Book Review-How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built

I’m not an architect, but as an information architect, I’m curious about how classical architects approach the problems of buildings that people love. This journey led me to Stewart Brand’s book, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. I was first introduced to the book back in 2011 while reading Pervasive Information Architecture. It surfaced again in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Antifragile, and in Peter Morville’s Intertwingled. In every case, the reference is to how buildings change (or, in Brand’s language, “learn”) over time.

In information architecture, we’re faced with a rate of change that Brand and his colleagues couldn’t comprehend. While the idea of buildings being torn down in a few decades was alarming to the architects, as information architects, we don’t expect that our architecture will last a decade. The rate of change is too high.

Buildings Shape Us and We Shape Them

Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” This is a simplification. In truth, after we have built a building, it shapes the way we interact with one another, and then we revise it to fit our new needs. It then further shapes us, and we repeat the process of adapting it.

The biological point of view is that of ecopoiesis – that is, how an ecosystem is formed. There’s some starting event (building a building for instance) and then continuous co-evolution of the organisms (humans) and the environment (building). It’s true that we shape our buildings and then they shape us – and vice versa.

However, like any ecosystem, the rate of change and adaptation isn’t even across the entire system. Some parts of the system change quickly, and other parts of the system move more slowly. It’s these sheering layers that make changes in buildings so interesting.

Sheering Layers

Brand built on Frank Duffy’s work and solidified a model for different layers of the building that operate at different speeds. Look at the diagram from the book:

Here, the layers are all represented. The idea is that the site is permanent (at least as permanent of tectonic plate movement). The stuff in the inner layer is ephemeral. The changes in the stuff is very rapid compared to the rest of the building. Let’s look at each layer:

  • Site – Permanent.
  • Structure – The most persistent part of the building. The lifespan of structure can be measured in decades to centuries. When the structure changes, the building has changed.
  • Skin – The façade or outer face of the building is expected to go out of style and to be replaced every 20 years or so to keep up with fashion or technology.
  • Services – These are things like HVAC, elevators, etc., which simply wear out over the period of seven to fifteen years.
  • Space Plan – Commercial buildings may change occupancy every three years or so, driving a change in the way internal space is allocated. Domestic homes in the US are, on average, owned for 8 years.
  • Stuff – These furnishings and flairs change with the seasons and the current trends.

The rates of change for different layers occurring at different times creates sheering forces, where the slower-moving layers constrain the faster-moving layers. The stuff can only change and grow so much before the space plan gives way and, ultimately, before the structure itself would need to change. Anyone who has watched a reality television show on hoarders knows that their propensity to acquire stuff is limited by the space they have.

Different Types of Architecture

It turns out that, while all buildings share the same basic layers, there are categories of buildings that operate very differently. Commercial buildings are subject to market pressure and frequently changing tenants, making them more volatile. Domestic (i.e. residential) buildings have owners for longer periods of time and tend to be adapted with smaller changes rather than wholesale renovations on a periodic basis. Institutional buildings are relatively fixed and permanent, as the structure itself becomes a symbol of the institution. Institutions are often holders of trust, and change is resisted as much as possible. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.)

The sheering layers vary inside of these different types of buildings. A commercial building might replace the services at their planned end of life, because the outage is more disruptive than can be reasonably tolerated. Domestic buildings often run their services until a complete failure. Institutions behave more like commercial buildings in their replacement of services but almost never replace their skin, thereby more closely modeling domestic buildings.

Problems with Architecture

Brand spends a considerable amount of time discussing what is wrong with architecture and why it’s such a struggle to get good buildings.


The top culprit seems to be overspecification. That is, little is done to ensure that the building is adaptable to the purposes the occupants have once they’re in the building. Buildings are built so that it’s difficult to get wires through walls, making it harder to adapt the latest technology. All buildings are predictions, and all of them are invariably wrong.

Brand breaks these into high-road and low-road buildings. The former are what architects typically build. They’re bright, shiny, expensive, newer, and difficult to change. Low-road buildings, by contrast, are more adaptable. They adjust to meet the needs of their tenants, and their tenants don’t mind adjusting them to fit their needs. These older buildings may not be a perfect fit for anything, but they’re a good enough fit for most things.

Leaky Roofs

Frank Lloyd Wright may be the greatest American architect of all time, but I don’t want one of his buildings; all his roofs leak. He, in fact, quipped that it is how one knows it is a roof. By the 1980s, eighty percent of all post-construction claims were for leaks. During the same time, malpractice for architects was higher than for doctors. It would be tragic if it weren’t preventable.

We know what makes roofs that don’t leak. We know that flat roofs are going to leak – period. We know that, the greater the pitch, the less likely the roof is to leak. We’ve got all the knowledge, but because of the desire for appearance, we sometimes ignore what we know.

Wrong Metrics

What gets you into Architectural Digest isn’t how tenants love a building. What gets you into Architectural Digest are the pictures taken before people are in the building. It’s all about the design and none about the use. While some progress is being made in getting better metrics that measure – *gasp* – what occupants think, the progress is painfully slow.

If your measure is on pictures that have no relationship (or very little) to reality, it’s no wonder that occupants of the building aren’t happy. Architects aren’t motivated to make the actual users happy with the building they get.

Poor Learning

Brand admits most of the architects he knows are hustling just to survive. That makes it difficult (if not impossible) for them to invest the right amount of energy learning about the latest materials, techniques, and ideas for improving their trade. While there are standards for continuing education now, Brand seems concerned that these aren’t sufficient when architects are under such constant pressure to produce just to survive.

What’s Love?

Still, some architects buck the trends and create buildings that people love – real people who really occupy them. Those architects, as they age, have found ways to create buildings that not only fit the occupants from the start but also adapt gracefully over time. This is a rare condition. My first highlight in the book is “Almost no buildings adapt well.” Adaptability and age seem to be the key ingredients to get people to love a building.

Hire an Architect

Brand is clear that the power in building buildings doesn’t reside with the architects. While they’ll be called in for a few showplace buildings, the developers do most of the action. They may consult an architect at some point, but the architect rarely runs the show.

Because architects are often relegated to a small percentage of buildings where art is more important than functionality, the industry has become stuck. Most people don’t believe that architects are required, because the results they get when using an architect don’t seem to justify the expense.

Habitat, Property, Community

Buildings need to be three things at the same time. They’re a habitat for their occupants. They’re the property. At the same time, they’re also a part of the community. Buildings must fit their occupants and the place they’re in. They must sit on the site that they’re built on (with rare exceptions). Buildings aren’t one thing. They themselves are a sheering layer between the wants and desires of the occupants and the desires of the community.

