Beyond Digital: taxonomies & ecosystems

My brain works in metaphors and synonyms and is amused by snappy acronyms for phrases spoken by friends and colleagues (FAC). Unlike my wife and fellow co-founder, who is a highly qualified law graduate and expert strategist, my higher education experience consists of the occasional sneaking in to lecture halls in London, Oxford, Seattle and Michigan; my learning garnered from a dust-coated library with curriculum spanning sociology to 19th Century mythology, Blackadder scripts to psychology texts, architecture manuals and vintage children’s annuals, hipster magazines and lean-in-fifteens. All things considered, I am the greater pub quizzer and the disparate reading list does wonders for my metaphor game.

The author, Steven Johnson, disregards the notion that ideas are ‘eureka moments’, and instead argues that

an idea is a network on the most elemental level..a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain…a new configuration that has never formed before”

In agreement with Johnson, I proudly wear the stripes of general knowledge, making habit of wandering in new environments and cultures in the hope and experience that seemingly unrelated fields inform and enhance each other. Like the baseball bat that swings faster when adorned with the divots of a golf ball, the sub-saharan baby incubator that works more like a Volkswagon Polo or leveraging the inherent stickines of sticky tape to develop graphene. The application of metaphor; the cross pollination and interconnectedness of fields, systems, ideas and models is a key concept that informs our work and practice at Kore.

Our family’s peacock plumage (the aforementioned home library), impressing visitors with apparent wisdom and 15 minute cooking prowess, remains largely unread for the last two years due to the arrival of a son, our first child. He likes to build: wooden bricks, Lego Duplo, Megablocks, Uncle Goose’s Robot blocks and cushion dens. Six months ago, his architectural achievements were built as monochromatic single colour structures. Megablocks were emptied to the floor, sorted into piles of red, blue, green and yellow to then be constructed in isolation of each other.

As a strategist and information architect who employs the use of taxonomies, this metaphor is of particular interest. Yes, you can build something great with blue bricks, or yellow bricks, or red bricks, or green but when different fields and systems collide to create something more complex and colourful, we discover potential to create something more powerful and worthwhile through language.

To quote a much used anecdote, “information architecture is the design behind the design”; it is the commitment to and practise of understanding and organising information. It is the unseen design that allows for the smooth, delightful, efficient design experiences that we take for granted every day at our computers, on our mobiles, on the Underground or at the airport (read this helpful piece by Louis Rosenfeld for more). Taxonomies are employed by information architects, librarians and, surprisingly, taxonomists as a means of organising and categorising terms; the word originally coined in French from the Greek taxis, meaning ‘arrangement’, and nomia, meaning ‘distribution’.

Digital taxonomies are commonly experienced as menu items across the top of a webpage, each item creating a home that hosts other terms, ideas and pages that are deemed to best fit within it rather than any other. Or, when you browse for nearby, collection only items in eBay and are met with a plethora of categories that help you refine the bargains or typos that you’re looking for, helpfully ‘arranged’ and ‘distributed’ by hidden taxonomists locked away in rooms with caffeine, sharpies and typewriters.

Following Taxonomy Bootcamp London, at which I spoke in October (and upon which this is based), I received an email from Internet Librarian International informing me that

“Taxonomies are the new black”.

Businesses are increasingly recognising the power of information architecture and taxonomies within their digital offerings but they often, and understandably, limit them to specific websites or even specific categories of a website, or at most to their full catalogue of public facing digital spaces. Through work that we’ve undertaken with Kore and as an occasional freelancer in the IA / UX world, I have however, repeatedly been witness to the missed opportunities and failures of organisations, small and (quite frankly) gigantic who limit their taxonomies and the strategic organisation of language purely for click-rate dividends. In our conversations with clients, we propose that the value afforded to organisations is directly proportionate to the scope; to the places and spaces considered within a taxonomic project…and for me, this extends beyond digital.

  • Your website does not exist in isolation to your other websites.
  • Section A of your site does not exist in isolation to Sections B and C.
  • Your websites do not exist in isolation to the rest of the internet.
  • Your websites do not exist in isolation to your wider organisation: staff team, physical stores, offices, products and services etc.

