02 Feb 2018 by Elizabeth Gusnoski
Junk Drawers and Spandex: Information Anti-Patterns





Some user experience problems are so obvious, they become clichés. Poor colour choice or unreadable type is hard to ignore. But issues with information architecture can be harder to spot, even when they’re just as common.

Some trouble spots in website information architectures go beyond bad habits and I’m going to call them IA Anti-Patterns, to throw some light onto the problem. Anti-patterns are a concept from software engineering, describing commonly occurring practices that seem right, but end up being ineffective or even damaging. They’re similar to Dark Patterns in UX design, which are tricks used to make people buy or sign up for things they don’t mean to.

Maybe I’m naive, but my hunch is that IA Anti-Patterns aren’t malicious, but unintended consequences of poorly thought out navigation and organizational methods. Here are some common IA Anti-Patterns I’ve come across in working on large web or intranet redesign projects:

Alphabet Soup

When you think about the content in one way, but the site organizes it in another.

Can you imagine shopping at IKEA and finding the furniture placed alphabetically by product names? Arv… Arild… Alang… Arstid.. Arholm… hmmm….

An alphabetized product list. Which of these are for engineers?

An alphabetized product list. Which of these are for engineers?

The stuff of nightmares, unless you knew the exact name you were looking for (Billy bookcase, anyone?). Our mental model usually classifies furniture by room, function or type. Yet sites do this type of thing all the time, by using organizational systems that don’t fit the way users tend to think about information.

Alphabetical lists are great if you are scanning for a specific word (and the site happens to use the word you’re thinking of), but are otherwise really difficult to make sense of.

A mix of categories and types. Point me to the cloth shopping bag department!

A mix of categories and types. Point me to the cloth shopping bag department!

Large organizations made up of many smaller groups tend to fall into the trap of organizing sites by their own internal structures, such as departments or lines of business. Seems like a logical approach, but the trouble is that these dividing lines are arbitrary and subject to change. Site visitors are forced to try to learn this hidden logic, and are often required to know the source of the information (which unit published it) in order to find it.

This is the equivalent of a clothing store that labels some clothing by size and others by type of material, all on the same rack. Medium or spandex, how to decide? (Isn’t the answer always spandex?)Another offense in this anti-pattern is to mix different organizational systems together. This can be done to good effect, but an undifferentiated list takes a lot of mental effort to make sense of.

Choosing an organizational system is a fundamental decision in designing an IA, and will shape structure, navigation and search. It’s not that a scheme is either good or bad, but the fit between the goals of the site, content, and chosen scheme. Some organizing schemes for common web or intranet content:

  • Topic or Subject 
    Useful in many cases — this is how humans tend to think!
  • Task
    Things users can do.
  • Audience or Role
    Group of users who may use a site in a similar way. Can be useful when combined with topics. Used alone they can be confusing, since people can have more than one role.

The Kitchen Sink

Ambiguous or overlapping categories.

Grocery store aisle signs are a great example of information architectures in the wild, and sometimes they’re… weird. In my local grocery store, there’s a sign that simply says “Asian sauces” (condiments are the next aisle over). There’s a whole lot of territory covered by that category. And where the population is more diverse, signs can get much more specific.

H Mart photo: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/tigergirl/)

H Mart photo: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/tigergirl/)

It’s tempting to create a junk drawer to hold content that defies easy categorization. It might be called “other”, “miscellaneous” or something cutesy like “fun stuff”. Until a few years ago, Etsy had an “everything else” category. Considering the unique nature of Etsy items, I can only imagine what ended up in there. FAQs are an example of throwing content into a junk drawer rather than designing it effectively, and usually point to larger usability problems.

The Kitchen Sink anti-pattern also includes categories that are not mutually exclusive. The territory covered by categories should overlap as little as possible. Something may reasonably fit in to more than one category (a chair could be for a living room or bedroom), but there is a clear difference between the categories.

Mark Morris is going to speak to this anti-pattern in his talk “Blank” is better than “other” at World IA Day Edmonton on February 24, 2018. If you’re local, come join us!

Generic labels with lots of overlap. What goes where?

Generic labels with lots of overlap. What goes where?

If you’re left wondering “what goes there?”, you’re probably dealing with ambiguous categories. And if your miscellany bin is stuffed, you’re probably missing some drawers.

Want to learn more about information architecture?

Join me and a bunch of other IA enthusiasts at nForm to celebrate World IA Day Edmonton on February 24, 2018. If you’re not in Edmonton, check out one of the other 56 World IA Day celebrations happening around the world.

This year’s theme is “Information Architecture for Good”.


01 Feb 2018 by Kerryn North

We’re hiring: Digital / User Experience Designer

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07 Feb 2018 by Kerryn North

We’re hiring: Information Architect / User Experience Consultant

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