Information Strategy - The Kitchen Analogy

I've always been fascinated by how challenging it can be to make analogies between digital content strategies and the "real world." We organize and retrieve things all the time! My go-to model for information organization is the kitchen, especially when explaining taxonomy and content strategy. (For metadata talks, my go-tos are DNA and Legos.)

Start with this imponderable: Why is it so hard to find things in other people's kitchens? Kitchens should be obvious, because we all have them. Doesn't everybody keep the trash can under the sink? Isn't cutlery always in a waist-high drawer? Don't people keep their drinking glasses and coffee mugs in the same cupboard? Apparently not.

See, we organize our kitchens for ourselves. If we are living alone, we need to put things only where we want them to be. If we are living with others, we do our best when it comes to compromising with home-mates and protecting children from sharps. The things we rarely use go way up high; the things we don't want our kids to get are also up high, or maybe behind a lockable door. Everything else goes where it fits, where we can reach, and near the places we're most likely to use them. Some people put coffee mugs and water glasses together because they do the same thing. For other people, the coffee mugs are near the coffee maker along with a sugar bowl and box of filters. Both of these choices involve organizing by function -- the function of drinking, the function of enjoying coffee -- and yet the results are personal. The kitchen is ours.

A good kitchen-content strategy can turn your kitchen into a place that other people can use, too. This means you have to organize your kitchen in such a way that people can just walk in and find exactly the spoon or other object they need, quickly and without asking. Your personal guidance should become unnecessary, because the kitchen would be intuitively and universally organized. No one will ever open the wrong drawer or door or canister again. Everyone's unique kitchen style will now make perfect and immediate sense to everyone.

Yeah, sure, like everything on the Web.

The truth is that we have to do a tad more. There are three strategies to consider.

  1. Label everything. Every drawer, every cabinet, every appliance, and every countertop object should have a little piece of paper attached to it. The silverware drawer is labeled CUTLERY. The refrigerator is labeled COLD FOOD. ... The problem? This isn't as easy as it sounds. Why do I use the term CUTLERY when everyone says "silverware"? Because the colloquial term doesn't include stainless steel or plastic. And even so, CUTLERY doesn't identify the can opener, twist ties, and napkin rings also in that drawer. And who decides what COLD FOOD means? Do apples go in the fridge or on the counter? Flour, to keep out the moths? Labeling is only as good as your labels. Just as "silverware" is too specific, the label "spoons" is too general. Nobody stores teaspoons, dessert spoons, wooden spoons, slotted spoons, sugar spoons, serving spoons, medicine spoons, antique decorative spoons, and sporks in the same space.
  2. Reorganize. Hey, maybe we should put all spoon-like objects in the same place. Let's pull out our kitchen's contents and reorganize. Plates and platters together. Edible items separate from inedible items. And then label. ... The problem? People don't think like this. You've passive-aggressively sacrificed utility for the sake of academic-style inflexibility: no coffee station, no cooking area, no eating area. Try organizing your entire kitchen according to task, though, and you disallow using an object in more than one way. The same knife can be used to cut food, spread jam, open packages, unfasten screws, and unclog the drain. Your kitchen objects, like words in the English language, are used in many different ways; categorizing them becomes rather subjective. So when that guest comes in looking for fruit, will he find it in the refrigerator, in a bowl, in a can, in a lunch bag, or in the compost? Yes, a thousand times yes.
  3. Redundant placement. If you have many ideas, maybe just use them all. Put a teaspoon in every drawer, on every horizontal surface, in and next to every appliance, in each cabinet, and on every shelf. Now, when someone goes looking for a spoon, it doesn't matter where he thinks the spoon is, because he's right! There's a spoon on top of the microwave, in the Crisper drawer of the refrigerator, and in the sink. By the way, this is how people use search engines, like Google. We create a web page, and then we attach as many keywords as possible. We want to make sure that everyone will find our stuff, no matter where they're looking. In fact, some people want their content discovered even when people aren't looking -- stumbling over spoons everywhere. ... The problem? Well, basically your kitchen is a horrible, disorganized mess. Not only are spoons everywhere, but so is everything else: can openers, slices of bread, dish racks. (And to be truly practical, put multiple items at each location, because sometimes lots of people need spoons simultaneously. :-) 

A good content strategy is really some combination of all of these things, a super-strategy of decent labels, better organization, and as much redundancy as your audience will tolerate. No, it won't be perfect for everyone all the time, but very few people are going to have to open more than one or two drawers until they find what they want. And you can test this, too, by observing people as they go looking for what they need, perhaps even timing them.

In fact, let's do that. I know I have an egg timer somewhere....

Earley Information Science Team

We're passionate about managing data, content, and organizational knowledge. For 25 years, we've supported business outcomes by making information findable, usable, and valuable.