We live in a world where people thirst for instant access to the information. This, combined with an overload of information and so many choices to make, if we fail to provide the right content at the right time, users will simply abandon the process and move on.
Company’s informational database accumulates enormous quantity of information over a period that can significantly contribute to various aspects of a business, from forecasting to decision making. Benefits can be realized only if users are able to find and make sense of the information when it is needed. Users can better access and use the required information when it is organized into categories and subcategories using some sort of classification system. For example, a library would be of little use if it fails to organize and catalogue its wide variety of books. In the same manner, accumulated information provides very little value to users unless it is organized into a logical fragment and consistent framework for swift discovery, retrieval, or analysis of relevant information.
Poor information management lessens productivity, and it is a fact.
What’s the solution?
A well-defined classification system for naming and organizing assets is the need of the hour. When you name and organize information based on their characteristics and group together their similar qualities, the result of creating such a system is usually technical in nature. It is well known as taxonomy in the space of Information Architecture and Designing.
This year in April, I got an opportunity to participate in a global conference named ConVex, Center for Information-DevelopmentManagement (CIDM) in Baltimore, USA.
I had been assiduously exploring the concepts of taxonomies and metadata for the past months.
The concept of taxonomies is intriguing and yet new to many in the technical writing industry. Considering this, I presented a topic on taxonomy and metadata in the conference.
The idea was to create an awareness about taxonomy and metadata, why it is vital to have a corporate taxonomy, and how it benefits an organization and users of the content. These concepts are established not only to personas which are in the role of information architects, but technical developers too. Because, when you understand “The Golden Circle (What, How, Why)” concept about any strategy, you adopt and implement it better.
What is a taxonomy?
It is vital for any organization to know which terms to use and how to use them to classify their content. A classification system where you define such terms is called a taxonomy. A well-organized database optimizes discovery of the information and imbibe the use of controlled vocabularies across the organization for all its deliverables, be it online content, marketing materials, software coding, and precisely everywhere.
Taxonomy terms are considered metadata that aren’t visible publicly but perform behind the scenes to organize content.
Metadata and Search Engine Optimization
Be it a giant search engine such as Google or an enterprise search mechanism, they need to be equipped with large dataset and sophisticated algorithms to contextualize the information and present it to users when they need it the most. Metadata, or data about data, helps search engines return better results by providing the context. Metadata includes granular details about any information which results in more effective searching. For example, content title, unique identifier creation data, keywords, author etc.
How to Create a Taxonomy
A well-defined taxonomy and metadata ingrained in the content design that is uniformly used, boosts the discovery of your digital content. Now the question is, how to define such a taxonomy that helps intracompany users and customers in finding the relevant business information.
Herewith, I will share three strategies which you can adopt for defining your corporate taxonomy. You can use any of them depending on your business situation and requirements.
Strategy 1: Build taxonomy using a standard
Firstly, we need to realize that the creation of taxonomies and the way the world is systematized around us, has been there ever since people started speaking. This means, there is a systematic approach in which certain task needs to be performed. These classified systems are being used and can be referred as taxonomies.
In some industries, you must adhere to a particular standard to reference the terms in the products. Hence, instead of reinventing the wheel, it’s always a good idea to explore and analyse that the content that you are talking about, is already classified somewhere. For example, in industries such as the Automotive industry, there are engineering standards that you must adhere to while writing documentation. In some countries around the world, there are legal requirements that you must follow to adhere to a specific standard. So, invest some time to research and define the terms you should be using to define your taxonomy. There may be specific standards that you should follow to structure and organize your information, and you must adhere to it.
If your company is interested in their content to be found via Google search, you can also check Google’s taxonomy which is a public one. This can give you an idea how google expects you to structure and organize your product portfolio. This is public information that could be extremely useful and save you tons of effort. You do not have to start work from scratch and sometimes you must not start from scratch when designing your taxonomy.
Dublin Core Metadata
There are plenty of standards which can be adhered to when speaking about classification of different types of assets. The classification system that seems to be most applicable for software documentation is with a classical Dublin Core Metadata standard. It is one of the foundational standards for an entire set of content you will find on internet. Here, you can see some of the elements that belong to this standard and it can already give you an idea about what you can follow to structure and classify your documentation.
Of course, this is not enough and later you need to explore the terminology that is used in your company and enhance the corporate taxonomy in such a way that meets your business requirements. However, if you are looking for something that is centrally and globally adopted, the Dublin Core Metadata is a great starting point to classify your software documentation.
Strategy 2: Build Taxonomy by Description
If you do not find a standard classification that you could use for classifying your content, you can define and build such a taxonomy yourself. To achieve that, first you need to have a product or an asset right in front of you. Do a detailed study of that digital asset and write down as detailed description as possible. Inside this description, you must identify the specific categories of information or values (key-value pairs) that correspond to those categories and just identify them in your description.
Strategy 3: Build Taxonomy by Comparison
In today’s world where users want all their systems to be seamlessly integrated to have an uninterrupted experience, it also requires for taxonomists to align their taxonomy broadly. You can’t define and use your product taxonomy without thinking of how your product is integrated into the whole ecosystem.
Hence, take your thought process out of your convenience zone and see how others have defined their taxonomies. You will find different ways in which people think about the different products which are quantified in the organization. You might encounter different styles and versions in which a taxonomy is defined for a similar product when speaking to different sets of people.
Validate your Taxonomy with Experts and Users
Building a taxonomy is a great start if you wish to build a holistic overview of your deliverables in the company. Validating your taxonomy with experts and users regularly is a pivotal aspect. Ask yourself this question - do they use the same terms to address the same subject as you did? Your users will get the real benefit from your taxonomy when you apply it, and everyone in the organization starts using it.
Whichever strategy or model you choose, your design of people-centric taxonomy must be validated with real-time users. To validate your design, you can use the Card Sorting technique which is a time-tested brainstorming mechanism that works well for modern classification. Put together a stack of index cards, each representing a document/entity that might be used in the system. Then you should have users from broader groups of the organization decide about where they belong among the various “buckets,” depending on their categories. This way you can validate whether your designed taxonomy is usable and relevant or not.
In the era of endless usability tools/software that you can readily use to conduct online customer workshops, some of the tools you can use are Mural, XMind and so on.
Are you ready to have your corporate taxonomy in place?
I can’t emphasize more that before everyone across the company begin to simultaneously come up with competing classification systems, do yourself a favour by developing a taxonomy first. It can go a long way in becoming a reliable reference.
Defining and updating a taxonomy and identifying metadata is not a one-time activity, it is a continual process.
At SAP, having a well-defined taxonomy governed by the Information Architecture Experts group has helped move the needle in getting our company to use controlled vocabulary aligned to our brand, and have consistent usage across all artefacts in the User Assistance space.