Classification Schemes – and When to Use Them
This article was originally published on UX Booth’s web site on April 27, 2010
When you do information architecture work, you’ll realize that most
sets of content can be organized in more than one way. One of the
challenges for an IA project is figuring out what way works best for
your audience, your content, and your project’s goals.
In this article, I’ll talk about a few different classification
schemes you can use to organize your content and offer tips on when
and how to use each.
Alphabetic schemes can be used for practically any type of
information—as long as you can give an item a name, you can include
it in an A-Z scheme. But that doesn’t mean alphabetic schemes are
necessarily good for all content. Alphabetic schemes work best when
people know what they’re looking for, know how to describe it, and
the item labeling matches the words that they’re looking for. An
alphabetic scheme is perfect for this type of task as people can
simply scan a list of words and spot the one they’re looking for.
There are only a couple of situations where you’d use alphabetic as
the main way of organizing your content—dictionaries and glossaries
come to mind. But they’re great secondary schemes to a main scheme.
Even as a secondary scheme they can be valuable; I’ve worked on
intranets where people said: “Do whatever you like, just don’t take
away the A-Z.”
When people ask me about using A-Z indexes, three questions always
come up. I’m not a professional indexer (indexing is an entire
profession in itself) so my answers just skim the surface:
1. Should I list things twice?
Yes. List things under two headings where there are two common terms
for something, and where you know people will use more than one
term. Be conservative though—you don’t want to double the size of
your index by adding extra terms. Do it only when there is a real
2. Should I use more terms that are technically correct, or the words
You’ll often find that people use inaccurate, outdated, or incorrect
terminology. If this happens, and you know they will use these
terms, add them to the A-Z index. If you’d like to educate them
about correct terminology, include it alongside the more common one.
3. Should I list every content page?
When using an A-Z index, you usually don’t need to include every
content page. You probably will want to include all of your main
topical pages or landing pages, though this will depend on your site
structure and type of content. For example, on an intranet you may
have an index item for ‘maternity leave’ but probably not for the
individual pages on maternity leave.
User research is a great input into an A-Z as you should have a rich resource of the terminology people use.
The BBC A-Z index is a great way to jump straight to a program.
Geographical schemes can be used for any content with some sort of
geography as a key attribute. I can’t tell you how many web and
intranet project meetings I’ve been in where someone has said: “We
should just include a map on the home page and let people use that.”
In some cases it’s a perfectly good suggestion, but in others, it’s
not so good.
So when is it good? There are two real criteria for a successful
geographical scheme. The first is that your audience must want to
access information in that way. The second is more important—they
must understand the geography you’re using, often in quite a lot of
One thing to consider when using a geographic scheme is the
difference between using a map to display information and using a
map to navigate to it. Two different uses for maps can mean quite
different things for users. Think about what you’re trying to
achieve with a geographical scheme/map. Are you trying to show
precisely where various objects are in the world? Or are you trying
to help people get to content about a particular area? By figuring
this out, the map’s purpose will be clearer; a map for navigation
doesn’t need to be particularly accurate, but a map for displaying
information certainly does.
Geography may be good as a secondary way to access information,
supporting one of the other schemes.
Last.fm shows events in my local area.
A format schema organizes content around the format of the file.
This is particularly common on sites such as instructional websites
(where they group videos, articles and tutorials) and article
websites (where they group articles, interviews and tools).
Again, it’s a fine way of organizing your content as long as your
audience expects and wants to find it like that. I must admit I have
my reservations. I think people think first about what they want to
do, and then about the format they want to see it in. If I want to
find out how to do a better shoulder stand (a yoga position), I’ll
want to find out about shoulder stands first before deciding whether
to read instructions, watch a video or hear a description. I
certainly don’t want to look in three different parts of a site to
see what’s available.
Format is a great way to show people the different types of
information available once they’ve found the topic.
Bunnings (my local hardware store) has a great DIY section,
organized by format of the content. I’d prefer to see the topics,
then choose a format.