Markets, Money, and Water

There are three things that change buildings: markets, money, and water. If the market changes and the location (site) is no longer desirable, then changes will need to be made to the building to keep it acceptably interesting to potential occupants. Markets can cause buildings to be built and torn down in rapid succession. (Consider the churn of casinos in Las Vegas as an example.)

Money can mean radical changes to the building. A lack of money can stagnate change or send the building into an inevitable death spiral of maintenance and repair that, in turn, sends occupants scurrying for a new place.

Water is the great destroyer of buildings. David Owen said, “Houses seem to deteriorate from the bathrooms out.” It makes sense. Bathrooms are the place where there is the most water inside of a home, and, too frequently, the water isn’t vented outside. Most homes are built of wood and other materials that don’t do well with prolonged exposure to moisture. Mold grows in the presence of heat and moisture. Homes are designed to be warm enough for their human occupants, and bathrooms are nearly constantly moist.

Not all the changes brought on by markets, money, or, particularly, water are appreciated.


It’s what they say. Vernacular is the native language of a region. When it comes to building, it’s the native way that people build. The way that homes are built in the North and the way that they’re built in the South are different. They’re built different in the extreme temperatures of the East Coast from the houses in the relatively stable temperatures of the West Coast.

There’s not one right way to build a house or a building. However, there are ways that are more suited to the materials available in the region and the techniques that are effective in the climate. Architects do well to understand the region that their creations are going in, so they can mimic the best practices of the region.

Oversize Your Components

The best advice that Brand has is to oversize your components – he expresses this in every way, including the structure. You want to oversize the carrying capacity of the structure, so that new floors can be added. Before computers were available to optimize everything, builders added more capacity to ensure that everything would just work. Oversizing components creates a “loose fit.” That is, the occupants can decide later to adapt the building. As was mentioned above, overspecification is one of Brand’s key concerns.

Open Offices

Before ending, it’s important to note that Brand spends a bit of time speaking of the fallacy of open offices. He explains that people want acoustic privacy but visual transparency. He explains that the initial experiments with open offices didn’t exactly succeed, but that didn’t stop the fad from catching on – much to the dismay of managers.

I’ve run across the open office idea numerous times in my career, particularly as I’m coaching clients on how to be more collaborative or innovative. They can’t seem to let go of the idea that they want a more open, collaborative space – until they’ve done it once. Everywhere you look, you’ll find evidence that it doesn’t work… but only if you’re willing to look.

For instance, in Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull explains the genius behind the Pixar buildings and how they encourage interactivity. At first glance, the open concept is in. However, on deeper reading, you realize that Jobs made a common space where people could go to. It was a space that needed to be crossed for them to get to their private spaces.

Sometimes you just can’t stop a fad with facts, experience, or rationality.

Information Architecture

I read How Buildings Learn to stabilize my understanding of information architecture and learn from building architecture. The few key takeaways that I already knew but was reminded of are:

  • Vernacular – Build to the environment you’re in. In information architecture this means using terms that are familiar and approaches that work well with the users.
  • Plan for Change – Buildings get bad marks for their adaptability. Information architectures fail if they’re not hospitable to change.
  • Change Sheers – Change doesn’t happen at the same rate. There are parts of the system that should be designed to change slowly and others to change much more rapidly.
  • Oversize Your Components – While all predictions are wrong, predicting that things will grow is a safe bet. When you’re considering whether to put something in up front to be prepared… do it.

Whether you’re building an information architecture, a real building, or neither, I’m pretty sure you’ll learn something important from How Buildings Learn.

Book Review-Knowledge Management Matters: Words of Wisdom from Leading Practitioners

One of the many things that I enjoy about my life is the ability to walk from one world to another in a matter of moments. I’ve been a part of the knowledge management community for several years now. While far from all my time is spent in the community, I’ve come to know and respect many members of the community who are passionate about making the knowledge that each of us has more helpful to everyone else. That’s why I picked up Knowledge Management Matters: Words of Wisdom from Leading Practitioners. I wanted to know what they had to say about how we can better leverage what we know.

I’d count more than one of the authors as friends, and so many of the book’s conversations rang true to our prior conversations and discussions. But at the same time, the clarity that comes from writing a chapter for a book was helpful to distill conversations over the years into clarity.

Evolution of Knowledge Management

Nancy Dixon provides some evolutionary context to knowledge management. The framework she provides helps to understand the forces that are changing knowledge management. Just as one great continent doesn’t make sense until you understand how tectonic plates have been moving, it’s hard to understand the forces in knowledge management without an organizing framework.

From the relatively simplistic and formulaic solutions for information management through the ability to manage experiences and onward into an era of managing ideas, we’ve been on a journey to build systems – both technical and non-technical – to help us adapt, cope, and even flourish in a world where information and knowledge are as vital as gold was.

Coming from a technology background, I had a front row seat as our capacity to create and manage information exploded. Moore’s law is interesting until you have the flash of awareness that your first computer had 64 KB of RAM and now your phone has 64 GB of RAM. When your first hard drive was 20 or 30 MB, now what you consider to be disposable USB flash drives are at least 16 GB.

Knowledge management is the same way. We started with knowledge bases and limited full-text searching. Today, we have social network analysis and natural language processing sitting on top of our search capabilities to enhance the results we see. The mountain of explicit information has demanded – and received – better tooling, while, at the same time, we’ve recognized the need to enable tacit connections as well.

The Right, The Wrong, and the Maybe

Knowledge management made some big promises, and, in most organizations, those promises weren’t kept. Like a jilted lover, businesses started rejecting knowledge management as a waste of time and money, leading to the proclamation that knowledge management is dead. Of course, like all things, there’s some truth, some fiction, and some unavoidable lack of clarity.

Knowledge management is fundamentally an organizational change initiative. John Kotter and others in the organizational change space admit that 70% of organizational change initiatives fail. (See Leading Change and The Heart of Change). Simply based on the fact that changing the way organizations share knowledge is an organizational change initiative, we shouldn’t be surprised that there are some failures – in fact, a lot of failures. However, this message doesn’t sell well to leadership. Few leaders who are making the decision to do an organizational change initiative know of the failure rate for fear that they won’t fund the project. However, the tragedy in this is that many boards could influence their success if they knew what the risks were.

Knowledge is “squishy.” Some of it is explicit and much more is tacit. (See Lost Knowledge for more on tacit knowledge.) Knowledge exists in relation to everything else, and it seems like everything is always changing. As a result, the knowledge that we have one day may be completely or partially useless the next. For example, changing times made the knowledge of how to create prismatic glass for lighthouse Fresnel lenses no longer useful. As glass manufacturing changed, the knowledge no longer matched how glass was made and therefore became useless. We face similar challenges with knowledge every day. Knowledge becomes useless as some other part of the process changes.

