Five Hat Racks

The Five Hat Racks was first developed by Richard Saul Wurman in his book Information Anxiety. It’s a bizarre name, but makes sense: the hats are information…. hat racks organise hats…. and there are 5 ways to do it. Fine, call it what you like – at least it’s memorable! In a nutshell, there are 5 ways to organise information: By Location, Alphabet, Time, Category and Continuum. Every way you can think of to organise data will fit in to one of those groupings.


What is it? Organising by physical location; either geographically or a location in space. For example, this could be showing landmarks on a map or sorting objects as nearest to furthest relative to your position.
When should you use it? When giving directions (e.g. order you will encounter landmarks) and whenever relative position is important e.g. landmarks on a map


What is it? Ordering alphabetically, for example how the dictionary or phone book sorts entries.
When should you use it?Whenever efficient random access is needed (applies to most reference material – dictionaries, encyclopaedias, book indexes etc.). It should also be used as a back up when no other sorting strategy makes sense.


What is it? Sorting by chronological order. For example Cinema Schedules, Bus Timetables, Time lines of historical events etc.
When should you use it? Whenever a time based order of events is needed e.g. cooking instructions; when comparing events over a period of time (especially if there is an element of causation between events) or when things happen at set times.


What is it? Grouping by a shared similarity. For example; Churches with and without a spire, Subject in a book shop such as fiction, non-fiction or autobiographies, departments in a department store etc.
When should you use it? When people will naturally look for something by category – e.g. if you want a new blender you would expect it to be grouped with other kitchen appliances. Bear in mind categorical grouping has weaknesses:

  • Not everyone will group things the same. This is especially a problem where there is overlap between categories – for example should a waterproof shower radio be in the electricals or bathroom department?
  • Categories can break down when there are large numbers of items within each category; leading to sub-categories and sub-sub-categories. This can make things even harder to find especially when compounded by the above differences in categorisation!


What is it? Grouping by a magnitude e.g. Best to Worst, lowest to highest, happy to unhappy etc. For example Football league tables, Star Ratings on products, energy efficiency, size etc.
When should you use it? Use continuum when a shared measurement to compare things is available that will naturally be used in comparisons by the user


Don’t be afraid of using more than one hat rack at a time – you could have items sorted by category then within each category you could sort alphabetically.

Just remember that you are trying to present the information in a way that is accessible to the user. Usually this means you may have to allow them multiple ways to view the data. This leads to more usable products as you will be allowing your user to see the information in a way that is relevant to their current goals rather than just the way you thought of when you designed it.

If you are having trouble guessing where/how your information should be sorted and/or grouped – leave a comment and I’ll try and help out!

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