User Research for IA and Taxonomy Design

By Rachel Price and Sarah Barrett

Note: This post is from our archives, but we think it’s worth revisiting in conjunction with our recent webinar: Beyond the Data: User Research for Complex Information Challenges

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 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 our users 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.

Chart from Bain, on the Delivery Gap
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.

So, how does it happen? 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.

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 work.

If you are ready to get started with your own user research, we want to help, so we’ve put together an e-book, User Research for Taxonomy Design. Use it to get started with your own research program. Not someday, not next week – today.