Play with Categories by Design

Carolyn Chandler, co-author of the forthcoming Adventures in Experience Design and design teacher with the American Design and Master-Craft Initiative and the Starter League, talked with Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about what categories mean to designers.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So I think if you were to follow a bunch of designers around Jane Goodall-style, you would inevitably see them using categories: sorting things, naming things, making bunches of Post-it notes and rearranging them. So what are they up to?

Carolyn Chandler: I think there are a few different things. One way in which people use categories is the same way you use them when you use a website. You browse up and down a hierarchy. You are using them to organize information, and understanding the different ways that people organize information helps you see how they think about a space.

But there is also a broader view of categories. A lot of the power of design comes from creating frameworks for information. But the way of using categories there can be more complicated than “appliances” vs. “hand-held electronics.” It’s a whole mental model that categorizes all the different ways that people think about a set of activities.

There are also different places where categories can be used in the life cycle of a specific design. For example, they can be used to break down information into manageable chunks so people can understand what you mean.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems to me that lots of people — well-organized people in particular — use categories to manage the glut of information in their lives. This is the person who has a hundred folders in their inbox and processes them very efficiently. But it seems like designers do this extra thing, which is put everything into categories, but then start all over, putting everything into another set and then another set and then another set. What’s going on there?

Carolyn Chandler: Most designers have come to realize that there is no one right way of categorizing everything. That was something we had to deal with in the early days of the Web, before tagging became familiar to most people. It was always “this document belongs in this folder.” You spent a lot of time trying to make that hierarchy perfect. But it never is — one person may not categorize information the way another person does. And even the same person may not categorize information the same way today as they do six months from now. So tagging helped, because it let people slice and dice things different ways, find related items, and create organic categories. You can think of designers as people who use those tags all the time.

Designers also tend to understand that categorization is an important step, but that it is rarely done explicitly. As a species, we immediately want to give things names and use them to find meaning. So using categories is a way of capturing that particular understanding at a particular point in time. But designers understand that that work is never really finished.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Can you tell me about a time when investigating that sort of categorization helped you arrive at some crucial insight in the design process?

Carolyn Chandler: Hmm, there was a project I worked on for a well-known flooring company … do you know what frieze carpet is?

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: If I saw it in a list, I might guess that it was a type of carpet, but I wouldn’t know anything about what type it is.

Carolyn Chandler: Right. That’s the problem. Frieze was one of the carpet types they offered. We asked people to sort cards with some of the different terms they used, and no one knew what frieze meant. Some people thought it meant a kind of Italian painting. Other people thought it was a kind of lettuce. And actually both of those are true, if you use a slightly different spelling.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I would have guessed some kind of color or texture or…

Carolyn Chandler: It’s basically shag carpet. But that term comes with its own problems. People think of the 70s or Austin Powers’s jet. So the carpet industry moved away from “shag” and started calling it “frieze,” but no one ever figured out what it meant. In the end, we encouraged them to use pictures of the carpet with the categories so people could actually find what they were looking for.

So sometimes a card sort can show you that you shouldn’t be using words. You can also find out that other people are using different categories from you. In that same example, the carpet industry recognized about eight different types of carpet. But when we did the card-sorting exercises, we discovered that most people primarily thought of carpet as “short” or “tall.” The point is that even if you are just trying to represent things in their current state, you may not be able to rely on simple categories.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Sure, you see similar work going on with paint colors. We don’t actually need different names for those colors — they all have Pantone designations. But companies give those paints different names to help people make sense of them as they decide which one to add to their lives.

Carolyn Chandler: That’s a perfect example. And even those categories are used in different ways. For example, the paint color in my bedroom is “Robin’s Egg.” Almost everyone knows that that’s a particular kind of blue. But the color in my living room is “Song of Summer.” What would you think that is?

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I couldn’t tell you.

Carolyn Chandler: It’s a kind of sage green.

