Blog

Learn how to evaluate a website taxonomy.

How to Evaluate a Website Taxonomy

This blog is part 3 of a 3-part series on Taxonomies. Read part 1 on an Introduction to Taxonomies or part 2 on Common Taxonomy Mistakes if you want to catch up.

Whether you are developing or revisiting a website taxonomy, it is important to regularly check in on the results of all your love and labor. In this article I will review some basic taxonomy guidelines and evaluation techniques that will help you build your team’s confidence as you design an efficient categorical system.

Signs Your Taxonomy Needs Improvement

First, let’s evaluate what kind of shape your taxonomy is in. Review these warning signs that your taxonomy still needs work:

  • Your content publishers struggle to apply your site’s taxonomies in a uniform manner. If your content team disagrees over which terms to use in which section, your users are also going to be confused.
  • Users are struggling to find the right content. It can be difficult to tell when users struggle, particularly on sites that aren’t tied to typical marketing or eCommerce success metrics. However, if you have user data (such as customer service or social media feedback) that points to findability issues, take it as a clear sign to make improvements.
  • Multiple classifications in a taxonomy overlap. Content publishers will struggle to identify which term to use if similar classification options appear in multiple places.
  • There is perceived hierarchy or mixed usage within a category. If this is the case, it is a great time to meet with the content strategist and talk about the needs of the website and how these terms were developed. Seek to eliminate the subcategories of your terms and, if necessary, create new categories.

 

Ineffective website taxonomies can cause confusion throughout a team of content creators.
Ineffective website taxonomies can cause confusion throughout a team of content creators.

How to Test Taxonomy at Any Stage in Web Design

You may identify problems early on or while the taxonomy is live. Below is a brief guideline of measures you can take throughout from creation to post-implementation.

Stage 1: Creating Taxonomies

Keep multiple roles involved through development and testing so that all aspects of the taxonomy system are accounted for. These roles will be crucial to gathering valuable feedback. Below are some team roles that will be useful cohorts in this journey.

Developers: This role will be aware of the possibilities and limitations of your taxonomy system. In essence, they are your experts on taxonomy as a tool.

Information Architects: Alongside the Content Strategist, your Information Architect is the person who will likely take the lead in creating your taxonomy. They will focus on efficient and representative organization of terms.

Content Strategists: This role will keep an eye on how the taxonomy will affect the structure of the site’s content. They will be able to recommend if a category is needed or not needed for your project.

UX/Interaction Designers: Keep the designers in the loop for updates, especially if you are finalizing the taxonomy in conjunction with the design of pages.

Researchers: This role will identify the best timing and methods for testing your taxonomy based on the data and insight they gather. They are likely to be very smart and fun to be around (in my unbiased opinion).

While you develop your system with these roles, establish consensus on which pageviews will be generated from your taxonomy as well as the overall business goals of the website. To the best of your ability, document what aspects will rely on your taxonomy and the purpose that it will serve, then bring the taxonomy draft to team sessions for review.

As you focus on these aspects, it will be useful to run a few card sorts with end-users. This will help your team understand the benefit to end-users and ensure you are meeting their expectations.

Stage 2: Revising and Testing Taxonomies

It’s difficult to predict exactly how everything will transpire once a website is live. If the content owners are separate from our direct team, we will also need to test our taxonomy with the content owners. This test will also be a card sort, but this time we will be working in the reverse direction, adding terms to content.

You may want to modify the standard card sort protocol to get the right results. Remember this type of testing is about replicating the proposed environment to the best of our ability, so be prepared to alter testing methods for more representative results.

As you test, pay attention to comments and actions in regard to the content owner’s understanding of the terms. At the end of your sessions you should have a good idea of problems that are likely to occur. When possible, solve these problems with adjustment to the taxonomy and terms. If a term or category has to exist and is not understandable, make sure you create documentation that clearly explains its purpose.

Stage 3: Revising Taxonomies After Implementation

Please note that the most difficult time to get buy-in for research is going to be after content is live. This is for good reason: it will be a daunting amount of work to pick through all your content and reassociate new terms. Keep this in mind as you redesign or design a taxonomy. Do everything in your power to refine and evaluate a taxonomy while the system is being designed.

However, if you think your live taxonomy isn’t up to snuff, here are things you can do:

Review terms and categories

If you find the taxonomy has been changed or added to over time, you might benefit from some revision efforts. After establishing the problem space you will be able to relabel taxonomy terms and categories. Always test any changes you make in order to ensure that you are moving in the direction of improvement.

Define, develop, and deploy staff training

If you don’t have many options for taxonomic revisions and the problems occurring are of slight severity, then consider assessing how the current system could be best employed and implement a new training guide. This will put the bulk of the burden on the content managers, so make sure you provide them with as much support and documentation as you can.

Burn the website and start over from scratch.

OK, so this is a little dramatic, but it’s worth pointing out this is a viable option—particularly if the site relies on a system that simply isn’t working.

 

Don’t discount the liberating feeling of destroying a taxonomy that doesn’t work.
Don’t discount the liberating feeling of destroying a taxonomy that doesn’t work.

How to Test Taxonomy at Any Point in the Process

Building a taxonomy is a great exercise in team communication and excellent place for researchers to assist in discovering user understanding. Your taxonomy may take a day to build and work fine for a simple website, or it could be developed over months for a more complex project. Above all, there are three principles to follow in your journey:

  1. Regularly gather feedback. Communicate with your design and development teams and test with internal and end users.
  2. Be flexible in revisions. The taxonomy will need to support the content needs of the website, so don’t get attached to a single idea. It may not work out in practice.
  3. Research other systems and guidelines related to your framework. Both WordPress and Drupal have excellent resources on using and building taxonomies within their frameworks. If you aren’t the developer, you will want to review these.

Thanks for reading and happy categorizing!