Have you ever thought about what life without metadata would be like? Not the traditional database metadata, but retail metadata - the kind of metadata that appears on every product inside Wal-Mart, Kroger and Publix. For example, consider a simple bottle of aspirin, where the metadata on the box includes the manufacturer, ingredients, volume, quantity, directions and safety warnings. Open the box, and there is an insert with even more metadata on how and when to use the product. Not to mention the bottle itself, which repeats much of the metadata that was on the box, only in smaller print.

Scenario 1: Absence of Metadata

Now imagine walking into your local grocery store, and you notice all of the traditional taxonomies have been removed because product classifications are a form of metadata. The aisle signage has been removed. The only things you can see are the blank containers designed for the products themselves. Let's suppose you need soup to go with Saturday's dinner. You grab a can and begin to shake it in hopes that the weight and movement can provide you with some indication of the contents. Is it tomato soup or a can of beans? Perhaps it is a can of peaches or mixed vegetables. Or, maybe you're an experienced shopper who can distinguish between soup and other products. Is it chicken noodle soup, vegetable soup or clam chowder? Frustrated, you head over to the dry goods area but your problems don't seem to fade away. This time you pick up a blank box, which may contain laundry detergent, dishwashing cleaner or cereal. Of course, these uncertainties have little impact compared to those at the pharmacy, where you may be taking Viagra or Tylenol for your now splitting headache. Can you imagine any business that would actually run their store in such a manner? Can you imagine any retail environment without the information or information architecture required to do business?

Scenario 2: Metadata with No Context

What would happen if you did have metadata but couldn't understand or place the information into context? My wife and I ran across this in the Atlanta airport a few months ago when traveling overseas. A woman standing outside the train car that moved travelers from the concourse to the travel gates was having a problem understanding the metadata information that was all around her. She asked us if we knew any Spanish, to which my wife replied, "Un poquito," or just a little. She started to reel off sentence after sentence, trying to explain to us her issues. The best we could do was to hand her off to another couple that knew much more Spanish than we did. Here is the point: as a traveler, she was surrounded by all the information and metadata she needed to either get her luggage or head to the departure gate. She simply couldn't understand the information she needed to take action. In much the same way, we develop knowledge stores and drive the design toward the complex versus the simplicity of good design.

Scenario 3: Too Much Information

On this same trip, we came across a woman with another problem associated with metadata. As we were walking though Victoria Station in London, a woman fell to her knees and cried out for help. She clearly understood English and could also read it very well. The problem was information overload. Like Grand Central Station, the signage is overwhelming, the noise can be deafening and the number of choices is confusing. Just buying a ticket can make you stand there and scratch your head with the litany of choices. The woman simply needed to be told what to do and how to get to her location. The best we could offer was to guide her to an information booth.

Is it possible to have too much metadata? Well, you certainly didn't hear it from me, but the answer is yes. The amount of information isn't the issue; overwhelming the end user is. We as technologists want to deliver the 100 percent solution. We want to cover every possible use case in order to be perfect. We cram every piece of metadata onto a single page without ever asking what percentage of users actually use it. Tom Peters once remarked, "Addition is the exercise of fools; subtraction is the exercise of genius." Makes me wonder what the ratio of data element removal is compared to data element addition.

We can joke and even laugh at a world without metadata because that would never happen in reality. Retail organizations would never run their operations like technology does and place metadata at the back end of the investment portfolio. They ensure that information about their product is available, useful and simple to understand. The metadata is placed into the hands of the end users right when they need it the most, at the point of consumption. Do all of these organizations that spend so much time and money on packaging, branding, design, usability, information architecture and metadata have it all wrong? Or, maybe we in the technology world have missed the boat entirely. 

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