For our Insights series we talked with Helen Lippell and Bob Kasenchak about Taxonomies: Practical Approaches to Developing and Managing Vocabularies for Digital Information. This curated anthology by Helen Lippell brings together experts from a range of disciplines to provide real world insights.
Helen Lippell is a consultant specializing in taxonomy, search, metadata, and semantics. In addition to developing the Taxonomies book with Facet Publishing, she is Programme Chair for Taxonomy Boot Camp London.
Whilst at Synaptica, Bob Kasenchak, formerly Senior Manager for Client Solutions, contributed a chapter on Relationships, hierarchies and semantics. Bob recently joined our partners, Factor as an Information Architect and Taxonomist.
Tell us a little bit about the project and how it evolved.
HL: About five years ago, Facet Publishing approached me about writing a book. They had recognized taxonomy was an important, growing area and one they hadn’t covered. My initial reaction was to run for the hills; writing a book sounded far too scary. During Taxonomy Boot Camp London in 2019, we had a face to face conversation and it was clear it was a good idea.
From the beginning, I knew I didn’t want to write the whole thing. For me, an edited volume had a stronger appeal. Having chaired the conference for several years, I felt I had good perspective about the themes and topics I would like to see in a possible book.
I am used to putting together event programmes with speakers, areas of focus, and understanding distinct levels of knowledge. The beauty of an anthology approach is you are sharing the workload but tapping into those varied viewpoints. I thought I could bring this experience to a book, and so I said yes.
We need to remember there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach with taxonomy. Each project has its differences. It’s one of the reasons the work is interesting. You rarely have a boring day or project. For the anthology, we wanted to reflect these different voices and experiences and be grounded in practical experience.
What’s it like being asked to be involved in this type of project?
BK: It’s very exciting and flattering. The sector isn’t massive, but there are certainly many who could have contributed, especially the chapter I was asked to work on.
This approach not only gives multiple angles but an overview from people working in the field. It’s normal to gather to listen to individual views at events; we hear their voices at conferences, albeit recently virtually. We hear them, understand them, but this doesn’t mean we know their writing style. It provides a curious, distinct viewpoint. Sometimes, when you’re listening you have to tease out what you need to capture.
How did you decide on the title and the focus of the book?
HL: In one sense it was quite easy because taxonomies are the key thing and the focus is practical. The practical element makes the anthology distinctive in the small ‘canon’ of books available.
I have built my practice and skills on the job rather than through academic qualifications. Many people who work with taxonomies have come to it from other fields of study or work. Digital information was the other important part of the focus. The book isn’t about taxonomies in the domain of library science or archives, but rather with their growing use in digital information of all sorts. I wanted to try and find the opportunities within that.
”The book isn’t about taxonomies in the domain of library science or archives, but rather with their growing use in digital information of all sorts. I wanted to try and find the opportunities within that.Helen Lippell
BK: There are other books available in the field. They’ve done a great job helping the novice, new people in the field. They are great at easing you into the technical aspects and concepts.
With this anthology we learn more than just what a monolingual controlled vocabulary is, we learn how to manage a project. How do you engage stakeholders? How do you ensure your project is implemented and adopted? These are bits missing from the current selection of books. I don’t think anything like that exists at all in this field.
Tell us about the development process.
HL: Working with the publisher, I started with a synopsis outlining the possible structure of an anthology. Each chapter is intended to cover an aspect of building a taxonomy. The book covers both business and technical aspects of taxonomy projects. We wanted the use cases to be practical approaches and elaborate on the all-important work to ensure the taxonomy is properly used by an organization.
I knew from doing Boot Camp conferences that people came up to me each year saying “I’m here because I’ve been tasked with building a taxonomy, and I’ve got absolutely no idea where to start.” The solution is to give people access to a toolbox. Providing a giant instruction manual might overwhelm them and they may not need to know everything in it. For the book, the chapters had to be a mix of practical examples and ‘best practice’ advice and tips. The chapter contributors are a mix of those embedded in organizations and consultants like me who work with a variety of clients. Between us, we have decades of experience of different approaches, places, and knowledge.
How did you identify the different sections?
HL: I started with the basic life cycle of a taxonomy project from inception, to development, to adoption and finally maintenance. I decided early on not to cover in depth knowledge graphs and ontologies because it would start to overlap with what’s already available. We wanted to create a packed but compact publication.
I wanted to future-proof the book as far as possible, therefore there is little coverage of specific technologies or vendors. The things that people need to know about a taxonomy project are enduring, such as how to build a taxonomy that is standards-compliant and sensible. How to work with your colleagues to make the taxonomy successful for users.
BK: It’s always a challenge, even when you are writing a chapter you need to draw the line somewhere and decide what’s included and what remains outside the circle. As we have said, the book is not a technical guide. Once I framed that in my mind, it became easier. We often see second, third editions of resources, whereas I think this will hopefully stand on its own for quite some time.
How did you match contributors with subjects?
HL: I had my wish list of people, although I could have filled 3 or 4 books with the many excellent practitioners in the field globally. I knew them through having worked with them, or having seen them talk at events, or through their profile in the wider community. There might be a risk, as Bob expressed previously: we know they are excellent practitioners but can they write? I think we’ve definitively proved this.
Tell us about the chapter on relationships, hierarchies and semantics.
BK: It’s a summary of what you would find in a basic introduction to taxonomies. It talks about the rules, how do you form terms, how do you build a hierarchy? What are the basic principles that you should adhere to? Instead of writing a book about the foundational elements, it’s a summary packed with basic principles. Helen gave me feedback during development that it was a little dry, and encouraged me to be more myself in the section.
