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Taxonomists and Usability Experts: Learning from Each Other

Taxonomists never work in isolation: they collaborate with subject matter experts, content managers, systems integrators, information architects, and webmasters, among others. One type of professional whose area of expertise requires close work with taxonomists is usability or user experience professionals. Quite simply, usability professionals design user interfaces to software, websites, and information services, among other products and services, to make them easier to use. Since the objective of a taxonomy is to help users find information, and user professionals’ goal is to help users achieve their tasks and goals, there is obviously some overlap.

Experienced taxonomists are already familiar with usability issues, and usability professionals who work on website or online information systems usually have some familiarity with taxonomy. But each may not have full expertise in the other’s field, and thus it makes sense to collaborate.

Taxonomists and usability experts not only collaborate to achieve better results, but they can also learn from each other. I recently found this to be the case when I attended the UPA Boston Ninth annual Mini Conference on June 9. “Mini” is hardly the name for it, with 450 attendees, 32 speakers in four simultaneous tracks of sessions. Yet I was the only taxonomist among the hundreds of user interface designers, usability engineers, user experience experts, and the like.

What Usability Experts Can Learn About Taxonomies

The feedback I heard from the conference organizer was that experienced usability professionals who attended my presentation, “Taxonomies and User Interfaces” and who previously thought they knew everything on taxonomies found they learned something new. What may be new information for usability experts regarding taxonomies is:

  • A taxonomy is more than just a hierarchy of navigation topics, but rather taxonomies, as controlled vocabularies or synonym rings, also support search, and, if human tagging/indexing is involved, taxonomies also support the indexers.
  • Creating multiple synonyms or variants for each taxonomy term is another means of usability by serving the various perspectives of different users.
  • The choice of primarily facets or primarily hierarchies depends more on the content than other factors or design preferences.

Taxonomy creation is often a complex art that requires specific training and experience and taxonomy types and implementations vary greatly, so experience creating just one or two taxonomies may not be enough to transfer to other projects.

What Taxonomists Can Learn About Usability

Experienced taxonomists have a good sense of usability issues, of what works well and what does not for taxonomy users. But usability goes beyond having a “good sense.”

In particular, what taxonomists can learn from usability professionals are the details of how to conduct usability studies according to proven methods. The most common methods shared by taxonomists and usability professionals are:

  • Card sorting exercises among test users to see how they would categorize concepts
  • Interviewing sample users regarding their experiences and needs in finding information

Card-sorting exercises, which involve suggested taxonomy terms or categories written down on physical index cards or as drag-and-drop virtual cards in a software system, allow the taxonomy developer to see how test-users prefer to organize and categorize the concepts. Although a natural test for hierarchical taxonomies, more card-sorting in practice is done by usability professionals, and usability articles, books, and conference presentations on the subject go into great detail. Thus, taxonomists can learn specific tips and techniques of card-sorting from usability professionals.

I’ve done interviews before, mostly among “stakeholders” but also including those who are “users” of the information system. Planning interview sessions, however, is not part of the traditional training of taxonomists, although I had learned some of the basics from a conference workshop I attended several years ago. I was impressed to hear the details of planning and running such an interview session in more than one presentation at the UPA Boston conference. A new concept to taxonomists, although not to usability professionals, is that of “storytelling.” The interview subject is asked some simple questions at first, followed by open-ended questions seeking “storytelling responses.” A session entitled “Establishing Qualitative Criteria for IA and UX in One Fell Swoop – How to Conduct a Card Sort with Storytelling,” suggested questions such as:

  • “Tell us about a time you used the site.”
  • “What brings you here the most?”
  • “Can you tell us about a time when you were looking for this kind of information and couldn’t find it?”

Taxonomists can learn more from the Usability Professionals Association (UPA)

Taxonomies and Usability in General

Although taxonomies vary in their specific uses, purposes, and types, they all aim to help users find information. The taxonomist needs to consider the nature of the content, business and systems requirements, and the needs of the users. The needs of the users should not have any lower priority than these other requirements. User issues include the following:

  • Term wording, to start with logical words
  • Term length, as concise but clear
  • The order in which terms are arranged
  • The use of polyhierarchies to support multiple navigation paths
  • The number of hierarchical levels and terms per level
  • If facets, the exact choice and number of facets
  • How and where hierarchies expand to show lower levels
  • If and how to deal with miscellaneous/other/general categories

This list is far from exhaustive. Other usability issues include taxonomy term text size, color, font, etc., and how the taxonomy is positioned on the page with respect to other content and a search box. The taxonomist should collaborate actively with the user interface designers on all these issues. Professionals both work together to achieve the best results and learn from each other for the next time.

Earley Information Science Team
Earley Information Science Team
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