Organization & Usability: Spatial Location, Location by Description, & How We Find Things

We seem to be failing at organizing intangible things. Or, at least, organizing the world where the intangible and tangible intersect. Walk into your kitchen, for example, and you know where everything is. Ok, maybe I’m wrong. We seem to have issues organizing much of anything. I think that’s because we keep trying to learn how to work within the confines of the systems we create rather than creating systems that work the way we do.
Hippocamps driven spatial mapping and location

Spatial Location and Organization

In the physical world, we don’t constantly focus on remembering where everything is. In fact, if you’ve ever lost your car in the mall parking lot, you’ll know we’re not very good at this even when we want to be. Instead, our brains use what is sometimes referred to as spatial location. That is, we use spatial mapping along with information about and from the external world to find what we’re looking for. So, you know that you parked by the Staples store, in the back row, by the green lamp post rather than by the purple lamp post by movie theatre like you usually do.

Here’s how spatial location works:

If I ask you for a manual can opener, you already have an idea of what it looks like and where you would find one. Why? Because you’ve used one often enough to have created a mental category for “can opener”. You have an idea of what it looks like. And, because you know what its purpose is, you know there’s a pretty good chance it can be found in a kitchen. It’s a smaller item, so it will likely be stored with serving spoons and items of a similar size rather than just tossed in with the pots and pans. In fact, it will either be hanging up, or in a drawer. If it’s your can opener, you may even know precisely what it looks like and what colour it is.

In the digital world, this is why you’ll find photos often stored together, and why you can usually access most of your programs from the same location. Unfortunately, spatial location has some constraints:

  • The item must be in a location that makes sense to us. In other words, a can opener would be a lot harder to find in a garage or bathroom than it would be to find in the kitchen.
  • We need to know something about the area it’s in. We know a can opener is likely found in the kitchen because we know what kitchens look like and what its purpose is. We understand what a drawer is, and how the size and shape of a can opener relates to this specific storage location.
  • We need a limited number of items to assess. The more items stored in one area, the harder it is for us to see and identify the item we’re looking for. For example, it’s easier to identify a can opener if there are only three or four other items in the drawer than in there are 50 other things in the drawer.
  • The type of items something is stored with also matters. it’s easier to spot a can opener in a drawer full of forks, spoons, and knives than it is to spot one can opener in a drawer full of can openers. This is what makes one file difficult to find in a folder of 100 files, and why the ability to alphabetize them or sort by date becomes important.
  • Our brains are lazy. If we have to work to find something, we are at higher risk of not finding it. (The source of “Honey? Have you seen the…” frustrations, I’m sure of it.)

Easy as pie, right? Not quite. This sounds fantastic until you start putting these systems into practice:

  • What you use an item for isn’t what everyone uses it for, so they may associate an item with different things than you do. (I use a wrench to wrench stuff. You might use it to level off a table or pound in a nail, for example.)
  • People have different knowledge sets. Different cultures, lifestyles, and habits mean we all know different things. When you design a system based on spatial mapping, you’re doing so on the assumption that everyone knows the same things you do. This is ok for basic things like gravity, but it doesn’t work as well with things such as specialty items.
  • Organizational systems, needs, items, and their uses change over time. Just because we use something in a certain location, at a certain time, for a certain task now doesn’t mean it will always be that way. As a result, systems that work today may not be as effective a year from now.
  • Location constraints. We don’t always have the space to store things in a way that works best. Therefore, we’re always forced to compromise and work within a set of limitations.
  • A system can be maximized for retrieval or efficiency, but rarely both. If you have too many items to look through, it takes a lot of time and effort to find the one thing you want, but you can retrieve everything related to that item. If you store things in a way that maximizes efficiency however, chances are you can’t always have everything related to that item in the same location. And we haven’t included things like prioritization and aesthetics into the equation, which cause us to further compromise and sacrifice.

Locating Information by Description

Location by Description

Perhaps one of the best storage and retrieval systems on the planet is our very own brain. While they aren’t flawless, they are able to sort through an entire lifetime of experiences, prioritize the memory or information, store them, and recall them on demand almost instantly. To accomplish this, our brains don’t follow a single pathway for memories, or use hierarchical structures. Instead, memories are processed and stored according to need.

The memory of an emotional experience, for example, will be encoded with related emotions and stored permanently in our brains. (This is what makes conditions like PTSD so difficult to deal and work with.) The phone number of the takeout place we just looked up is processed and stored in short-term memory. When we need information, our brain only needs retrieves the best likely result. (Don Norman refers to this as “navigation by description”.) Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that, and that’s not exactly accurate today, but you get the basic concept.

To work most efficiently, the brain has done away with specific pathways, categorizations, prioritizations, addresses, alphabetizations, and other systems. Instead, you provide it with a description and it retrieves the information it thinks you were looking for. So, if I ask for your address, your brain automatically provides it. If I ask you what your house looks like, you can give me a basic description almost instantly. In short, there is no structure or rigid filing system to fight against, so it can access the information it needs without struggle.

Organization and Retrieval Systems in the Digital World

I believe organization and inefficient systems are at the root of most of our usability problems. The programs and files we want are never within a few clicks. Software forces us back to the home screen or some kind of main location to continue navigating to our destination. Hierarchical structures force us to follow specific paths regardless of whether we know where we want to end up. And, in many cases, nothing is organized with any sort of rhyme or reason.

Apple products, for example, have some of the best usability, but if you’ve seen their Launchpad, you’ll see what I mean. On a fresh install, all the applications are presented in an orderly fashion, but there is no reason for the order they’re in. And if it’s the first time you’ve used an apple product, you have to associate the button on the keyboard with the Launchpad screen and its purpose before you even get that far.

The spotlight feature does give us a work-around, but that’s not the point. Why is it not intuitive? If I open a photo editor, why does it only open a specific location where it things photos should be stored? Why doesn’t it give me access to all of the photos on the hard drive and online in places like Facebook or Instagram? It KNOWS I use these things. It KNOWS they’re stored there. It’s simply not included in the process.

Now, I get it. For anyone who has been using technology for a long time, finding specific files or programs is simple. We know how to do it, and it only takes a few moments. But when it comes to automation, efficiency, and usability, these simple things can make a huge difference.

Imagine how much faster computers would be if they didn’t have to constantly refresh and load the desktop? How much easier would it be if someone new to computers didn’t have to navigate to find what they need – if everything they needed was already accessible from the screen they were on? What if the search function didn’t have to search through hierarchies, but simply look for related items and choose the best likely results? These are the questions I look forward to answering in the coming years.


Norman, D. A. (2007). Things That Make Us Smart: Defending human attributes in the age of the machine. New York: Basic Books.

Image Source:
Hippocampus from Wikimedia
Clock from Pixabay

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