Came across a good presentation from 2004 by Victor Lombardi, called Incorporating Navigation Research into Design Method (PDF) that discusses (among other things) the “native shape” of information, and how to leverage it in design.
Three images, drawn from research by Elaine Toms (citation in PDF above, all images taken from PDF above) comparing the “recognizability” of three different version of the same document, which in this case is a Chinese restaurant menu. The first two versions were recognized most often by study participants
However, the third, while recognized less often, was recognized twice as fast by participants.
In another experiment by Toms that Lombardi touches on, content from one genre (e.g. content from a menu genre) was formatted in a fashion typical for a different genre (in Lombardi’s example, as glossary entries).
When participants were asked to identify the genre they selected the genre of the format, not the content. So in this case they would have said this is a page from a glossary. This again reinforces the impact that form has on our understanding of a document.
The take-away for web design is that when the information you’re presenting has a “native shape” — one that users will be familiar from the real world — don’t overlook it as a powerful and intuitive way of conveying meaning.