Good category, bad category (or: tag, don’t bucket)

The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space.

William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890)

I recently gave a talk at the Learning from Incidents in Software conference. On the one hand, I mentioned the importance of finding patterns in incidents:

But I also had some… unkind words about categorizing incidents.

We humans need categories to make sense of the world, to slice it up into chunks that we can handle cognitively. Otherwise, the world would just be, as James put it in the quote above, one great blooming, buzzing confusion. So, categorization is essential to humans functioning in the world. In particular, if we want to identify meaningful patterns in incidents, we need to do categorization work.

But there are different techniques we can use to categorize incidents, and some techniques are more productive than others.

The buckets approach

An incident must be placed in exactly one bucket

One technique is what I’ll call the buckets approach of categorization. That’s when you define a set up of categories up front, and then you assign each incident that happens to exactly one bucket. For example, you might have categories such as:

  • bug (new)
  • bug (latent)
  • deployment problem
  • third party

I have seen two issues with the bucketing approach. The first issue is that I’ve never actually seen it yield any additional insight. It can’t provide insights into new patterns because the patterns have already been predefined as the buckets. The best it can do is give you one type of filter to drill down and look at some more issues in more detail. There’s some genuine value in giving you a subset of related incidents to look more closely at, but in practice, I’ve rarely seen anybody actually do the harder work of looking at these subsets.

The second issue is that incidents, being messy things, often don’t fall cleanly into exactly one bucket. Sometimes they fall into multiple, and sometimes they don’t fall into any, and sometimes it’s just really unclear. For example, an issue may involve both a new bug and a deployment problem (as anyone who has accidentally deployed a bug to production and then gotten into even more trouble when trying to roll things back can tell you). The bucket approach forces you to discard information that is potentially useful in identifying patterns by requiring you to put the incident into exactly one bucket. This inevitably leads to arguments about whether an incident should be classified into bucket A or bucket B. This sort of argument is a symptom that this approach is throwing away useful information, and that it really shouldn’t go into a single bucket at all.

The tags approach

You may hang multiple tags on an incident

Another technique is what I’ll call the tags method of categorization. With the tags method, you annotate an incident with zero, one, or multiple tags. The idea behind tagging is that you want to let the details of the incident help you come up with meaningful categories. As incidents happen, you may come up with entirely new categories, or coalesce existing ones into one, or split them apart. Tags also let you examine incidents across multiple dimensions. Perhaps you’re interested in attributes of the people that are responding (maybe there’s a “hero” tag if there’s a frequent hero who comes in to many incidents), or maybe there’s production pressure related to some new feature being developed (in which case, you may want to label with both production-pressure and feature-name), or maybe it’s related to migration work (migration). Well, there are many different dimensions. Here are some examples of potential tags:

  • query-scope-accidentally-too-broad
  • people-with-relevant-context-out-of-office
  • unforeseen-performance-impact

Those example tags may seem weirdly specific, but that’s OK! The tags might be very high level (e.g., production-pressure) or very low level (e.g., pipeline-stopped-in-the-middle), or anywhere in between.

Top-down vs circular

The bucket approach is strictly top-down: you enforce a categorization on incidents from the top. The tags approach is a mix of top-down and bottom-up. When you start tagging, you’ll always start with some prior model of the types of tags that you think are useful. As you go through the details of incidents, new ideas for tags will emerge, and you’ll end up revising your set of tags over time. Someone might revisit the writeup for an incident that happened years ago, and add a new tag to it. This process of tagging incidents and identifying potential new tags categories will help you identify interesting patterns.

The tag-based approach is messier than the bucket-based one, because your collection of tags may be very heterogeneous, and you’ll still encounter situations where it’s not clear whether a tag applies or not. But it will yield a lot more insight.

2 thoughts on “Good category, bad category (or: tag, don’t bucket)

  1. I think of your tagging approach as characterizing instead of categorizing. And characterization is, by design, intended to be a bit messier as it is more flexible. My heuristic: Prefer characterization over classification when looking at something which has multiple dimensions/aspects or uncertainty

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