Friday, October 19, 2012

Taxonomies for Multiple Kinds of Users

This week, I again attended the annual Taxonomy Boot Camp conference held in Washington, DC, the only conference dedicated to taxonomies. The main theme I came away with this year is that taxonomies serve diverse audiences and users.

The theme of different users was best exemplified in a session dedicate to comparing taxonomies for internal and external use. Representatives from Johnson Space Center (JSC), Astra-Zeneca, the Associated Press (AP), and Sears gave examples in panel “Representing Internal and External Taxonomy Requirements in a Taxonomy Model,” moderated by Gary Carlson. While still remaining connected, internal and external taxonomies not only have different terms for the same concept but they may also have different structure. According to Joel Summerlin of AP, internal taxonomies can be more specialized and complex than external taxonomies, and internal taxonomies need to support greater precision in retrieval results, whereas external taxonomies need to support greater recall.

Even within either the internal or external users of a taxonomy, there is great variety. But unlike the situation of internal and external taxonomies, where you can have different taxonomies linked together, you will have a single taxonomy serving a diverse audience. The use of taxonomy features of polyhierarchy and nonpreferred (aka synonym) terms can help diverse users with different vocabularies, perspectives, and approaches find their way to the desired content.

In the session on internal and external taxonomies, the diversity of internal users was mentioned by Sarah Berndt as a characteristic of JSC. In another session, Helen Clegg described the process of building an enterprise taxonomy at the consulting firm AT Kearney, which has employees in different countries and in different industry specialties. As for external users, Jenny Benevento of Sears described how the customers of its retail website range widely, from repeat shoppers of clothing to those making one-time purchases of engagement rings to those buying large appliances. From the audience, Paula McCoy of ProQuest commented on the importance of knowing, before planning the indexing, who the users are of its different database products.

Other sessions, such as “Taxonomy & Information Architecture,” also addressed the multiple uses and users of taxonomies. Panelist Gary Carlson explained how different personas are used in designing websites, and that the kinds of things that the user-persona seeks or needs can then become taxonomies or facets.
Overall in various sessions of the conference there was a great diversity of taxonomy types, and thus taxonomy users, described. These included:
  • Enterprise taxonomies for internal users, with a set of three presentations under the title of “Enterprise Taxonomies in Action”
  • Public web site taxonomies, as in the case study example of the Consumer Products Safety Commission and additional examples from in the keynote.
  • Retail ecommerce taxonomies, as in the example of Sears and additional mentions of Target and REI in other presentations.
  • Taxonomies used in for article indexing and then retrieval by library patrons of periodical/reference databases, as described in a presentation about Proquest.

Not only may the same taxonomy be targeted at different users at once, but also different users over time. In the closing keynote, Patrick Lamb observed that taxonomies can further add value when we make them available for re-use.

Finally, the conference itself attracted a diverse audience: taxonomists, information architects, data warehouse managers, search specialists, knowledge managers, and others; those from corporations in all industries, government, and nonprofits; and those both new to and experienced with taxonomies. In fact, it’s rare that you would find such a diverse audience at a professional conference. They are united in their need to make information findable, and they understand the value of taxonomies to make that happen.


  1. Great summary of informative and practical information sharing- thanks Heather! Which presentation or angle of taxonomy application was mose useful to you?

  2. Hey Heather, really great overview of taxonomies. My company, AlphaPoint Technology, was going to send me to a recent Taxonomy event down here in Florida, but they ultimately decided to hold off for now. I'd really love to attend a conference or semina in the near future. I think it's a really valuable subject to learn about, especially for a technology company with emphasis on IT asset management.