Summary: Today there is no “right place” to put information that will ensure that readers find it. Instead, we have to focus on making sure our content gets filtered in to the reader’s search. Every Page is Page One information design and bottom-up information architectures are key to achieving this.
The “right place” for content
Traditionally, one of the key concerns for both the writer and the information seeker was to determine the “right place” to put content and to look for content. The reader had to look in the “right place” if they expected to find relevant content. The writer had to put their content in the “right place” if they expected content to be found. And, of course, much frustration and disappointment occurred if the reader’s idea of the “right place” was not the same as the writer’s idea of the “right place”.
Defining the “right place”
In an attempt to work around these problems, several attempts have been made to standardize the definition of “the right place”. Library cataloging systems, such as the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress systems were devised to determine the “right place” to shelve a book in a library. But anyone with any experience of libraries that used these systems knows that books on a particular subject of interest are often scattered across different parts of the cataloging system. It was seldom possible to go to one shelf and find all the books you needed stacked side by side.
Content at the intersection of diverse subjects
This is partly because cataloging books is hard, and librarians sometimes make mistakes, but, more basically, it is because books generally treat multiple subjects, and the intersection between multiple subjects, and those subjects may be in very different parts of the cataloging scheme. The person cataloging the book then has to decide what is the “primary” subject of a given book and shelve it appropriately, breaking its connection to all of its secondary subjects. The subject index in a card catalog helped people find books according to their secondary subjects (to a limited extent) but it also sent them running all over the library looking for books that were in the “wrong place” according to the priority of the reader’s interests.
For instance, I have a book on my shelves by Lynn White Jr. entitled Medieval Religion and Technology. (Because I have an MA in the History of Technology, that’s why.) Where to shelve this title? Even I can’t decide in my modest collection. It is a book at an intersection point of major ideas. As the jacket blurb notes, “During the Middle Ages, values and the motivations springing from them—even those underlying many activities that to us today seem purely secular—were often expressed in religious presuppositions.” Thus part of the reason the book defies our normal classification schemes is that it deals with the intersection of ideas that we now consider entirely separate.
Doubtless a professional librarian could tell us how the difficulty should be resolved for cataloging purposes, but that hardly resolves the problem for the reader who is trying to locate information on the influence of religion on the development of technology. Without the same training as the librarian receives, they are not going to know where to look for books on this subject.
The manual is no longer the “right place”
For conventional tech comm, of course, the “right place” was the manual that shipped with the product. The “right place” problem was thus a local one — determining where in the manual, or where in the doc set or help system was the “right place” for a particular piece of information. Attempts to standardize the titles of manuals such as “Users Guide”, “Administrator’s Guide”, and “Reference Manual” were attempts to define the “right place” for both writers and readers. Today, the division of content into concept, task, and reference (with all its significant faults) is again an attempt at defining “right places”.
In traditional practice, a documentation plan would lay out a set of manuals and a table of content for each that defined the “right place” for the writer. However, we know very well that this seldom worked as the “right place” for the reader. And today, for numerous reasons (which I lay out in detail in my book), people increasingly prefer to use the Web, or at least the company website, to look for information. Thus the problem of defining the “right place” for content moves to the Web sphere and into the realm of information architecture.
Information architecture and the “right place”
In contemporary information architecture, the definition of “right place” is generally done using taxonomies. Taxonomies, like card catalogs before them, define the “right place” to put, and to look for, information by tagging the content with attributes that specify its subject matter. Online, the digital environment enables us to offer the reader more ways to locate the right place for content. Faceted navigation, for instance, allows the reader (rather than the writer) to designate which subjects are primary and which secondary for defining the “right place” to look for content.
Taxonomies not shared by readers and writers
But while such systems are often better than the chaos that they replaced, we are still a long way from solving the “right place” problem. Taxonomies imply a cultural understanding of a subject area which may not be shared by writers and readers. Even with the improved navigation they offer, therefore, they still often fail to locate content in what the reader considers to be the “right place” — something that is often highly individual to the reader’s immediate concerns as well as their general background.
