How to develop a taxonomy for your information architecture

Ashlea McKay

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When I first heard the word ‘taxonomy’, I had no idea what it meant. I remember enthusiastically nodding my head at my boss about how awesome it is while frantically Googling it under the table. We’ve all been there early on in our careers. Although, what I found left me feeling even more confused — something about classifying animals? Whether you’re as confused as I was all those years ago or just in need of a refresher, this quick guide to all things taxonomy will sort you out.  

What is a taxonomy in information architecture?

Taxonomy refers to how information is grouped,classified and labelled within a shared information environment. The overarching structure of that shared information environment is the information architecture (IA) and we find our way around it using the navigation. Think of an IA as a house. The taxonomy determines which pieces of furniture belong in each room and we navigate around the house via doorways and hallways. It all fits together to create one shared environment. For a website example, think of an online shoe store. The shoes might be organized and labelled by color, size, style, season or collection — that’s the taxonomy. The overall picture of where those groups of shoes live is the IA and in our pursuit of new shoes, we might navigate that structure via a navigation bar at the top of the page. In the amazing Grand Taxonomy of Rap Names visualization below, we can see how the information is categorized, connected and labeled through the lines and the colors. There’s no structure or hierarchy to it yet; that would be the next step in the process to build the IA.

A taxonomy visualization of rapper namesSource: http://hiphopmakers.com/grand-taxonomy-of-rap-names

Creating a taxonomy

There are so many different ways to carve information up into a taxonomy and the key drivers for determining that are your content and, of course, your users. Your taxonomy needs to make sense to your users.

You may be starting from scratch with a new website or you may have inherited a taxonomy that for whatever reason just isn’t fit for purpose. The first step when creating an initial taxonomy is to do a comprehensive audit of your content. Ask yourself, is your content relevant? Is it up-to-date? Is it all necessary? Are there opportunities to delete or condense content? Once you have your content sorted, you’re ready to move on to the next step of running a card sort with users.

Running a card sort early in your taxonomy creation process will allow you to build it up from an evidence based foundation. There’s no point guessing then testing and potentially going back to square one, when you can co-create with your users and then test that informed approach to validate and further evolve your thinking.

When you’re designing your card sort, you’ll need to decide if you’re going to do an open, closed or hybrid sort. Here’s a very high level look at what each type involves:

  • Open: participants sort cards into groups and name their own categories
  • Closed: participants sort cards into categories determined by you
  • Hybrid: participants sort cards into categories determined by you AND they can also make up their own.

This early in the taxonomy creation process, it’s best to start out with an open card sort. Not only will this tell you how your users expect your content to be grouped, but will also provide insight into the language and labels that they would expect that content to be associated with. You never know, an open card sort may even surface something you hadn’t considered. At this stage of the process, it’s important to be open to ideas and new possibilities and an open card sort will do just that.

Once you’ve settled on the type of card sort you’ll be running, you’ll need to decide if you’ll be running a face to face (moderated) card sort or a remote (unmoderated) card sort through a tool such as Optimal Workshop’s OptimalSort. Either approach will add immense value to your taxonomy creation process or you could get the best of both worlds by doing both at the same time! OptimalSort enables you to print out cards for a moderated card sort and with the help of a generic barcode scanner, after your participants have sorted those cards, you can scan them back into the tool and access the benefits of OptimalSort’s powerful result analysis functions. Learn more about running a card sort and more through our 101 guide.

After you’ve run your initial open card sort with users, you should have everything you need to create the first iteration of your taxonomy. Consider everything you learned during the card sort and cross reference that with your business goals and any tech constraints you might be facing. Don’t stress too much about nailing it this time around — remember this is the first iteration and as you test more and learn more, you can make changes. Build out your taxonomy in Post-it notes with a team and then whack it into a spreadsheet to make future testing and iteration activities easier.

How to test a taxonomy

Now that you have the first iteration of your taxonomy, it’s time to have a go at structuring those groups into an IA and running a tree test. A tree test works like a card sort but in reverse — it allows you to test your thinking by working backwards. Optimal Workshop’s Treejack is an online tree testing tool that helps you assess the findability of your content without any visual design elements. All you need are clear objectives for what you’d like to learn more about and a spreadsheet version of your draft IA (told you it would come in handy! ). Learn more about Treejack and tree testing through our equally handy 101 guide.

Another way to test your taxonomy thinking is to run another card sort. However this time, a hybrid or a closed card sort might be more suitable. A closed card sort would be useful if you’ve got evidence to suggest that your group labels are making sense to users but you’re not 100% sure what belongs in each group. A hybrid sort will let you go one step further and tell you if your content does in fact fit within those labels and if not you’ll also pick up some new ideas to iterate your taxonomy further.

Developing a taxonomy is like any other design process. Bring users into your process as early as you can and never stop iterating, improving and learning.

Oh, and about those animals — I wasn’t entirely wrong. The way we classify animals (e.g., vertebrates and invertebrates) is a taxonomy. There are taxonomies everywhere and they’re not all digital. From libraries to supermarkets, we are immersed in taxonomies. It's the role of information architects to determine how these taxonomies are presented to us and how we navigate through them — the possibilities are truly endless!

Further reading:

Ashlea McKay
  • Ashlea McKay
  • Ashlea McKay is a Senior User Experience (UX) writer, researcher and keynote speaker with a background in industrial design. Ashlea is also Autistic and has held state and national level volunteer leadership positions in the Diversity & Inclusion space. Ashlea is the Chief Columnist and Co-Founder of UX advice column, UX Agony Aunt which can be viewed on the Optimal Workshop blog. A well respected UX thought leader, she is passionate about mentoring and is heavily involved in the global UX community. Ashlea is currently writing a book about her experiences and ideas as an Autistic UX professional. Based in Canberra Australia, Ashlea is an art and craft obsessed cat lady with a love of vintage fashion who missed her calling as a hairdresser.

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