The innovative School of Everything offers a great chance to learn from others like you. 

But will its combination of user-generated and company-generated navigation help or hinder findability in the long run?

The other night I went to the official launch of an exciting new site called the School of Everything, which has been in beta for a few months. 

Best described as ‘the Ebay of Learning’, the School of Everything is a marketplace / meeting point for people who have something to teach and those that want to learn. 

Educational matchmaking spiced up with a touch of social networking, the School is such a deceptively simple idea that you wonder why someone hasn’t done it before, and I predict that it will be a great success. 

Backed by Channel 4 Education, among others, it is growing at a rapid rate and has the potential to snowball through a natural viral buzz around the service from enthusiastic learners and teachers. 

The other thing that intrigued me when they showed the site was the format of the navigation when you delve into the categories of topics available to learn. 

It is one of the few sites I have come across where the information architecture is based on both a traditional top down categorisation created by the company / organisation, containing sub categories created by the users themselves (bottom up tag clouds based on the number of people offering to teach a certain topic). 

As shown in the image, there are standard categories such as Arts & Craft, Driving & Transport, Environment etc. 

Under those are tag clouds with topics relatively-sized according to the number of teachers (Photoshop is larger than oil painting for example). There is already a tag cloud for the popular topics at the side of the page by the way.

tag cloud

Perhaps problematically, some subtopics are listed under more than one main category. Driving, for instance, is under both Work & Business and also Driving & Transport. Yoga is listed under Mind, Body & Spirit and also Home & Lifestyle and also Sport & Fitness. There are many examples of this cross categorisation of the specific topics. 

The School is not unique in doing this – Ebay does this in their suggestion of categories, although the taxonomy they support is more complex and multi level. But there is a potential downside to this type of information architecture.

In many usability tests I have seen, users become confused by polyhierarchical placement as it causes a dilemma – is the Sports & Fitness yoga different, or better than the other two? 

Why is it in two different places? Suddenly the user subconsciously creates a subtask for themselves (“Well, I better go check them all out and try to figure out why that is the case and which one is best for me…”). 

Such dilemmas can sow seeds of doubt about the structure of the content and distract users as they answer such questions. And obviously far more confusing for screen reader users hearing the same topic in many categories, although the site does have a search engine that will hopefully be a good route for finding content.

Personally, I have not come across too many sites that try to combine a top down structure of traditional categories with user driven bottom up user-driven subcategories. 

Have you seen other sites that do this? Do you think the polyhierarchical placement of items will help or hinder the user experience in the long run?  

The best proof is in the performance of the site or evidence that can be gathered in usability tests, but I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Chris Rourke is the MD of User Vision.