What the Frick is a “Tag”?

Recently, I made the argument to a client that, while tags are great for flexible organization and folksnomies, the typical user simply wouldn’t get it. I argued that folders – a clear and well-established metaphor for organizing information assets – was a far simpler concept for typical users to grasp.

Just recently, the My Jeeves team was faced with a similar dilemma: how do you get users going on tagging without running into a sharp learning curve. Their solution came down to labelling – they toyed around with “topics,” but that didn’t fly and eventually settled on “Virtual Folders.” Though after playing with their interface, it looks more like a mixture of folders and tags (in my opinion, just as confusing).

This issue raises some important questions and should serve as a lesson to product managers and designers: don’t lose sight of the prerequisite knowledge of the typical user. There are few things that have a more immediate negative impact on a user’s first experience than a concept or a feature that they don’t get quickly. It’s our job to try to step inside their skin and take a good, educated guess of what they already understand and how we can leverage that.

Sites like Yahoo’s Web 2.0 and My Jeeves have the biggest challenge because their audience base is so wide and varied. For most of us, if we look carefully enough, we can often draw a fairly decent picture of the typical user’s mindset and work from there.

In my opinion, while there are some great experiments happening on the Internet – RSS, tagging, etc. – none have been nailed down such that the rest of the world can take them and run. This is not a technology challenge, it’s an experience design challenge.

3 Comments What the Frick is a “Tag”?

  1. Mike

    You are dead on! Lots of people always ask: “What is tagging?” The concept is so easy and yet so hard to graps the first time. We have decided to go with the angle of saying that a tag is nothing but a mental note to yourself.
    Given your interest and passion in the space would love it if you checked out our brand new site (www.BlinkList.com). We are eager to learn on how to keep making our site better and better. I think we have some cool ideas on making tagging easier to understand (like our tag manager and tag channels). However, we are not yet there.
    Let me know if you get the chance to check out our site. have a nice weekend!
    Mike

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  2. Otis

    In its simplest form, tags are nothing more but keywords to help you retrieve an item (bookmark, photo, note, whatever) later.
    A good example of such use can be seen in this Tag Cloud:
    http://simpy.com/simpy/Tags.do?username=otis
    Another way of using tags is as a labeling or annotating tool, where you limit your total tags to a smaller set, and then just pick tags from that set for any new tagged item.
    A good example of label/annotation tag mode is this:
    http://simpy.com/simpy/Tags.do?username=plosson
    (For the record, I’m Simpy’s padre)

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