25 February 2006


Custom organization schemes

In previous entries I've talked about exact and ambiguous schemes. Now I want to talk about "everything else that remains," the custom organization scheme.

The three most common exact schemes -- alphabetical, chronological, and spatial -- aren't the only exact schemes in the world. There are also numeral (1, 12, 166, 2, 22, 266, 3, ...) and numerical/counting (1, 2, 3, 12, 22, 32, 166, 266, ...) schemes, and there are schemes where the sort style is based on some other intrinsic characteristic or standards, such as the periodic table of elements (numerical order by proton count) and the colors of the rainbow (numerical order by wavelength values). Although it's challenging to think up exact schemes that aren't based on numbers, characters, time, or space, it is incredibly easy to think up subjective (ambiguous) ways of organizing information. Below are several suggestions. Although some of these possibilities seem quite similar to numerical order, number order won't ever change with time, although these can.

by frequency of use
by importance
by logical complexity
by sensory intensity (e.g., brightness)
by mood
by personal interest
by profitability
by likelihood to inspire controversy
by necessity to avoid a lawsuit
by the order in which you thought it up

Further, the subjectivity for each of these goes further, because you can choose your audience for these sorting schemes:

by importance to the author
by importance to the common user
by importance to the experts

... and so on.

It's easy to get confused between complicated exact ordering schemes -- like the periodical table, which is in order of proton count -- and custom ambiguous schemes. In both cases, the sorting scheme may not be obvious, at which point it's easy to assume it's obtusely subjective or completely arbitrary. For example, the following are three ways to organize the English alphabet:

a b c d e f ...
q w e r t y ...
e t a o i n ...

The first is alphabetical order. The second is spatial order (letters on the standard keyword, affectionately known as the QWERTY keyboard). The third is in order of use in the American English language (the letter E is the most commonly used letter in the lexicon). I would argue that for all practical purposes, these are all exact schemes. There is no subjectivity here. To sort the alphabet in a subjective way, I'd suggest by ease of pronunciation. :-)

My point is that in the end, most custom schemes are exact and not ambiguous. Instead, they are translations of intrinsic orders into something exact (again, like the periodic table being in numeric order by proton count or atomic weight). Alternately, they are exact or ambiguous schemes that are time-dependent, such that the scheme itself varies over time or application.

In summary, you should consider using a custom scheme when (a) you have an internal order that you want to obey, or (b) you have an order that changes over time. In both cases, however, it's important that your users understand that your schemes are not necessarily obvious. The periodical table requires training to understand and use; meanwhile, because the search results at Google.com tend to vary over time, some people are disturbed by getting different results for the same search they used yesterday. If you can't use an intuitively obvious scheme (like alphabetizing) or a subconsciously obvious scheme (like task or topic order), it's probably a good idea to find a way to impose a numeric scheme on top of your results. The periodic table has a key, and search engines often have a "relevance percentage."

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