Break the Information Architecture Rules with Polyhierarchies

Knowledge is a core value at SCG. This weekly column highlights something interesting learned recently by one of our team members. We hope you find it intriguing, relevant and informative:

Remember the joke on “Friends” about neatnik Monica’s impressive number of towel categories, including “fancy,” “guest” and “fancy guest”? This week I learned that Monica’s towel categorization illustrates a common problem with website usability.

It Turns Out Information Architecture is Hard

When we’re building a website, some of the most fundamental choices we make are how to sort and categorize all the information that needs to live there. A card-sorting exercise is a common tool that web teams use to make sure they’re categorizing things in the most intuitive way. As explained by 18F (the hippest agency in the US government, if you ask me), card sorting can be:

  • Open – in which test subjects are given cards with topics on them and asked to sort the cards into categories that they themselves label, or
  • Closed – in which test subjects are asked to sort their cards into predefined categories.

For example, you could conduct a card-sorting exercise by making cards with the names of every Major League Baseball team. In an open card sort, you would give your test subjects no additional cues about how to group their cards, so you could end up with categories titled “Animals,” “Professions,” and “Miscellaneous.” In a closed card sort, on the other hand, you might ask your subjects to sort the cards into one pile for the American League and one pile for the National League.

Either type of card-sorting can help you see if the information architecture of your website is intuitive to users. But here’s a wrinkle that often comes up in this testing: What if a card fits equally well into multiple categories (e.g., fancy guest towels)?

Polyhierarchies to the Rescue

This week, the web usability experts at Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) published their take on this concept, and have given their (limited) blessing to polyhierarchies, in which a website structure can include multiple “parents” for a “child” item that fits in more than one category. For example, this spice kit can be found under headings for both “Gifts” and “Kitchen & Bar” on the retailer’s website. (Or, to return to our baseball example, Cardinals are both an animal and a profession! If you’re wondering who at SCG pointed this out, it was Jason.)

As you might imagine, using this approach is typically only necessary on sprawling sites, and NN/g does caution that use should be “restrained.” But for information architecture fans like Monica and me – who like a place for everything and everything in its place – polyhierarchies grant us permission to break the rules a little bit in the name of serving users.

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Kate Tichy

With experience in public relations, content creation and content governance, Kate has a knack for whipping content into shape. She spent the first decade of her career at a PR agency, then took a turn to the corporate side, managing content marketing for a fast-growing healthcare IT company. Having worn the client hat herself […] Read Bio »


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