Taxonomy is simply categorization: our purpose in categorization is the same as in physical filing: to permit easy access (in and out) at a later time or date. Today we have become increasingly dependent on search to find things. Unfortunately, this is analogous to throwing all your socks in a drawer tumbled straight out of the dryer. (Apologies if this is your method!) Finding the matching ones you are looking for, can be a time-consuming and frustrating experience!

messydrawer

Relying on search without some form of taxonomy is like throwing all your stuff in a drawer (above). In contrast, well organized taxonomies allow us to zoom in and focus on what’s relevant, quickly:

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You could say that this task digitally may be accomplished through the handy dandy search function; however when data accumulates in large stores (i.e. the Internet, or any likely place like your own files) search becomes increasingly less useful. This is why google results routinely return ‘millions of results’ to search requests. The specifics of a request are unknown through known search tools. Therefore, search algorithms employ a guessing system to return ‘likely’ results. Google doesn’t know your argyle socks from your striped ones, necessarily. In our own corporate data systems we routinely test search against categorization, and even on a single hard drive, categorization is much faster, as soon as there are a few thousand files (minimal by corporate, and even some personal standards). And, while large, cloud-based systems (such as Google) tend to return results fairly quickly, they are notoriously parsimonious with respect to objectivity. I.e. ‘promoted’ posts (otherwise known in the real world as ADVERTISING) are always at the top. Even searching for my own name in my own (Google, cloud-based) address book can be painfully slow, yielding numerous results (at first) that aren’t remotely me! (Before you ask, because I sometime forget my postal code.)

Additionally, ordered categorization has the strength of co-locating related relevant information. This means that adjacent information will quite likely be of interest. Well-designed taxonomies have a further benefit: they provide access via adjacent fields to information of both grosser and finer detail. This permits ‘browsing’ through information, as you might on a menu, or any other well-organized selection set. It’s nice to look at the appetizers all together: now what about the drinks?

Taxonomy is a technical term used in IT infrastructure to call out the name reference system within data structure. (This word and much of the vocabulary of the field, is abundantly borrowed from biology, from where it originates.) Whether or not you already use this language you are probably already familiar with the concepts involved. For instance, when you construct a table; whether in Word, Excel or on a piece of paper, you probably put titles at the top and or left hand side. Titles at the top or side of a table tell others what the subject of the contents will be. This is taxonomy.

Here is a simple taxonomy for a personal address list:

Name Address Phone Number

Everyone understands the sort of content which is expected to follow, regardless of the details. Basically, all taxonomy is structured categories: because it is structured, taxonomy tells us what kind of information is (and is not) welcome in a table, dataset, or list.

The challenge in any taxonomy is to to provide a compact (and easy to master) system and, at the same time, provide for sufficient detail to account for any variance. Let’s take a quick look at biological classification systems to see what if any clues may be garnered in our quest to cross the digital divide.

Taxonomies are frequently ordered in terms from most general to more specific. This diagram illustrates some of the most general taxonomical terms used by biologists to order their overall, general taxonomy:

Taxonomic_Rank_Graph.svg

Wikipedia

In biology additional terms of reference are usually added to better describe the structure and nature of related items. Cladistic taxonomies, including GENr8’s are tree-like in form. Here is an early biological taxonomy that clearly demonstrates the general concept of a cladistic taxonomy:

Haeckel_arbol_bn-1

Early phylogenetic tree by Haeckel, 1866. Groups once thought to be more advanced, such as birds (“Aves”), are placed at the top. Biological taxonomies are classically labelled in Latin, by convention.

In this article we have introduced a few of the basic concepts of taxonomy. We hope you will relate to this next time you’re looking for something, be it a can of soup at the supermarket, a piece of data on your phone, or your keys!

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And, if you’re still unsure how taxonomy applies to everyday life, and to online solutions, check out a recent related article:

Bryce Winter is a chef, inventor, consumer and gastronome in the field of brands and branding. His elementary work as a UX architect is in the area of taxonomy; a field necessarily influenced by archetype within his humanist approach to communal knowledge. Bryce’s public branding work was with significant global and local players and was effective for scores of brands from cigarette nationals to top bottled water brands and major Canadian, French and UK brands including CHANEL, Evian, Coca-Cola and TD Canada Trust.