If you’ve got five thinking hats, I’ve got five hat racks for you!

This isn’t actually a post about Edward de Bono’s Five Thinking Hats, although that’s a fascinating book to describe adopting different modes for different cognitive activities. Once we get out of design week, I hope to come back to this. Part of designing any materials or object is to ensure that the information it represents or makes available is organised in a way that people can use. No textbook of any value is organised along Dadaist principles – semi-random and deliberately nonsensical organisation – they all use well-established idioms like chapters, headings and indexes (indices?) to organise the information and make it more accessible. One of the things I like about the reference I’m using (Universal Principles of Design, Lidwell et all, Revised, 2010) is that all of the design principles are organised alphabetically but, wherever you start, there is a see also section down the bottom that takes you to a conceptually linked entry. You can then, of course, use alphabetical search or the index to then locate it.

According to the Five Thinking Hats principle, there are a limited number of organisational strategies that you can use to organise information. These can be used for just about any application.

  1. Category: We can organise things by their similarity or relatedness. In teaching materials for Computer Science, we often group similar programming concepts together – loops with loops, conditionals with conditionals. Most texts are going to use categorisation to minimise the cognitive load of context switching from one area to another, and having to remember what you read before. Will your students try to search out things by category? Probably – that’s how their access to your college’s web site handles their enrolment details, most likely, by grouping all relevant courses into a common category. But why not tag all materials relevant to Assignment 2 under a search item ‘stuff for Assignment 2’? That’s an easy use of categorisation.
  2. Time: Lecture recordings are a natural fit for time-based organisation because they present a set of events that are dependent upon each other and evolve over time. Yes, you could put them into a folder sorted by lecture name but, unless your lectures are really not connected at all, no-one is going to thank you for that. Schedules and historical timelines are also fairly obvious candidates for temporal strategies.
  3. Location: Grouping things by their geographical or spatial reference helps people successfully orient themselves to work with your materials. While it may seem that this is of little use to people who aren’t teaching geography, what about making a clear distinction between things that students need for lectures and those that they need for tutorials or practicals? Wherever your students are – what do they need when they get there? Is it clearly identified wherever your materials are or do they need to search through everything to find out what they need?
  4. Alphabet:  You didn’t think I’d leave this one out did you? The alphabet is always a good fallback when people will be using your work as a reference and not reading it sequentially, or you want to be able to leap around the work efficiently. If you can’t think of any other way – go for the alphabet. Of course, this assumes that whoever reading your work is familiar with your alphabet. This must be a consideration if you’re working with people who have your language as their second, or third, language.
  5. Continuum: Some things can be grouped by their magnitude – students are all familiar with this if you’ve ever posted a list of grades from top to bottom, rather than by ID. Best to worst, highest to lowest, largest to smallest. This kind of organisation can be handy for electronic materials where you have a variety of recording types and some produce larger files. Providing a list to students can be organised by type or by size. If you know that students prefer the smaller, faster to download, ones, sort to put them up there first. If you’re comparing things across one key measure, think about how you could group along that measure to make the information easier to access.

Now, this may explain why I try to put these blog posts into some sort of context by talking about ‘opinion’ and ‘design’ as weekly themes. The posts are already ordered by time but I add a categorical overview because the actual categories and tags are used for people finding these posts, not necessarily for people who are already reading my blog. This loose organisation, that I usually make at least an oblique reference to at the start of each post, helps you to categorise the information in the post. How do you group your ideas and materials?

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