Reading The Long Tail on the tube today, I got an insight into data classification. One of the aspects of information systems I struggle to understand is the exclusive use of hierarchical classification structures. In these structures, a particular thing can only be of one given type. Sometimes this may well be appropriate, but more often than not it isn’t.
Let’s take the example of film genres. A film, for instance, may be a comedy and a drama. In hierarchical structures, this film ends up being in a made up genre in which comedy drama is a child of comedy (and there is likely to be a genre of drama comedy as a child of drama.) Now, I can understand that you might want to classify your film in order to report against it – maybe all comedy is a specific department with costs and revenue. Fair enough. But why would you assume your users, especially those outside your organisation, would be happy or able to use your classification system – if you want to find something, it’d be more effective to classify this film as both comedy and drama. That’s trying to use the same data for two different ends, right?
Well, this is where the insight bit helped me. The physical world has some constraints that are not evident in computer systems – for instance, shelf space is limited. This means that in your local DVD rental store, that film is likely to be with the comedies or the dramas. They can’t reconfigure the shelving depending on how you’d like to search through their DVDs. So putting this together, I wonder if the reason that some people are wedded to their hierarchical structures is because these structures haven’t been a problem. Until now. There is some evidence in The Long Tail that without effective searching and filtering, we are intimidated by choice, whereas if the searching and filtering is effective we respond well to more choice and may even increase our spending. Now is the time, if you haven’t already done it, to think about how your users will navigate to the product they want. Because if you get that wrong, they’ll walk away.