There are always lots of things you can include or provide further examples. I focused on covering the main points in a way that I thought was compelling or explained in a compelling way. Rules are never simple; there might be one rule for this but two rules for that, for example.
There was an interesting conversation early on about how to present a hierarchy; do we use bullets, hyphens, or tabs? I think it has a fresh perspective, and frames some of the guidelines in an engaging way instead of long lists of rules. We also engage with the concepts behind these guidelines. This way you understand why we suggest a particular approach.
HL: Some particular taxonomy rules might sound a bit arcane, but then the reader might remember Bob’s skiing or hot dog examples because they’re real-world and relatable. This is why Bob’s conference talks are always memorable. The whole book acts as the building blocks to help readers understand the area. It’s not going to provide all the answers; you will need to deal with different scenarios and tailor solutions to the circumstances. It does give you enough to understand the principles.
Working with a variety of authors, how do you ensure each individual tone of voice is heard?
HL: I really wanted people to be themselves. If I valued their voice, their perspective, that’s why I have asked them to write a chapter. The anthology is not a textbook; I encouraged people to write in a style that was natural to them (and only lightly edited afterwards). I could hear people’s voices as I read their contributions. As long as everything’s comprehensible, it wasn’t an issue but a benefit.
For example, we have a provoking chapter titled “Everything that will go wrong in your taxonomy project”. Ed Vald wrote this chapter, and what comes through is this is someone you can trust, who will give you good honest information and ensure you are not afraid when something goes wrong. He has a keen sense of humor and I’d argue this is an essential ‘life skill’ for taxonomists.
BK: My background was academia where you often need to neuter your prose style. With this it’s more like engaging your audience through a talk, you need to keep your crowd involved and compelled.
Tell us about the Glossary
HL: We didn’t plan on one at the start, but it became clear that key terms were coming up again and again in different chapters. We thought a glossary would be an excellent resource for those new to the topic and help readers understand words as used in different chapters.
Each definition should be enough to help you understand the concept. It’s a jumping off point if you need to learn more about a particular rule or a standard.
The challenging thing is to remember it’s a glossary, not a Wikipedia entry. There is no room to cite your sources, and we didn’t want to pull definitions from other online sources. We were careful to research definitions and provide clear language. But it’s useful to define some these terms we have all been using over the years.
You touched on a user-centered mindset, why is this important?
HL: As one scenario, there are tools that can automatically generate taxonomies based on analyzing a corpus of documents and processing some input rules. A lot of our work as taxonomists is people focused – it’s persuading, listening, adapting, understanding, even arguing. There are occasions when the demands of business stakeholders might not align with what users need from your systems. You need to test and receive input on the usability of systems or taxonomies to validate your work.
”A lot of our work as taxonomists is people focused – it’s persuading, listening, adapting, understanding, even arguing.Helen Lippell
User focus and understanding are critical skills for taxonomists. We have one chapter, by Bharat Dayal Sharma, on the Diversity of terms. Bharat explores the ethics of the choices that taxonomists make in choosing how to label concepts. How do you ensure you find those diverse perspectives and avoid making assumptions and avoid putting your own biases into a taxonomy? Read the chapter and find out the techniques and tools you can use.
This is a critical area that AI tools are so far behind in. Humans are so important for this. We can see this area is changing. Another chapter covers this, Tom Alexander on User testing and validation. Tom talks to us about user testing motivation, using a charity, Cancer Research UK, as a case study. He explains you have scientific terminology that you can’t change because it comes from standards. But you also have content for different and non-technical- audiences, where sometimes user testing results threw up surprising results. You need to make sure that’s understood so that users get the most benefit from the information. This is a fascinating, down-to-earth chapter and encourages the reader to balance their own perspectives with their users’. This is why the work is always interesting.
BK: This is the sort of design approach that information architects undertake when they build websites. You need to be able to navigate the site and get from point A to point B easily. This design comes from user research. In some ways taxonomy will never quite match this as we are working with an abstract structure that has to follow certain principles. However, we can do a better job of being user-centered. I luxuriate in the abstract rules of building a beautiful vocabulary structure. But I might not consider enough how anyone might interact with it or how the system might adjust to it. We are all guilty of this, and it’s a good reminder to consider how projects are used.
What’s your advice on how to manage a mix of contributors and deadlines.
HL: It’s not dissimilar to working with developing conference programmes. I had to consider people’s time zones, as well as their day jobs and my own work too. I tried to be responsive and available to answer questions. It can lead to a lot of administration, and I wanted to check in regularly with all the contributors. Everyone needs to feel they have my attention. A few people liked the accountability of frequent check-ins, while others preferred time to think, then come back to me. Some of the work took place during lockdowns so it was nice to keep in touch with my peers while events weren’t happening. It’s been a long haul but a very rewarding process. I’ve been proud to work with these highly-talented and efficient contributors.
”With this anthology we learn more than just what a monolingual controlled vocabulary is, we learn how to manage a project. How do you engage stakeholders? How do you ensure your project is implemented and adopted?Bob Kasenchak
Taxonomies: Practical Approaches to Developing and Managing Vocabularies for Digital Information is available from Facet Publishing.
Synaptica Insights is our popular series of use cases sharing stories, news, and learning from our customers, partners, influencers, and colleagues. You can review the full list of Insight interviews online.