User Research for Taxonomy Part 1: Why Bother?

The following is an excerpt from an ebook I wrote with Rachel Price, User Research for Taxonomy Design. We wrote it as a companion piece to a presentation we gave at Taxonomy Bootcamp 2016, because we think there’s a lack of good information out there about generative qualitative research for taxonomy. In our book, we break it down into simple steps so you can do your own research.

How do you build a good taxonomy?

That’s a big question, and it has all kinds of complicated answers. It’s also not the question we’re answering here. Instead, we’ll ask you:

How do you build the right taxonomy?

A taxonomy that’s good might not be right for the people who are going to be using it. The right taxonomy will be well-constructed, yes, but it will also have a scope that suits its purpose, a structure that reflects its users’ mental models, and terms that incorporate their language.

So how do you build the right taxonomy for your people? You talk to them.

Do you know what your users need?

Usually, our knee-jerk answer to this question is, “Yes, of course we know what users need!” We are perceptive, empathetic people who are good at our jobs, of course we know what a taxonomy needs to do for its users. Ideas like user warrant and techniques like card sorting are classics in taxonomy practice, and for good reason, but you have to start sooner. You have to start asking yourself from the very beginning, “Do we really know what they need from this taxonomy?”

Are you sure?

We’re making a big deal about this because it’s important, and it’s something that nearly every organization gets wrong. It’s an old statistic, and one you might be tired of hearing, but when Bain surveyed 362 firms on the quality of experience they delivered, they found that 80% believed they were giving their customers a “superior experience.” However, when those customers were surveyed, only 8% agreed.

A chart showing that 80% of companies surveyed think they offer a superior proposition and that only 8% of their customers agreed.
From “Closing the Delivery Gap,” Bain & Company, 2005

How does this happen? These are big organizations, with deep expertise in their fields, and a bottom line that depends on making customers happy.

It happens by assuming you already know what your users need. How sure are you that you’re in the small percentage that are actually delivering what their users want and need? This is why you do user research.

To put it bluntly: User research allows you to stop guessing about what might improve the user’s experience, and instead, make changes based on actual evidence of what they need.

It’s worth noting that analytics are great, and we absolutely recommend using more quantitative data (like site analytics) in tandem with qualitative data (like generative user research), but one doesn’t replace the other. Quantitative data can surface what is happening, and qualitative research can surface why something is happening.

This level of insight is completely within your reach, even if you don’t have a research organization at your disposal. Anyone can get started in user research. Of course, advanced user research takes a certain amount of academic rigor, practice, and structure, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing some basic user research to inform your own work.

Why listen to us?

We’re user researchers and taxonomists, equally. Factor’s practice synthesizes in-depth information modeling with rigorous user centered design techniques, so we start thinking about the two together, from the very beginning.

The authors of this post at work.
Doing thematic analysis (something you’ll learn to do in Part 6)

Also, we do this ourselves. A lot. Over just the last year, we did a dozen different user studies to inform taxonomy development for enterprise-level clients and refined our method with each one. We’ve gone a long way toward figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and what you really need in order to develop taxonomies that do what your users need them to.

Where to start?

At the very beginning. Don’t wait until it’s time to test a draft taxonomy to talk to your users. Get them in your head from the start.

Want to read more?