So the goal of those categories is only secondarily to communicate color. They know that people are actually relying on paint chips. The name is meant to have some sort of additional emotional connection.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: This seems like a useful, everyday example of how designers use categories. Because you can imagine some very serious-looking 19th-century German scientists sitting around a table doing some sort of experiments to determine what the precise name of every color should be. But designers intuitively understand that the color names are being used as part of a creative process.

Carolyn Chandler: There’s another important point there. Human beings basically like to name stuff. When we do card-sorting activities, people inevitably talk about them as enjoyable, as long as they’re not told what the answer is “supposed” to be. The paint chips show another way in which people enjoy using names. Or think of all the names of the different groups of animals: a murder of crows, a school of fish, a pod of whales.

When we do work with tagging on intranets, we sometimes find that people create organic categories in order to find things. But they also do it just because they enjoy naming and grouping things. They just like it. There are all sorts of rewards going off in your brain, just like when you solve a puzzle. You’re making connections that weren’t there before, building new synapses, flooding your brain with dopamine.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think it makes sense to meditate for a moment on this human propensity for naming things. We have three dogs, and I think my wife and I have about a dozen nicknames for each dog. Clearly in this case the habit of naming has exceeded any possible function or utility. But human beings do that sort of thing all the time. It seems as if there’s some sort of connection between that overactive faculty for naming and the creative process.

Carolyn Chandler: We also use names for intimacy and ownership. That’s why there are also so many fights over names. They show us what people value.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So tell me more about how designers leverage all this stuff in the creative process. Can you think of a time when you used categories to arrive at a new idea?

Carolyn Chandler: We do it all the time.

One common way is to organize your categories on an X axis and a Y axis. That can help you imagine what would happen if you went even further up on the X axis or right on the Y axis, or see where they intersect. Creating new segments like that is really hard, abstract work for most people. By focusing on two variables and playing them against each other, you can start to see who falls into various quadrants and figure out what you’re actually most concerned with. That’s a creative act of categorization. It helps you figure out what constraints you are going to use in the creative process.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I get it. People may understand that things like constraints and outliers are useful in design. But you could view categorization as a kind of platform that helps you actually mobilize them.

Carolyn Chandler: Mm-hm. Categorization is a part of how we make meaning. You may be collecting interesting things not knowing what they mean yet. Categorization is one way of helping you figure that out. It helps you ask questions about why everything fits in the same framework, or why some things don’t. Categories are always outputs of some kind of framework, and the framework is what you are trying to analyze. Designers are kind of obsessed with trying to build the best framework, to make sure that it won’t break because they didn’t take everything into account.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems to me that there’s something else you can do, which is isolate what’s essential. In the history of chemistry, it was really important to be able to isolate the particular elements. You needed to know that you were working with pure oxygen, not just air. That’s the only way you could have a truly rational, mathematical kind of chemistry… and that ultimately helped chemists engineer new compounds.

So it seems like in human systems, you need to do something similar. You need to isolate what the rules are in order to change them.

Carolyn Chandler: Right, yeah. Categories can also do that by helping you figure out how many different properties of a system are actually important. So people might have thought that air could behave in all of these different ways, until they found out that it was one element doing one part of the behavior and another part doing something else.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So now I’d like to talk about some of the difficulties you’ve encountered as a designer using categories. Have you ever been in a situation where you were trying to do something creative with categories and you feel like the client or someone else you’re working with just hit a brick wall?

Carolyn Chandler: Yeah, that also happens a lot when we’re working with intranets. A group of people may have a lot of information about a very specific area. Those people may be creating categories based on their familiarity with that area. There is often no one within an organization who can step back and ask what makes sense for everybody. People may have very firm opinions about why a document ought to belong to “HR” or to “legal,” for instance.

Every time you change categories with people, you basically tell them they have to go back to being a novice. It’s hard to help people get over that anxiety, even if you can show that the new categories will lead to better solutions in six months or help everyone do something faster. There is always a feeling that the rug has been pulled out from under your feet.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: When you talk with someone experiencing that sort of anxiety, how do you explain to them what the point of all these changes in categorization is?