So, while knowledge is a critical asset of an organization, and it is possible, to a certain degree, that we can manage it and encourage its use, in the end, knowledge isn’t stable and won’t be useful forever.

Best Practices

One of the topics that often arises when speaking about knowledge management is the desire to capture and replicate best practices. The idea is, of course, that if there’s a one best way of doing things then getting everyone to do it that way will generate better results. In theory, this is a great idea, but in practice, it doesn’t always work so well.

The first problem with best practices is importing them from one place to another. In the import, we face the high tariff of not invented here. Not invented here is the bias that people have towards using the good ideas of others instead of doing what they’ve done all along. In medicine, it shows up as the doctor using procedures and tools that research has shown to be ineffective, because they don’t want to trust the research more than their own experience – however flawed that may be. Doctors aren’t the only ones who believe their own experiences over the data.

Our marketing world, where claims aren’t verified or conditions aren’t clearly articulated, only exacerbates the problem of our trust that someone else’s practice is better and more effective than ours. Some believe that they’re special, and the statistics don’t apply to them or the environment, and they may be right.

All knowledge is conditional to the environment in which it operates. The same advice may be appropriate in some situations and completely disastrous in others. Consider the advice to water plants weekly. Completely appropriate for many plants. Disastrous for the cactus that expects very arid soil.

There is no best practice. There are only practices proven to work in certain circumstances – and the catch is that, in many cases, we can’t enumerate and identify what the conditions were that were critical to this success. Without that, we have little hope of finding and leveraging best practices.

The best we can do in knowledge management is articulate what has worked and what the subject matter experts believe were the salient factors and hope that the transparency creates a degree of trust that allows people to take the risk of using the practices. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on the impact of vulnerability on trust.)

Strength of Relationships

In a world where uncertainty is king, “an organization’s ability to respond to the unpredictable is largely a function of the strength of its relationships.” That is, an organization’s adaptability is related to how well its people work together. (See The Black Swan for more on unpredictable events.) This means that effective knowledge management solutions must support, enhance, and extend relationships in the organization in a way that increases their strength. Knowledge is not, by itself, capable of protecting an organization from the storms of change. Only the people that bring life to the organization and their relationships can.

For a long time now, knowledge management professionals have known that it’s more than connecting people to content. Person-to-person connection is a huge part of how knowledge management works. The integration of social network analysis to search results indicates a growing awareness even on the content discoverability side of the power of relationships.

Story Telling

Development of stories and their power to motivate and connect people seems like an unlikely thing to cover in a book on knowledge management, but it’s critical to realize that knowledge is useful in our ability to connect with it at an emotional level. (See Wired for Story and Story Genius for more on how stories are written and how they impact us.)

The knowledge that we capture in our systems can be dry and without story. For some content, this works just fine, but for the kind of knowledge that transforms people and thereby the organization, a story – or stories – is required. Stories are constructed in a way that the reader becomes emotionally connected with the characters in the story. This connection drives the desire to find out more and creates the desire for learning that Malcolm Knowles and his colleagues say is important for adult learning. (See The Adult Learner for more.)

Communities and Participation

Communities can be an amazing thing to drive knowledge. However, this only works when the community has the kind of participation that works. Communities need to be of a certain size to work well. Too big, and they become unwieldy. Too small, and they don’t generate enough activity to sustain themselves. As a rule of thumb, only 10% of members will contribute and as little as 1% will be routinely engaged. That means that community sizes of a few hundred are an ideal minimum to keep the conversations happening.

For smaller organizations, this means that the entire organization may be in one community. For larger organizations, the challenge may be keeping the noise level low enough that people feel like the community is theirs.

Communities shouldn’t be organizationally-based but instead interest-based. There are teams and larger groupings that serve the needs to organize around “strictly business.” Communities allow for the cross-functional and cross-locational collaboration that drives innovation.

Reading Knowledge Management Matters may not move you to the inside ring of the knowledge management community. However, it may be a good first step.

Video-How to Make the Right Messes

This year, I had the pleasure of delivering the keynote session at the Indianapolis World Information Architecture Day 2019 to a packed house. Here, I discuss how you can make the right messes with your information architecture.

We’ve uploaded the video to YouTube, so you can check it out there, or watch the video below.

Book Review-The Ethnographic Interview

I’m about as far away from an ethnographer as you can get. I live in the heart of the United States and in the same home for over 20 years. And yet, I use ethnographic interviewing in one form or another every single week. How can it be that I’m not embedding myself into new and strange cultures, and yet I value skills that resemble those needed by an ethnographer so deeply? The answer lies in the techniques and thinking that The Ethnographic Interview teaches and in my work world.

I came to The Ethnographic Interview by way of Peter Morville’s work, Intertwingled. He recommended it as a way to understand information architectures – and corporate cultures – more completely. I agree. All too often, the issues we have in understanding one another are about how our cultures differ, and no one has bothered to understand the unwritten meanings behind the words we use.

Requirements Gathering

Before I share some of James Spradley’s insights into ethnography, it’s important for me to cement the connection between what people do today and what ethnography is, so that it’s criticality can be fully understood. In IT, business analysts – by role or by title – seek to understand the foreign world of the business. They learn about logistics, manufacturing, marketing, accounting, and more in an effort to translate the needs of these groups for the developers and systems designers that will create IT systems to support them.

Even the experienced business analyst who knows the company and the department well must do their best to remove all of their assumptions and start fresh in understanding what the group is doing and what they need. While it’s technically impossible to remove all assumptions, because they are so good at hiding, the ethnographer’s task is to eliminate as many as possible and to test those that remain.

I wrote a course for Pluralsight some years ago, titled “Gathering Good Requirements for Developers,” where I teach a set of techniques designed to expose assumptions, test them, and make things feel more real and understandable on both sides.

The requirements gathering process, whether a part of agile design or traditional waterfall methodologies, is absolutely essential to being able to deliver what the business needs. The process of requirements gathering is ultimately a process of eliciting and understanding what the foreign culture is saying – even if that foreign culture is inside of your organization.

What is Ethnography?

An anthropologist is expected to be off in a foreign land eating strange food and spending most of their time wondering what people are saying and what the heck they’re doing so far from those they love. Ethnography is their principle work, which is the systematic study of the culture they’ve embedded themselves in. Put differently, the goal of ethnography is (according to Bronislaw Malinowski) “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.”

Simply stated, it’s learning from people. However, there are several nuances. First, ethnographers invite natives to teach them. They don’t assume that they know or can learn the culture without help. Second, there are components of the culture that aren’t ever directly expressed. For instance, in the United States, the phrase “How are you?” is typically a greeting. The typical response is “I’m doing well, and you?” It doesn’t convey a real interest in the other person – until and unless it’s followed with, “I mean, really, how are you?”

