By Emily Paul, December 2014.
Overview. The New Press, a nonprofit book publisher with approximately 1,000 published titles, roughly 800 of which are actively in print and featured on the website, updated its book categories for use on thenewpress.com as part of a website redesign. Rather than fully adhering to an established book classification system, such as BISAC, which is commonly used in book retail, The New Press developed its own classification system. In addition to the standard goal of allowing readers to browse categories, this classification system is designed to represent the press’s focus and mission. The New Press classification system employs a mix of principles and levels of granularity while incorporating some elements of the institutional categories from BISAC.
In order to gain some insight into how these dual goals affect usability, I ran user tests on a mockup of the website with the proposed categories. I conducted a think-aloud exercise in which the users verbalized their thoughts as they browsed through the categories and subcategories. I then asked the users to walk through where they would go for a particular book in response to a prompt from me that included the book’s title, subtitle, and a brief description. Lastly, I asked the users about what their impressions were of The New Press after looking at the categories, whether they were confused by the categories, and which categories they would be interested in looking at if they visited the site.
What is being organized? The resource being organized is the digital presence of the books on thenewpress.com. The classification system is only used on The New Press website and is stored in a FileMaker database that pushes data to the website. There is already a dedicated website classification system that this new system builds on. It is worth noting that the book records in the database also contain BISAC categories. These are entered so that they can be sent out to distribution and bookseller feeds that require the industry-standard categories. The BISAC categories are institutional categories created by the Book Industry Standards Group. The BISAC system is designed to reflect the interests and understanding of general readers. As such, the BISAC categories are informed by cultural categories and also influence cultural categories because of their broad adoption in the book industry. In addition to using some institutional categories from BISAC and mainstream cultural categories, The New Press is using cultural categories from specific groups, namely academics and political progressives, to connect with specific readers.
Why is it being organized? The books are being categorized to facilitate browsing by readers and supporters on The New Press website. In addition to the primary browsing interaction, the categories are also being used as an opportunity to position The New Press and to convey a sense of its mission.
How much is it being organized? For the purposes of The New Press website, books can be placed in multiple categories and subcategories, but all books will have at least one category designation. Because The New Press is not concerned with the physical presentation of the resources, the books can be placed in as many categories as are relevant. In contrast, library and bookstore classifications need to satisfy the uniqueness principle, because the book can only be located in one physical location.
Most of the categories are based on the subject matter of the books. A book’s subject matter is an intrinsic static property because it does not change once it is published. However, the categories used to describe this subject matter may change over time as new categories are added to the classification system and retroactively assigned to previously published books. The book subject categories can generally be thought of as extrinsic and static because the threshold for changing them is higher than it is for more dynamic properties such as Current Season, Next Season, and Bestsellers. These categories are also included on the site in a separate section and are all extrinsic, dynamic properties because they are based either on time or sales, rather than intrinsic properties of the books.
The New Press classification system includes hierarchical categories, though only the subjects in which the press publishes more extensively have subcategories. In areas for which there are more books, the organization can be more granular without creating a subcategory that contains only one or a few books. Additionally, the greater institutional knowledge of the subject area enables the staff to make more specific distinctions within the broader subject category. One of the questions I explored in my user testing was whether these differentiations are necessary to support users’ interactions with the books. If the users do not share the same level of knowledge in the subject it may not be useful, and may even diminish usability, to differentiate at the level of granularity provided by the subcategories.
Even at the top category level, there is a range of granularity and also a range of principles embodied in the categories. For example, History and Immigration are both top-level categories, but Immigration covers a more specific group of topics than History does. Most categories are based on the subject of the books, but there are several top-level categories based on other principles. These include Graphic Nonfiction, which refers to format; Primary Source Documents, which refers to the source material; and Biography, which refers to the genre of the book but does not express anything about its subject matter beyond the fact that it is about someone’s life. Mixing category principles can be useful, particularly in a faceted system, which allows users to combine different categories to increase precision. In a faceted version of this system, a user could select Biography and Law in order to find biographies written about a judge or lawyer. Because books are assigned to all relevant categories in this system, this interaction is feasible at the logic level even though the current presentation does not allow it. If The New Press wanted to switch to a faceted presentation it would likely visually separate the categories into blocks based on the principles, so that users knew which facets they could pivot their searches on. This might include creating a genre section with Biography, Oral History, and Primary Source Documents as well as a geography section with the subcategories from World.
When is it being organized? Once the updated categories are finalized, all previously published books will be reviewed and assigned to new categories as necessary. Going forward, new books will be categorized on a seasonal basis and new categories may occasionally be assigned to previously published books on an ad hoc basis (this could be due to previous oversight in not assigning the category, or to the creation of a new category or subcategory). This system is flexible because books can be assigned to all relevant categories, so the introduction of a new category does not mean that all previous assignments will need to be changed. The subcategories also allow for flexibility because if one of these categories becomes more important over time, it can be changed at the presentation layer to a top-level category with minimal effort.
How or by whom is it being organized? The sales, marketing, and inventory manager assigns the categories, with input from the editorial and marketing teams. From time to time other departments, such as fundraising or publicity, may suggest a new category or category assignment for consideration. The categories are assigned in a FileMaker database in which the categories can be selected from a list of existing categories and subcategories. The category assignments in the FileMaker database are pushed to the website along with other book data.
Other considerations. Creating a classification system that can be widely understood is difficult to do. In this case, simplifying the system would support The New Press’s goal of reaching a broad audience of readers. User testing revealed that the current category system may be hindering this because of issues with semantics, granularity, and structure. The structural issues are the most important to address because the inconsistent use of subcategories generated significant confusion during the user testing. By removing the subcategories and instead allowing expert users or those who know exactly what they are looking for to use search, the press could maximize the categories’ relevance for general readers. This could be strengthened by an emphasis on using relevant keywords in the book descriptions that support searching. Despite some initial surprise from the test users about certain unusual top-level categories, I would argue that after simplifying other aspects of the system, the press could successfully keep some of these in order to represent its publishing areas and connect with like-minded readers. For example, Immigration and Criminal Justice are not top-level BISAC categories, but are easily understood by general readers and serve to highlight these important areas for The New Press. Biases in classification systems are unavoidable. While this can be negative, particularly when the organizers are not aware of the biases, it can also be harnessed positively and used to communicate a sense of the organization and its values. This needs to be approached thoughtfully and carefully and tested on users to understand how people outside the organization will interact with the system.