descriptions, employee home pages, image archives, and software files. Dynamic news content shares space with static human-resources information. Textual information shares space with video, audio, and interactive applications. The web site is a great multimedia melting pot, where you are challenged to reconcile the cataloging of the broad and the detailed across many mediums.

The heterogeneous nature of web sites makes it difficult to impose any single structured organization system on the content. It usually doesn't make sense to classify documents at varying levels of granularity side by side. An article and a magazine should be treated differently. Similarly, it may not make sense to handle varying formats the same way. Each format will have uniquely important characteristics. For example, we need to know certain things about images, such as file format (GIF, TIFF, etc.) and resolution (640x480, 1024x768, etc.). It is difficult and often misguided to attempt a one-size-fits-all approach to the organization of heterogeneous web site content. This is a fundamental flaw of many enterprise taxonomy initiatives.

2. [Back] The tomato is technically a berry and thus a fruit, despite an 1893 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared it a vegetable. (John Nix, an importer of West Indies tomatoes, had brought suit to lift a 10 percent tariff, mandated by Congress, on imported vegetables. Nix argued that the tomato is a fruit. The Court held that since a tomato was consumed as a vegetable rather than as a dessert like fruit, it was a vegetable.) "Best Bite of Summer," by Denise Grady, Self, July 1997.

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Created: September 23, 2002
Revised: September 23, 2002

URL: http://webreference.com/authoring/design/information/iawww/chap5/1/2.html