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5.5. Fine-Tuning the Labeling System

The list of terms you are working with might be raw, coming straight from the content in your site, your site's users, or your own ideas of what should work best. Or, it may come straight from a polished controlled vocabulary. In either case, it'll need some work to become an effective labeling system.

5.5.1. The Basics

First, sort the list of terms alphabetically. If it's a long list (e.g., indexing labels), you might see some duplicates; remove these.

Then review the list for consistency of usage, punctuation, letter case, and so forth. For example, you'll remember that the label table drawn from the Argus web site had inconsistencies that became obvious right away. Sometimes we used periods after labels, sometimes we didn't. We also weren't consistent in our usage of link labels vs. the heading labels on the pages they referred to.

You might also find that the writing style varies too much from label to label. For example, one label might use an active verb (e.g., Order a Free Sample from Larry's Reptile Hut) while another may use more passive language (e.g., Larry's Reptile Hut Customer Service). This is a good time to resolve these inconsistencies and perhaps to establish conventions for usage in terms of punctuation, language, and so on.

Some terms will undoubtedly be synonyms (e.g., cancer and oncology), others will be variants on the same term (e.g., microfiltration systems and microfiltration services), and some will be related but not quite the same (e.g., stationery and letterhead). You'll need to make some tough decisions here. With synonyms, choose the term that best fits the language of your site's users. So, if they're medical professionals, use the medical term oncology rather than the more generic term cancer. If you encounter variants or synonyms, ask yourself if they are different or part of the same general concept. For example, do microfiltration systems and microfiltration services need to be distinguished, or could they be combined under microfiltration? Do you need very specific terms like letterhead, or will broader terms like stationery suffice?

All in all, strive to make your labels descriptive and differentiate them from one another. The studies by Jared Spool et al. demonstrate the confusion that can be wrought by putting similar terms such as global and international side by side, as was done in the Fidelity web site. If the site's designers had looked at these labels as part of a complete system, they'd likely have thought twice about using such similar labels.

5.5.2. Labeling System Scope and Size

Decisions about which terms to include need to be made in the context of how broad and how large a labeling system is required. First, determine if the labeling system has obvious gaps. Does it encompass all the possibilities that your site may eventually need to include? If, for example, your site is an online store that currently allows users to search a product database but does not support online ordering, ask yourself if eventually it might. Even if you're not certain, assume it will. Then devise a label for online ordering that fits within the rest of the labeling system. Or, if the site's labeling system is topical, anticipate the topics not yet covered by the site. In both cases, you might be surprised; you might learn that the addition of these phantom labels has a large impact on your labeling system, perhaps sufficiently enough for you to change its conventions in terms of wording, and so on. If you avoid this exercise, you might learn the hard way that future content doesn't fit well into your site because you're not sure how to label it, or it ends up in cop-out categories such as Miscellaneous, Other Info, and Stuff. Plan ahead so that labels you might add in the future don't throw off the current labeling system.

Balance this planning with an understanding of what your labeling system is there to accomplish. If you try to create a labeling system that encompasses the whole extent of human knowledge (instead of the current and anticipated content of your web site), you will encounter the sorts of nasty problems that the folks who created the LCSH have discovered. Keep your scope narrow and focused enough so that it can clearly address the requirements of your site's unique content and the special needs of its audiences, but be comprehensive within that well-defined scope.

Also consider the overall size of the labeling system. Obviously, if the goal is to label a navigation system, five or ten terms may be all you need. On the other hand, if you're creating a system for indexing the content of a large site, the labeling system may include hundreds of terms. What you'll want is the right level of granularity for your labeling system. Granularity, as mentioned before, refers to how specific you want to be in identifying and labeling your site's content. If you have ten thousand documents, can you use a labeling system of ten terms to label them? Sure, but under each label, you'd find hugely long and unusable lists of documents. On the other hand, if you use a three-tiered labeling system with hundreds of terms, users might shy away from its complexity. Is there a middle ground that makes sense in terms of labeling system size, a solution large enough to appropriately label the content, but not too overwhelming for users? If not, you might have to adjust the granularity that your labeling system is addressing. Perhaps instead of attempting to label every document, you'll have to address a coarser level of granularity by labeling logical groupings of documents (e.g., all the documents from the same department or by the same author) instead of each individual document.

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