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Jan 25, 2002: In Information Architecture We Trust... NOT!

Ron Scheer has a short and interesting review of two studies that examine broad, shallow hierarchies versus narrow, deep ones. Ron's interpretation fits what we've been hearing for a while now:

Both studies support a growing belief that breadth beats depth. What they don't show is what kind of breadth is best.

That last sentence is just jam-packed with endless possibilities. My hunch is that there is at least one major and somewhat unexplored factor that might offer a clue to which kind of breadth is best: information need (i.e., are users performing known-item searches, exploratory searches). But I'm not going any further down this path; too complicated, too messy. Besides, I'm not sure that anyone really has the data to definitively prove one thing or another at this point.

Instead I'm going to veer off into one of my favorite conspiracy theories.* It goes like this: users prefer shallower, broader hierarchies. This is not because they're unwilling to click through multiple layers of hierarchy. Nope. Users prefer shallow and broad because most information architectures suck. This is the user's way of saying "Hey, based upon experience, I don't trust you to do a good job of organizing your site. So just put all your links on the main page, and me and my trusty Ctrl-F key will sort it out. OK?"

Paranoiac conspiracy theory? Of course! But can it be proven wrong?


* Hey, I'm an American, so I'm entitled to at least a couple conspiracy theories. One of these days I'll tell you about my other theory, the one that explains the history of huge and sudden increases in US gas prices while Democratic presidents are running for reelection.

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Comment: Joshua (Jan 26, 2002)

It's true, it's true! Too many users are so used to information architectures that suck, that they don't really care how the site is organized as long as they can find what they're looking for. Thus, the importance of not only the Ctrl-F key but also an integrated search feature.

Comment: Edward Vielmetti (Jan 27, 2002)

Hey, isn't search within a page an integral
part of every browser out there? No reason
not to think that it shouldn't be included
as part of a user interface and design
component, especially of long pages.

Comment: Michael Angeles (Jan 28, 2002)

I'd like to hear the theory about gas prices and Democratic presidents.

The jury will alwasy be out regarding the broad and shallow issue. I've tended to take different approaches and have had different opinions on what makes most sense depending on the depth of content and the audience/user group. Personally, I like sites that manually index their documents/nodes and display all of the available descriptors applied to those nodes. People tout the power of taxonomies, but there are other more valuable -- in my opinion -- methods for finding documents. I like for example how the Montague Institute's index is implemented. I haven't seen many good examples that offer a way to browse for content that helps you successfully filter out irrelevant documents. The indexing on Tom Smith's blog at Other Media is also a nicely implemented alternative. Perhaps it's just a problem of not being able to index content properly -- because of lack of resources or expertise -- which leads to the old "Garbage in/Garbage out" problem.

Comment: Victor Lombardi (Jan 30, 2002)

I'd like to see someone take a more anthropological+perceptual (rather than, or in addition to, cognitive) look at this. Here's my theory:

The real world has LOTS of stuff in it.

Humans have become very good at visually scanning lots of stuff quite quickly (think of walking down the aisle at the food market).

Therefore, on the web humans can find a target faster if the task involves more visual scanning (broad, shallow hierarchy) than scanning, clicking, waiting, and scanning again (narrow, deep hierarchy).

Comment: Lou (Jan 31, 2002)

OK Michael, you asked for my theory (thank you very much), so here goes:

The energy industry is generally in cahoots with Republicans, who are typically more willing to support oil exploration anywhere and everywhere, to rollback gasoline taxes, and deregulate the entire industry. (Hmmm, anyone ever hear of a company called Enron?)

Anyway, in 2000 (Dem incumbent's VP was running), there was a spike in gasoline prices. Does anyone even remember this anymore? My theory: they did it to hurt Gore, though I'm not sure it made a difference (he won the damn election anyway).

In 1996, with Clinton in office, they tried to spike prices that summer. Clinton, to his credit, called the industry on this, and soon the prices were on their way back down.

But it gets worse: in 1979-80, those wonderful years responsible for much of my political consciousness, the oil companies raised prices through the roof. A good but weak Dem didn't fight this at all, and the energy spike helped ruin the economy. Enough that, combined with the hostage crisis, the unthinkable happened (Reagan won).

I don't know what happened in 1968; Vietnam and the law and order movement were enough to help Nixon squeak by. But in 1964, the oil companies didn't spike prices with LBJ in the White House. Why not? Maybe they weren't sufficiently sophisticated to collude in such a manner at that point.

Or maybe it was because LBJ was from Texas, the biggest oil state at the time...

OK, lots of holes in this conspiracy theory, I'll admit. So go ahead and start poking holes. But I still hate the energy industry.

Comment: Victor Lombardi (Feb 6, 2002)

At least the Republicans are honest about their wasteful attitudes:

'Asked whether the president was considering a campaign urging Americans to change their lifestyles and conserve gasoline, Fleischer replied: "That's a big no. The president believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policymakers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one." '


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