Why are the benefits of taxonomy so often overlooked?
I find articles that promise an answer to questions such as this not always delivering a straight answer. I’ll make my point quickly and provide a rationale after that.
I have been involved in content-driven digital projects for many years, and in my experience taxonomy is often overlook as a solution to complex content problems because it is often misunderstood or worse still, not understood at all.
The issue is not people not knowing what taxonomy is – I could write another article describing what taxonomy, or the more encompassing term ‘Controlled Vocabulary’ is. It’s quite a fascinating topic – for some. But here I wanted to explore this article’s question from a more strategic angle: an organisation’s stakeholders very often don’t understand the pivotal role that taxonomy plays in the success of content-driven websites.
Time and time again stakeholders approach digital projects from the starting point of technologies and their capabilities. The promise is tempting, but unfortunately many fail to see technology as just one component of a bigger picture, an enabler or mechanism to deliver your product to your customers.
When your product is your content you need to frame all the variables involved with clarity and in the right order.
Users. Content. Context
At this point let me introduce you to the infamous three circles of information architecture – a simple framework that I would always recommend to anyone involved in a content-driven project to get to know by heart.
Value is created at the intersection of users, content and context.
This model was first introduced by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville in their timeless book “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web”. It indicates you can’t work in a vacuum as this ‘information ecology’ presented addresses the complex dependencies that exist in digital information environments.
In the ‘Users-Content-Context’ model, technology is an element in the ‘Context’ circle, alongside business goals, politics, funding, resources, constraints, culture, etc. That in itself starts to put things into perspective.
User experience (UX), which is something that thankfully more stakeholders are acknowledging than in the past, is an approach that helps organisations in understanding the ‘Users’ component. It does so by research and design techniques to understand your audience, their needs, the tasks they are trying to complete and how they look for information.
So, this leaves us with the last component: ‘Content’. Yes, content has its own circle. And this is because content is the very reason why your users are coming to your site. Your content is not just pages. Content encompasses data types, content objects, metadata, volume, classification and of course substance. But content also has a human aspect: ownership and publishing workflows also play a role in how successful your content is.
By now you probably know where I am heading. Taxonomy is a means to classify content. If your organisation doesn’t recognise the fundamental content plays in your digital solutions, then taxonomy is likely to be overseen as a consequence.
Content in digital solutions should be addressed via a sound content strategy – we will be covering content strategy in more depth in a forthcoming webinar in early October. You can register your interest now if this is something you’d like to explore in more detail.
Taxonomy plays a key role in content strategy as it can make sense of your organisation’s content by supporting the following activities:
- Search and discovery
- Re-purposing of content
- Unifying language across the organisation
- Future-proofing knowledge held within the business
Search and discovery
This is a benefit most people are familiar with: taxonomy facilitates search and discovery in knowledge-driven organisations, driving improved discovery layers including search, related content and personalisation as it can work across various content repositories and even across multiple organisations. Ultimately, it is about empowering knowledge workers so they can quickly find what they need. Search is vitally important for their productivity and taxonomy can facilitate it to a large degree.
It makes business sense to re-use existing content wherever appropriate. Knowledge workers might ‘reinvent the wheel’ over time if a taxonomy is not in place to allow items to be found and, consequently, be recombined into new useful information sets. The benefits of content re-purposing are clear, from maximising time and effort and enhancing your organisation’s knowledge and skills to reaching new audiences and reinforcing your message.
Unifying language across the organisation
Organisations can be spread over locations, made up of several departments or the result of a merger between two or more companies. A taxonomy (or if necessary, a suite of taxonomies to cover different facets of the information) provides a consistent ‘domain model’ so that everyone in the organisation can use the same language – and a cohesive message is passed to customers too!
Future-proofing knowledge held in the business
Taxonomies can be seen as ‘knowledge insurance’ as well. By storing and sharing classified information assets, knowledge accessibility is retained while people move on. Obviously, a taxonomy can move on too by continuously evolving inline with the needs of the organisation.
We covered a bit of ground here. So, to recap:
- Organisations that fail to understand the value of taxonomy might do so because they still don’t see content as part of the big picture. Remember: Users. Content. Context.
- A content strategy will set how your content should meet your business goals and satisfy your users’ needs while a taxonomy, as a content strategy deliverable, will help your organisation with the classification of that content.
- When managed separately from the content, a taxonomy can unify the language used across the organisation by informing all content repositories and ensuring knowledge storage is future-proof.
Diego Lago is Head of User Experience at Digirati. Diego works with Digirati’s clients to develop content strategies including approaches to information architecture and semantic enrichment. He is particularly focussed on the convergence of user experience with information management. Prior to joining Digirati, Diego worked for a number of leading Digital agencies applying a broad range of User Experience practices.