I was recently in a meeting where it was said that a lack of subject matter expertise is a disadvantage in taxonomy development. This is understandable; it makes sense to assume that the more domain expertise a taxonomist has, the better the final information product will be. However, my experience has shown that this is not always the case. So exactly how does the role of subject matter expert (SME) fit into taxonomy development?
As any seasoned information architect will say in response to a tough issue: "It depends," because the best solutions are crafted around contextual factors. This certainly applies to SMEs. Goals for any particular taxonomy development project will include some permutation of the following: "…increase findability…", "…enhance user experience…", "…deliver key knowledge…", and so on. These are audience-specific goals, and the importance of a SME relative to other factors depends on the target audience. What it boils down to is a thorough contextual analysis: analyze the content, analyze the domain, and analyze the users. No matter the project, we still need to validate with experts. If the target audience is composed of experts, then deep subject knowledge is an especially critical resource. However, depending too much on domain experts, without considering the range of user knowledge, can lead to overly complex terminology that may miss the boat with your audience.
3 ways to utilize SMEs to your advantage:
1) Sit down with the expert.Interviewing experts lets you see the domain through their eyes and understand where to further explore content in support of taxonomy development. This is the time to listen up and be a quick study. This is also an opportunity to prompt them for more specifics about audience needs, asking for example: Who are your main audiences?Would they understand this term in your opinion? What are typical user tasks? What other competitive sources do they consult?
2) Research audience perspective. Once you have a grasp of the expert point of view, it's time to look at the rest of the world's understanding. This can further supplement the information you've received, but may also contradict it. Search logs are a great source of hard data that proves terms and concepts used by actual users.
3) Pull rank if necessary. Deep subject expertise can lead to a limited perspective that may not take into account actual user needs. Don't be afraid to disagree with experts in the field if there is evidence that indicates otherwise. When you bring a fresh perspective to the table, you are open to all sorts of information sources and will recognize new approaches and cutting-edge developments. SMEs have a certain set of parameters they work within; that's what makes them leaders of their discipline. Conversely, we don't have to--and indeed shouldn't--stay within the lines.
As subject matter experts in organizing principles of information management, it's our job to keep in mind that users care only about what they need to get done. This perspective shifts focus from domain expertise to prioritizing user tasks. From there, domain expertise can fit nicely into the wider goals of taxonomy development.