Standard vs. local taxonomies
One of the questions that has to be addressed when designing the taxonomy of a site is whether to use a standard taxonomy or a local one. Local taxonomies can make more sense to both the writer and the reader, because they deal with the particular concerns of a particular product or trade. They can be smaller, more specific, and easier to manage. Standard taxonomies remove the need to design your own, and may already be familiar to your audience, but they may not describe your particular subject area or business issues as well as a local taxonomy. Particularly, they may not make distinctions that matter in your area, and may not use the terminology your readers are used to.
The collapse of the social contract of “right places”
Implicit in all of this is a kind of social contract between writers and readers. By this contract, it is the writer’s responsibility to put content in the “right place” and the reader’s responsibility to look for it in the “right place”. This implies that it is part of the reader’s responsibilities to educate themselves about the “right place” — to know the global taxonomy you are using, or learn your local one. This responsibility of the reader to know (or to learn) the “right place” to look for content is so culturally ingrained that we seldom question it, or even include it in our assumptions about our audience. We assume the responsibility exists, and we assume the reader accepts it.
The problem is, the social contract has never worked very well, and readers are constant frustrated and constantly complain that writers have not put information in the right place. We know from the study of tech support call patterns that many of the things that people complain they cannot find in the manual are in fact in there. The reader was simply looking in the “wrong place”. The social contract of “right places” breaks down on a regular basis.
Is standardization the answer?
Who is to blame? Are readers not living up to their responsibilities to learn the “right place” to look? Are writers failing to put content in the “right place”? Will greater standardization help, as many believe? I don’t think so. As noted above, local taxonomies are small and more specific to individual needs, making them simpler and more precise. They fall down because they have to be learned to be used. Standardized taxonomies are generally more complex and less precise, which means that there is more opportunity for writer and reader to come to different conclusions about what the “right place” is to put something within the taxonomy. And the standard taxonomies also have to be learned — something which many readers will not have done, and which is a major chore that most will not be willing to undertake.
All definitions of the “right place” are artificial
I think the failure of the social contract about the “right place” for content is more fundamental than this. It fails, ultimately, because there is no right place for content. Any definition of a “right place” is artificial: its rightness comes not from nature, but from the fiat of the person who proposes it. Thus it works only within the tight circle of people who accept and learn it.
The general reading public, in the meantime, has largely abandoned the concept of a “right place” for most of the information they seek. (This is an ongoing transition, and different people are at different stages of abandonment.) Rather than ask what the right place is to look for information, they either simply search for it (via Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.) or they try to find the right people to ask (via Facebook, Twitter, StackOverflow, etc.)
How to ask, not where to look
Search and social skills are thus replacing traditional research and cataloging skills; how to ask is replacing where to look at the primary definition of information finding ability.
This is what it means to say (as David Weinberger does) that Everything is Miscellaneous. It is not that things can’t be organized — you can organize anything as long as you make up a suitable principle of organization. The problem is that, for many things, there is no natural “rightness” about such principles (or about how to apply them). There is no “right place” to put things that every writer and every reader can naturally and easily agree on. Thus, despite any overarching principle of organization that may be applied to the things organized, they are effectively miscellaneous to those unfamiliar with the principal of organization.
Every Page is Page One
In this world of effectively miscellaneous content, every page is page one. “Every page is page one” is first and foremost a statement of fact about how people access content today. Secondarily it is design pattern for creating content that works well when people find content via search and social curation, or any other method of random access.
In a world in which there is no “right place” for content, the reader’s approach to finding content shifts from trying to find the right place to (in David Weinberger’s phrase again) including it all and filtering it afterward. The writer’s concern therefor must shift from placing the content in the “right place” to making sure that it gets filtered in appropriately when the reader’s filter is applied.
Bottom-up information architecture
In this world also, we have to pay far greater attention to bottom-up information architecture. Top-down information architecture is all about defining the “right place” for content and ensuring content is put in the “right place”. But with readers increasingly ignoring the concept of “right place” and going straight to search, information architecture has to concern itself more with what happens next, after a reader lands on an individual page.
Bottom-up information architecture is all about constructing the individual page or topic so that the reader can recognize and follow the information scent they are seeking, and about providing local navigation along lines of subject affinity to the related content they may want to consult next.
In a world in which there is no “right place” for information, we have to start paying far more attention to these things than we do at present. To begin exploring what this means for your content and your content creation process, contact me and let’s talk.