Engaging Others in Taxonomy Building

Whether you are building a new taxonomy from scratch or redesigning one based on an existing taxonomy, it’s important to engage other people in the process. There are two primary reasons:

  1. getting input from those who will use the taxonomy, so that it will better suit their needs
  2. getting buy-in and support from various stakeholders and users, so that it will continually be used, maintained, and funded

Even if you are the only person given the responsibility for creating and editing the taxonomy, and it’s no one else’s job to be involved, you should still seek the input of others.

It’s just common sense to get input from those who will use the taxonomy, although being respectful of their time in the process. If the taxonomy project can be stretched out over time, this means that asking for input does not happen too frequently.

Getting buy-in and support is an issue that is especially particular with taxonomies. People don’t always understand or respect the full benefits of a taxonomy. They may think that search alone or automatically generated keywords may suffice. Or they may prefer the simplicity of a search box. People responsible for tagging might prefer to avoid that task to save time and thus not adequately or correctly apply the taxonomy. Getting such people involved in the taxonomy creation process both educates them about the benefits of the taxonomy and gives them a sense of ownership by contributing to the process that is meant to serve them.

Others in your organization will use the taxonomy. If it’s for tagging and retrieving content internally, some people will use the taxonomy to tag content, and other people will use the taxonomy to help find content, but representatives from both groups of people should be invited to give input. If the taxonomy is to be use for public-facing content, those who will be tagging the content are still within your organization, and they should be consulted in the taxonomy design process.

Taxonomy consultants might lead 2-day taxonomy brainstorming workshops of stakeholders, conduct a series of interviews with stakeholders and users, and develop detailed use cases. While there is usually not the interest in demanding so much time of others when the taxonomy project has been assigned to a person on staff, the taxonomist should still engage other employees, at least at a minimal level. To get initial input, instead of in-person interviews, this could involve emailing a short list of questions to key users and stakeholders and the following up with a phone conversation to go over the answers. Draft versions of a starter taxonomy, which can be developed by means other than a brainstorming workshop, should be shared with stakeholders and subject-matter experts for feedback.

A rather technical taxonomy could start with asking the subject matter experts to submit lists of terms which the taxonomist would review with them and edit into proper taxonomy. In most cases, however, the taxonomist develops the draft starter taxonomy and then seeks feedback.

If you are not asking stakeholders to provide the starter taxonomy, where do you start? Someone asked me that question recently: “Where do I go to get my starter/basic/beginner list before I actually sit with staff?” I advised that you don’t need much prior to talking with people. My recommendation, in the case of an enterprise taxonomy, would be to consider the following sources for draft taxonomy terms:

  1. Folder names from shared drives
  2. A prior attempt at creating a starter taxonomy, even if never implemented
  3. Categories or tags set up in a content management system, whether or not fully used
  4. Intranet/website site map or navigation menu labels
  5. Product catalog top categories (as a starting point for a “Product” facet/Term set)
  6. Org chart (as a starting point for a “Department” facet/Term set)
  7. High-frequency use terms from search log reports

Include at least the two of these sources to share with people in meetings. I also recommend not editing them prior to initial meetings with people, but rather to get their input on this raw data.

Taxonomy work, is thus people-oriented work, like information architecture, in contrast to related fields of indexing and cataloging.