Building the Business Case for Taxonomy

Taxonomy of Spices and Pantries (Part 1)

First published on Boxes and Arrows (September 1, 2015)



How often have you found yourself on an ill-defined site redesign project? You know, the ones that you end up redesigning and restructuring every few years as you add new content. Or perhaps you spin up a new microsite because the new product/solution doesn’t fit in with the current structure, not because you want to create a new experience around it. Maybe your site has vaguely labelled navigation buckets like “More Magic” — which is essentially your junk drawer, your “Everything Else.”

Your top concerns on such projects are:

  1. You can’t find anything.
  2. Your users can’t find anything.
  3. The navigation isn’t consistent.
  4. You have too much content.

Your hopeful answer to everything is to rely on an external search engine, not the one that’s on your site. Google will find everything for you.

A typical site redesign project might include refreshing the visual design, considering the best interaction practices, and conducting usability testing. But what’s missing? Creating the taxonomy.

“Taxonomy is just tagging, right? Sharepoint/AEM has it — we’re covered!”

In the coming months, I will be exploring the what, why, and how of taxonomy planning, design, and implementation:

  1. Building the business case for taxonomy
  2. Planning a taxonomy
  3. The many uses of taxonomy
  4. Card sorting to validate a taxonomy
  5. Tree testing a taxonomy
  6. Taxonomy governance
  7. Best practices of enterprise taxonomies

Are you ready?

ROI of taxonomy

Although the word “taxonomy” is often used interchangeably with tagging, building an enterprise taxonomy means more than tagging content. It’s essentially a knowledge organization system, and its purpose is to enable the user to browse, find, and discover content.

Spending the time on building that taxonomy empowers your site to

  • better manage your content at scale,
  • allow for meaningful navigation,
  • expose long-tail content,
  • reuse content assets,
  • bridge across subjects, and
  • provide more efficient product/brand alignment.

In addition, a sound taxonomy in the long run will improve your content’s findability, support social sharing, and improve your site’s search engine optimization. (Thanks to Mike Atherton’s “Modeling Structured Content” workshop, presented at IA Summit 2013, for outlining the benefits.)

How do you explain taxonomy to get stakeholders on board? No worries, we won’t be going back to high school biology.

Explaining taxonomy

Imagine a household kitchen. How would you organize the spices? Consider the cooks: In-laws from northern China, mom from Hong Kong, and American-born Grace. I’ve moved four times in the past five years. My husband, son, and I live with my in-laws. I have a mother who still comes over to make her Cantonese herbal soups. We all speak different languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, and Cantonese Chinese.

I have the unique need of organizing my kitchen for multiple users. For my in-laws, they need to be able to find their star anise, peppercorn, tree ear mushrooms, and sesame oil. My mom needs a space to store her dried figs, dried shiitake mushrooms, dried goji berries, and snow fungus. I need to find a space for dried thyme and rosemary for the “American” food I try to make. Oh, and we all need a consistent place for salt and sugar.

People can organize their kitchen by activity zones: baking, canning, preparing, and cooking. Other ways to organize a kitchen successfully could include:

  • attributes (shelf-life, weight, temperature requirements)
  • usage (frequency, type of use)
  • seasonality (organic, what’s in season, local)
  • occasion (hot pot dinners, BBQ parties)

You can also consider organizing by audience such as for the five year old helper. I keep refining how the kitchen is organized each time we move. I have used sticky notes in Chinese and English with my in-laws and my mom as part of a card sorting exercise as well as tested the navigation around the kitchen to validate the results.

Early attempts of organizing my pantry. Credit: Grace Lau.

Early attempts of organizing my pantry. Credit: Grace Lau.

If this is to be a data-driven taxonomy, I could consider attaching RFID tags to each spice container to track frequency and type of usage for a period of time to obtain some kitchen analytics. On the other hand, I could try guesstimating frequency by looking at the amount of grime or dust collected on the container. How often are we using chicken bouillon and to make what dishes? Does it need to be within easy reach of the stovetop or can it be relegated to a pantry closet three feet away?

Example of an organized spice drawer. Credit: Home Depot.

Example of an organized spice drawer. Credit: Home Depot.

Understanding the users and their tasks and needs is a foundation for all things UX. Taxonomy building is not any different. How people think about and use their kitchen brings with it a certain closeness that makes taxonomy concepts easier to grasp.

Who are the users? What are they trying to do? How do they currently tackle this problem? What works and what doesn’t? Watch, observe, and listen to their experience.

Helping the business understand the underlying concepts is one of the challenges I’ve faced with developing a solid taxonomy. We’re not just talking about tagging but breaking down the content by its attributes and metadata as well as by its potential usage and relation to other content. The biggest challenge is building the consensus and understanding around that taxonomy — taxonomy governance — and keeping the system you’ve designed well-seasoned!

Now, back to that site redesign project that you were thinking of: How about starting on that taxonomy? My next post will cover taxonomy planning.