Dig Deeper

If there’s one thing I’ve found that is a problem with requirements gathering, information architecture, or just working with other people, it is that we don’t truly understand. We believe we understand. We might be using the same words, but we just aren’t 100% in alignment. That’s where training in ethnography is really helpful.

Ethnographers observe behavior but inquire about the meaning. They understand objects but seek to discover the meanings that the culture assigns to these objects. They record emotions but go beyond to discover the meaning of fear, anxiety, anger, and other feelings.

In short, they dig deeper. They verify their understanding to ensure that what they believe they understand is actually right. Consider for a moment death. It’s the punctuation mark at the end of life – every life. Yet, different cultures view death differently. Some cultures keep death hidden – as is the Western point of view – while others embrace or celebrate it. Some cultures believe in reincarnation and others in an afterlife. It’s the same event, but it’s culturally very, very different.

Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power that we all make models in our head, and it’s these models that drive our thinking. He also shares how painful it can be to get these models to surface. The models are tacit knowledge that cannot be expressed in explicit language. In fact, Lost Knowledge differentiates between tacit knowledge and what’s called “deep tacit knowledge,” which are mental models and cultural artifacts of thinking that are so ingrained the person literally can’t see them.

The person the ethnographer is talking to, the informant, needs promped to access the information they don’t know they know. A good ethnographer can tease out tacit knowledge from even the worst informants – but finding the right informants certainly makes it easier.

Indispensable Informants

If you follow agile development practices, you may notice that agile depends on a product owner who is intimately familiar with the business process that the software is being developed for. Lean Six Sigma speaks of getting to the gemba (Japanese for “the real place”) to really know what’s happening instead of just guessing. Sometimes this is also used to speak of the people who really know what’s going on. They do the real work.

The same concept applies to ethnographic research. You need someone who is encultured, really a part of what you’re studying. While the manager who once did the job that you’re looking to understand might be helpful, you’ll ideally get to the person who actually is still doing the work. The manager will – at some level, at least – have decided that they’re no longer a part of that group, and, because of that, they’ll lose some of their tacit knowledge about how things are done – and it will be changing underneath their knowledge anyway.

Obviously, your informant needs to not just be involved with the process currently, but they also need to have enough time. If you can’t get their time to allow them to teach you, you won’t learn much. Another key is that the person not be too analytical. As we’ll discuss shortly, it’s important that the informant be able to remain in their role of an encultured participant using their natural language rather than be performing translation for the ethnographer – as they’ll tend to do if they’re too analytical.

You can’t use even the best interviewing techniques in the world to extract information that no longer exists.


The heart of ethnography isn’t writing the report. The heart of ethnography is the interviewing and discovery process. It’s more than just asking questions. It’s about how to develop a relationship and rapport that is helpful. The Heart and Soul of Change speaks of therapeutic alliance and how that is one of the best predictors of therapeutic success.

Tools like those described in Motivational Interviewing can be leveraged to help build rapport. Obviously, motivational interviewing is designed to motivate the other person. However, the process starts with engaging, including good tips to avoid judgement and other harmful statements that may make a productive relationship impossible.

For his part, Spradley in The Ethnographic Interview identifies the need for respect or rapport and provides a set of questions and a set of interviewing approaches that can lead to success.

Types of Questions

At a high level, ethnographic questions fall into three broad categories – descriptive, structural, and contrast questions. These questions allow the ethnographer to dip their toes into the water of understanding, structure their understanding, and understand terms with precision.

Descriptive Questions

Descriptive questions are by far the most voluminous questions that will be asked. They form the foundation of understanding what is in the informant’s world and how they use the objects in their world. Descriptive questions fall into the following categories:

  • Grand Tour Questions – These questions ask for a tour around the topic
    • Typical Grand Tour Questions – Asking for a typical situation in their environment
    • Specific Grand Tour Questions – Asking for a specific time and what happened
    • Guided Grand Tour Questions – Asking to see the specific things happening in an area of the informant’s environment
    • Task-Related Grand Tour Questions – Asking the informant to explain a specific task that they do and how they do it
  • Mini-Tour Questions – Mini-tour questions are the same structure as grand questions but focused on a smaller area of the informant’s experience.
    • Typical Mini-Tour Questions
    • Specific Mini-Tour Questions
    • Guided Mini-Tour Questions
    • Task-Related Mini-Tour Questions
  • Example Questions – Asking for a specific example of something that the informant has answered in general
  • Experience Questions – Asking for experiences that the informant might have found interesting, relevant, or noteworthy
  • Native-Language Questions – Asking how the informant would interact with someone else from the culture – in the language that they use
    • Direct Language Questions – Asking what language they use to refer to something in their environment
    • Hypothetical-Interaction Questions – Asking questions about hypothetical situations that the ethnographer creates
    • Typical-Sentence Questions – Asking what kind of sentences that would be used with a phrase

Descriptive questions allow ethnographers to amass a large amount of information, but that information is unstructured and unconnected. While it’s necessary to spend some time in this space, after a while, it will become necessary to seek to understand how the informant organizes this information.

Structural Questions

As important as building a vocabulary is, understanding the relationships between various terms is more illuminating to the structural processes that the informant uses to organize their world. We use symbols to represent things, and these symbols can be categories that contain other symbols. This is a traditional hierarchical taxonomy like one might find when doing an information architecture (see Organising Knowledge, How to Make Sense of Any Mess, and The Accidental Taxonomist).

In truth, there are many different kinds of ways that symbols can be grouped into categories, and understanding this structure is what makes the understanding of a culture rich. Spradley proposes that there are a set of common semantic relationships that seem to occur over and over again:

1. Strict inclusion X is a kind of Y
2. Spatial X is a place in Y, X is a part of Y
3. Cause-effect X is a result of Y, X is a cause of Y
4. Rationale X is a reason for doing Y
5. Location for action X is a place for doing Y
6. Function X is used for Y
7. Means-end X is a way to do Y
8. Sequence X is a step (stage) in Y
9. Attribution X is an attribute (characteristic) of Y

Spradley proposes five kinds of structural questions designed to expose the semantic relationships of terms:

  1. Verification Questions – Asking for verification of a domain – or relationship between a set of terms
    1. Domain Verification Questions – Asking whether there are different kinds of a term that the informant has shared
    2. Included Term Verification Questions – Asking whether a term is in a relationship with another term
    3. Semantic Relationship Verification Questions – Asking whether there is a kind of term that relates other terms or if two terms would fit together in a sentence or relationship
    4. Native-Language Verification Questions – Asking whether the words spoken from the informant to the ethnographer are the words that would be used when speaking to a colleague
  2. Cover Term Questions – Asking if there are different types of a particular term
  3. Included Term Questions – Asking if a term or set of terms belong to another term
  4. Substitution Frame Questions – Asking if there are any alternative terms that could be used in the sentence that an informant has spoken
  5. Card Sorting Structural Questions – Asking informants to organize terms written on cards into categories and by relatedness. This is similar to an information architecture card sorting exercise. (See my post and video about Card Sorting for more.)

