Considering Category Names

Let’s say you manage a large family of products. This requires you define a categorization scheme that will allow people to find the product among the family that best fits their needs. For some products, the grouping may be obvious but the category names may not.

Take eyewear for example. Products in this space come in one of two categories:

  1. Those with tinted lenses that help people see better by reducing the amount of light that comes through the lens.
  2. Those with transparent lenses that help people see better by correcting their eyesight using prescription lenses.

What do you call these two categories? (1) is obvious, since we have an English word for it: sunglasses. But what about (2)? It seems we don’t have a common word for “eyewear that is not sunglasses”. Check out how various vendors and makers call this category:

Warby Parker categories

Warby Parker uses “eyeglasses” to describe non-shaded eyewear. But aren’t sunglasses types of eyeglasses? There’s some ambiguity here. JINS, an eyewear vendor in California, uses the word “optical”:

JINS categories

Also a curious choice; after all, all eyeglasses are optical by definition. (JINS also has a mysterious “JINS screen” category. I doubt most new visitors would know what this is — I didn’t. It’s given lots of visibility, so it must be important.)

When I shared these examples on Twitter, a friend suggested “prescription” and “non-prescription” as category names. This is not quite right since sunglasses can have prescriptions too. Ray Ban‘s primary website navigation structure has a “prescription” category separate from “sunglasses” and “eyeglasses”:

Ray Ban's navigation structure.

But is this a product category or a section of the site that talks about prescription? It’s unclear just from looking at the navigation, but the fact that it’s sitting next to “lenses” — which also seems to apply to all categories — hints at the latter.

Finally, let’s look at the web navigation scheme of German eyewear manufacturer Mykita:

Mykita's navigation structure

Like JINS, Mykita also uses the word “optical.” Note they’ve dropped glasses from “sunglasses.” In the context of an eyewear manufacturer, “sun” can mean nothing else.

The point: for the category with a common English name (“sunglasses”), these environments all use that word — or its key differentiator (“sun”) — as the category label. The other category varies. The terms used (“optical” and “eyeglasses”) are higher-level descriptors; on their own, they aren’t specific enough to help users find what they’re looking for. But when paired with the more specific category name (“sunglasses”), it becomes clear that these refer to the “other.”

When creating a list of categories, consider that the terms you use will acquire context (and hence, meaning) by the mere fact of being on the list. Also: the number of items matter. (Even though they’re similar, Warby Parker’s scheme requires slightly less thinking than JINS’s.) Being mindful of the words you use — and the context they will be used in — can help you create categorization schemes that are easier to use.