Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Taxonomy in the real world

Working with taxonomies sometimes make you think that you’re just adding words to content. And if the words match the meaning of the content and are logically arranged, they’re doing their job. 

A taxonomy’s job, however, is always to serve user need and bring polish to the customer experience.  One of the ways we can do this is to think carefully about the terms we use in a taxonomy, and how making sense in a hierarchical world doesn’t necessarily match what makes sense in the real world…

Change your mindset

“Cataloguers describe the world as it is; designers plan things as they could be”

-         Heather Hedden, The Accidental Taxonomist

We’re going to see how putting a taxonomy together in a way that meets user need might not be how you’d put together a perfect classification system.

Let’s look at the example of mushrooms, or specifically the white edible ones we use in our cooking.  In the world of flora and fauna, this kind of mushroom is classified like this:

A. bisporus'

So, the top level of this taxonomy classification is fungi.

Let’s have a look at what happens in an image library if we follow this classification:

This comes up on a search for 'fungi'...

So, if we place ‘mushroom’ under ‘fungi’ and then add a taxonomy tag to an image of a pizza, we’re going to get results of pizza under searches for ‘fungi’. Which doesn’t work in the real world.

So we have to forget the cataloguer’s world and put things together in the real world.  We place ‘mushroom’ under ‘vegetable’, or ‘fruit and veg’, or something that makes sense to our users.

2many tags!

To make taxonomies work in the real world we also need to think about how many tags we’re using, and what the relationship is between tags and content.

For example, in the Cancer Research UK intranet, the ‘Internal jobs’ page lives in the following path in the IA: Home/Personal Development/Internal Jobs

When in the ‘internal jobs’ page, there is a section called ‘Should I Apply?’, which could be laid out like this, with the amount of pages in each section marked in brackets

IA (Intranet)
Personal development (3)
-          Internal jobs (1)
-          -   Should I apply? (1)

In order to create a taxonomy to cover the above, what terms will we need? 

‘Personal development’ is a good term, as there are several pages in that section.  ‘Internal jobs’, although it currently has one page in that section, is worth having as a taxonomy term to group all internal jobs together.  The term in this part of the IA that isn’t needed is ‘Should I Apply?’, which is a section of a single page and therefore not needed as a taxonomy term. 

Taxonomy terms are for grouping like content together, so any element that returns a single page does not need to be grouped, and therefore doesn’t need a tag.

So the taxonomy might look like this:

Taxonomy (Intranet)
Jobs board
- Internal jobs

Taxonomy (Intranet)
Personal development

The point here is that we don’t need to slavishly copy the IA to create a taxonomy structure – we need enough tags, and not too many.

Card Sorting

Getting your users to tell you how they would categorise content is a well-known way to challenge the way your structure is now, or maybe to change the labelling of your terms.  A recent card-sort for our intranet taxonomy saw one user expect a category of ‘catering’ to instead be called ‘food and drink.’


We should recognise that, far from being abstract lists of words that live in a perfect categorisation, taxonomies should flex with content and user need.  Creating them means starting with a ‘strawman’ taxonomy structure, rather like assumptions at the beginning of an agile project, that can be challenged and changed based on what users and other evidence tell us.  Additionally, applying some best practice around only creating the terms we need gives us the crisp, user-centric groups of terms our digital offerings need.

Ultimately, if we develop our taxonomy in the real world, then our users will find what they’re looking for.

Tom Alexander

Taxonomy Manager


  1. Great blog Tom, let's have some more taxonomy-based blogs please!

  2. So a controlled number of tags to help steer users to the content they are looking for is key? But how does this internal management play out on google, for example - are the tags that we create to guide users around our site also key in helping google direct people to specific pages?

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