Taxonomy: bringing light to the ocean depths

The American Heritage Dictionary defines taxonomy as division into ordered groups or categories.


Taxonomy brings light to the depths of our content.

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.


All this talk about taxonomy is making me hungry.

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.

10 thoughts on “Taxonomy: bringing light to the ocean depths

  1. Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Thanks for the insights, Larry. I’m in the middle of a taxonomy project. The challenges boggle the mind at times. I don’t have a technique or success story to share just yet. (May blog about this when we get a bit further along.) In case anyone reading this is looking for a good resource on taxonomy and the general challenge of organizing and labeling mountains of information in useful ways, I recommend the book “How to Make Sense of Any Mess” by information architect Abby Covert:

  2. Marcia Riefer Johnston

    P.S. I propose another corollary to Seth Godin’s statement “If you can’t build a taxonomy for your area of expertise, then you’re not an expert in it.” Here it is: “Having expertise in your field doesn’t guarantee that you can build a useful taxonomy.” Taxonomy building requires its own expertise. Domain experts might want to consult with a taxonomy expert who can guide them through best practices and help them question their assumptions.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Hi, Marcia. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the links to Abby’s book and webinar. You’re absolutely right when you say that having domain expertise, by itself, doesn’t mean that you can create a good taxonomy.

  3. Vinish Garg (@vingar)

    Hey Marcia, I have read Abby’s book and I watched the (recorded) webinar as well. Good to see your vote on Abby!

    Larry, I am working on a taxonomy project for a wedding portal and I am struggling. Abby’s tips and insights are certainly helpful but I am struggling. This is because when I sit with UX team, we find different ways of doing it, and we are not too sure of the *best practice*. The results gathered from customer surveys and interviews are not too conclusive either. I may plan a post after I see the light and after this light helps me navigate this content ocean for right directions!

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Vinish! You’ve touched on an important point: we can’t always rely on customer surveys and interviews to tell us what to do. Customers often don’t know what they need, until we give it to them.

      Best of luck with the wedding portal. I hope you’ll end up with a great success story to tell us about.

  4. Mark Baker

    Ah, the great siren song of taxonomy! It has been made to sound like the latest panacea for all our findability woes. But while taxonomy has certain valuable applications, the current mania is largely smoke and mirrors.

    First, I must point out that taxonomy is not about organization. It is about naming. If naming alone were sufficient to organize things, then taxonomy would be the answer to all our problems. But naming is not sufficient to organize things. Godin is right the alphabetical organization is not sufficient, but the hierarchical naming scheme of a taxonomy is only slightly more sophisticated and fails to represent many important relationships between things. One can always fit things into a hierarchy, with more or less violence, by ignoring most of the ways in which they are related. And one can as easily fit them into a dozen other hierarchies, with about the same level of violence. The act is easy, and the result is often neat and satisfying, and pointless.

    Things are related to each other in multiple, various, and complex ways. A far more sophisticated approach to formally expressing those relationships is found in ontology. But even ontology, with its complex webs of triples, while it too has some valuable applications, is not adequate to express the knowledge of a field, nor does it make the information contained in an ontology accessible to humans, who do not think in the way ontologies express information.

    Human express the highly complex relationships between things with stories. They organize their view of the world and their professions with stories. Contra Godin, most fields do not have taxonomies. A few do, such as medicine and air traffic control. Most merely have specialized vocabularies for certain elements of the things they talk about, combined with mostly ordinary language, but mostly they have stories, and those stories often use even their specialized vocabulary in different ways in different contexts, disambiguating terms by the role they play in a story. (Consider the uses of the words “function” and “method” among computer programmers, for instance.)

    Finally, creating new taxonomies and arranging things in new ways is usually otiose. If you want to organize things so that people can find them, you should organize them in ways that are familiar to the audience. New forms of organization, by definition, are not familiar, and are therefore less functional. It is not impossible that you will discover some principle of analysis of synthesis that will throw light where once there was darkness. But usually the result of any new form of organization is merely egocentric, creating an artificial sense of organization and understanding that will not translate well to anyone who was not involved in the creation of the system. Creating your own taxonomy is often merely a means of cementing the hold that the curse of knowledge has over you and your ability to communicate.

    Vinish’s comment hints at all of this. There is seldom one clear and lucid form or organization for any non-trivial information set. The inherent complexity of the relationships to be expressed is, indeed, the very reason we have our rich discursive languages in which we tell stores (largely by reference to other stories). If information relationships (and therefore information organization) could be wrapped up in neat little taxonomies, would would not need stories and we would not need writers. But they can’t. Data is merely a distillation from stories, and cannot exist without the stories that define it. After that is is stories all the way down.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. While I don’t dispute your views on the primacy of storytelling, I think that you’re selling taxonomies a bit short. A taxonomy can (and should) be a tool for better understanding our readers, for figuring out how to align the story we’re telling with the stories they’re carrying around.

      Should taxonomies evolve, rather than staying static? Yes. Should there be different taxonomies for different audiences? Yes. But I still hold that taxonomies are a valuable part of the content-development process.

      1. Mark Baker

        Okay, Larry, can you give an example of how a taxonomy can be a tool for better understanding our readers?

        Let me cite and example where I do think a taxonomy is useful: Use car sites. Cars are described using a taxonomy, which defines at the top level the key characteristics of a car (body style, transmission, color, etc.) and then the common terms within each of these categories (convertible, SUV, sedan; manual, auto, CVT; red, blue, black). This is useful for organizing the content because the audience already understands this taxonomy very will. It is precisely in the terms of this taxonomy that they will, natively, describe what they are looking for in a used car.

        So in this case a taxonomy is useful for organizing the content because is a reflection of the way the audience thinks about the problem.

        Is this a case of using a taxonomy to understand an audience? I think it is the other way round: it is by understanding the audience and how they think about the problem that we discover the taxonomy. The taxonomy is not invented but discovered and codified.

        My contention is that taxonomies are useful (indeed, essential) when the audience bring them to the table themselves. But asking an audience to learn a taxonomy of our devising almost never works.

        So, can you explain how creating a taxonomy would help you understand an audience? Or do you actually mean that same thing I mean, which is that taxonomies should be discovered and codified where they already exist in the audience?

      2. Larry Kunz Post author

        Hi, Mark. Here’s an article from Content Strategy, Inc., ,Apples, oranges, and tofu that describes how taxonomies help us organize our content and write it in a way that’s meaningful to our readers.

        I’d never suggest that we create taxonomies in a vacuum, with no understanding of our audience and their world, or that taxonomies should be cast in stone, with no way to adjust them after the audience interacts with our content. However, as I’m sure you’ve seen in your own experience, it’s usually fruitless to go to the audience and ask them what they want. They do much better when we create a taxonomy, they get to play with the content, and then they suggest adjustments. Taxonomies don’t just emerge organically from the user community and then wait for us to discover them. The first move is up to us, the content creators.

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