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Taxonomy, as it relates to user experience and information architecture, refers to the structural methods for how information is sorted, classified and organized.
“To effectively arrange anything, we have to choose methods for organizing and classifying content in ways that convey the intended information to our intended users.”
There are plenty of non-digital examples of taxonomies that exist in everyday life. Some examples include:
To create a taxonomy, you must first start with sorting which means arranging content or items based on an established set of rules. “The act of deciding how to sort something within a taxonomy is called classification” (How to Make Sense of Any Mess).
There are different patterns that help with arranging taxonomies, such as hierarchy, heterarchy, sequence, and hypertext.
If items are arranged hierarchically it means that there are successive categories and levels being used. Generally, two forms of hierarchy come into play: broad/shallow and narrow/deep.
Heterarchy refers to only one level of organization without further categories.Arranging a taxonomy sequentially means that there’s an established order to the way the content is experienced.
Lastly, using hypertext connects items without the need to place them directly together.
Understanding taxonomies in the physical world can help inform decisions for creating taxonomies in digital spaces using ideas such as ambiguity/clarity and mental models.
Classifications, or deciding how items are sorted, can be either exact or ambiguous. An exact classification is the way area codes in the U.S. relate to a specific area of the country — the particular county of any given state. On the other hand, ambiguous classifications leave more room for arguing the validity of a decision, such as classifying the genre of movies, tv shows and music. There’s room for interpretation and crossover. As Abby Covert puts it, “Ambiguity costs clarity; exactitude costs flexibility” (How to Make Sense of Any Mess).
“…On your website, if you have multiple ways of referring to a product or service depending on the page or section or intended audience, you may be confusing your audiences and making them question what they’re really dealing with.”
- What is a Taxonomy and Where Do I Start?
Thinking back to the organizational chart example, sometimes companies may choose playful and niche terms when listing careers on their site. For example, listing a job for a copy editor as “copy cruncher” or “grammar fascist.” This may give you fun insight into the company culture, but it can be confusing if you’re searching for specific job titles or responsibilities. That’s not to say jargon shouldn’t be used, but finding a happy medium between exactness and ambiguity is a must for the sake of your users.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people have turned to online grocery shopping to reduce exposure and limit interactions with strangers. According to McKinsey & Company, 19% of Americans shopped for food more than 3 times per week pre-pandemic (Research & Markets). One forecast estimates that the U.S. online grocery market will increase to over $152B by 2026 (Research & Markets). Because of this, many online retailers have had to refine and improve their online grocery ordering systems to account for the increase in users. In classifying and organizing their offerings, stores must take into consideration a user’s mental model. For example, tomatoes are scientifically classified as a fruit along with other produce such as bell peppers, avocados and more. However, this differs from a common mental model of tomatoes being vegetables used for salads, sauces, and savory dishes. So, in order to accommodate this general understanding, it would make sense for an online grocery store to appropriately list tomatoes in the vegetable section or, depending on the structure of the site, at the very least classify them as simply “produce.”
Knowledge of taxonomies and their prevalence in the physical world provides great examples of how to sort, classify and organize content in digital spaces.
Understanding principles like ambiguity, clarity, and mental models can help inform decisions about the structure of your product’s information architecture and impact the overall user experience.