Rooting out Taxonomy Trees

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Looking for something to drive home better data quality? An organizational taxonomy goes a long way, particularly in organizations with larger teams and business silos. For databases they are imperative, making information that much easier to find. If your organization is in development of Machine Learning or Artificial Intelligence tools, developing and adapting taxonomies to your research process can have significant impacts. They provide points for humans to step in when they need to supervise learning and direct algorithmic behaviour.

On their own however, taxonomies do little to grab attention. Too often organizations shove them aside in process documentation: they become instructions everyone reads then promptly forgets.  Organizational taxonomies present the challenge where they have the most value when in use company-wide; but how to get everyone on board? If this sounds familiar, here’s some good news. Consider for your business intelligence and information design needs: the taxonomy tree.


What is a taxonomy?

A taxonomy is a defined classification structure, and often, a way of introducing controlled vocabulary. Commonly the term is active in the sciences, where education and explanations are made easier by separating subjects into relatable groups. We use taxonomy both to define groups, and to provide more information about the group we are describing. For example, we commonly use taxonomies to describe groups of animals, plants, and minerals. We even use taxonomies to describe learning methods themselves: "Bloom's taxonomy" categorizes educational goals.  Taxonomies however, need not be limited to scientific study: we can develop them for any type of information we want to control.


Taxonomies and Business

By placing information into defined groups under a single name, we can organize and improve the flow of information. Businesses benefit by developing taxonomies for internal and external use. Examples of areas that benefit from establishing a taxonomy include:

  • Grouping and organizes products. Ideally, this can then be built into website architecture.
  • Formalizing organizational departments and areas of control. If an employee has an issue with payroll, should they first approach Human Resources or Finance?
  • Controlled vocabulary for documents uploaded to sharable databases. If a marketing group wants information on organizational business clients as oppose to individual public customers, can it make the distinction?
  • Data quality and security initiatives: making distinctions between all business intelligence, sensitive data, and data that should be publicly available.


What is a taxonomy tree?

A taxonomy tree is what happens when you mix the desire to apply a taxonomy to sets of words with a phylogenetic tree for design. They allow for better visuals, communications on using the taxonomy, and can even act as a tool for testing.

Phylogenetic trees are popular in science as a way to visualize the links between different, but fundamentally connected matter at the ancestry level. Many of us are familiar with family trees, a type of phylogenetic tree which trace offspring, spouses, and descendants to detail how different individuals are related. Similarly, trees are common in biological studies to reveal common ancestry or genetic makeup. Wolves, foxes, coyotes and domestic dogs are all part of the Canidae family. Take it a step further, and we see the relation with the groups Caniformia, a suborder classification under the group Carnivora. Thus its common to use the word ‘carnivore’ for all meat-eaters, while Caniformia means meat-eaters of a particular type, and Canidae or ‘canine’ for dogs, wild or domestic. Another well-known meat eating family, cats (family member Felidae) may be carnivores, but we almost never mean them when we say the word ‘canine’!

Carnivore tree

A taxonomy tree is similar to a phylogenetic tree, but with different meaning in the relationships. While phylogenetic trees look at genetics, a taxonomy tree illustrates the rules around organization vocabulary we want to enforce.


Why are taxonomy trees useful?

A taxonomy tree establishes a visual reference for an organization's terminology rules and connections. Humans, after all, are made for visual data. Like an infographic, it quickly imparts the knowledge we want others to learn.

A taxonomy tree is also a good exercise if you want to test your classification structures. After all, every good information system should be tested. You can pass it out to staff, and see if the classification grouping make ‘sense’. If you have the resources for focus groups, consider using the taxonomy tree as another method for UX design before building a final product.


How do I create one?

Before you create the 'tree', you'll need the taxonomy you want to visualize. Creating classification structures can very in scope and time between short exercises and significant processes. If you're planning to use the taxonomy to better communicate business terms and enhance e-discovery, take your time. You'll have a number of questions to consider, including what information to focus on, your user base, and ideal deliverables. If your team needs help, there are some excellent tutorials online, include resources from KM World, ZDNet and UX Booth.

One you’ve started working out a classification you want to illustrate, go for it. Creating your tree is simply a matter of putting pen to paper or opening a design program. Then, get as creative as you want or the project demands. You can draw up a simple tree to test your classification scheme, or a more illustrated edition intent for posters and company education programs.

Start at the top, and work down through each group, or start at the lowest level and work your way up. For each connection, draw a line or arrow to illustrate the relationship. If you’re looking to create something for professional consumption, a draft is a must. You’ll want to keep relationship lines as clean as you can, and avoid crossing over whenever possible. In the initial design it can also be difficult to gauge canvas space needs: these will very depending on what you are classifying, what groups you've chosen and how you decide the display will appear.

And of course, above all if you can, have fun!


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