August 10, 2012 - 10:07 AM
Taxonomies are very vulnerable to influence from many conflicting opinions. This is why an evidence-based approach is very important, restricting the flow of opinions until the taxonomy has been drafted and tested.
Taxonomists are often pressured into consulting with stakeholders on the content of the taxonomy. However, while stakeholders may have lots of opinions on what they want to see, these opinions are often modeled on what they are currently familiar with. Your stakeholders will rarely be professionally trained taxonomists, or understand the usability implications of what they ask for. Simply asking for opinions does not help if you have no criteria to moderate conflicting feedback, or assess its quality and relevance. It is quite common for opinions on what is needed in a taxonomy to be in conflict, and this can lead the taxonomist into circular processes, as competing stakeholders pull the taxonomy design this way and that.
Sometimes the taxonomist is directed to subject matter experts, and this might seem a reasonable response if he or she needs to find some way of moderating conflicting opinions from consultation. However, experts (and their language) are not always representative of the target audience for a taxonomy. Moreover, experts, almost by definition, will frequently differ from each other, and this can produce more problems that it resolves. And experts tend to be invested in the detail of their own sub domains, and often do not have sufficient overview of the overall knowledge landscape and collection of user communities to be served by the taxonomy. There is a danger that the taxonomy will end up as an ill-matched jigsaw puzzle of overly-specialized vocabularies that do not join up.
The final resort of many taxonomists who are caught in the consultation and expert traps, is to retreat from consultation and resort to technical design processes derived from library and information science. They protect their process by making it an impenetrable “black box” so that the technical purity of the design cannot be interfered with. The danger in this approach is that the taxonomy does not completely represent user needs, and users do not understand the rationale for design decisions taken by the taxonomist, and hence resist its adoption.
The correct empirical approach to taxonomy design starts with real content and real users in realistic situations, extracts the language and organizing principles from them, and uses that as the basis for the design. This is called working from warrant (or authority) which simply means nothing gets into the taxonomy without some evidence from your user communities.
This design is then tested empirically with real prospective users of the taxonomy. There are a number of testing techniques.
Only after testing and subsequent refinement do we go for consultation - and the consultation is very specific, on matters of completeness and accuracy, not general comments on the taxonomy design. Additional suggestions for the taxonomy in the consultation phase must be backed up by warrant (not opinion), and if they involve substantial changes, must be re-tested.
Tell us about your efforts to design taxonomies in your organization.
What lessons did you learn in designing your taxonomy?
I will be speaking at the following events:
September 18th– 21st, 2012 AIIM ECM Master class in Amsterdam
September 25th– 28th, 2012 AIIM ECM Master class in Silver Spring, MD
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