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5.2. Labeling Systems, Not Labels

It's important to remember that labels, like organization and navigation systems, are systems in their own right. So it follows that labeling systems, like any other, require planning to succeed. To illustrate, let's compare two labeling systems:

  1. Unplanned Labeling System

    Faculty Skunkworks
    Office for Instructional Technology 
    K12 PDN Projects Web Page
    Digital Libraries Project
    Office of Technology Management
    Extension Services
    The New Media Center
    Project 1999
    Institute for Information Technology
    English Composition Board
    Technology Dissemination Office
  2. Planned Labeling System

    Arts & Humanities
    Business & Employment
    Computers & Information Technology
    Government & Law
    Health & Medicine
    Places & Peoples
    Science & Mathematics
    Social Sciences & Social Issues

What is the difference between these two labeling systems?

If you were a first-time visitor, you'd have little sense of what the labels in the Unplanned System represent. They were created with the assumption that users would know these programs and acronyms. We can assume that this site deals with something academic, because of the labels Faculty, English Composition, and so forth. The list does seem somewhat consistent, as it includes many terms that seem to represent organizational units, such as Office, Services, Board, Project, and Institute. However, some terms are confounding, such as K12 PDN Web Page, Project 1999, Faculty Skunkworks, and The New Media Center. It's not clear if these represent web sites, organizational units, or something else altogether. So we scratch our heads and wonder what this is all about.

The Planned System, without context, might also make us wonder. What resources do these subjects cover? But at least we're clear that these indeed are subject areas. Also, the lack of exceptions indicates comprehensiveness: each is a subject area, so all possible subjects must be covered here. This is a useful trick: although there is no proof that this list is indeed comprehensive, users will often assume that consistent, systematic labeling systems do in fact cover the full extent of the domain that they represent. Most importantly, users have seen this type of system before, so the user only needs to learn the labeling system, not each individual label. After one quick look, the user understands how this system works: it's subject-oriented. Consistency breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds content(ment).

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