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What the f is taxonomy design?

Taxonomy, not something you do with dead animals.

Taxonomy, wtf?

I’ve thrown this word out quite a lot recently, and the lovely Lucy Werner at Wern said a blog post was needed on the subject. Ask, and I shall share (if you’d like to know more about something, why not drop me a line?)

Taxonomy, funny word isn’t it. Oddly enough it’s got nothing to do with stuffing dead animals, thankfully, I much prefer living ones.

Taxonomy is the science of classification.

In tech terms, there are two different types of taxonomy design expert. There are those who design taxonomies for corporate infrastructure and those who design them as part of websites.

I’m an expert in designing taxonomies for websites. And I LOVE it.

What does a taxonomist do?

Roughly speaking the two different types of specialist do the same sort of thing. The infrastructure taxonomists design categorisation for data to allow different enterprise systems to communicate with one another. Woo! That was a mouthful (don’t worry keep reading, I’ll explain).

Web taxonomists design categories and labels for websites.

Infrastructure Taxonomists

Infrastructure taxonomists are focused on creating consistency, making sure enterprise systems can communicate with one another and that everything can be found. They’re most definitely NOT SEO specialists tho.

There are tons of enterprise systems out there, all doing various different things. They do, however, need to talk to one another at some point. Also, the older and larger the business the more likely they are to have multiple systems doing the same thing.

Enterprise taxonomists are often hired to bring order to chaos.

They will make sure any data or information that a company holds can be found and used.

HBO, you know the fabulous people who made Sex and the City and Game of Thrones, have a taxonomist who created the categories for the types of shows they have.

A Web Taxonomist

This is my area of specialism if you hadn’t already guessed.

A web taxonomist designs the categories, label and structures for websites. We work with infrastructure taxonomists, data analysts, content strategists, user experience designers, visual designers, and coders.

Our aim is to get you to the content you want, without you even noticing.

The categories and labels we design take a lot of different things into consideration. Demographics, Psychology, Business Type, Context, SEO, Analytics, Language, and a few more.

We are like Marie Kondo’s of the internet. We sort file and label how you find things.

Technique is Everything

If you’ve built your own website, you’ve probably created a simple taxonomy from your website. Well, you’ve probably borrowed it from larger websites (don’t worry, we do this too).

You’re probably sat thinking “creating a taxonomy is easy!” and in certain situations, you’d be right.

Normally when a taxonomist is needed, it’s because the site has grown too big for its boots. Customers can’t find things, the customer service team are getting too many questions that should be answered via the website and they’re losing money.

We’re brought in to untangle a knot.

To a taxonomist, sorting out problems like the ones I’ve just suggested are relatively easy. We know that if customer service is being overloaded with the same questions over and over, the problem lies with the FAQs and the content on the site.

You never really visit a website with the sole purpose of looking for the FAQs, you go to a website to look at a product or service. The product or service needs to be well labelled and the content on there needs to answer all your questions without you realise you’re asking them.

In many respects, we’re the magicians who trick you with sleight of hand.

Conscious vs Subconscious

As a taxonomist and a user experience professional I notice all the little details you probably don’t. If you’re familiar with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow you’ll know about the concept of system 1 and system 2 thinking.

If you’re not familiar with it, the tl/dr version is that system 1 is conscious thought and system 2 is subconscious thought. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman who is one of the fathers of Behavioural Economics, explores all the little things you think you’re making conscious decisions about, you’re actually not.

When it comes to taxonomy design, I know for example that there isn’t anything as straightforward as assuming that English is global. I can tell by glancing at an eCommerce website whether it’s English or American (Brits us Shopping bag or basket and Americans will usually use cart).

Knowing how the mind works and how linguistically we use language are two of the biggest skills I’ve got when designing a taxonomy.

How do we do it?

I can’t speak for anyone else, as often (but not always) taxonomists work alone. My approach is to look at the following:

  • Problem
  • Organisation
  • Location
  • Audience
  • Context


I start everything with the question “What is the problem I’m trying to solve?” as this will determine my thought process and how I tackle a problem.


What type of organisation you’re working with is important. Do they have products or services, do they sell anything on the website or is it just information. What sector do they work in? Is their audience Business or Consumer-facing?

One of my sector specialisms is education. To date, I’ve worked with The Open University and Pearson Education.

Both projects were to redesign to present their content in a more accessible format because they weren’t making enough sales fast enough. This is what’s known as a conversion rate.


What country a business operates in, is really important to understand. It affects all the things you would expect currency and tax, language and what’s sold.

There are other things that impact it too. Education and the two projects I worked on are a great example of this.

In the case of The OU, England, Wales and Scotland have different funding arrangements for degrees. Depending on which country you’re in, determines the price you pay.

I the case of Pearson, I had to design a navigation structure around the localised stages of learning. In the UK we refer to our stages of education as Primary and Secondary, in the US its PreK-12. We use the stages of education to describe the types of school, whereas the US Elementary, Junior High and High School.


With the OU, the audience is everyday people like you and me. The subtlety lies with the fact that the average person studying with the OU hasn’t been exposed to academic language. That meant the word “undergraduate” wasn’t recognised.

With Pearson, the audience were broadly described as educators. That meant teachers, lecturers, tutors, administrators, professors, governors, and in some cases, parents. Their language was slightly more advanced.

Note – regardless of this, when you’re writing content, you should keep the language as simple as you can. This is to help reduce the strain on the brain (otherwise known as cognitive load).


When you’ve taken everything else into consideration, the use of context helps you to work out the right label to use, in the context of how you’re using it.

Let’s go back to something I just said about the OU. The prospective students of the OU hadn’t been exposed to academic language, they didn’t know what undergraduate meant. 

We knew this from the research that had been carried out before I joined the project. So we knew that we would have a problem if we tried to use the label “undergraduate”.

So we came up with some different ideas of what we could use. Then we tested them (I’ll cover testing in another post, as the type of testing we used, while simple takes a bit to explain).

One of the first ideas I had was to use a label that, whilst factually correct, it didn’t look right in the context of the menu. My theory was that the label worked contextually, that the audience would recognise it and understand what it meant. This, in turn, meant that they would know where they were going.

The label I suggested? “Courses”. It’s also, incidentally what the section is called.

Contextually, the label worked as it should, as a wayfinding tool. It gave direction and conveyed enough meaning for users to understand what it meant.

What’s in a name?

There’s a book that anyone who works in my sector will quote like its scripture. It’s called Don’t Make Me Think, by Steve Krug. In it, he says that you must be able to get where you want within 3 clicks on a website.

As a taxonomist, that’s a goal I’m constantly working towards. In some cases, I have to go to the fall back of “you need to feel confident you’re getting to what you need within 3 clicks”. This is mostly done via way finding and cleverly designed navigations.

The label you use, however, is really important. It has to tell the person visiting the site enough to understand it. You can be a little quirky if you want, especially if the word you’re using sparks curiosity.

I took a gamble when I created this website and my about section “wtf”. That’s because it’s very much on-brand for me (I swear like a trooper), and you kinda get what the section is. I know it works by the volume of traffic and wherein the journey you’re clicking on it.

If the word you’re using is so abstract and has absolutely no relevance to the content in the section or page, it’s going to backfire.

Remember, context is key.


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