IA Summit: Women, Fire & Dangerous Things

by Luke Wroblewski March 26, 2006

Donna Maurer presented what every information architect should know about Lakoff's 'Women, Fire & Dangerous Things' at IA Summit 2006. The book is subtitled “What Categories Reveal about the Mind” and it discusses how categories are central to how we think within and conceive of the world. Without categories, we would not be able to cope with amount of detail in our daily lives.

Classical Categorization Theory

  • Categories are abstract containers with things either inside or outside of the container
  • Things only are within a category if they have properties in common
  • Categories have clear boundaries
  • Categories are defined by the common properties of their members
  • Categories are independent of any people doing the categorization
  • No member in a category has special status
  • All levels of a category are important and equivalent

Prototype Effects

  • Prototypical examples within a category that are more representative of a category than other members
  • Are abundant in the real world
  • Prototype effects are superficial phenomena effects which may have many sources

Challenges to Classical Categorization Theory

  • Family Resemblance: category members may be related to one another without all having properties in common (games)
  • Some categories have degrees of membership and no clear boundaries (number, tall men)
  • Generativity: categories can be defined by a generator plus rules
  • Metonymy: some subcategory or submodel is used to comprehend the category (stereotypes)
  • Ideals: many categories are understood in terms of abstract ideal cases, which may not be typical
  • Radial categories: central subcategory role

Basic Level

  • Categories are organized from most general to most specific. But there is a basic level somewhere in the middle of a hierarchy.
  • This cognitively basic level is learned the earliest, usually has a short name, and is used frequently.
  • Basic levels are the highest level at which single mental image can reflect a category.
  • There is no definitive basic level for a hierarchy –it really depends on audience
  • Most of our knowledge is organized around basic level categories

Why is this important to us?

  • Classical categorization is built into computer systems: but we can't find anything because classical categorization doesn't match the real world.
  • Prototype effects enable us to recognize that the world is messy -things cross over categories.
  • Miscellaneous/everything else categories are cognitively real just not easy to use as navigation.
  • Prototypical examples are useful when communicating as they represent a category well.
  • Less prototypical examples can used to be describe edge cases
  • Categories don't have boundaries
  • We can work from the middle out by starting with basic levels of categorization.
  • Because they can be identified quickly (short and frequently utilized) basic levels have a good scent. They make good trigger words.
  • Try getting people to the basic level of the hierarchy as soon as possible
  • Are tags basic level?

David Weinberger has more about this talk.