Getting Your Head Round Facets

A great question from the TaxoCop discussion group yesterday asking how to help clients get their heads round facets. Now matter how much education and awareness effort, it appears from behaviours that they still haven’t quite got it. This is something I’ve encountered too (in fact I have a case study on it in my book). This was my reply to the conundrum:

I have found this too, in fact I’ve had situations where everyone agrees from a rational point of view that facets are logically the best way to go but when they start to put the taxonomy into practice, they inexplicably still keep operating like they need a single tree structure.

I think the problem is that we’re dealing with mental models of how the world works, and explanations generally don’t change mental models. To do this, the audience needs to be put into a situation where their current mental model breaks down, and then be given a chance to build a new one. So it needs to be experiential rather than explanatory.

In this case, there are actually two mental models at play – one is that a single “tree” structure is the most natural way of organising content; another is that there should be only one “place” for a document to be. A facetted taxonomy challenges both mental models. It’s best to deal with just one mental model at once, in this case I suggest the “tree” mental model.

So here’s an exercise to try:

Divide your audience into two “factions” each representing a legitimate (for the organisation) and useful way of organising the content – eg “activity types” vs “document types”. Make 150 or so cards to represent typical documents from the organisation (eg using your content sampling or information audit from your pre-taxonomy design phase), and ask each “faction” to design a folder structure on flip chart sheets – tell them they have to accommodate the needs of both “factions” in their design. Let them loose for 20-30 minutes. They’ll have a difficult time, and they will likely come up with quite different structures.

Next, give them another flip chart sheet and ask them to draw a matrix – on the horizontal axis the principal categories for “faction A” and on the vertical axis the principal categories for “faction B” – and then make a grid. This should be much much easier for them to do, and they should be able to “drop” their documents into each of the buckets defined by the cells of the matrix.

The “factions” turn out to be “facets” which gives them an alternate mental model to the tree structure in an easy way; the matrix approach allows them to see two facets working together, and still allows them to keep their mental model of putting a document in one “place”. It’s not such a big step to migrate them to work with more than two facets after that once they see on the matrix that the categories in each facet/axis “point to” a document rather than being a “place” that the document goes to.

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