Faceting is Sweet

In my nearly twenty years of taxonomy design consulting, one of the greatest challenges has been explaining the value of taxonomy to non-taxonomists. This is a particular passion of mine, and one in which Enterprise Knowledge has invested a great deal of effort.

One of the most powerful ways we can explain the value of taxonomies is by discussing their business value and outcomes. We frequently invoke our concepts of findability and discoverability.

We leverage real world examples, often from eCommerce, to convey the value and outcomes from a well-designed and actualized taxonomy. Sites like Amazon, Zappos, and Home Depot have all designed extremely powerful faceted navigations, powered by taxonomies, to maximize the findability and discoverability of their products. Improved findability and discoverability improve business value by improving sales and customer satisfaction.

The concept of faceted navigation (also known as faceted search or browse) means that you:

  1. Define a set of metadata fields (or attributes) that best describe your “products.”
  2. Create a finite set of values (taxonomy terms, or controlled vocabulary) to discretely populate each of those metadata fields.
  3. Document a set of rules for how each of those values will be applied to each of those fields for each “product.” For instance, which fields are mandatory, which fields can receive only one value from a taxonomy versus multiple fields, etc.
  4. Create a simple user interface to surface your facets.

If done well, these concepts will allow an individual user to choose their own path by selecting the various values that fit their specific needs, finding everything that matches all of their criteria, but excluding that which doesn’t.

If, instead of being an award-winning, globally recognized consultancy in Agile Knowledge Management services, EK, were, for instance, an online candy store, I would:

  1. Wear a Willy Wonka style suit to work every day; and
  2. Want to ensure any visitor to our store could find exactly what matched all of their wants and needs (findability), and
  3. Ensure any visitor would get to discover the broader range of products that met some or most of their criteria, helping them find something they wanted but didn’t know they wanted (discoverability).

We wouldn’t offer a single bucket of mixed candy. We’d offer our end users the ability to be the proverbial kid in a candy store and select any candy in the store which looks tempting. This, very basically, is the idea of faceting.

Instead of a random mix of candy, we would begin asking what our customers care the most about. In the case of our candy, some of the most important criteria might be:

  • Type
  • Color
  • Flavor
  • Wrapping
  • Brand

Next, we would define a taxonomy of values for each of the fields we wanted to employ in our faceting:

  • Type: Chocolate, Hard Candy, Gummy
  • Color: Purple, Green, Blue
  • Flavor: Lime, Apple, Blueberry, Raspberry, Grape, Chocolate
  • Wrapping: Yes, No
  • Brand: M&M, Jelly Belly, Wonka

Translating this into a clean and simple navigation would mean we’d prioritize the most critical taxonomy values. Do customers care more about flavor or color? If the answer is “flavor is more important,” then flavor gets more visual weight on the page. As a result, our end user, in one click, would be able to move from the single bucket of candy…

Single bucket of candy

To seeing only candy of a particular color…

Candy by color

Or candy of a particular type…

Candy by Type

What’s even more exciting about faceting, however, is that in just a couple clicks, our user can choose the candy of a particular color and a particular type…

Candy by color and type

In this way, a user can move from an unwieldy bucket of everything (which a bunch of candy they don’t want), to a bucket of their favorite candy. They can also discover some new sweets that meet the same criteria as their favorite candies which they didn’t even know existed..

Now, in truth, no matter how many of you wish you ran a candy store, you most likely do not. In fact, many of you aren’t selling anything at all, or at least aren’t responsible for the selling of your company’s products or services. Instead, many of you are purveyors of knowledge and information.

These same concepts of faceting can be applied to your organization’s information, either internally or externally, in order to drive the findability, discoverability,and overall usability of the content with your organization’s intranet, knowledge base, help desk, learning management system, or website.

The key to leveraging facets for content is similar to our candy example. Just as a shopper would want to filter candy by type, color, and flavor, a seeker of information in your organization’s content systems would want to filter content based on common facets such as  topic/subject, type/format, and source. EK’s own Knowledge Base provides a great example of this. Each organization has their own perspectives and priorities for how their own information should be faceted. Our business taxonomy design workshops help organizations to identify and prioritize these facets.

Faceting can be one of the best ways for you to ensure your people find and discover the content they need to do their job, complete their mission, and enjoy a user-friendly experience. As a result, your organization will better use and reuse the content you have, serving your employees, customers, and partners more effectively and efficiently.

If you need help ensuring this sweet experience for your organization, let us know.


Zach Wahl Zach Wahl Expert in knowledge and information management strategy, content strategy, and taxonomy design. Zach is passionate about forming and supporting high-functioning teams and facilitating results-focused outcomes with his clients. More from Zach Wahl »