Descriptive questions will be interspersed with structural questions to prevent monotony and to allow the ethnographer to fill in gaps in their knowledge. Though structural questions help provide a framework to how terms relate, the relationship strength between terms isn’t always transparent. That’s why contrast questions are used to refine the understanding of what the strength of the relationship is between terms.

Contrast Questions

Sometimes you can’t see differences in the abstract. For instance, our brains automatically adapt to changing light and convert something that may look blueish or pinkish to white, because we know something (like paper) should be white, even when the current lighting makes it look abnormally blue or pink. So, too, can the hidden differences between terms be obscured until you put them right next to each other. That’s what contrast questions do. They put different terms side-by-side, so they can be easily compared.

The kinds of contrast questions are:

  1. Contrast Verification Questions – Asking to confirm or disconfirm a difference in terms
  2. Directed Contrast Questions – Asking about a known characteristic of a term and how other terms might contrast on that characteristic
  3. Dyadic Contrast Questions – Asking the informant to identify the differences between two terms
  4. Triadic Contrast Questions – Asking the informant to identify which one of three terms is least like the other two
  5. Contrast Set Sorting Questions – Asking the informant to contrast an entire set of terms at the same time
  6. Twenty Questions Game – The ethnographer selects a term from a set and the informant asks a set of yes/no questions of the ethnographer until they discover the term. This highlights the hidden ways that informants distinguish terms. (This is similar to techniques like Innovation Games, where the games are designed to reveal hidden meanings.)
  7. Rating Questions – Asking questions about the relative values placed on different terms – along dimensions like easiest/most difficult and least/most interesting, least/most desirable, etc.

The sheer number of types of questions can seem overwhelming at first. However, many of these forms flow automatically if you develop a genuine interest in the informant and their culture. Still, sometimes it’s hard to try to learn a new language and think about what’s the next question that you need to ask to keep the conversation moving.

Multiple Languages

In the case of an anthropologist who is working with a brand new culture, it could be that they’re learning a whole new language – literally. However, in most cases, it’s not that the language is completely different and new to the ethnographer. In most cases, it’s the use of the terms that are different. Just experiencing the difference between UK English and American English can leave someone a bit confused. A rubber in England is an eraser in the US, and a cigarette in the US is a fag in the UK. While both are English, the meaning and expectations of the word are quite different.

We often forget how we speak differently in a profession. A lexicon – special language – develops around industries that aren’t a part of the general consciousness. It’s the ethnographer’s job to discover not only that lexicon but also what the words mean to the rest of us.

Who Should Translate, and When?

When there are multiple languages, there is always the need to translate from one language to another. However, who does that translation – and when is the translation done? Informants, in their desire to be helpful, are likely to try to translate the information of their culture into terms that the ethnographer will understand. While the intent is helpful, the result is that the ethnographer doesn’t get to understand that aspect of the culture.

So, while translation is necessary, it’s best to continue to discourage the informant from being the one who is doing the translation. The ethnographer can leave their notes in native language and then translate later. This also allows them to validate information with structural and contrast questions. Sometimes, it’s this review that reveals some underlying themes of the culture.


In most cultures, there’s a set of recurring themes that appear. It isn’t explicit or stated, but there are those sacred cows that everyone worships that shapes the way the organization thinks. An entrepreneurial company has agility or velocity at the heart of the way that they organize their thoughts. A brand-focused company may be inherently focused on status or image. While these values aren’t typically articulated, they’re assumed, and they shape the way that the organization thinks – about everything.

By having the opportunity to review and rework translations, these themes begin to emerge. The semantic relationships appear over and over again until it becomes apparent that they’re not specific ways of organizing a topic but are instead a way of organizing everything.


One of the challenges that I often see in requirements is that the business analyst doesn’t always spend the time drilling into the details and verifying understanding in a way that results in requirements that fully express the needs of the business and how they do work. The ethnographic process – including the variety of questions – is one way to combat this challenge. It’s possible to leverage the ethnographic process to more deeply understand what is happening and how the systems are expected to help.

While I may be far from the fields of a foreign land, speaking to people whose language I don’t speak, I often move from industry to industry and company to company, learning their languages and the way that they think about the world. The Ethnographic Interview is, therefore, a useful tool for helping me get a better understanding and better requirements.

Book Review-Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything

It might seem odd that one of the forefathers of information architecture would proclaim that everything is intertwingled and thus hard to force down into specific categories, but that’s what Peter Morville is saying. You can’t separate the parts from the whole. Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything is the start of a journey in realizing that, no matter how hard you try to cut apart, partition, chunk, and dissect, most things can’t be broken down without losing something. That won’t stop us from doing it, because we need to do it to simplify our world. However, it may change the way that we approach the process.

Thinking in Systems

The vehicle in our journey is the ability to see everything as a system. There’s an old Tootsie Roll commercial where a jingle is played that ends with “Tootsie Rolls are all I see.” It’s a catchy tune that was designed to get people thinking about Tootsie Rolls, so they couldn’t forget about them. However, there’s some truth in life to this commercial. Once you see something, you can’t un-see it. It’s impossible to not know what a hippopotamus looks like after you’ve seen one. If you’ve learned to see things in systems, it’s hard to un-see them.

For Morville – and for me – everything is a system. It’s a system that can be manipulated, changed, and adapted often with unintended and inexplicable outcomes. Whether you realize that steel axe heads degenerated some aboriginal societies (as in Diffusion of Innovations), you got caught up in Peter Singe’s wildly popular The Fifth Discipline, or you stumbled across the posthumously published book Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows, once you’ve been infected with the awareness that everything is a system of stocks and flows (inbound and outbound), it’s hard to not see it any longer.

However, just because you can see things in systems doesn’t mean you can predict outcomes. Gary Klein recognized that fire commanders build mental models of the fire where they could predict what is happening. Their Sources of Power may not have been consciously known to them, but they did know when one of their expectations generated by the model was violated, and it was time to go back to the drawing board and try to learn how the system was really functioning.

