my world of work and user experiences

November 30, 2010

Business Taxonomy. Just Do It.

Filed under: Governance,Information Architecture — Tags: , — frederique @ 22:53

Taxonomy. Scary word. Biologists classifying the animal kingdom? Lots of old school librarians or latter day information scientists setting up huge and complicated structures? Not necessarily.

In the context of websites or intranets, we have business taxonomies that are the schemes for organizing the content, usually in categories and subcategories, so that the users of the site can find it more easily.

Recently, I’ve attended a series of taxonomy webinars organized by the American Society for Information Science & Technology (ASIS&T) and given by people from Project Performance Corporation. In that series, they discussed detailed best practices for getting a taxonomy. But they also emphasized some very basic key notions that tend to be overlooked.

First of all: A taxonomy is a means to an end and not a goal in itself.

You don’t create a taxonomy for your site just to have a beautiful taxonomy, but because you want your users to find information easily. If we keep this in mind, we see that:

  • You need to be clear about the goal
    What are you trying to achieve with the taxonomy? Sell more shoes in your webshop by allowing the users to browse through the kinds of shoes they like? Increase productivity in your information workers by enabling them to search and find the information they need?
    It helps to formulate this goal explicitly, so that you can communicate it and keep checking against it.
  • The taxonomy should be intuitive for the users, both the people entering and tagging content and the people searching for content. This implies that:
    • You have to understand the audience, keep your audience in mind when you design it, and you should involve user groups in the process, to make sure that you end up with something that makes sense to them.
      You can do that with workshops, interviews and card sorting exercises.
    • The taxonomy should be simple, not too fine-grained and consistent.
      The best practice is to use a subject-based categorization of no more than 12 to 15 subjects and no more than 2 or 3 levels of subcategories for your main navigation. Avoid jargon, avoid overdoses of metadata fields and over-long picklists . And check with real users if your taxonomy is indeed as intuitive as you think.
    • Communication is key, two-way communication.
      Listen to the users, to get their input and feedback. And talk to them, to get everybody on board and to get them to use the taxonomy properly. The users need to understand why the taxonomy is relevant and how to use it, especially when you ask them to tag content based on this taxonomy. If even 10% of them mis-tag content, the whole system gets messed up.
  • The taxonomy should evolve.
    If it does not fit the needs, it has to be changed. And this is not just a case of fixing mistakes and learning from real life. Your organisation, your users, your market and everything else changes, so your taxonomy should change along with it to stay up to date. This implies that:

    • The taxonomy should be flexible and extensible.
      Don’t carve it in stone so that you would need to demolish the entire site to make small change in the taxonomy. Don’t waste endless time chipping out details of something that probably won’t last until next month’s reorganisation.
    • You should plan an incremental process to get a working taxonomy:
      Start with the basics and build iteratively from there.
    • You need good governance.
      Another scary word, but you need to “govern” your taxonomy, so that it doesn’t grow obsolete or spin out of control as soon as it has been implemented. As a taxonomy of a site is never finished, somebody has to keep an eye on it and where necessary keep a tight rein.

So, your business taxonomy, Just Do It. You just need one. And you can just get started somewhere and let it evolve from there.

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