39 Connecting WHAT, WHY, and HOW when Designing an Organizing System

As you saw in previous lessons, you design or analyze an organizing system by answering three interconnected questions about WHAT, WHY and HOW.  In this lesson we will dig a little deeper to teach you some more skills for answering these questions.

Answering the WHAT question – Defining the SCOPE of the Organizing System

You should always start with the “WHAT are you organizing” question.  You might be given some collection of resources to organize, or you might be told to select some things to create a collection, but in either case you need to decide if the collection of resources makes sense.  You wouldn’t create an organizing system that contains your Halloween candy and your school supplies (like notebooks, pens, paper) because there are no reasons for organizing both kinds of resources together.

On the other hand, even though utensils, dishes, and pots and pans are different types of resources, when you organize your kitchen you need to consider them as part of a single organizing system because they are used together when you prepare and eat food.   Similarly, it makes sense to create an organizing system for your school work where you have a separate folder or notebook for each subject that contains all of the different things you do.  And it then helps to create sections for reading notes, assignments, and other types of school work within each folder or notebook.

Another part of answering the WHAT question is deciding if you are just organizing the resources you start with, or whether you are going to accommodate additional resources if you collect more of them in the future.  This sub-question asks you to decide about the lifetime or lifecycle of the organizing system.  Your Halloween candy will be gone in a few weeks, but you will have clothes in your closet for years, and you’ll be continually adding and getting rid of clothes the whole time.  If you were organizing your books in your bedroom, you would probably want to get a bookcase that had some room for new books.

Answering the WHY question – Identifying the Reasons for the Organizing System

Once you’ve scoped the collection of resources you should answer the WHY question — what are the reasons for organizing them? When the resources you’re organizing are tangible or physical things, there are some obvious reasons that always apply – you need to be able to store them efficiently and you need to be able to find them when you need to use them.  You might have identified some other reasons when you were answering the WHAT question, but it is better to answer WHY as a separate question.   And to do that, we need to break up WHY into a set of sub-questions.

The most important sub-question that helps you identify the WHY of an organizing system is “WHO are its users?” If you are the only user of the system you are designing, you just “ask yourself” about what you need to do with the resources and you can then answer the HOW question in ways that enable you to do those things.  But if the system has many users, and especially if you aren’t sure who all the users might be, it is much harder to design the organizing system because users might have different preferences and reasons about it.

For example, suppose you have a twin and you share a bedroom.  Do you think you would always agree on how to organize your books, toys, or other things in the bedroom? Maybe you have some favorite books and toys and you want to be always able to see them because they give you good memories.  Even if your twin had the same reason in mind, they might have different favorites.  But more likely your twin would have other reasons for organizing books and toys, like being able to quickly find any particular one.

Answering the HOW question – Applying the Organizing Principles to the System

By now you can see that WHAT and WHY are interconnected design questions, and now we’ll see that HOW is also interconnected.

There are two very different ways of thinking about the HOW question.   If we answer the WHAT question first, then WHY, we answer HOW by choosing organizing principles that arrange the resources in ways satisfy the WHY reasons. If you want to be able to quickly find a movie in a collection of DVDs, arranging them with their titles in alphabetical order is an effective principle.   If you have a large collection of stuffed animals, organizing them in categories of similar animals like “farm animals,” “zoo animals,” and “water creatures” is a good organizing principle.

A second way of using the HOW question to design an organizing system goes in the other direction.  Some types of resources have properties or features that almost scream “use these features to organize me.”   Think about Lego blocks… it is almost impossible not to consider using their color, size, and shape to organize them.  Once you listen to the resources in that way, it forces the answers to the WHY question to be “so I can select resources that have these properties.”

There is another way in which the properties or features of resources influence how we organize them.  Sometimes when you are collecting or selecting the resources you need to organize, you find some information about them that suggests an organizing principle.  For example, when a digital photo gets taken, the time and location is attached to it.  You don’t see this information when you view a photo, but photo apps use it to sort your  time and can easily sort them by location.

Most of the time, however, there are many choices about the reasons for organizing resources and which resource properties can be used to organize them.  Think about the kids in your classroom…  how many different reasons are there for organizing them and how many different ways of describing each kid could be used to do that?

When a group of people need to work together on a project or otherwise work as a team,  there may be similar disagreements about the WHY and HOW of the organizing system.   Some people want to practice their current skills and some people want to learn new ones.  Some people think it is best to do the hard tasks first, while other people like to do easy tasks first to show some progress.

Tradeoffs in Answering the Design Questions

An example will help you better understand how the answers to the three design questions are interconnected.  Here are two pictures of the recycling bins that are the first steps in the organizing system for recycling materials of various types.  The bin on the left requires people to sort things to be recycled into six categories.   The bin on the right uses only one category for recycling.  Which organizing system is easier to use?  Which system will result in more recycling?


We might say that the WHY answer for the organizing system with six categories is that it wants to maximize the amount of recycling, but to do that it has to use more input categories – the answer to HOW  – so people have to think harder making sorting decisions than people who use just one bin for all recycling.  But if you consider the people who unpack the Trash and Recycle bins as another category of users, then you realize that the sorting decisions don’t go away, they just get postponed for the recycling workers to do them.



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"The Discipline of Organizing" for Kids Copyright © 2022 by Robert J Glushko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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