The introduction of a new digital taxonomy can create change, it can increase sales, it can lead to better wayfinding and more enjoyable customer experiences. Building with red bricks is just fine if you recognise that what you build or commission does not exist in isolation. We all know this, but a user’s understanding of language, the world and your organisation is not limited to your website because there is a wider ecosystem of information within which it exists, comprised of other environments, systems, structures and taxonomies, some of which or none of which were created by you and your crack commando unit of digitally native employees.

When systems reside within larger ecosystems of information there exists an inevitable taxonomic disparity; a failure of understanding creating gaps and missed opportunities for organisations and organisms, competing taxonomies that limit the impact and success of well-invested taxonomy projects. Taxonomists, UX researchers and information architects plan for this: hours of research ploughed into understanding users’ intentions, motives, habits and linguistic tendencies but the best laid plans of mice and men. Organisations change, develop, merge, takeover, acquire, create new products and services that were unforeseen even a few years ago and with every iteration taxonomies collide.

We encounter taxonomic disparity like this every day. Until recently, the following four terms each had a specific ontology, or as my friend Dan Klyn says: ‘What we mean when we say X’. Then the world reels from the effect of a global refugee crisis and today, due to a common disregard for these terms and their meanings, the prevailing public understanding perceives these as equivalents within a broader taxonomy of fear.





However one voted in the UK’s Referendum of June 23rd or whichever brand of politics you find affinity with, this taxonomic failure of understanding has wide reaching implications that we’re only beginning to see the effects of due to competing taxonomies in politics and media.

I consider this a lesson to be heeded for taxonomists and UX professionals, myself included; off-the-cuff decisions made while creating the design behind the design have far reaching consequences, and in the pursuit of understanding, we have an ethical responsibility to inform and educate, not just list more synonyms. These four terms do not mean the same thing, at best they are ‘related-terms’ but if we continue to make smart business decisions that connect these and other words as interchangeable in our Content Management Systems, we subconsciously undermine definitions every time a user searches for asylum seeker and find an article on illegal immigrants or are told ‘You might like Taylor Swift’ when streaming the latest Kanye track.

We may experience this disparity in global politics, our frustrations with music recommendations or when we make an enquiry or complaint with a service provider. A cursory look at the website for my local council surfaces browsable categories of services to help find the service I’m looking for. However, unrepresented in the public wayfinding is the internal structure of the Council which is divided into three primary internal directorates:

  1. Corporate Services
  2. People
  3. Place

When these Primary Internal Directorates are held up against the list of services, you encounter spaces that don’t match and confusing cross listing…this is probably why the directorates aren’t used for public wayfinding.

Disclaimer: I’ve never worked for my local council or crossed the threshold of their offices. Making queries regarding the disposal of excess soil at my allotment, contesting parking tickets and registering the birth of my lego building son constitute the extent of our engagement. So, perhaps this is the perfect way to structure both their website taxonomy and their organisational structure but I would guess that they encounter missed opportunities and that real people with real problems fall through the gaps. When a phone call is made regarding an important issue and a constituent is passed between departments, humming along to Greensleeves with growing frustration, because their enquiry doesn’t fit.

This, and a million examples like it are in part due to disparity between the competing taxonomies of public wayfinding and private structure. However, what if the external face and structure of the Council matched the internal face and structure of the Council? What if our job titles and departments aligned with our products and services in a way that we could surface the same facets and categories in both spaces?

The same situation faced by the human rights charity that has no control over the meaning of migration is also faced by Councils and other businesses daily, as receptionists receive calls for departments that do not exist and IT teams receive interdepartmental requests for facets that don’t appear within the company’s data. There are wider ecosystems of information beyond the boundaries of the briefs that we receive from our clients; the systems are not in monochromatic isolation and they are not just digital. The success or failure of any UX / IA project and its architecture depends upon the understanding of the entire information ecosystem.

“The classic pervasive seduction to designers is finding a solution instead of the truth” — Richard Saul Wurman

Organisations repeatedly ask How do we understand a user at every point of their journey? which is largely underpinned by the question And how do we convert this understanding? It is a challenge to follow this question to its root, that as designers of the design we would do this at every point of the journey, not just the digital journey, or the route to digital. As information architects, we’re given a specific remit of ‘Website X’ or ‘Subsection A of Website B’, but with all the best intentions, researching skills, ethnographic prowess and best practise, there are wider information ecosystems that the majority of us are never given access to. If we do indeed have ethical responsibilities in search of the truth then surely our jobs amount to far more than the arrangement and distribution of bits and pixels. What if we could create taxonomies for these bigger ecosystems? What if our management or client were brave enough to hand over the whole box of Lego? It is undeniably disruptive for an organisation to do this but it is also powerful. This kind of thinking borrows from enterprise taxonomies and systems thinking but ecosystem thinking is possibly more expansive and potentially valuable to the design behind the design.