Fire commanders were strikingly good at predicting how the fires they were used to would behave. Their mental models worked. However, knowing how fires worked made them no better at predictions in other areas of their life. They didn’t even realize that they were seeing the fire as a system and simulating its facets – they were blind to the fact that they were even seeing the fire as a system. (Seeing What Others Don’t is another work by Klein which helps to explain how we develop the insights that fuel our mental models.)

Wireframes and Storyboards

Wireframes are a stock tool of a user experience designer and of the information architect. These wireframes form the boxes. They’re the pictures of what’s being built. However, what Morville and others have discovered is that it’s what happens between the boxes that is truly interesting. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explains that the story in a comic book happens in the gutter between the frames. In effect, it’s the arrows between the boxes that gives the story its power. It’s what the user fills in themselves that helps the most.

Story is about connecting one frame with the next. That’s why storyboards are an even more powerful tool for designers than the venerable wire frame. Storyboards, which are often used in designing feature films (see Creativity, Inc.), connect the dots and reveal what’s hidden in plain sight in the way of the wireframes.

Rewinding to Agility

One of the criticisms laid at the steps of information architecture is that it reeks of “big design up front.” This is just the sort of waterfall-based logic that agile development teams launch scud missiles at. The problem is that too few practitioners of agile have read the Agile Manifesto or understand what information architecture is. They argue against documentation when the original founders of the agile movement were more concerned with ceremony and eliminating the waste caused by it. They didn’t want to eliminate documentation. They were focused on building and adapting instead of unnecessary documentation and unnecessary rigidity. However, there’s nothing in agile that argues against understanding what you’re doing. In fact, agile is focused on learning and understanding. The argument that agile levels against traditional waterfall (one-iteration) approaches is in believing in the planning fallacy – that you can plan through things ahead of time. (See How Will You Measure Your Life? for more.)

In fact, agile aligns perfectly with systems thinking, where you do something, observe the results, and then do something else. Sometimes you reverse (or try to reverse) the latest change. Sometimes you head off in a different direction. Ultimately, you’re always making small changes to see how things react, then adapting.

Information architecture – like software development – can take on characteristics of agile or traditional waterfall development. It all depends upon whose hands the tools are wielding the tools. There are some activities that require the development of non-intervention understanding. However, this is not always the case. Good information architecture recognizes that you won’t get it right the first time – or at one time. The needs of users to access content shift as attitudes and options change.


Our memories are fickle things. Our memories aren’t like video recorders accurately storing what happened. Instead, the memories become encoded and reduced into fragments and concepts that we can rearrange when we try to retrieve them. (See Science in Pseudo Science in Clinical Psychology for more on the fallacy of our memories.) Our memories don’t encode words. Instead, we encode concepts and ideas. When we retrieve the memory, we reconstruct the concepts using the words that we have in our current vocabulary.

If you don’t believe me, try to recall a conversation that you had when you were 8-10 years old. Recite the dialogue as you remember it into a recorder. Then go back and review the recording. You’re likely to find that your words weren’t words that you had in your vocabulary back then. Your memories were reconstructed with the help of your current vocabulary.

This simple trick reveals one of the ways that our brain tries to fool us. (For more on the way that our brain fools us see Incognito.)


Even though we don’t remember words directly, words are deeply embedded into the way that we think. If you feed people negative experiences, you’ll get back negative words. One of the favorite parlor tricks of pop psychology is to listen for the Freudian slip. That is, when the truthful thing slips out from underneath the weight of polite society. Chris Argyris has an exercise of left and right columns, where the right column is what was actually said, and the left column is what was thought or felt. This exercise exposes how the words we use aren’t the words that we mean, and how these words can lead us down unproductive paths. (See Organizational Traps for more on the two-column method.)

Words are the way that we create the mental framing that we use for a problem. That’s why the words we use in our taxonomies are so important. They can conjure up the right ideas or ones that don’t connect with our audiences.

Maps and Territories

They’re called the badlands. Technically, this is a geological term referring to the erosion of clay-rich soil and softer sedentary rocks. However, the connotations of the term “bad” subtly influence millions of people to avoid these beautiful geological features. In this way, labeling an area as “badlands” on a map influences the visitors at Badlands National Park. The hidden connotations of the words we use shape how people see what we’re talking about, for better or for worse.

If I define a category for furniture, I’ll shape the way that people think about the category. They’ll picture in their mind what furniture means. They’ll see a chair, a couch, or a table. (At least 90% of the groups I do this exercise with say these three items.) If I’m looking for a rug, I won’t automatically look in furniture. Similarly, I’ll have a problem looking for a lamp. Is it in electrical or furniture? It has both properties.

So in one sense, a map isn’t a territory – but in another sense, it is, because it shapes that way that we think about the territory.


There is an information architecture problem caused when the categorization labels make it difficult for consumers to decide which path they should follow. One approach to solving this is to use polyhierarchy – having one category included in multiple places in the hierarchy – said differently, having two parent categories for the same category.

While this is a necessary strategy for providing solutions to platypus-type problems (which don’t fit neatly in any one category), it can be an unnecessary crutch used because of poor category selection. Like other tools in the information architecture toolbox, it’s important to know when to use it – and when not to.

The best strategy for managing the problem of things that fall within multiple categories of an existing taxonomy is to use multiple taxonomies. That is, instead of creating one and only one hierarchy of terms, multiple taxonomies are used, each with its own set of terms that can be selected when appropriate – and omitted when not necessary.


With all we know about how the mind works and how we categorize, we still don’t know enough, and we still can’t see enough. Breaking things down into their components so that we can learn about them is a good strategy. (See Efficiency in Learning and The Art of Explanation for more on learning approaches.) However, it’s not a good strategy if we fail to learn how those pieces fit together, how they work together, and how they break the rules when they’re connected to one another. That’s what makes things Intertwingled. They become that way because, when you put the pieces back together, you don’t always get exactly what you would expect. If you’re ready to start your own journey, perhaps it’s time to learn to see the world Intertwingled.

Book Review-How to Make Sense of Any Mess

When I explain my passion for information architecture to folks, they often wonder what I’m talking about. They understand intuitively that I’m not talking about designing buildings, but how can you design information? A better way of explaining information architecture is to say it is How to Make Sense of Any Mess. Abby Covert nailed the colloquial definition. In her book, she takes a practical tone to an often academic topic and explains how to make sense of our messes.

Fuzzy Lines of Information and Knowledge

The first thing that we’ve got to get out of the way is that all information is relative. What we know is true for our beliefs and our circumstances but not necessarily true to everyone or in all circumstances. The depths of the problem aren’t new to me. I’ve spent time exploring choice theory, where explaining your choices makes you less likely to like them. (See The Paradox of Choice.) I’ve peered under the covers of knowledge management to realize that not everything we know can be explained explicitly. Somethings are tacit – we just know them, and we can’t take them out of context. (See Lost Knowledge.)

