How to categorise content

When you first start thinking about how to create an information architecture, the number of potential ways to categorise content can feel both cloudy and overwhelming. These 12 categorisation methods are a great place to start. I recommend making and testing at least two prototypes - trying out different ways to arrange your content - to find out which one is more effective.

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Subject types

This is the easy, obvious one. If you have a whole bunch of content about apples, put it together. If you have a bunch of information about bananas, put it together. And put both those groups of content under a category called fruit :) This can also be about the characteristic of a group of things, for example, if we think about a retail fashion shop - clothing type, material, and colour are all categories we can apply to either the IA or taxonomy filters. Genre, ingredients and other characteristics of a thing’ also fit in to this categorisation method.

User groups

This is where you arrange content based on who the content is for, for example, teachers, media, students or industry. Be careful with this category as it is not always as helpful as you might imagine. Information is often sought across these user groups, for example on a university website where both teachers and students are looking for campus maps. Consider using this categorisation method in conjunction with others in a hybrid model.

User mindset

This is where you arrange content based on the expertise of your user. You might typically see this in technical documentation or procedural content where more explicit instructions are required for new users and only light touch is required for experts. You can also think about this in terms of users’ familiarity with your product. They may be very confident visual designers but not have used your design application before.

Ergonomics

This is where you arrange content based on its frequency of use, much like an old school ergonomic arrangement of computer, phone and monitor on your desk. This way of categorising makes sense in task-based sites like an intranet or shop. You pull out and promote a task that naturally fits with others from a subject point of view because a very large per cent of your users want to do it. An airline home page is a great example of this. The booking capability is always going to be front and centre.

Strategic value

Sometimes you want to arrange content based on its strategic importance in the organisation. You might have quarterly targets and you want to group content based of those. Because this might not make sense to users, be careful with this one. Allow users alternative paths to finding the content they are looking for in more natural subject categories as well. This is often expressed by pulling up groups that might otherwise be at level two or three and promoting them to level one. 

Desired behaviours

This is a continuation of strategic value where you categorise content based on what you want to encourage users to do, for example, recycle more or register to vote on time. You might see this on a local council or government site. Say you have a whole glut of bananas you need to get rid of, you place banana content at level one instead of their natural place under fruit.

Time

This is where you arrange content by a temporal element. It’s typically seen in an event calendar or news but could also be used by the Tax Office, for example, to bubble up content relating to timely tasks like submitting your tax return. 

Geography

This is where you categorise information based on its geographic location. It makes sense to use maps as a graphical element to help users find content based on location and distance from them. You can categorise by post code, longitude and latitude, or country.

Alphabet

Be cautious with alphabetical categorisation. When you think about it, it’s actually a very random way of arranging information that does not acknowledge the subject of content or user desire at all. I would recommend using this for small groups of content at the end of a subject-based categorisation system.

Template or format type

Agh! Why would we ever do this! Like alphabetical categorisation, this method is super random. For the most part, users want to learn about Ancient Rome not find a infographic on Ancient Rome. Of course, there are some exceptions to this - a teacher looking for a video on Ancient Rome for a specific presentation purpose, but if you tag content by format you facilitate this requirement without having to use it as a navigational structure. You often see this in intranets and it is the pits. About as bad as FAQ on the dodgy IA practises scale :)

Process

This is where you arrange content based on a process that users will follow to achieve their goals. It can be a bit tricky to get right so use with caution. You might see it on educational sites to introduce naive users to concepts in a logical order or to support a linear process on a shop or government site.

Hybrid of the above

I often end up using hybrid methods to guide users to content. The trick here is to be consistent and pattern-based and to test a lot to see if your combination works.

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How would you combine these categorisation methods?

Do you use another method? Please let me know!