If you are between the ages of 5 and 60 and grew up with a television in the US, you probably will know what I mean if I say, “One of these things is not like the other.” This was (is) a favorite snippet from the popular children’s show Sesame Street. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you can view an example at the Sesame Street website. The Sesame Street lessons teach young children how to notice differences, and how to to categorize.
Categorizing develops around age 7 — Interestingly, it’s probably unnecessary, and perhaps even ineffective, to try and teach young children how to create categories for two reasons:
- People naturally create categories. Just like learning a native language happens naturally, so does learning to categorize the world around us.
- Categorizing doesn’t emerge as a skill until about age 7. Younger than 7, and certainly younger than 5, thinking about categories just doesn’t make sense to children. After the age of 7, however, people become fascinated with categorizing information.
If you don’t give people categories they will create their own — Just as the visual cortex will impose patterns on what we see, whether there are really patterns there or not (see the post on patterns), people will impose categories when they are confronted with large amounts of information. People use categorization as a way to make sense of what is around them, especially when they feel overwhelmed with information.
Self-organized vs. other-organized — While working on my master’s thesis at Pennsylvania State University, I conducted research on whether people would remember information better if it was organized by other people, or whether they would remember it better if they organized it themselves. What I found was that it didn’t really matter. What mattered most was how well it was organized. The more organized the information the better people remembered it. Some people (those who measured high on “locus of control” measures) preferred to organize the information in their own way, but self vs. other organization schemes did not really matter as long as the information was well organized.
What do you think? Are you one of the people who prefer to organize information into your own categories? Do you appreciate it when a website is well-organized? If you are a website designer, do you spend enough time figuring out how to best organize the information? Do you use techniques like card sorting to work through different organization strategies with your target audience?