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Chapter 5. Consistency > Consistency in Pervasive Information Architecture

Consistency in Pervasive Information Architecture
I have registered the arbitrarities of Wilkins, of the unknown (or false) Chinese encyclopaedia writer and of the Bibliographic Institute of Brussels; it is clear that there is no classification of the Universe not being arbitrary and full of conjectures.
Whatever our stance on classification, classical, prototypical, empirical, or something else entirely, it is rather clear that the very ideas of coherence and consistency are grounded in the time and culture from which they originated, and there is no Grand Unified Classification in the Sky to resort to. Scientific systems become more and more a mixture of the empirical and the arbitrary as time passes, and tell the platypus about it. Consistency needs to be assessed in
B9780123820945000058/u05-01-9780123820945.jpg is missingDonna Spencer—Basic Level Categories
So what's this idea of a basic level category?
When we think about categories—about things and concepts—we think more often about some kinds of objects than others. For a hierarchy of things (and everything fits in some type of hierarchy) we actually think in the middle of the hierarchy. We neither think at the very broad level of a hierarchy nor do we think at the very detailed level. Continuing the furniture example, let's look at this hierarchy (Figure 5.10).
B9780123820945000058/f05-09-9780123820945.jpg is missing
Figure 5.10
In this hierarchy, the basic level will usually be around the bed/chair/table/bookcase level. We don't think about furniture or about office chairs, but we do think about chairs.
Basic level categories are described as having some of the following characteristics:
▪ They are learned early
▪ They have a short name that is in frequent use. The name also feels like it is the “real” name for an object.
▪ You can often imagine the category with a simple visual representation (e.g., it's hard to imagine furniture but easy to imagine a chair)
▪ There may be a representative action taken for the objects (e.g., chairs are for sitting in; there is no consistent action for “furniture”)
One of the most important ideas behind basic level categories (and also applies to all types all categories) is that they are not absolute. You can't look at a hierarchy and choose the basic level. The basic level of a hierarchy depends on the person doing the thinking. The more people know about a subject, the more their “thinking level” becomes detailed. So a city dweller may think at the level of tree/bush/shrub where a country dweller may think of oak/maple/ash/eucalyptus.
So what does this all mean for real-life pervasive information architecture? My take:
▪ Basic level categories can be likened to topics or subjects—all the things we think about all day.
▪ Topics are natural categories for which to organize information around.
▪ When we are looking for information and answers, we use those topics to guide us, for example, we think “I want to know more about chairs,” not “I want to know more about furniture.”
▪ Topic-based or subject-based information architecture will often be much more useful than an audience, task-based or audience-based information architecture (you could reference this article rather than go into this:
▪ You can often spot basic level ideas from user research—these are the topics that people talk about most often (e.g., for an intranet, people always talk about travel, HR, finance, social).
▪ When you are assembling a hierarchy, start with basic level categories/topics. This forms the core or middle of the set of ideas you are working with. Aggregate them into broader categories and break them down into detailed categories. You'll have more success with this than if you just try to start at the top of the hierarchy and break down things bit by bit.
▪ When you design a set of information, help people get to the topics/basic level categories quickly (these are great “quick links”) and let them explore the content from there.
Donna Spencer is an Australian freelance user experience designer who specializes in large, messy Web sites and large, messy business applications. She has written three books on card sorting, Web writing, and information architecture. In her spare time she runs UX Australia, an annual user experience conference.
respect to a system's context, goals, users, and cultural climate that produced it in the first place and within which it lives.


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