When it’s easy and quick to find what you’re looking for in a digital space, chances are you’re being supported by a well-designed taxonomy. Designers of taxonomies dream of this outcome. However, there’s a danger in chasing taxonomy perfection and flying too close to the sun.
The value in choosing utility over perfection was a theme that surfaced again and again at this year’s Taxonomy Bootcamp.
Taxonomy Bootcamp at KMWorld Connect 2020
Back in November, KMWorld threw its annual conference, KMWorld Connect, which included Taxonomy Bootcamp. Taking it virtual for the first time, KMWorld 2020 offered a number of virtual networking events to create a sense of community for remote conference attendees.
Daily “morning mingle” sessions allowed users to connect in the virtual portal, and live chats were enabled in all sessions so that users could ask speakers questions in real time.
There was even an interactive “Knowledge Café” with four different “tables” centered on different topics and led by industry leaders. This was a great way to engage one on one with speakers and attendees and discuss topics ranging from engagement to AI to remote work.
With four days of over 100 sessions and workshops, KMWorld offered specialized tracks in taxonomy, enterprise search and discovery, and text analytics.
Since Tendo stays on the cutting edge of evolving taxonomy best practices, I chose to follow KMWorld’s taxonomy track, Taxonomy Bootcamp. Tendo’s Vice President and Managing Director, Lindy Roux, is a frequent presenter at Taxonomy Bootcamp, sharing thought leadership in the evolving sphere of digital content strategy.
What Is Taxonomy?
Before diving into my findings from this year’s conference, let’s start with a question: what is taxonomy? And no, we’re not talking about stuffed animals.
From the ancient Greek “taxis” meaning arrangement and “nomia” meaning “distribution,” taxonomy can be thought of as strategic classification: a way to bring method to the madness of organization and categorization.
Taxonomy is what makes it so easy to spend hours shopping on Amazon: its thousands of meticulously defined categories and subcategories for every item form a seamless bridge between buyer and seller. Almost every item you can think of has been carefully labeled and arranged in a navigable, hierarchical structure.
Taxonomies are especially crucial to enterprise B2B e-commerce, where a longer buying process and more complex product specifications can complicate the buyer journey. Taxonomies can help B2B buyers navigate the flood of information to easily locate the resources they need to make a purchase decision.
Takeaway #1: Useful Is Better Than Perfect
There is no such thing as a perfect taxonomy. Taxonomies are continually adapting to an evolving environment, and as such they’re eternally a work in progress.
So stop chasing perfect, and start figuring out what can work best for your current audience and situation at this point in time.
While taxonomy is sometimes considered to be an exact science, it’s anything but. Taxonomies are imprecise and inexact, and embracing that will empower you to recognize and solve the problems that will inevitably arise.
Consider the concept of the minimal viable product. You can take this approach to your taxonomy application and implementation: What can bring you the most value for the least effort and resources?
As PLI Director Alexa Robertson explained, “Don’t wait until it’s perfect. Don’t wait until it’s complete. Just get something in the hands of your customers so they can start using it right away.”
Takeaway #2: Eliminate “Empty Drawers”
Dovecot Studio’s Katherine Black also stressed the importance of imperfection in her session. In her words, “We often have to bring our beautifully designed taxonomies back down to earth.”
We can create the most intricate taxonomies, but at the end of the day they have to be usable by the real world. And often the most affordable options don’t have all the bells and whistles that we need. For example, some digital asset management (DAM) tools don’t have built-in hierarchy to distinguish between different levels of tags.
However, adapting your taxonomies to the real world can be a good thing. Why? Because it forces you to check your taxonomy’s usability and can help you identify “empty drawers.”
Black uses the phrase “empty drawers” to describe tags or fields that look good but don’t have a real-world meaning to navigation. If users refrain from using certain tags, that’s a sign that they could be irrelevant or redundant.
So how can you find your empty drawers? Take a long hard look at your taxonomy and question why things are there. What’s truly necessary, and which elements are just there to create a tidy taxonomy, and aren’t actually serving a meaningful purpose?
Black ended her talk by sharing the three main principles that help her temper the urge for taxonomic perfection:
Instead of striving for perfection, try to find a balance between what’s ideal, what’s relevant, and what’s possible.
In other words, make the best cake out of what’s available, versus creating a gourmet recipe filled with ingredients no one can find or afford (I’m looking at you, saffron).
Takeaway #3: Always Be Iterating
If perfection is out of reach, does that mean we’re doomed to deficient taxonomies for the rest of our days? Nope—that’s where iterative taxonomy comes into play.
How can iteration power your taxonomy strategy? That’s what Etsy taxonomist Marc Shimpeno explored in his session “Good Today, Better Tomorrow.”
Iterative taxonomy development is the incremental, progressive, logical development of taxonomy over time. Or as Shimpeno puts it, “gradually bringing structure to an unstructured world.”
To guide your iterative taxonomy development, ask yourself, “Is it better than it was?” If the answer’s yes, then your iteration’s worthwhile.
Etsy’s digital evolution demonstrates the value of iterative taxonomy. Etsy is an e-commerce powerhouse with a seemingly infinite array of unique, handmade goods. So it may surprise you to learn that until 2015, they did not have a formal taxonomy in place. Until then, they relied on a hodgepodge of tags and search terms to mimic taxonomic structure.
There’s a major silver lining here. As Shimpeno explained, “being late to the taxonomy party” is what’s made Etsy such a pro at iterative taxonomy: building and releasing new taxonomies over time.
Etsy began its taxonomy strategy by introducing categories. Then, they rolled out seller attributes. Next, they layered on buyer filters. By developing their taxonomy in iterations, they ensured that buyers and sellers would start benefiting from their taxonomy immediately, instead of years later when it could be “perfect.” Now, Etsy has complex taxonomies for buyers and sellers, building off of years of iterations.
Takeaway #4: Taxonomy in the Time of COVID-19
Why is iterative taxonomy especially relevant this year? Because it can help you adapt when the unexpected hits.
And the unexpected did hit earlier this year, with a pandemic no one could have foreseen. How did this play out for Etsy? Suddenly they had tons of buyers looking for face masks, and sellers shifting their product offerings to accommodate this spike in demand.
In response, the Etsy taxonomy team started by creating three main COVID categories: their first iteration. Three months later, they rolled out attributes such as style, size, volume, and format. Now, they’re planning their next iteration to further refine and specialize these new production categories and attributes.
How can you start the next iteration of your taxonomy? First, go back to where you left off and consider the reasons why. Revisit things you decided not to do and see if now is the right time. Then, sync with your team to align on approach and priorities, make use of the metrics you’ve gathered, take a deep breath, and start again.
With such a wide array of speakers, panelists, and workshops, KMWorld Connect 2020’s Taxonomy Bootcamp provided enough food for thought to make up for the lack of actual snacks. And their dedication to creating virtual networking events made the event feel less like a series of lectures and more like a live event.
Much like taxonomies, conferences are always evolving, and KMWorld knocked it out of the park with this year’s virtual conference.