Classifying people – a dilemma between access and agenda

10 Mar

Obviously we do this all the time – with careers as our focus, we tend to define people by their job when we want to present their stories and expertise to students. But when we created an online careers resource for diversity and equal opps and it seemed the first point of interest to users would be the disability/disadvantage/difference – let’s stick with the site’s term “barrier” – that they had to overcome, which suggested classifying and arranging this material by that barrier. Of course that would mean emphasising the barrier over the achievement, defining the person by their barrier not by their work as we do for everyone else, and therein lies the problem.

David Blunkett with guide dog Ruby... in lego

Blind man or politician?

Putting the barrier first feels so contrary to not only diversity sensitivities, but also the whole message of the site. We want to say that you can move beyond your barriers, that they shouldn’t restrict and determine your career. We want to say that you can choose and build your own identity, that David Blunkett is not “a blind man from a poor background who has done well”, rather that he is a politician first and foremost whose work defines him in just the same way as everyone else.

Our solution so far has been to kind of mix the two together – creating a list of stories with long headings like “Mature Student becomes City Solicitor” so both aspects, barrier and career, are represented. It is not a good solution. It is okay while we still only have a few stories – it is possible to skim the list for words of interest – but it is not very friendly for dyslexic or ADHD users to have to trawl through disorganised long titles, and it will only get rapidly worse.

Another mixed option would be to use tags/keywords and just put a tag cloud on the page so users can select ‘blind’ or ‘politician’ and bring related stories. The trouble is, last time we based retrieval around a tag cloud alone we discovered many users were unfamiliar with this and needed help. We really need this diversity site to be intuitive and easy to use above all, and hierarchical classifications and lists are more familiar.

About Face book coverI wondered what our contributors would think – would they feel irritated at being put in a box labelled ‘deaf’ over everything else, or would they feel ‘being deaf is a key part of my identity and I want to help other deaf students’ so barrier first is fine? I am reading a book About Face at the moment, and it gives descriptions of the experiences of blind people in communicating. The contrast between those born blind, and those who experience it later in life is marked. In particular, those born blind seem more comfortable with blindness as an identity, whereas those who experience it later feel it more as an impairment and loss. In which case, different contributors will have different opinions about what should come first.

Why worry so much about what contributors will think? Surely it is down to the students – what will they expect to use? If we were talking about books or links, it would be a different matter, but in trying to classify people’s stories and lives the designation is much more significant. More than making some political point about overcoming barriers, it feels like a point of respect – if we are going to offer up people’s lives, we should do so in ways that are consistent with their outlooks.

Then, of course, in thinking about what students would want to use, I realised my assumption that they would seek information on their own barrier first may false. For a blind student wanting to go into law, let’s assume their first choice would be an identical match of circumstances, but for their second preference would they go for a story about a blind person in accountancy or a deaf person in law? Not a clear answer, maybe both?

So I feel left in a situation with neither a clear idea of what users would prefer, nor what would be truest to the contributors.There seems a strong case for classifying twice – put in two lists, one by barrier, one by career – and link to the same stories from both. But again, is that unfamiliar organisation confusing for users, with stories appearing twice over? I’m confused. People just don’t classify well do they?

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2 Responses to “Classifying people – a dilemma between access and agenda”

  1. David Winter March 10, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

    Interesting dilemma.

    The tagging option would be the most flexible solution but I think tag clouds only work when you have lots of people creating the tags so that you get crowd wisdom. Even then it’s only good for finding common-denominator, popular topics. It’s a lot less efficient than an old-fashioned hierarchical directory if you are looking for something specific and unusual.

    The dual classification system could work as long as the choice was clearly presented. ‘Do you want to find start by finding examples relating to the BARRIER you face or the CAREER GOAL you want to pursue?’ As long as you could apply the second category to filter the first at a later stage, that could work.

    Another possibility is to use something completely different. Each person seeking to overcome a barrier has a number of NEEDS. Those needs might be specific to a particular barrier or a particular career goal or they might be common across barriers and career goals. Needs might include such things as:
    ‘I need to find contacts in a particular industry’
    ‘I need to know my rights’
    ‘I need to understand how people will view my application’
    ‘I need to know that it’s possible for me to do what I want’
    Etc.

    The stories could be categorised according to which need they provided information on (as well as the barriers and occupations they related to).

    Oops, I might’ve just turned your dilemma into a trilemma!

    Have you seen the http://www.ted.com/ interface, that might provide some inspiration?

  2. helencurry March 11, 2010 at 10:21 am #

    Thanks for the ideas David – the way you describe the setup for the dual classification access reminds me of the London Mayor’s site http://www.london.gov.uk/graduates/ where you can start out from either what degree you have or what career you want to explore. By putting just a couple of questions up first then generating a list of titles afterwards that would help avoid that initial overwhelming page of long text titles. Sounds very doable.

    The needs based approach is also exciting – allowing users to tell us what they expect from the site. My only concern is that on the C2 website I don’t find that approach quite works – perhaps because it builds in an extra page and an extra read and click before you get to what you really want. I can see it working better in this context though.

    The TED interface is great – only problem, we don’t have any pictures! The stories are anonymous so we don’t have author photos. We could definitely get creative about that, and it would enrich the site, but that could be whole extra level of work!

    Definitely getting some ideas to discuss with the Reach team now…

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