Put in its simplest form taxonomy is just the way information is classified, labelled and grouped. It is used in many different environments and areas but the one that we are primarily interested in is how it applies to the web and, specifically, the information architecture (IA) of a website.
Whether you are constructing a completely new site architecture or trying to make sense of or rationalise an existing one, the process should be broadly the same. The primary aim of the site architecture is to help users find things they want – whether that is information, products, locations or anything else. So you need to know how users interact with the site, what kinds of things they are primarily seeking and how they go about the process in their heads.
The best way of determining this is by involving users in the classification analysis preferably using something like a card-sorting exercise. This consists of a series of actions where users group elements together in a way that makes sense in their interaction with the information. There are three basic ways of doing this:
- Open Card Sort – where the participants sort the items into groups they determine themselves;
- Closed Card Sort – where they sort into predetermined groups; or
- Hybrid Card Sort – which is basically a mixture where you provide initial groups but the users are free to use them or produce their own or a combination of the two approaches.
Items can (and will) appear in more than one group as this is how an architecture and navigation system work. Items have many potential properties – functionality, size, appearance, country of origin, components, material and son. All or any of these could be possible search items in an attempt to locate them on your site so an architecture has to take account of all the possible variables and how they relate to each other and sit together in a structure. They are also likely to have a hierarchy of characteristics; eg they can be primarily a chemical, but also a cleaner, a household product, a kitchen cleaner, a bacteria killing product and so on down the line; so that hierarchy can be an important way of defining and searching particular products.
When deciding if your site requires a taxonomy it is probably best to start from the assumption that it does. If you have a variety of products or information, a number of outlets, price ranges, sizes etc, different types of users who look at your site for different things or interact with it in different ways, then you probably need a taxonomy. You can test it out yourself; if it is not easy to find a piece of information, product or service on your site – you need a better taxonomy.