Taxonomy Accordion in Drupal

The open source community at Drupal is  quickly catching up on how to use its taxonomy module.  The latest code module  creates a Taxonomy Accordion— aka faceted navigation.  What Taxonomy Accordion shares with faceted navigation is good.  A taxonomy accordion lets a user know at a glance what a website is about, and how to find information, and also what won’t be found.

A Taxonomy Accordion does more than a faceted navigation (plus Taxonomy Accordion is a great name):

  • Using color and shade, you can graduate the color display so parent terms have one shade and the children have another shade
  • Hierarchies close and expand hierarchies much like a venetian blind or elegant fan
  • Has modular code that can be integrated as a part of Drupal Taxonomy module

But, as with other open source,  there is a requirement to plan and invest in the work that goes on  “under the covers.” Here are some of the dirty little secrets – the “work” that tune a  taxonomy accordion or any faceted navigation:

  • Pay attention user-centered design and validation: The fundamental choices of categories has to make sense to users.  Even if you make up an initial set of categories, use a validation process to ensure that the taxonomy makes sense to users.  Validation is a two-step process.  Part one is an open process, sometimes called an open card sort, where terms are collected from users, content, and sources, and then organized into a draft of the taxonomy. The second part of the process is closed, users are asked to find content using the navigation scheme to test whether the classes and hierarchy are useful or need to be refined.  More importantly, by using a validation process and making it part of the plan, you become more user aware and attentive to user needs.
  • Use this opportunity to improve tagging and metadata management: Content has to be tagged with terms from the taxonomy so you need a back-end business process and metadata eg database design to store the tags and pointers to associated content.  This backend metadata record can also help in creating an optimized your search engine especially an engine that supports faceted search such as SOLR.
  • Understand restrictions and attributes: Some facets are not larger super-classes, but are attributes (sometimes also called “slot facets” or “datatype properties”)  that are used to restrict  or narrow search.  These restrictions in an ecommerce application might be facets size as “Measurement, Color,  Availability.”    In a content or digital asset application, the restrictions might be “Content Type, Publication Date, Format.”    By grouping these terms, it helps to reduce permutations and complexity in interface design and in writing queries.
  • Foster distributed environments  and local control: This is hard to understand, but the faceted design is not authoritarian.  If the faceted design is based on user needs and a validation process, than it is likely to reflect shared values.   It still allows local organizations to develop and manage their information; it makes it easier to map that information to process and workflow.   For example,  a music company might have all its artists map  their music to shared facets such as genre.   A local social service agency might be asked to map its services to a common public service metadata scheme.  Allowing local agencies to update their metadata,  tag content, and suggest terms for taxonomy is a great way to identify user needs and changing requirements.
  • Change and Improve: Once categories are established, a change management process needs to be in place to monitor user queries to make sure that the categories and terms remain current and useful.   Setting baseline thresholds —  vital statistics —  (to be discussed in next month’s post) —  can help in recognizing changing markets, technologies or user needs.

An open source faceted navigation should allow implementation at a lower cost. Even with an Open Source solution like Drupal, which offers flexible options,  it  pays to invest some attention to understanding taxonomy business process because it will lead to more efficient implementation and efficient backend process.

The Return of Investment (ROI) justification  include not only user interface improvements (reduced clicks to right content) but also programming cost efficiencies such as  more simplicity in writing backend queries – great ROI justifications for the work. Validation work segues with the work of marketing and customer relations, so consider integrating taxonomy validation and governance into existing work processes.   Some organizations roll taxonomy management into a knowledge management function which oversees the entire process from organizing knowledge categories, managing content acquisition, and monitor.

Drupal’s development community has some very sophisticated features that will be available in the upcoming years including ways to visualize and cluster linked data, using RDFa.   Developing faceted navigation and taxonomies is a great way to get ready for an exciting future of visually interesting interfaces that better help users find and share information in complex organizations.

Don’t let the simplicity of the Taxonomy Accordion fool you.   Use the accordion as  an opportunity to understand user needs, how users look for information, and making underlying production, tagging and databases more efficient and focused  on user needs and high quality information.

~ Marlene Rockmore

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