Organizing information like products in a webshop, employees, news articles etc. can be done in 5 ways. In his book “information Anxiety” Richard Saul Wurman coins the term “The Five Hat Racks” referring to the hats being information and the racks being ways to organize the hats.
The term is not inherently related to webdesign or UX but more information in general. An example being grouping of bodyparts in different fields of medical science by their spatial retlationship. In this article i will try to flesh out the racks in relation to webdesign.
Organising by physical or spatial location. This could be different (physical) shop locations for a chain retailers or directions from one point to another. A popular way to display this form of organizing is like markers on a map.
Organizing items alphabetical. This is used all over the place, especially for listing names where it is often the only logical method of sorting. This method is also usefull because everybody is familliar with the alphabet. Organizing this way is recommended as the goto sorting method unless the information presented specifically demands one of the other methods. By this i mean that if nothing else springs to mind immediately most people expect alphabetical sorting.
Organizing based on some form of timestamp. This is usefull for calendar based items like events or schedules. This is also the recommended method for information where a chronological order is important, like cooking recipes.
If there is some sort of causation between organized items this type of organizing is very helpfull.
Since time is a unalterable(as far as i know) there is also and inherent logic in organizing something according to something that is fixed.
Organizing by some shared similarity. This is meby the most flexible method since you can organize in a hierarchy with sub-categories and sub-sub categories etc.
This is also practical when organizing something where the other methods isnt realy important or invaluable to the user eg. sorting categories alhabetically isn’t usefull since multiple articles may start with an unimportant word and therefore group items that have no usefull relationship.
Hierarchy (somtimes called Continuum)
Organizing by magnitude eg. best to worst, highest to lowest, simply put: some sort of rating. The arbitrary nature of this method can be dangerous if the user doesn’t know the variable that is being compared. That being said, this is a nice way to present items based on quality.
This method is most usefull when you don’t necessarily know what it is you are looking for but want to be presented with the best fit based on a set of predefined conditions like price or rating.
Why is this important?
Organizing information is one of the primary concerns of a webdesigner and we should all know when to use what method of information sorting. The sorting of information can make and break the users experience on your site. If they aren’t able to find what they are looking for in an organized way they will find it at your competitor.
The methods ar not mutually exclusive. I fact combining methods can be a case of the result being greater than the sum of its parts. For example: if you give the user the ability to select two or more sorting methods the user has the ability to choose the method that best suits their situation.
The client may have an idear of what method is best, but to be honest, their idear how to present their content may be clouded by what they would like to sell and not necessarily what the customer wants to buy. For instance sorting products by some arbitrary attribute or quality that the user may have no idear or interest in. Or maby they want a list of people to be listed alfabetically but for som reason the top three is the CEO, the Marketing director and the head of HR. While this makes sense to the client it is confusing and unnecessary to the user.
There is not realy anything difficult in using these methods and most of the time the method called for is obvious. But as with most things, in order to make the right decision you need to know what the options are including all the pros and cons.