The American Heritage Dictionary defines taxonomy as division into ordered groups or categories.
Amid today’s ocean of content, taxonomy is the secret sauce that brings light to the depths, that imparts value to all of that content.
It breaks the content into usable subsets. It groups apples together with apples, oranges with oranges. And, when needed, it groups apples with caramel, or with peanut butter, creating associations that delight our readers.
Sounds wonderful. So why aren’t we all out there creating great taxonomies? Because it’s hard. It requires a lot of understanding.
Seth Godin recently wrote about taxonomy:
Your job, if you want to explain a field, if you want to understand it, if you want to change it, is to begin with the taxonomy of how it’s explained and
Seth observed that not all taxonomies make sense. Words in the dictionary are grouped by alphabetical order because that’s the way people look for them. Imagine if, instead, the words were grouped by their origins: all words relating to Anglo-Saxon farming, say, or Roman military strategy. No one but a hard-core etymologist would be able to use the dictionary.
That’s why we, as technical writers, have to know our readers’ domain — really know it — before we can make a meaningful taxonomy. Before we can organize that ocean of content in a way that’s relevant to our readers.
Seth put it this way: If you can’t build a taxonomy for your area of expertise, then you’re not an expert in it.
I submit that the converse is true as well: if you’re not an expert, you’ll struggle to build a good taxonomy. Study your readers’ domain. Seek to learn as much as you can about it. No shortcuts.
That’s the bad news. Now here’s some good news.
In Seth’s words, once you understand a taxonomy, you’ve got a chance to re-organize it in a way that is even more useful.
That’s right: you get to group content, and form associations, in ways that no one ever imagined. Apples with caramel. Apples with peanut butter.
I’m convinced that we technical writers are as good as anyone at seeing things in new ways. We can spot the flaws in a software user interface and imagine better ways to design it. We can enliven stale marketing copy so that it better reflects our company’s brand and resonates with our customers.
In other words, we’re creative.
So here’s your assignment. Start by understanding the domain. Then infuse that understanding with creativity, and don’t be surprised if you come up with something totally original. Something that makes your content easier to find, more relevant, more valuable for your readers. Something that brings light to the ocean depths of content.
Do you create taxonomies? I hope you’ll share your techniques, and your success stories, in the comments.