Splitting Tigers, Lumping Rabbits

Rachel Lovinger   April 15, 2009

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Don’t fall for this myth mis-categorization so quickly. (image via lairweb)

Sometimes people ask, “Can you teach me how to categorize things?” and I’m never quite sure how to approach that. How do you teach someone to do something that seems like second nature? I think everyone already has the basic, underlying skills required. At its core, categorization is about lumping similar things together into a group and splitting distinctly different things into separate groups. These are skills that nearly every child learns during early development.

You can see it as they learn to speak and make early mistakes. For example, when a young child first learns the word “bunny,” she quickly figures out that “bunny” represents multiple individual objects (unlike the word “mommy,” which she uses to refer to one unique person in her life). But for a brief time she will misapply the word bunny to anything white and fluffy. She is lumping in many things that aren’t bunnies, but through trial and error she will learn to split off the things that don’t qualify.

So do people lose the ability to do this? It’s a fundamental aspect of developmental psychology – I don’t think we’d be able to communicate effectively without this skill. My theory is that people just lack confidence that the categories they come up with will be effective and will make sense to others. My best piece of advice is this: You just need to find the right balance between lumping and splitting.

Too much lumping will result in categories that are vague and meaningless. Too much splitting will lead to fine distinctions that are confusing, and the number of categories will become unwieldy. There’s no “magic number,” but take a cue from the scale of the groups. Ideally each of the categories should contain a similar number of items. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same number, but you don’t want one category to have 5 items and another to have 500. If your organization scheme is out of balance like that, try splitting up the larger groups, and lumping some of the smaller, related groups together.

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6 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    Very Interesting Info.

  2. Lizzie says:

    Your post reminds me of my never-ending quest to make my quicken categories work for me, not to mention trying to make file the tons of paper all over my desk (different clients, different work for the clients, you get the picture). It’s not a pretty sight…

    Been reading some various pieces on the whole human behavior/psychology aspects of human nature lately, including “Dominance & Delusion,” by M.A. Curtis, which looks into, as the title says, “Why We Do the Things we Do.” Very interesting take on various topics — I learned a lot about how we got to where we are today. Now if I could just get myself to where I’m organized today, I’d be all set!

  3. TobiJo says:

    Rachel, I like this principle. Could you come up with a list of principles like this? It would be great to have a short list of best practices for categorization. I have several books on categorization/classification and they get way to heady way too fast. You made this lumping/splitting thing easy to understand.

    Maybe also worth clarifying if you think categories are “one size fits all” or if amount of splitting or lumping depends on the audience. Maybe botanists and content strategists would love 500 categories, while other specific audiences would like fewer?

  4. Sounds like a good topic for a future post!

  5. nick heasman says:

    incredibly awesome picture

    also, nice neat entry, too, as TobiJo indicates

  6. […] At its core, categorization is about lumping similar things together into a group and splitting distinctly different things into separate groups.via Splitting Tigers, Lumping Rabbits – Scatter/Gather: a Razorfish blog about content strategy, p… […]

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