Carolyn Chandler: Well, like I was saying, people associate categorization with pleasure. They experience pleasure not just from generating their own categories, but from guessing what categories other people will use — there are whole categories of board games based around that. So people naturally “get” the use of categories. It’s just that they don’t always apply them to all the different things that designers apply them to. For example, they can be a little hesitant to categorize people as opposed to categorizing movies by genre. They may not view it as a problem they can solve, or they may just not know how to get started.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: When you see some of that difficulty with categorization, how do you overcome it?

Carolyn Chandler: The way Netflix does it with movies is actually a really good example. Their website will say things like, “You seem to like quirky comedies from the 70s — here are some more.”  The category is being used in a way that helps you discover more about the world and about yourself. That’s why people also really like taking personality tests. They’re set up in a way that helps you feel as if you are discovering more. They’re also giving you a sense of familiarity. You can feel like a real music buff when Pandora tells you that you like twangy Southern folk, or whatever. So you can set up categories as a way of gaining knowledge or familiarity.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So I think you’ve identified why humans respond enthusiastically to categorization. But I’m still convinced that there must be things that designers are doing with them that other people aren’t. If someone came to you and said that they wanted to use categories the way you do, what are some tips and tricks you might tell them about?

Carolyn Chandler: We talked about how people enjoy coming up with their own names or categories. We also talked about how people like guessing how other people will categorize things. But there is a third thing that designers are particularly good at, which is getting inside other people’s heads and figuring out how different categories make sense for them. To do this, you have to consciously break with the way it works in your own mind. You have to make the other person’s mind the puzzle you’re trying to solve.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So there’s playing a good hand in poker, there’s bluffing in poker, and then there’s coming up with poker in the first place. That’s what designers do.

Carolyn Chandler: It can be kind of intimidating, because there are so many different possible ways for all possible people to think of something. You have to constantly be digging for what’s essential about things, figuring out what’s more significant than what might have been used to categorize things in the past. It forces you to go both deeper and wider.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So what’s your advice for reaching that third level? Let’s say that you knew that some clients or a group of students were going to do a card-sort exercise without a designer in the room. What would you tell them to help them get to that level?

Carolyn Chandler: They should go way broader than they would normally go. They should try it with unexpected people to try and figure out what their categories are. They should really listen to those people. They should do their own categorization, but then put it away, and put away their disappointment if they don’t hear what they expected from other people. If you go into research to prove that you’re right, you’re going to be wrong. You have to let go. You have to be open. You have to hear something that’s completely different from what you originally thought and then somehow match it up to what you thought. But if they can do all those things, they will actually be designing.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Awesome. I think it’s useful to add here that there are plenty of people in life who are highly rewarded for doing just the opposite of what you describe, for figuring out the one true category into which things are supposed to fit. It’s like they’re playing ski ball and they get tickets every time they get the right ball in the right hole. This category of people might include, I don’t know, lawyers.

Carolyn Chandler: Right. A lawyer’s job is to form an opinion and then defend it tooth and nail, finding every piece of evidence to support that opinion. That’s very anti-design.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And it’s even worse for this particular type of thinking, because a right opinion isn’t even what you’re after.

Carolyn Chandler: Right. This can be hard even for designers. There’s always a temptation to structure the information in a way to prove your point to your colleagues or a client. There’s a temptation to toss that ski ball and say, “I won!”

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: But even then, part of your due diligence is shuffling things around, testing other people’s categories.

Carolyn Chandler: And there’s something else. As a designer, you’re constantly reminded that all of these categories are abstract. You never really figure out what matters until they’re alive. You may not find out for a few months if users will adjust their viewpoint.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: But you would think that all that prior thinking about all the potential ways of thinking or behaving would help you recognize what’s happening when things turn out differently from what you expected. You might say, “A-ha, a few people actually categorized things this way in the test group, so here’s what they’ll probably do next.”

Carolyn Chandler: Yeah, you have a leg up. Then you can identify what’s happening and adapt.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Insight Labs, and the original version can be found here.