In Web Organization is not Like Book Organization, I said that the TOC does not work at a large scale. It is worth talking a little more about why it doesn’t work, because it has important consequences for many of the navigational schemes that people propose for the Web and other large information systems.
The reason a TOC does not work at a large scale is that a small scale TOC acts as a list that the reader can simply browse, but a large scale one becomes a classification scheme that users have to navigate. If you can’t take the TOC in at a glance, or at least read it through comfortably, then you have to trace down particular paths in the hierarchy of the TOC, and that means you have to figure out the classification scheme behind the TOC. And that does not work.
The reason it does not work is that people do not classify their experience. They do not say, “I have an ache in my second upper bicuspid,” they say, “I have a toothache.”
Experts classify things in the area of their expertise, in order to be precise. Often, they make up vocabulary to express their categories because common usage of common words does not divide the world neatly into categories (because people don’t classify their experiences). Thus biologists classify life into: kingdom, phylum/division, class, order, family, genus, and species.
The botanist says “Plantae/Angiosperms/Eudicots/Rosids/Malpighiales/Violaceae/Viola/Viola tricolor”; the common man says “Pansy”. The expert classifies; the common man simply names.
Actually, the common man does sometimes classify to a certain extent, but often in a completely different way from the expert. If the common man is a gardener, he may look in the garden center for “bedding plants / perennials / Pansy”. But if he asks the clerk for assistance, he will just say “Where are the Pansies?” Or if he is reluctantly in tow behind his wife, he may say “the small purple ones”.
People do not classify their experiences; they name them. And they do not name them according to a universal taxonomy. Often they name them according to local custom, so that even “pansy” is not always “pansy”. As Wikipedia explains:
In Scandinavia, Scotland, and German-speaking countries, the pansy (or its wild parent Viola tricolor) is or was known as the Stepmother (Flower). This name rose out of stories about a selfish stepmother; the tale was told to children in various versions while the teller plucked off corresponding parts of the blossom to fit the plot.
In Italy the pansy is known as flammola (little flame), and in Hungary it is known as árvácska (small orphan). In Israel, the pansy is known as the “Amnon v’Tamar”, or Amnon and Tamar, after the biblical characters (II Samuel 13). In New York, pansies have been colloquially referred to as “football flowers” for reasons unknown. In some countries of Spanish language, the pansy is known as “Pensamiento” or “Trinitaria”.
The name “heart’s-ease” came from the woman St. Euphrasia, whose name in Greek signifies cheerfulness of mind. The woman, who refused marriage and took the veil, was considered a pattern of humility, hence the name “humble violet”. The specific colors of the flower – purple, yellow, and white – are meant to symbolize memories, loving thoughts and souvenirs, respectively.
Another name for the pansy is that of “herb trinity,” with its three colorful petals acting as symbols for the Holy Trinity.
This is why people Google for information. Because if you Google “stepmother flower” you get a bunch of results about pansies. This isn’t foolproof, of course. If you Google “football flower” you get a bunch of results related to floral arrangements shaped like soccer balls or American footballs. On the other hand, if you attempt to find “stepmother flower” by navigating the botanical taxonomy, you are going to get no results at all.
The problem for the technical communicator is how to get the reader who does not classify their experience into the right place in a classified content set. Presenting them with a classification and asking them to navigate it is not going to work. No matter how good or how logical the classification may be, people do not classify their experience.
Teaching them the classification schema and then asking them to navigate the classified content is also not going to work. As content strategists frequently note, if you have to give the reader instructions for navigating your website, you have already failed. When all they want is a single item, people simply don’t care how that item fits in a classification; they just want the item. They expect, however unreasonably, that the answer should be as simple and straightforward as the question. And the question, as far as they are concerned, is always a simple one because it concerns one entirely concrete and discrete piece of their own experience.
The challenge, then, is to lead the reader to the right piece of content without in any way teaching them the classification scheme by which the content is organized.
This is not a new problem. While the TOC of a book presents an organizational schema for the content, the index presents an unclassified list of names. Readers can use the index to find something in a book without ever engaging with or understanding how the book is structured or organized. (The problem, of course, is that the content they find this way is often written in a way that assumes you are following along in the organizational schema of the book. This is why Every Page is Page One topics provide a better reader experience than books when the reader is not reading the whole book.)
For the writer, the information architect, and the content strategist, the lure of the classification schema is strong. All of these, to one extent or another has to concern themselves with the overall information set, and with its completeness, and these concerns are impossible to address without imposing some form of classification on the content. The writer, the information architect, and the content strategist have to create a classification schema, and it quickly becomes for them the easiest and most reliable way to navigate the content set.
No wonder, then, that they swiftly come to believe that what works so well for them must also work well for the reader. But it doesn’t. The writer, the information architect, and the content strategist classify their content because they work with it all day and think about it constantly. But the reader does not classify their experience. The hierarchy that is so lucid to the writer, the information architect, and the content strategist, is entirely opaque to the reader.
The reader does not classify their experience. We have to stop organizing content as if they did.