Beware Your Inner Lumper


“What size shoe you wear?” a guy asks me over his shoulder as he glides by in the crowded ski shop. “How long you want 'em for?” a different guy shouts from the far wall by the rental snowboards. “Uh, I’m not sure,” I stammer, “I wanted to ...” A third guy steers me over to a counter and tells me to look forward and stand up straight with my feet together.

“Okay?” he asks.

“Huh? Was I supposed to ...” I’m saying as he pushes me in the small of the back. Lightly, like you’d tap a helium balloon. I stumble, taking a half step forward with my right foot.

“Goofy foot!” the guy calls out.

And that was it: I was a goofy foot snowboarder. Or to be more accurate, I’ve been a goofy foot my whole life, I just didn’t know it. It means that almost every time you surprise me with a push in the back, I’ll put my right foot forward. Some people almost always put their left foot forward. We all have things like that, things about us that are either one way or another. And those things can be just as hidden to us as my goofy-footedness was to me.

User experience professionals, especially information architects, deal with categorization quite a bit. This area of the Web site is like that other area, we decide, but both are unlike this third area. And we use card sorting and other tools to investigate how information is already organized inside our users’ heads. I always assumed that what we were doing with this kind of work was to weigh the various ways things could be categorized before making our informed and well-reasoned decisions. Then I heard an NPR broadcast where a guy explained how scientists name new species and now I’m not so sure.

See, the naming of a species is more of a hypothesis about the evolutionary relationships of organisms than anything else and each newly discovered organism is a test of that hypothesis. Before today’s instantaneous communication, isolated scientists sometimes gave different names to the same organism. A scientist who was a “Lumper” might ignore minor variations and jam an organism into a big group, while a “Splitter” hundreds of miles away would focus on the variations and sub-divide an existing category. These folks so consistently grouped organisms one way or the other that it defined them professionally.

The implication in all of this is that how we organize things isn’t just philosophical, that most of us are born either as Lumpers or Splitters and we won’t change over the course of our lives. Looking back on the solutions I’ve offered up over the years, I don’t think I’m a Splitter. I thought I was driving towards simplicity, but maybe all I was really doing was dancing to the tune of my inner Lumper. Lumping can lead to overly simplistic categories while the Splitter’s approach can result in fussy categories that ignore underlying similarities.

If a bunch of big-brained scientists who live and breath their work for decades can’t transcend their Lumperness or their Splitterness, how can I expect UX professionals not to be dominated by their own genetic wiring? And how can I recruit users without accidently stacking the testing with a majority of one or the other of the two groups?

I think the answer is to be keenly aware of our tendencies, but not to waste any effort trying to retrain them. We need to trust that our taxonomies are based on sound, if not completely objective reasoning. Like the naming of species, the way we organize a product’s labels and content is a hypothesis. When we can clearly identify our most important users’ most important goals, the satisfaction of those goals become the best test of the hypothesis. Simply: Does our organization of content help the user get done what they want to get done?

No matter how skewed we were in the hypothesis’ first draft, the closer we get to satisfying user goals, the closer we’ll get to a Lumper/Splitter agnostic taxonomy.