Information Taxonomy. Also: skunks

Remember biology and the classification of the Animal Kingdom? Eesh. Species and Phylum (those are the two words I remembered before I referenced Wikipedia) and a whole lot of something about whether your spine was inside or outside your body (hint: yours is inside). And if that didn't scare you off, here's another associated word: taxonomy. That's what the scientific classification system was: a taxonomy—an ordering—of information. About mammals and such. So we knew what skunks were supposed to be.


Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Caniformia
Superfamily: Musteloidea
Family: Mephitidae

Of course, this was because someone had seen (smelled?) a skunk in the physical world and now wanted to Sort It. And because skunks didn't come with a sewn-in label, we had to start by making up something to sort it in TO. Where does it GO?  It's not like God handed us carnivora is what I'm saying (in other news: I just learned that skunks eat meat. Weird).

Of course information taxonomies can organize just about anything and though we've left biology back in the 9th grade, the taxonomies we now all use on a daily basis are website taxonomies:  known to geeks as  "web information architecture."  This thing—information architecture—is high on the list of "affects us on a daily basis and we don't even notice."

Which, of course, is why I'm excited about it.

Let's do a quick website example. When I show up to the website of a museum of natural history, I expect to be greeted by a bevy of information and possibly big photos of dinosaur bones. If you're the museum making your website, suddenly you need to sort not only reptiles you find in the physical world, but also "information chunks" that you only find in our information world. For instance, what time the museum closes on Sundays, and how many curators have PhDs from places other than wikipedia.

So how do you sort information chunks?

Like the biologist, the information architect has to make something up. A mental folder. A category.

For instance, which of these would you look under to find out what time the museum closes tomorrow?

[yop_poll id="2"]

I grabbed the category examples from The Field Museum (Chicago), the American Museum of Natural History (in New York), and Smithsonian's Natural Museum of Natural History (WashDC).  And it's pretty easy, right? I'll assume most of us choose "Plan Your Visit," which all three museums use as the first header on their current websites. ((Actually, all three museums also display the hours on their homepage, which is perfect audience-centered design, but it distracts from my point right now, so I won't mention it. :) ))

And these seems relatively straight forward to us. But it gets more difficult. For instance, in the above categories, which might have more information about dinosaurs? Research? Exhibitions? Explore?  About Us? (<-- assuming the dinosaurs possibly run the website)

It could be under any of the four, couldn't it?  Less easy.

This is the problem of the web information architect: to name and sort information chunks. From business website perspective, the job is really pragmatic:  People want information as efficiently and fast as possible i.e. in the least amount of "clicks."  Where will the person on my website expect this information to be? How can I put it there?


So this is a user-oriented approach.

((I'd actually call it a "persona-action" approach, but user or "bottom-up" is simpler.)) Let's assume that dinos are actually crazy popular at your museum. So you decide, using the user approach, that Dinosaurs is a perfect category to put at your top level alongside the others. This might even take care of  two different questions users have. Maybe one wants to find out more about dinosaur bones and another wants to find out information about when they can see the dinosaurs bones. You could put both info chunks under Dinosaurs.

This approach simply asks: who is the most common visitor to my website, and what do they most commonly want to do?

But there's a problem with this, and I'm sure you already see it.  We learned it on Sesame Street. "One of these things are not like the others:"

Dinosaurs  Plan Your Visit  Support the Museum About Us

Dinosaurs is out of place. It doesn't seem to "fit."  And this is of course because we all naturally sort things in our heads. Categories are easier to understand if they seem to "make sense" in parallel to each other.

The Logical Big Idea approach

So instead he museum might think: what big categories define us as an institution? Well, we have:  a) Exhibits  b) Visitors c) Donors, and d) our own Researchers. If we create one category for each, most information chunks fill fit neatly somewhere. Dinosaurs winds up under Exhibits, even though the popular user approach might have done it differently. This is more "logical." But of course, it has its challenges too. it can be a less efficient to get to popular topics. And sometimes we realize that information chunks can still fit in two big categories instead of one.

So how did I get on this trail?

We find that websites we see every day come from the hard work information taxonomy: of sorting ideas and information chunks into little buckets that make sense.  But the buckets can be hard to define:  they can be more user-oriented, or more big-idea oriented or something in-between.

But here's what I really want to talk about:  

This information architecture affects us.

But that's for next time.

See Also:  Good article by David Cohen: The Art of Structuring Information Effectively