At Kore, we’ve recently been fortunate enough to engage with a brave client: a pioneering spirit with enough trust in us to hand over the entire box and give us the taxonomists dream (and headache) of all the Lego…everything up for grabs. Our client works in the Financial Services sector, with 50+ staff, £80+ million annual turnover, a content creation arm and 150,000+ unique users. Our initial environmental scan saw us isolating and collecting terms from their websites, web categories, a logged-in user environment, project specific websites, email communications, three brands across six social media platforms, printed communications, marketing, brochures, advertising, a primary custom data hub, BI data, three Content Management Systems, a Customer Relationship Management system, countless Excel spreadsheets, their physical offices and presences at events, their department names, job titles, recruitment process, staff training, phone glossaries, reporting, board communications, Key Performance Indicators and future business plans. That’s not to mention the wider research on competitors, lightweight keyword search terms, cultural influences and user research including interviews and card sort activities with the staff and user groups.

In expanding the reach of our environmental scan to the company’s entire ecosystem we were able to see, understand and strategically rebuild a language for the whole organisation. It also unearthed key findings that we may have never otherwise discovered. For example: the disparity between the colloquial internal language that staff used to describe themselves and the external perception of the organisation from its users. Or, that the data structure and its key facets and categorisations were at odds with the language used in other areas of the company, including websites, products and services and organisational structure.

We all know this, but clarity of meaning is everything, so when given the opportunity to assign universal meaning across an ecosystem and aid understanding between its component systems, we create strategies and propose shifts in mindset to create singularly understood meaning. It is then we find that clarity can transform this understanding for all users, customers, staff, board, directors, bots and strangers that ever encounter the ecosystem.

Following our environmental scan, we began by isolating six distinct language environments (or systems) within our client’s ecosystem:

  • data
  • metadata
  • public facing websites
  • products and services (including content creation)
  • organisational structure
  • reporting

We subsequently created a standalone taxonomy for each of these systems with the relevant structures to support them; the taxonomies were different in form depending on the system they served, with different models of hierarchy, some with synonym mapping and some without but all six taxonomies were powered by one centralised controlled vocabulary.

The controlled vocabulary acted primarily as a source for ontologies and 99% of the time we were able to create an ecosystemic meaning for each word or term irrespective of which language system you found yourself in. Facets were generally mirrored across data, websites, content management system, phone glossaries and reporting. In different taxonomies the key term may be recorded alongside different synonyms or related terms but the centralised ontology remained intact.

This approach created an ecosystemic expression of hypertext. Hypertext allows you to move from one web page to another via a word with a URL assigned to it. From an Information Architect’s perspective, seamless use of hypertext is achieved when both the point of origin and destination agree on the definition of the source word. i.e. On reading the Wikipedia entry for Taylor Swift, I select the blue text of Kanye West which brings me to the Wikipedia entry for Kanye West. In the aforementioned ecosystemic instance, it does not matter where you are within an organisation’s ecosystem; a term will carry the same meaning, there is never disparity, understanding is maintained and communication is bettered. You can jump from a first time user of a mobile app to a board meeting with long-term stakeholders and the language used will be relatable; when one system talks about X, another system understands X.

An ecosystemic approach to language creates universal meaning internally and externally aiding user/staff, inter-department and board/staff communications. It will aid the migration between services for their users, it creates language foundations for future services and is already proving to be transformational for our client. They’ve since had an organisational restructure and are in the process of changing their department and job titles. Those conversation aren’t always easy… “so, you know how your title is Head of Department B with power over all things, the Lord of Customer Relations…well, now…we kinda want to call you Customer Services Deputy Director.” …but the resulting understanding will be worth the conversation.

Creating taxonomies with centralised vocabularies that feed into multiple systems has huge potential when governed effectively: across digital, in-store experiences, organisational structures, advertising and more. It creates value by providing a structure into which future taxonomies can enter the ecosystem and is especially pertinent when looking to the future of technology and digital experiences. The way that we interact with organisations and each other is changing through the introduction of wearables, smart objects, the Amazon Dash Button, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality applications, affordable in-home 3D printing, Artificial Intelligence, voice recognition, chat bots, gestural interfaces and meaning assigned to pressure on touch devices.

