Taxonomy in Extreme Places

How often do you get to be immersed in a completely alien work environment?

As a taxonomist, I get to learn about so many different domains through my work, from mouse genetics to greeting card manufacturing. Each company has its interesting quirks and workplaces…Like the toy manufacturer, whose workers had their cubicles adorned with all sorts of inspiration and materials: multi-colored fur, googly-eye collections, pictures of themsleves as superheroes…

But this week, I got to experience something completely different.

We just started a content strategy project with a semiconductor equipment manufacturer which aims to help their service groups (the folks who fix the machines) get the right information at the right time. This is an interesting project involving issues around technical writing and information architecture (DITA), integration across many different knowledge systems and databases, and getting information to users in a less than hospitable environment – the clean room.

A clean room is essentially a manufacturing or research facility that has low levels of environmental pollutants, such as dust and microbes. Pollutants are kept to a minimum through air filtering and circulation, as well as a strict dress code involving what are “lovingly” referred to as “bunny suits“. A clean room suit involves:

  • Glove liners
  • Rubber gloves x 2
  • Hair/beard net
  • Face mask
  • Shoe covers
  • Coveralls
  • Hood
  • Booties
  • Safety glasses

You get dresImagesed in a specific sequence so as to reduce contamination… first being the glove liner, rubber glove #1, hairnet, face mask, and shoe covers. Then you enter a second room where you add the hood, coverall, booties, rubber glove #2 and safety glasses. You then walk over some sticky paper into an air lock, where you are blasted with some air, and you’re now ready for the clean room.

Two minutes in a bunny suit and you gain a quick appreciation for the difficulties inherent to working in such an environment. It’s hot under all those layers, you have poor peripheral vision in the hood, the glasses constantly get fogged up from your breath under the mask, and it’s hard to walk. (Well, I have to admit that the “hard to walk” part is probably because I was wearing high-heels in my booties – ill-advised and embarassing! I also made the newbie mistake of taking a cough drop before putting on my mask, and I ended up breathing menthol air into my eyes and fighting back tears the whole time.)

But if I’ve set the scene up appropriately, you can start to imagine the challenges inherent to knowledge work in this environment. First of all,Image it’s hard to get access to information – carrying around a laptop is difficut, your hands are slippery, there’s nowhere to set it down in this lab, nowhere to plug it in… Even if you did find a place for it, you can’t use a track pad when you are wearing 3 layers of gloves – it’s hard to type and the gloves don’t create enough friction for the pad to capture movement. You might use a tablet and stylus, but there are holes in the floor, so if you drop it… You might use a handheld device, but again with gloved hands good luck typing on that tiny keypad, and the screen is much too small to show detailed tool schematics. You don’t have access to the internet, so all the information has to be available on the machine, and there are hundreds of parts for each machine.

Add the next layer: search, systems and content structure. These folks currently have to search across mutliple systems to try to find documentation on specific problems… starting with the original manual, which is likely for the product as it was shipped, not as it was configured at the client site. There are multiple databases where there might be troubleshooting tips or solutions, but you have to check them individually. The content is not well tagged or structured, so if you do find a document that might be useful, it’s typically a gigantic PDF that you have to comb through.

As you can see, this is a challenging problem: how do you get the right information (the right amount of it) in a way that is well structured and accessible to them in the clean room environment? What part of it involves structured writing in XML vs. system integration vs. taxonomy and metadata and how do we pull all those pieces together to offer a simple interface to a service professional?

We’ll be working on this project for the coming weeks, so I’ll keep you posted on the conclusions and insights. But in the mean time, I’m sure this will probably be my personal “one to top” in terms of taxonomizing in extreme places. Perhaps I’ll beat it if we ever do any work with cave spelunkers, submarines, or NASA…

Share your extreme taxonomy stories in the comments!

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