There are many approaches to the building of a thesaurus or taxonomy. No absolutely right or absolutely wrong methods exist, but there are some that are not as efficient as others. Some that lead to bias in the resulting work. Some that will not work with the data the client actually wants to surface on a website or data mine or tag. There are some very expensive approaches and some very practical approaches to doing the work.

Ivory tower approaches are nice because they are not impeded in any way by the potential users. You just set up the world the way that you think it should be organized, fill in the details as you prefer, and then try to sell the user groups on your ways of thinking. Soundfar fetched?  Take a look at the Rubricator created by Lenin as an outline of knowledge. It was the basis for all organization of information (knowledge) in the former Soviet Union, and has heavily influenced the thinking of communism. To really understand the way people think, you need to understand the way the information and learning is laid out for them from preschool through advanced degrees. This is why textbooks are such a good resource when beginning a new taxonomy topic. They lay out the field. All information can be organized in different ways. The way that information is collected, tagged, and presented is the way that the readership will think about it.

Some consultants use the card sort method to find out how the taxonomy should be organized. If you do a card sort of 50 terms with a group, you will find that the teams will sort them differently. Is there similarity in those sorts? How do the subject matter experts group the cards versus how the information professionals group them? In using these methods, I have found that the experts will sort them according to the way that they were taught the field starting as upperclassmen in college, or will group them following the growth of the science or field. The information science people will sort the cards in a Dewey-esque style.

Think about what you like in the grocery store; you the user, get used to the organization of your favorite place. They have things in an expectable place for you. When they reorganize, is it something you can easily understand? What happens if they decide to separate the food depending on whether it is organic or not, instead of whether it is a dry grain or a juice? When my local Walmart redid the store floor plan last year I could not find a thing! It was so frustrating I stopped going for a while. Where in the devil did they put the paraffin wax? I thought it might be with canning or with the household cleaners, but no, it is over with the Dr. Scholls foot products. Why are the pet options all split up? Pet food is together – except bird food, which was moved to garden.

Do you have the same frustrations? Then think of your users. Is the information presented in a comfortable way for them? Is this your thought path or theirs? Are they different? The best resource for the customers will be to arrange the data as they think of it. Not how it is stored in the warehouse, not how it is shipped, not how SIC or NAICS organizes it. Use the methods and the thought patterns the users use.

Subject matter experts (SMEs) have trained for many years in increasing specificity of expertise. They know their areas very well. They begin to see the field from only their perspective. When doing a taxonomy review, you need to treat their input with care and respect. They understand the nuances because it took them many years to learn them. They are an incredible resource and of course represent a considerable slice of the expected usership of the taxonomy. But do they know the whole field? Do they have a good and broad overview of how everyone will approach the subject? Often  not. They may try to force a bias on the entire field.  So the taxonomist must balance their input against that of other experts. 

This is sometimes an uncomfortable place to be. We once did a taxonomy for a large consulting firm. We found many terms in use that seemed to have essentially the same meaning in all the literature the firm produced. But when we tried to lump them into synonyms, we learned that coining a new term was often the route to a partnership level in the firm. To lump the terms would mean  impinging on their community and area of practice. It became a very interesting tightrope to walk, balancing the real needs of the user communities with the business model of the firm and the practices they sold.

Subject matter experts need to be used in creation of a good taxonomy – without their knowledge you will miss the important detailed knowledge of the users. But they also need to be  managed. Do not bring them into the process before you yourself have enough knowledge of the subject and the terms to truly understand their input. 

Be sure you have actual documents or articles to back up your placement of the terms. The literary warrant of the term usage is critical. “I found the term used this way in this article” is much more effective than “I think it should be used this way” You are not the expert. They are. Use the terms the way the experts use them. 

Use the SMEs carefully. When you have several experts you will need to balance their comments and find common group in their term use  This is very helpful in disambiguation of thefiner points of the taxonomy terms. Get them to agree. Then use the results. Balance the expertise they bring with your own expertise as a taxonomist. You will teach them how these things work, they will  teach you what the terms mean and how they are used. They will  become the taxonomy advocates. Working together the results will be excellent and broadly applicable.

Marjorie M.K. Hlava
President, Access Innovations