Let’s say you’re in the market for a new dinglehopper. (What? You don’t know what a dinglehopper is? Good…) You know you need a dinglehopper, but don’t know much about them. In fact, the only thing you know about dinglehoppers is that you need one. The process of selecting the one that’s right for you will require some learning.

This is not an uncommon situation; many people need to buy things they’re only casually familiar with. For example, a young dad-to-be may want to buy a “better” camera because he’s read that his smartphone isn’t good enough to capture a baby’s nuanced expressions in low-lit rooms. Which cameras are best for this? He has no idea. He visits a camera store and sees the following options:

DSLR, Mirrorless System, Point & Shoot, Medium Format. “Aha!,” he thinks, “These are different types of cameras!” But what’s the difference between a “mirrorless system” camera and a “medium format” camera? Which is best for photographing a newborn without costing more than $1,000? One of the categories features a camera that seems to have no lens on it. Aren’t those critical for taking photographs? Does that mean he must buy lenses?

He clicks on one of the categories. He sees a list of camera products, with the following options to filter down available choices:

That’s a lot of choices! Some of them map to his existing mental model (e.g., filter by price range, show only those with free shipping) while others may baffle him (e.g. video resolution, sensor size.) He also sees a list of brands that are ostensibly camera market leaders, but he doesn’t yet know which have better reputations than others, or which specialize in particular types of cameras.

Our young friend has two problems before him:

  1. he needs to know what options are available, and

  2. he needs to know what the differences between them mean and how they affect his decision.

This is what we usually think of when we talk about not having enough information to make a decision. A cursory glance at the camera category in a well-stocked online store can answer (1), but answering (2) is a bit more difficult.

The way the information is organized establishes distinctions in the user’s mind. The fact there are four types of cameras (according to this store) is a good start; our friend starts thinking in terms of the ​differences between them. Then comes the hard part: knowing what those differences mean. The user must build a new mental model; he must gain an understanding of what these differences mean in this context.

Information environments vary on the degree to which they aid us along the journey of building this type of contextual knowledge. Some environments accommodate people who already have some degree of expertise, while others are designed for less experienced people. Often, the distinctions established by the environment must speak to both types of users; both pros and beginners will care about the differences in camera types, but people in the latter group doesn’t yet know it.

The environment must allow pros to get to what they’re looking for quickly. On top of this baseline findability function, the environment will also serve a didactic role for beginners. These two objectives are in tension with each other: an environment that assumes lots of contextual know-how will be unusable to beginners, and one that assumes zero knowledge will alienate pros. In designing such a place, you must strive for balance between these two objectives. Solving for (1) is easy; solving for (2) is more difficult. Doing both simultaneously while accommodating users with a broad range of contextual expertise is quite a trick.