Friday, March 31, 2023

Taxonomy and Information Architecture Compared

There is considerable overlap between the fields of information taxonomies and information architecture. Both involve information organization, labeling, search, and findability. In some organizations the job roles and titles are combined. I previously blogged on “Information Architecture and Taxonomies,” observing that “information architecture” in name seemed to be declining while aspects of its practice continued to be strong, since it was an underlying theme in several of the talks at major taxonomy conference, Taxonomy Boot Camp in 2013.

Photo of Information Architecture Conference opening: welcome on the screen and a jazz band playing
Information Architecture Conference opening. Photo Marisela Meskus

This week, for the first time, I am attending in person the Information Architecture Conference, being held in New Orleans March 28 - April 1, so it’s been interesting to hear how information architects consider taxonomies.

How Information Architecture and Taxonomy Overlap

The fields of information architecture and taxonomy are related beyond the stated shared practices of information organization, labeling, search, and findability. 

When I give an introduction to taxonomies, I explain that a taxonomy is an intermediary between users and content to connect users to content by means of terms that the users understand and by the display of the terms in hierarchies, facet-filters, or type-ahead suggestions, which enable users to explore and interact with the taxonomy. This is clearly an aspect of information architecture. 

In my own career path, I discovered taxonomy and information architecture at the same time. I had been working as a “controlled vocabulary editor” and had the opportunity to work on an interdisciplinary team for a newly design information product. A user interface for school library research database included both a hierarchical taxonomy that was designed to fit with a particular user interface. 

At the Information Architecture Conference, I asked for a raise of hands of my session audience of how many had worked with taxonomies, and it seemed to be over 80%. At the conference, I met information architects who specialized in taxonomies, and taxonomists who had an interest and done some work in information architecture. Even though I identify as a taxonomist, I already knew a number of speakers at the Information Architecture conference due to the overlapping communities.

How Information Architecture and Taxonomy Differ

Information architecture is a discipline and a profession that is larger and more established than that of taxonomies. Although taxonomy work is growing, there are still more college courses on information architecture than on taxonomies, more books on information architecture than on taxonomies, and more people with “information architect” than “taxonomist” as a job title (based on LinkedIn searches). 

Listening to sessions at the Information Architecture Conference and having discussions with participants, I began to see a clearer picture on how the fields of information architecture and taxonomies differ.

The Information Architecture Conference brings together a community of professionals who share ideas and experiences. There is no comparable taxonomist community as taxonomy work, compared to information architecture work, tends to be done by those with different professional backgrounds: information architects, librarians, content managers, metadata architects, indexers, ontologists, etc. It’s telling that there is not just one conference at which I present about taxonomies but multiple. (Knowledge management, content strategy, knowledge graphs, and data science are the fields of conferences at which I have spoken about taxonomies in the past year.) The only conference about taxonomies, Taxonomy Boot Camp, is more of specialized track within the KM World conference, and aims to provide taxonomy best practices and case studies to managers and directors of content, product, or knowledge management. It is not really a forum for taxonomists to discuss topics of their profession, as the Information Architecture Conference is.

It seems that information architecture is more of a discipline and a field, whereas taxonomy is more of tool or system (although a very important one). In addition to information architects in organizations in various industries and consultants, the Information Architecture Conference includes professors and students in the field. By contrast taxonomy is not a field of study, research, or focus in academia. It is a focus area only in industry and consulting. Information architecture seems to allow more room for theory than does the taxonomy field. 

How Information Architecture and Taxonomy Are Related

From a "taxonomic" perspective, which is broader? For information architects, taxonomy is narrower than information architecture. There is no doubt that information architecture is broader in various ways, including content/information organization, design, user experience, and even organization of non-digital information spaces. For example, information architects are concerned not only with taxonomies to support searching and browsing for information, but also with content organization and navigation menu structuring in websites and in software user interfaces. 

Taxonomists, on the other hand, do not consider taxonomies as a sub-field of information architecture, but rather consider the two fields as adjacent and closely related. This is because the taxonomies that information architects create tend to be small, such as term lists for metadata properties or facets or as hierarchies to model menu navigation or site maps. Professional taxonomists tend to work on large dynamic taxonomies or thesauri that are used to tag/index and retrieve content or data in one or more systems, often where the user interface is already prescribed.

The related fields or disciplines are also different. Information architecture has a closer relationship with fields of design, user experience, sociology, and psychology. Taxonomy has a closer relationship with indexing/tagging, natural language processing, ontologies, Semantic Web technologies, and knowledge management. One related field shared by both information architecture and taxonomy is structured content, which was also a subject of presentations at this year's Information Architecture conference and the field of my next conference.