I’ve addressed the fuzziness with which our words convey our meaning. Though we have powerful mind-reading skills that allow us to work together, these skills are not perfect (see Mindreading). A single word can have opposite meanings. Words with multiple, different meanings are called homographs. They’re particularly insidious to communication when they have opposite meanings. Consider dust – which can either refer to the act of removing dust or the dust itself. Consider “weather,” which can either mean to withstand a storm or to be worn away.

I know, too, that the way we arrange options can make us what Nudge calls “choice architects.” We can shape the choices that people take by their arrangement. However, the rules for this rely upon the murky depths of subtle cues that we use to make or decisions without knowing we’re making decisions.

To What End

The ultimate question for any information architecture effort is “To what end?” That is, who is going to use the information you’re organizing? What are their goals? What is it that you would like them to learn – without knowing it? By answering these questions, you can use the tools you have to create organizations that make it easier for users to find the information they’re looking for.

However, the current users aren’t the only people to be considered when designing the information architecture. Future potential users count, too – particularly when the existing user base is small and you’re trying to make it larger. So, too, do those people who are involved in the outcome of the structure that you’re using – like investors or managers of the departments.

Make It Visual

Organizing information isn’t an easy proposition. It’s a process designed to reduce the cognitive load necessary to learn. (See Efficiency in Learning for more on cognitive load.) One might argue that, if we’re speaking about organizing and making sense of messes, what does learning have to do with this seemingly unrelated topic? The answer is that we’re learning to navigate the information jungle to find what we’re looking for. We’re learning how to organize our thinking into more effective patterns. Thus, we’re always learning. Marcia Bates estimates that we absorb 80% of what we know not through formal learning. We just “get” it by experiencing life.

Our brains are inherently visual. We’re not wired to process information in the collection of ordered symbols called letters into words, sentences, and paragraphs. While we adapt in the direction of being able to process this information, we still make sense of pictures and diagrams easier. That’s why “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Abby Covert walks us through several diagram types including block diagrams, flow diagrams, Gantt charts, quadrant diagrams, Venn diagrams, swim lanes, hierarchies, mind maps, schematics, and journey maps. Each of these visualizations has different benefits. In software requirements gathering, I use these types of diagrams as well as entity relationship diagrams, activity diagrams, state diagrams, data flow diagrams, and ecosystem maps. The idea is that each type of visualization can quickly relate an aspect of the relationship between entities in ways that the others – and certainly words – cannot.

Technically Right, Practically Useless

In designing a taxonomy, there are sometimes some hard choices to be made. In some cases, the users routinely categorize something “incorrectly.” While there’s no right or wrong way to organize things, once you’ve accepted a taxonomy, every item should have its place. A classic example is the tomato. Technically, it’s a fruit, but it’s important to know not to put it in a fruit salad. Most folks recognize that it has vegetable-type qualities when used in cooking. When classifying products in a grocery store, where would you put the tomato? In the technically correct location – where few people would find it initially – or in the incorrect location where it’s findable?

The answer depends on your goals. In the case of a grocery store, the answer may be that you file it with vegetables, because cashiers and shoppers who use self-serve lines expect to find it there. If you’re a college library on botany ,where would you place it, then? Because there’s a different objective, teaching the “correct” locations, you might be inclined to place it in the category of fruit. Of course, people still won’t be able to find it, but then they can be admonished by a professor for not realizing that the tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable.

Ambiguity and Exactitude

On the surface, exactitude would be our goal in organizing any mess. After all, if everything has a place, and everything is in its place, then all is right with the universe. However, exactitude costs us flexibility. We can’t put cooking scissors in a drawer labeled spices and expect anyone will find them. Spices is a specific and –relatively speaking – exact label. It means that we don’t have the flexibility to add scissors into the same container. Of course, the ambiguity of “kitchen stuff” is probably broad.

“Kitchen stuff” could be almost anything even – quite literally – the kitchen sink. Cooking stuff may be an alternate category label that restricts the contents some, but not by much. The flexibility offered by ambiguity increases the level of abstraction and reduces navigability.

There’s no answer to how to create the right balance of being ambiguous enough to be accommodating to unexpected events and at the same time exact enough to be clear and valuable. When you err in one direction, you move away from the other.

Everything is a Mess

In the context of How to Make Sense of Any Mess, everything is a mess. At some level, something designed by someone else won’t make perfect sense for us. Things designed by others will at least seem messy to us. Even things that seem like they’re organized today won’t feel organized tomorrow. We don’t have to feel overwhelmed by the mess. Bit by bit, we can make sense of our messes – and try to move things forward. Even if we don’t expect to ever learn how to make sense of our messes, it’s worth learning How to Make Sense of Any Mess.

Book Review-The Accidental Taxonomist

There are dozens of things that I do each day that I didn’t set out to do. I do accounting and billing work without a desire or intent to do it. I do sales and marketing – and neither are at the top of my list of things to do. I accidentally picked these things up when I decided to be an entrepreneur and run my own company well over a decade ago. Working with taxonomies – and becoming a taxonomist – can happen by accident too. That’s why The Accidental Taxonomist is appropriate for someone looking to learn how to create taxonomies. I’ve never heard a child say, “I want to grow up to be a taxonomist.” Despite this, there are those who have taxonomy as a part of their job – whether they intended it to be or not.

Long, Long Road

Before I get to the heart of the matter, it’s appropriate to tell you that I didn’t read the book in one sitting. I didn’t read it in a week, a month, or even a year. I started the process of reading The Accidental Taxonomist about half a dozen years ago. It was as I was putting the final touches on my Pluralsight course The Art and Practice of Information Architecture. I got the course done and never finished the book.

In just getting back to it, I felt a bit like some of my clients that struggle to get their taxonomy projects off the ground. Or, rather, my clients that needed to get something accomplished and realized they needed a taxonomy to accomplish their goals. The taxonomy was started, the goals were achieved, and the taxonomy sat aside for a while – sometimes a long while. Before we get too far, we should explain what a taxonomy is.

What is a Taxonomy, Anyway?

Barry Swartz in The Paradox of Choice explains that filtering is one of the basic functions of consciousness. What he doesn’t cover is that so is organization. We’re hardwired to make sense out of our world, and, as Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power, that comes through simplification until we have a model that we can run in our heads. Taxonomies allow us to organize our thoughts and information.

We’re all familiar – willingly or not – with the hierarchical biological taxonomy of zoology. That is to say that we learned Carl Linnaeus’ organization of all animals. We learned Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species as a way for differentiating one animal from another and identifying their nearest cousins.

