Taxonomy never made sense to me as a hot topic until I found myself in a heated debate with my husband about which product category a mug should fall under in an online store. 

Was a coffee mug an accessory, a gift or part of the home department? And then he asked why it couldn’t live under the "miscellaneous" category?

You interact with taxonomy every day. 

Remember when you couldn’t find bread crumbs at the grocery store? Who puts breadcrumbs near the frozen goods? Shouldn’t they at least be near the bread aisle or perhaps near the baking ingredients?  

It’s as if the grocery store didn’t think about their customer’s tired journey to find dinner ingredients after a grueling nine-hour workday. Then one day, you find yourself shopping at another grocery store, because everything is easy to find. They don’t have one of those aisles at the end of the store, which is essentially a miscellaneous aisle of junk they couldn't figure out how to classify. 

Why Should I Care About Taxonomy? 

Think of taxonomy as the foundation for your search experience across technology systems, online stores and brick and mortar grocery stores alike. Without a flexible and precise taxonomy, end-users will have difficulty finding what they are looking for, resulting in a drop in business to your store or system. 

Some people get anxious even hearing the words taxonomies, ontologies, controlled vocabularies and metadata schemas, but they are not as intimidating as they sound. You too, can use fancy words like taxonomy, but really just be talking about trying to find things easily.  

Taxonomy refers to the infrastructure that supports information retrieval and access. This infrastructure solves real world problems like:

  • What aisle can I find the ingredients I’m looking for to make dinner?
  • How do I find the product I want to purchase? 
  • How can I find my company's current logo to use in social marketing collateral?

Easy or straightforward taxonomy discussions are rare. You can find best practices out there, books on the topic, university courses, and even boot camps where industry taxonomy experts will come and give you a crash course in taxonomy, like the Taxonomy Boot Camp in Washington.  

But all of this knowledge and best practices aside, if your users can’t find what they are looking for, the taxonomy has failed.  

The Roadblocks You’ll Face On Your Taxonomy Journey

Adaptation and Compromise between People, Process, Technology and Taxonomy

One of the most heated taxonomy-related items has been the adaptation of taxonomies to technology systems.  

It involves getting stubborn people to adjust their behaviors or trying to adjust a rigid technology system to meet the expectations of users — not an easy undertaking. Sometimes it’s easiest to work within these confines, and realize that instead of changing a technology system or a person’s behavior and expectations, you can easily adjust taxonomy without much resistance (other than your own stubbornness as an administrator). 

It’s so important to be open to compromise — in life AND in taxonomy.  

Search and taxonomy consultant Stephanie Lemieux reminds us to “be prepared to break any of these rules in the name of usability,” and that “Essentially, building a faceted taxonomy is more of an art than a science and it involves understanding your users’ search behaviors.” 

Learning Opportunities

Overdoing It

I hate to say this, but Amazon might have overdone taxonomy for me as an end user.  

Take their category overview page below as an example. My favorite search experiences do not overwhelm. When I shop for a product on Amazon, I almost exclusively use the search box. The category page is intimidating to say the least.  

Research has shown that offering people too many choices usually overwhelms them. Researchers in one study offered shoppers smaller and larger assortments of jam. While people enjoyed viewing the larger assortment, when it came time to choose they were 10 times more likely to purchase from a choice of six jams than a choice of 24.

Sometimes fewer options really is better.  

As a taxonomist and librarian I appreciate the dedication Amazon puts towards its taxonomy — I just wish a little more of it were behind the curtain.  

so many categories, so little time

Figure 1.  Amazon Site Directory Categories

Offering too many options to choose from not only applies to the products or assets you curate, but to the facets that lead you to them. As designers of taxonomies, we want our users to make choices, and to feel confident doing so. 

How to Overcome These Roadblocks

Taxonomy flaws abound from the grocery store to the amazon mega-online superstore. Author and taxonomy expert Heather Hedden offered some words of wisdom for the lifelong taxonomy learner:

“DAM experts and consultants are not necessarily experts in taxonomies, and taxonomy experts may not be familiar with DAMs, so there is some learning for all of us. DAM systems, like other content management systems, often need to be configured, integrated, and customized for a specific enterprise’s use, with expertise and time spent first on system integration, pushing taxonomy design out to perhaps only an afterthought.” 

Taxonomy is never finished, just as learning how to create and implement one is never done. Success in taxonomy is possible if you remember these three points — be adaptable, design for the end user and break the rules when you need to.

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