Taxonomies and Mental Models

One of the biggest challenges to maintaining quality and value in a taxonomy lies in keeping interests aligned and resolving conflicting perspectives. By its nature, a taxonomy attempts to reconcile diverse perspectives – those of various types of users, engaging in diverse tasks. It also needs to support the needs of merchandisers who are vying for valuable site real estate. But what is the true purpose of the taxonomy from a strategic perspective? Is it to market the company’s offerings? Educate customers? Sell merchandise? Help the customer find answers?

The answer is yes, to all of these of course. But these objectives need to be balanced and there are always tradeoffs to focusing on one versus another. Lets say that the company wants to promote a certain item. It can raise that item higher in the hierarchy for greater visibility. But this may make the item seem out of place and perhaps affect how easy it is to find other items. Similarly, if we are trying to use the taxonomy to educate the consumer on a new type of product, that will have an effect on the ability to find product if not done correctly. The customer has a “mental model” of the world. If something does not fit in to that model, they typically discount, ignore or throw out that information.

For example, if a middle aged person not familiar with gaming consoles is asked to find a console of a specific trade or brand name, they will not know where to begin because it does not fit in with their mental model. This was strongly demonstrated in usability data in a recent project. Using a term that people are not familiar with may cause them to click on that term out of curiosity, but chances are they will ignore it because it does not fit in with their understanding of the world and what they are trying to accomplish. The bottom line is that using non standard or newer terms that are not widely understood violates a core principle of taxonomy best practices – the taxonomy should represent the users mental model – not try to teach them a new mental model.

If this principle is violated, the taxonomy will “editorially drift” over time and become less useful as a way finding device –that is, a mechanism that allows users to come to the site and quickly get to the merchandise they are interested in. This will cause them to become frustrated, abandon the site and shop with a competitor.