Taxonomies, Navigation and Information Architecture

James Kelway has written a two-parter on how to build and test user centred taxonomies. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here.

It’s a good attempt at bringing together IA and taxonomy development approaches, but it needs to be qualified in a couple of ways. First, James is really focusing on building taxonomies for websites, and he doesn’t seem terribly clear on how to link the taxonomy to the business context of the users. He misses the value of conducting and information or knowledge audit as part of the taxonomy input stage. He’s also not clear about the relationship between site navigation and the use of the taxonomy to organise and manage content within the site – spelling this out more clearly would create a lot of value for the many people who get confused about this. James is very good on the different techniques that can be used to start drafting the taxonomy, and I like his use of the “straw taxonomy” idea – “expect the straw taxonomy to get burned” he says, very pragmatically.

Where I would differ with him in the taxonomy development phase is that he seems to think it can be fruitfully achieved by discussing the draft taxonomy with the various stakeholders. In my experience, the more opinions you seek, the less likely you are to get agreement – when it comes to taxonomy categories, you will inevitably get disagreements. People feel honour bound to disagree. By far the best way to validate a draft taxonomy is by continuous cycles of testing using scenarios and card sorting exercises, where you can demonstrate quite precisely the extent to which the taxonomy is – in fact, not opinion – usable.

I found it rather odd that James also suggests using a content categorisation engine to test the robustness of the taxonomy against the content. Such engines are only as good as your understanding of the content translated into interpretation rules for the software to follow – the same understanding that went into the taxonomy design in fact, so this is a quite circular argument.

My small quibbles aside, this is a good start to a long-overdue rapprochement between information architecture and taxonomy work. Let the dialogue continue! Thanks to Maish for alerting me to this.

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