The Art of Taxonomy Design

Throughout my years of taxonomy design consulting, I’ve tried to balance the human side of taxonomy with the data-driven side. This has evolved over time to inform the hybrid taxonomy design methodology that EK leverages.

Art of Enterprise Knowledge Taxonomy DesignThis approach leverages both top-down engagement (generally more human factors such as interviews, workshops, and focus groups) as well as bottom-up analyses (typically data driven aspects) in order to develop a taxonomy design that is intuitive and will be embraced by the average user, but is also representative of the organization and its contents, and flexible enough to adjust as the organization changes. Nearly two decades ago I coined the term “Business Taxonomy” to reflect that concept of a user-facing taxonomy. I find the term no less appropriate now as it was in 1998.

All taxonomists, as well as many consultants in the broader Knowledge and Information Management consulting arena, should be familiar with the data driven aspects of taxonomy design. Key inputs for analysis include:

  • Existing Taxonomies – Most organizations possess existing taxonomies, whether they call them that or not. Even the structure of “organically grown” file shares can provide meaningful inputs on potential taxonomy terms and key metadata fields.
  • Usage Analytics – A host of user analytics can be extremely valuable to the taxonomy design process, including most popular search terms, most popular content, and common navigation paths. Referral terms from public websites may provide another important input.
  • Competitive or Collegial Taxonomy Designs – Given that many taxonomy designs are surfaced as navigation or facets for public findability, a myriad of existing taxonomies are readily available for those who know how to look for them, even if they aren’t published as such. Though these can be valuable, I generally offer the same warning I do with “off-the-shelf taxonomies.” There is a place for them to expedite industry standard taxonomy designs, however, this is not generally the starting point I recommend to an organization attempting to design a new Business Taxonomy, as it can lead to unnecessary entrenchment. In other words, organizations can get stuck attempting to adjust an existing taxonomy to their needs when it would’ve been more efficient and more effective to design their own starting from a white board.
  • Content Analysis – A review of the actual content/information/products/people for which an organization is seeking to develop a taxonomy is another key aspect for analysis. The specific user needs and business cases will determine how deep such an analysis needs to go and how exhaustive it should be. We generally begin with a semi-random sampling of content and assess it based on existing tags, placement, usage, and a characterization of topic, type, and other TO-BE attributes.


Managing these data and analysis driven aspects of taxonomy design is only part of the puzzle. What many taxonomy design efforts lack is the human side of the design. This piece of the puzzle is just as important, if not more so.

At its core, what we’re discussing here is usability and findability. Taxonomies today are no longer just for librarians and information specialists. Based on the maturation of content and document management technology as well as an improved awareness in the industry as a whole, organizations are more often leveraging taxonomy to drive user-focused findability. In many cases, taxonomy is now driving the complete navigation of a site or system. Beyond faceted navigation or enhanced search results, an effective taxonomy can drive the design of an enterprise system, as it has done with the National Park Service’s Common Learning Portal.

That is where the art of taxonomy design comes into play. In order to design a usable and intuitive taxonomy that may be leveraged to drive the overall structure and findability of a site, we must engage with the actual end users.

Engaging directly with the end user can help to:

  • Identify key attributes (metadata fields) and potential starter terms that reflect the natural language of the organization;
  • Work through organizational misalignments to obtain consensus on attributes definitions and terms;
  • Find terms that are critical to inclusion as well as those that need to be avoided;
  • Pave the way for adoption of the new taxonomy by communicating it, helping everyone to understand its value, and giving stakeholders an opportunity to influence its design;
  • Identify additional starting places for more bottom-up analyses;

I’ve written about our standard workshop practice, but that is just one of the many ways to engage with end users in a top-down approach:

  • One-on-one Interviews – Typically most effective with stakeholders and senior leadership within an organization to identify critical inclusions/exclusions and understand overall project goals and user needs;
  • Focus Groups – Centered around a particular function, geography, or product category in order to elaborate on an existing design; and
  • Enterprise Workshops – Focused on breaking down organizational barriers to define and prioritize a broad set of Primary Attributes.
  • User Workshops – Driving a cross-section of actual system contributors and/or end users to define attributes and terms natural to them.

Central to these top-down design approaches that engage directly with stakeholders and end users is the need for a strong facilitator.   The mission of the taxonomy design facilitator is to give voice to all contributors while helping to drive toward meaningful consensus and buy-in.

Effective taxonomy design facilitation and workshopping will provide you a truly usable design that reflects the needs of your users and your organization. It will also provide a constituency that is bought in to the new design and the value it can hold.

Like many KM initiatives, buy-in and communications are just as important as the actual design (of the taxonomy, or the system as a whole). Change management is critical to success, and developing a design/system that users actually want to use and feel as though they had a hand in creating is an important aspect of this change management.

As you begin your next taxonomy design effort, make sure the people leading it are experts in facilitation and communication as well as data analysis and taxonomy design. If you’re looking for a complete solution to your taxonomy design effort that covers both the art and science of taxonomy design, contact Enterprise Knowledge.   We will work with you from start to finish to give you the design that works for your organization and your users.

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 »