These developments will require that our digital taxonomies are no-longer just digital. Our taxonomies will not be reserved for our screens but they will be mapped onto physical objects, they will create layers of perception as we look around us and they will be printed into our hands. Ecosystem Thinking could allow taxonomies, ontologies and the strategic decisions behind them to inform at every level and in each of these spheres. With good governance, the model may be applied at the beginning of each new business endeavour, supporting products, the naming of fields, operations, copywriting and more with a universal vocabulary to support each key decision.

In my spare time, I collect, customise and sell vintage maps. One thing that fascinates me about maps from the early 20th Century is the apparent lack of respect shown by cartographers for boxes and boundaries: What? There’s not enough room to write the name of this place…heck, I’ll just erase the line and write into the margins. In the pursuit of wayfinding and understanding, they were happy to break out of the design constraints of borders. To take an even more ancient cartographic journey, seafarers who first charted the oceans of our world, drew dragons and sea monsters at the outer edges of their maps. These dragons signified that the waters were yet to be charted: Who knows what’s there? There may be dragons. In so doing, these UX forbears built the unknown into their wayfinding.

In the ever changing world of user interfaces, there is much unknown about the future. Language evolves, new emojis are introduced, there are technological advances, new things added to the Internet of Things, b2b and b2c experiences shift and one day Siri will finally understand me. For these reasons I would like to build the unknown into my wayfinding and I see this as more than just the governance process of adding more synonyms. *adds fish emoji as synonym for unknown*.

The centralised controlled vocabulary model may not be the perfect fit for every ecosystem but it is working here and has the potential to be applied in other spaces. What if there were major investment to collaborate on organisation-wide taxonomies? What if there were major investment to collaborate on industry-wide ecosystemic taxonomies, across multiple businesses and stakeholders?

It is widely accepted that the UK Government’s campaign to encourage people to ‘eat 5-a-day’ (fruit and vegetables) has been a failure and today UK food packaging is adorned with a plethora of competing taxonomies and logos to encourage healthy eating and provide nutritional information. What if, instead of campaigning and asking stakeholders to promote your campaign for 5-a-day (that now happens to be 7-a-day), there was instead a National Controlled Vocabulary for Healthy Eating (NCVHE) or a Great British Ontology for Healthy Eating (GBOHE)? Long term change in the UK’s eating habits requires more than five coloured circles, it requires deep level, foundational innovation to lead to behaviour change. This could look like the long, complicated but transformational process of creating an agreed controlled vocabulary among multiple stakeholders: government, NHS, campaign groups, supermarkets, food producers and distributors; each with their own taxonomies strategically fed from the NCVHE. This would mean no two systems competing on key terms and important language and messaging being more easily absorbed into colloquial usage and crucially, understood by the audience it is intended for.

Whether for healthy eating or the education system (exam boards, OFSTED, DfE and LEAs) or small businesses or multinational organisations or for the understanding and awareness of global issues that span countries and continents, the idea that unlikely stakeholders could come together and create universal standards has precedent.

Just two months ago, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Adobe introduced standards for variable typefaces (a new kind of font)…they did this together! These four giants set aside their differences and worked together to update OpenType and bring to the world, an update that at its basic level will help people to read.

So, I ask myself, what is stopping a single business made of multiple systems or a collaborative movement of sector wide entities from doing the same with language? What variable typefaces will do for reading and legibility; language, taxonomies and shared vocabularies can do for understanding.

I’m excited by the potential of building with red bricks AND blue bricks AND yellow bricks AND Star Wars minifigures…not just red. Lego is possibly the greatest metaphor for Ecosystem Thinking because the entire Lego product line is interchangeable and compatible. They all connect together: classic Lego, Duplo, Mindstorms, Minifigures, Ninjago, Quatro. All it takes is the imagination of a child to make the powerful shift in mindset that these things don’t have to exist in isolation and yes, that X Wing Fighter and Duplo Police station can become something bigger, stronger and more enjoyable when brought out of isolation and built together.

Information Architect, Strategist & Founder, Kore. Etsy Seller, Allotment Owner & Amateur Mixologist.

Information Architect, Strategist & Founder, Kore. Etsy Seller, Allotment Owner & Amateur Mixologist.