We also learned, but most of us promptly forgot, how Melvin Dewey organized his library. The system of organization held a brilliant discovery for extension. He figured out that he could make his system flexible and allow for increasing levels of detail through the use of a numbering system.

We probably never learned about S.R. Ranganathan’s different approach to classification. He was frustrated that things could only be placed in one spot. There was in effect one “right” way to find things. His insight was to introduce facets. Instead of trying to capture the uniqueness of any given item in a single hierarchical dimension, he proposed that items be classified in several different categories, or facets, and the combination of these facets would be how the item was classified. This approach was called colon classification, because he chose the colon to separate the various facets.

I include Ranganathan’s system to point out that taxonomies are about organization. They’re not about hierarchy, though that is often the way they’re executed. They’re not about books or animals. Taxonomies are, at their core, about how we make sense of this world that is far too complex for our minds to process.

What’s a Thesaurus?

I remember first “discovering” the thesaurus in grade school. You could make your writing sound more impressive by looking up words that no one knew. I could take a simple, common, everyday word and replace it with something more profound and meaningful. (Perhaps I even looked up the word profound.) To me at the time, thesaurus only meant synonyms. I could find words with similar definitions. Eventually, I found the antonyms. However, for the better part of 30 years, that’s all they were.

When I started diving into information architecture and how we organize information in ways designed to make them easier to access, I realized that my old friend the thesaurus was more powerful than I had given her credit for. More than just synonyms and antonyms, the thesaurus contained the relationships between words. Where a dictionary can tell you what meanings are associated with a word, it’s the thesaurus that can put the word on the map in relationship to other words.

Understanding which words had broader and narrower meanings allows you to respond with precision words that encapsulate the exact scope that you wish to cover. There can be alternative spellings to help you understand how there might be multiple different ways to spell a word – such as color and colour. The thesaurus had more to offer than I had anticipated.

What’s an Organization’s Thesaurus?

The role of a thesaurus in an organization is even more powerful. Inside the context of an organization, a thesaurus can identify preferred terms over terms that are less preferred. They can share common misspellings. They can define terms across languages. They can translate the scientific to the everyday – and vice versa.

An organization’s taxonomy provides a map of the terms that are used in the organization and notes about how those terms are used – or are intended to be used. They provide the basic relationships between the terms. When the relationships get more complex, then we’ve moved from the world of thesaurus into the world of ontology.

Ontology’s Relationships

In a thesaurus, the focus is on words. They make up the tent poles on which the relationships are hung. However, ontologies focus much more on the relationships between words and the nuances of these relationships than the words themselves. Instead of being focused on the tent, ontologies are focused on the net that keeps circus workers safe. It’s not the individual ropes – or words – that keep performers safe. It’s the relationship and connection between the words that keep performers from falling.

Ontologies are a way of understanding a field of study or knowledge. Ontologies provide a rich map of how things in the field are connected to one another. The relationships are richer than simply one term being broader or narrower than another.

What is a Taxonomist?

If an organization organizes their content through a taxonomy in the form of a thesaurus and a set of ontologies, why do we call the role a taxonomist? At the root, it’s the development of an organizational structure – irrespective of which tools are used – that defines the core behaviors of a taxonomist. Their role is to organize and make easier to access information. The tools they use are just the tools of the trade.

The funny thing is that many taxonomists – but not all – aren’t in full-time roles. Few taxonomists have it in their title, though some have it in their job description. It’s more common to have taxonomy development as a prerequisite for something the role requires, so often the taxonomist isn’t a person who spends all day organizing structures. Most of the time, the taxonomist is someone who has a job to do that is made better by taxonomic development.

Special Skills

If categorization and organization is a part of the basic functioning of consciousness, then shouldn’t everyone be considered a taxonomist? At some level, yes. However, what differentiates every man from the taxonomist is in the tools that they’ve developed for clarifying, codifying, and communicating what the structure of organization is. By learning what humanity knows about psychology, neurology, and the organization of large information, taxonomists can distinguish their capabilities.

While these aren’t likely enough for a taxonomist to feel truly confident in every situation, this knowledge and these skills are useful.

Taxonomy Purpose

A taxonomy’s purpose is to help organize content, that’s easy. However, taxonomies provide structure and framing that shapes the way that people think. As a result, taxonomies are more than just a way to browse to the information you want. Taxonomies can be helpful in shifting the way the organization works.

Sometimes this is through the inclusion of detailed terms in a hierarchy to encourage users to be more specific about what they mean. Other times, it might be through the use of preferred terms. Preferred terms in the taxonomy can shift the thinking from package delivery to package assurance. It’s a subtle shift that focuses the corporate consciousness on assuring shippers and recipients that their package will make it to their destination.


Atoms have a challenge that they can only exist in one place at a time. However, in our electronic taxonomies, we can put things into more than one place in the taxonomic tree. Consider a color taxonomy that starts with a level of red, blue, and green. Where does the second-level color blue-green belong? Blue sure, but green as well. This is a polyhierarchy, where an item has multiple parents. While logically this seems like the exception, polyhierarchies are more common than most would like to admit.

The truth is that taxonomy projects are messy. It’s only a matter of time before you’re going to run across the digital equivalent of a platypus. The platypus has a mixture of reptilian, avian, and mammalian genes. It’s a classic challenge for the zoological taxonomy that splits reptiles, birds, and mammals all the way at the top. With a polyhierarchy, the platypus can find its place in all three taxonomies.


Being a taxonomist solves only one part of the puzzle. Taxonomists create the structures, but it’s often up to others to tag the content to fit into the taxonomy. This split means that, in many cases, the taxonomist must make a point to sit with those who are actually doing the categorization to understand what is and isn’t working. Similarly, they should sit with users who are actually trying to find the information.

The key challenge in taxonomic development isn’t in designing the taxonomy. The key challenge is getting the users – who are often not dedicated indexers – to enter the metadata necessary to make the taxonomy work. Too many taxonomy projects are abandoned before the work really gets started, because the people indexing the content refuse to do it.

Pre and Post Coordination

There are tricks that can be used to improve results. Search can aggregate terms by leveraging synonyms even if the users aren’t always using the preferred term. Facets can go a long way to simplifying the search process, and full-text indexing makes some level of taxonomic identification unnecessary. Automatic classifiers – whether rules or machine learning-based – can help the content get the correct metadata with minimal help from the indexers.

With all this mess, it’s hard to keep track of when the metadata is known and to judge its reliability. Whether it’s entered at or near the time of creation in the form of pre-coordination or it’s managed through the searching process, getting it right is hard. Maybe you find that you’re not getting the findability that you want, so to fix the problem, you’re going to become The Accidental Taxonomist. Perhaps a quick read can give you tips that will make the process easier and less painful.