Another scheme you’ll come across in both intranet and website work
is the structure of the organization you’re working with. This
scheme comes about because it’s easy for authors; they can prepare
information and put it in ‘their’ part of the site. And managers can
see not only where their stuff is, but also the stuff for their
The biggest problem with this structure is anyone who needs the
information needs to know who is responsible for it. Generally, this
is a bad way of organizing information. Of all the projects I’ve
worked on, I’ve suggested the organization structure be retained
only twice (and both were for intranets):
- In a very small organization where everyone does know who does what.
This was supported via user research.
- In an organization where
structure and rank matter a lot. In my situation, this was a Defense
Department. I saw little point trying to remove the organizational
structure from the intranet as the internal structure was so much a
part of how they thought. It didn’t mean that staff knew who did
what though, so we provided other ways for them to find information.
Task-based schemes are interesting. On the surface they seem to be
fairly easy—just organize the content around the main tasks that
people do. But whenever I’ve tried doing this (usually because a
client thinks it’s a good way to start) we end up with so many and
varied tasks that it becomes too difficult. Even if we come up with
a draft, we often find that most of the time a particular piece of
content will apply to more than one task.
I’ve found that task-based schemes work best when:
- There are only a small set of tasks
- The main tasks have quite clear boundaries
- Your content is easy to allocate to the task groups
Task-based classification schemes tend to be more suited to things
like web applications more than websites and intranets. However,
even something like accounting software (which is quite a task-based
activity) doesn’t fit into tasks, but instead to the content types
you’ll work on.
When you’re looking for tasks in your user research, keep an eye out
for phrases like “I need to” or “I do”. Whatever follows is usually
Paypal’s second level navigation is task-based.
Audience schemes are very much like task-based schemes, in that they
often sound like a good approach on the surface but are harder than
Audience schemes are suitable, and only work when:
- You can split your audience into groups, with very clear boundaries
- At any point in time, a user can identify which group they belong to
(they may switch groups for different tasks—this is okay as long as
they know where they fit each time)
- Your content assigns across audience groups without too much overlap
Again, this is much harder
than it seems. In most cases when we start along this path, it’s
hard enough identifying the audiences in the first place—people
cross over groups and aren’t sure who they are, and a lot of content
applies to more than one group. If you have this problem, try a
subject-based scheme as your primary scheme and use an audience
scheme as a secondary way to help people find specific information.
Dell use an audience scheme as the top level of the site. I can never
figure out whether my home-based office should be “home” or “small business”
If you decide an audience scheme is best for your content:
- Make sure the boundaries are clear. For example, don’t use small,
medium and large; use numbers to describe what they are about.
- Label the groups in the same way that your users will talk about them.
Something to keep in mind when creating audience schemes: you can
potentially limit access to information by audience, or at least
make it hard for them to find a full range of information. If your
audience groups are sensitive, or it looks like you’re restricting
access by audience, make sure this is what you intended.
The type of classification scheme you’ll use most often is a subject
scheme (or topic scheme—I use the terms interchangeably). And
chances are you’ll be coming up with it from scratch. A subject
scheme groups similar things together based on what they’re about.
worth knowing this type of classification scheme works well for most
content. (I’m yet to meet a set of content I couldn’t arrange
topically). And as long as you can do it in a way that makes sense
for your audience, it will be suitable for them as well.
I’ve described these classification schemes as if they are all
independent. In reality you can use a combination; you could:
- Mix up types at each level
- Start with one type and use a different type at the next level
- use more than one approach for your whole
In sum, there are no hard and fast rules. The main
things, as I’ve said, are that it works well for your audience, they
expect to access information in this way, and it works well for your
Want To Learn More on Classification Schemes?
If you find Donna’s article interesting, then you’ll
want to check out her UIE Virtual Seminar. She’ll dive
deep into this topic, showing exactly how to create the most
effective pages based on the underlying nature of the information.
This seminar will likely be one of the best of the year, so don’t
miss it. Get more information on Donna’s webinar,
Share Your Thoughts with Us
As always, I want to hear your thoughts on this topic. Join the
discussion about this week’s topic on UIE’s Brain Sparks blog