Friday, June 30, 2023

Taxonomies for Technical Documentation

Taxonomies are primarily for tagging content for what is about so that precise content can easily be found by users, who browse or search on the taxonomy terms. The types of content tagged and implementations of taxonomies are numerous. One growing area of taxonomy use is technical documentation.

Technical documentation describes and explains the use or design of products or services. We refer to “documentation,” rather than “documents,” because the format can vary, including book-length manuals, multi-page PDF files such as white papers, content for printed product inserts or brochures, public website pages, and internal content management system pages.  Technical documentation has existed for a long time. It used to be published only in print, especially as manual, like books, so the tools of information findability were the table of contents and the index at the back of manual. Now that technical documentation is most often consumed online and always managed digitally, an alphabetical browsable index is not practical to create, maintain, or use. Furthermore, indexes also cannot serve multiple-use (multi-channel) content well.

Taxonomies for content tagging and retrieval

In contrast to creating an alphabetical index of terms referencing page numbers or linked to content sections, tagging content with a taxonomy, has several benefits.

Taxonomies provide a better user experience than indexes. While an index requires the user to browse a long alphabetical list of terms until the desired term is found, the browsing of taxonomies does not require the user to already know the name of the desired term. Taxonomies that are arranged in hierarchical trees allow the user to drill down from broad categories to a specific topic. Taxonomies that are arranged as facets allow the user to select displayed terms (often listed by frequency of tagged usage) grouped by various facets (aspects) to limit the search results. 
PoolParty help documentation facets
 Facets for technical documentation could be:

  • User audience
  • Content type
  • Product (name or module)
  • Feature or function
  • Topic

The process of tagging with a taxonomy or other controlled vocabulary is also simpler than creating an index. Creating a back-of-the-book index involves not only determining important concepts, but also giving them names as terms, determining subentries if any, and creating cross-references. Only trained indexers can do this well. Tagging with a taxonomy, especially if the taxonomy is already well-designed, is not so challenging. Since the terms and their synonyms or cross-references have already been established, it’s just a matter of looking up the term that describes to concept. Technical content now tends to be managed in component content management systems (CCMSs), so the unit of content to be tagged is already designated as a component. (See my April blog post.) Thus, content managers, editors, and writers can competently do tagging themselves. Tagging with a taxonomy can also be automated.

An index is tied to a specific document or collection. The same taxonomy, on the other hand, can be used for more than just technical documentation but across the enterprise, such as for website and other marketing content, product information, and research and development. Consistent terms support more efficient and comprehensive information gathering, sharing, and analysis.

Taxonomies to serve technical documentation’s diverse users

Taxonomies are a useful information finding tool when content is being used by different kinds of users. The same, or parts of the same, technical documentation often have diverse users: product customers, prospective customers, technical support agents, consultant staff, product managers, engineers, etc.

  • Taxonomy concepts have synonyms or alternative labels to reflect the preferred wording of different groups of users. Matches to even these synonyms can be displayed after a search string is entered into a search box. documentation search on taxonomy concepts documentation search on taxonomy concepts

  •  The same taxonomy can be adapted to different user groups with different user interfaces. For example, exposing more metadata in an “advanced search” or displaying just a subset of a larger set of facets.
  • Taxonomy concepts can be managed with labels in multiple languages, supporting the tagging and retrieval of multilingual content for users of different languages.

Events on taxonomies in technical documentation

I have found increasing interest in taxonomies at technical documentation events. While I have been writing and speaking about taxonomies for a long time, in the past year I have been invited to talk about taxonomies at several events and programs more focused on technical documentation.

Recent past events focusing on technical documentation, at which I spoke, with recordings available:
Upcoming presentations of mine focusing on taxonomies and technical documentation:



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