How Do You Eat a Taxonomy?

I remember the first time I ate Ethiopian food. The server placed an impressive assortment of yummy-looking delicacies on the table. I was hungry and a little drunk on honey wine. But when I tried to dig in, I realized there were no eating utensils I could recognize. “Uh oh,” I thought, “how do I eat this?”

This question — “How do you eat this?” — represents a fundamental principle for me: Sometimes we must go out of our way to help the people we serve understand how they can engage with (and derive value from) the things we produce. This is especially important for information architects, since we mostly deal with abstractions.

I was once in a workshop where the word taxonomy kept coming up. (You can’t talk long about information architecture without talking about taxonomies; they’re central to the work.) Towards the end of the workshop, a (somewhat exasperated) executive asked, “What exactly is a taxonomy?”

Sigh. Now, I’m confident this person knew what a taxonomy was conceptually. (I.e. a classification of things or concepts.) What the executive wanted to know was what form it would take in their particular case and what they could do with it. Were we talking about a list of terms in a spreadsheet? Or would they need to acquire a dedicated taxonomy management system? What would they do once they’d built this taxonomy? How would their customers get value from it?

When you’re part of a culture, you take such things for granted. You must make a conscious effort to empathize with people who don’t know — especially the people you’re serving. Ethiopians don’t need to be shown how to eat using injera. But someone like me, who was unfamiliar with their culture, does. Once those we serve know how to “eat” the thing at hand, they can have a memorable and nourishing experience. But only then.