Classification and Design

Us | Taxonomy | The World 

I’ve been interested in classification and taxonomy for a long time. Categories are everywhere, and we use them intentionally or unintentionally to understand a lot of stuff. They’re also great at slithering away when you try to pin them down. In this short series of posts, I want to explore how classification manifests in design, what its relationship is to other popular design concepts like mental models, and what kind of new lens it can provide for understanding how people understand.

Joy | Sadness | Melancholy 

Let’s start with something that isn’t interaction design: the excellent animated movie Inside Out. Inside Out depicts the mind as operated by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Envy. The divisions between emotions seem intuitive but in order to write the script, Pixar needed to decide which emotions to embody, how to depict them, and where to create dividing lines between emotions. Pixar did something powerful here: they created a clear and simple categorization of basic emotions. The result is a system that says these are the core emotions, here’s where they start and stop, what they do, and what they’re not (any of the other emotions). 

I’ve had lots of conversation and have done a little research, as you might have too, about how accurate this understanding of emotions is. It sounds like, in many ways it is and in other ways it may not be–it’s certainly simplified. Regardless of the accuracy, however, people use the Inside Out model to talk about emotions, especially with kids. It’s a useful lens for understanding emotions and how they interact, especially when you’re just starting to get a handle on these intangible things. This is precisely the power of designing with classification in mind: it suggests a model for the world that users can adopt and use within and beyond whatever product you may provide.

Album | Artist | Song 

Just like Pixar embedded this emotional taxonomy in Inside Out, designers build understandings of the world into their creations, too. When we make our ideas tangible in design, we solidify categories and their relationships. Each time we develop a product or an information architecture, we are creating a taxonomy for that little part of the world that we hope people will find meaningful and useful. 

 Sometimes these classification systems are pretty straightforward: when I look at my iTunes library, I can choose how to categorize my songs: album, artist, ill-managed genre. In iTunes, the smallest distinct unit is the song, and the metadata that Apple surfaces about the song in the interface creates a taxonomy for the songs, and, to some extent, for music more broadly. “This is what’s important about songs,” iTunes says, and factors that are not a part of Apple’s taxonomy? Not important. Can I sort by vocal range of lead singers? I cannot. Can I sort by how many musicians are in the band? I can’t do that either. 

Groove | Distortion | Background Vocals 

As a counterpoint, think about a service like Pandora that classifies music completely differently with its (explicitly taxonomical) heart–the Music Genome Project. Put in a song, artist, or album that you like (traditional classification) and it recommends other music based on the qualities of that music that you may never have even thought of: prevalent use of groove, level of distortion on the electric guitar, type of background vocals.

Pandora’s value proposition involves using a new way of classifying music to show people a new way to find more music they may like (and then, of course, playing that music). From a design and value perspective, using classification as a tool, can expand the way people think about something. But once you’ve done that, it’s also important to consider that you are influencing people’s mental model of “songs” beyond your particular service. Your service says what is important about one song relative to another, and what the subcategories and supercategories of songs are. If Pandora’s taxonomy of music is explicit and successful, it can change the way that people understand their own taste in music, and the way they interact with music more broadly–that is, it can change systems of thought and behaviors. 

Part 1 | Part 2 

So, consciously or unconsciously, we design systems of classification into things, and those embedded systems will go on to shape the way that users create classifications of their own world. In the next post, I will get into how design may ask us to classify ourselves as a powerful way to understand designing behavioral change using a case study of Cooper’s own work.  


The Inside Out emotions chart is courtesy of Vox by designer Christophe Haubursin

Joe Kappes

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