Category system structure in search interfaces is usually one of flat, hierarchical, or faceted. A flat list of categories works well for presenting a list of choices with which to narrow the contents of a collection, but needs to be limited to a small set in order to be scannable. Hierarchical (or tree-structured) category systems are useful and can be easy to understand for relatively simple information structures. However, a problem with assigning documents to single categories within a hierarchy is that many information items are best described by multiple different categories simultaneously.
This use of hierarchical faceted metadata provides a usable method for allowing users to browse information collections according to multiple categories simultaneously (Hearst, 2000, Hearst et al., 2002). The main idea is to build a set of category hierarchies, each of which corresponds to a different facet (dimension or feature type) that is relevant to the collection to be navigated. Each facet has a set of labels associated with it, and if this set is large, it may be organized into a hierarchy. After the facet hierarchies are designed, each item in the collection can be assigned any number of labels from any number of facets. In a properly designed faceted navigation interface, the user can browse the information collection from any of the different facets as a starting point, and after starting with one facet, can then navigate using any other facet. Usability results suggest that this kind of interface is highly usable for navigation of information collections with somewhat homogeneous content (English et al., 2001, Hearst et al., 2002, Yee et al., 2003).