A cognitive analysis of tagging

(or how the lower cognitive cost of tagging makes it popular)

At the start, let me confess that I struggled with this topic. From my first encounter with tagging (on systems such as del.icio.us & flickr), I could feel how easy it was to tag. But it took me a while to understand the cognitive processes at work. What follows is Rashmi’s theory of tagging – my hypothesis about the cognitive process that kicks into place when we tag an item, and how this differs than the process of categorizing. In doing so, my hope is to explain the increasing popularity of tagging, and offer some ideas regarding the design of tagging / categorization systems.

My ideas are mostly based on my observations about how people tag and relating it to on academic research in cognitive psychology and anthropology. This is a first version, which I expect to revise as I learn more. Feedback is very welcome.

The rapid growth of tagging(1)in the last year is testament to how easy and enjoyable people find the tagging process. The question is how to explain it at the cognitive level. In search for a cognitive explanation of tagging, I went back to my dusty cognitive psychology textbooks. This is what I learnt.(2)

cognitive analysis of tagging

Categorization is a 2-stage process.

Stage 1: Related Category Activation The first stage is the computation of similarity between the item and candidate concepts. For example, I come across the book “Snowcrash” in my library. Immediately a number of related semantic concepts get activated: “book”, “science fiction”, “Neal Stephenson”, “Zodiac”. Other concepts might be more personal; e.g., “favorite author”, “airplane trip”. Still other concepts activated might be more about the physical characteristics, e.g., “paperback”, “bad condition”.

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BayCHI panel on User Research on October 11th

cognitive analysis of taggingFor the next BayCHI panel we are focusing on User Research – or the initial understanding of the user – their needs, mental models, preferences, the usage context – leading upto the product conceptualization.

We have a great set of panelists who work in User Research at four Bay Area companies. Their experiences cover a broad range of products and markets. Panelists are Klaus Kaasgaard, Senior Director of User Experience at Yahoo!, Christian Rohrer, Director of User Experience Research at eBay, Sheryl Ehrlich, Senior User Research Manager at Adobe Systems, and Kaaren Hanson Director of User Experience at Intuit. I will be moderating this panel.

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Google Blog search: Its a good start

A friend just sent me a link to Google Blog Search, and I spent some time looking at it. My first reaction: its about time that Google added in Blog Search. They have been building product after product, and ignoring something that is their core competency.

In the meantime, too many results from blogs often made web search difficult to wade through. There are two search situations – sometimes I want to search the web, find the most relevant item from results all over the web. At such times, I don’t want blog results – what some blogger said, just because its recent.

At other times, I want to find recent conversation about the topic. It should be relevant, but recency is more important. At such times, I want blog results.

In neither case could Google get me what I wanted – for a web search, the results were too influenced by blogs and recency. For a blog search, it was not sensitive enough to recency.

Which is why its great that at last Google has introduced “Blog Search“.

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The new blog tracking tool: Memeorandum

Memeorandum, launched today offers blog tracking by topics. Currently, it only covers tech and politics blogs. You can read more about the service at the blog of the creator Gabe RIvera here, or read a review by Robert Scoble here.

The screenshot below shows its coverage of the eBay-skype story.


Gabe says that the goal is to recognize the web as editor: “… there are rather large communities of knowledgeable, sophisticated commentators, … signaling in real time what’s worthy of wider discussion. I want memeorandum to tap this signal.”

Also, he talks about “relating the conversation”. “Communication on the web naturally tends toward conversation”, and Gabe wanted to make sure that Memeorandum recognized this conversation.

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BayCHI talk today: Doug Kaye & Dan Klass on Podcasting

Interested in podcasting? Love IT Conversations? Come by to BayCHI tonight to hear Doug Kaye (from IT Conversations) and Dan Klass (from Bitterist Pill) talk about Podcasting.

Doug Kaye will talk about IT Conversations and whether podcasting is a Media Evolution or a Media Revolution. Dan Klass will speak about the entire range of issues he’s faced in becoming a widely reviewed podcaster.

As usual, the program will be at 7.30 PM, at PARC, Palo Alto. There is still time to let us know if you can join us for dinner before the talk at Chu Chu’s in Los Altos.

Of running and sprained ankles

I have been getting more and more into running recently. Mostly I go along Stevens Creek, slowly increasing the number of miles I run. Yesterday was my first real running injury – the left ankle is pretty badly sprained. So, I am immobile for the time being, which has its brighter side – I cannot make it to the office or to any meetings! Its going to be a weekend of books and web surfing – I am finally getting around to reading Wisdom of Crowds, and just started with Martin Amis’s Money.

Should you finalize site structure based on card-sorting?

card sorting image
The latest article from StepTwo raises an interesting question – should you finalize site structure based on sorting, or other types of classification exercises?

Broadly I agree – site structure cannot be final final till you consider page layout and other aspects of the design. Card-sorting results are merely suggestions. You need to add in other design and business considerations.

But the problems with creating structures based on card-sorting, mentioned in the article, are not really problems with card-sorting. The problems are more with half-baked understanding or usage of the technique. For example, the article mentions that browser pages cannot accommodate too many top-level headings, long titles etc., and how this impacts structural decisions. But these and other issues can easily be handled with good card-sorting practices and more better analysis.

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