Taxonomy First

Great article by Seth Earley that lays out why taxonomy is fundamental to helping businesses come to grips with the complexity of the modern technological and social environment. Basically, his argument is that taxonomies can define the core elements of the business and give everyone a common language to work from, whereas defining data structures before defining taxonomy can fail to address the underlying structure of a business. Taxonomy gives businesses “conceptual building blocks” to develop adaptable and sustainable systems and processes.

Link: TextExpander Abbreviations

I spent some time following Zach Holmquist’s lead this morning:

That was all I needed to have the lightbulb go off, and to motivate me to finally cleanup my TextExpander Snippets. No more ;; or ,, confusion. All I had to do was simply split groups of snippets into period separated by objects and functions.

Having a system makes easy work of repetitive tasks, and having a taxonomy makes large amounts of information easier to work with. Setting up systems and taxonomies can be daunting, especially because good organization schemes often don’t reveal themselves until a certain critical mass of objects have been developed, at which point it often feels easier to just go with the ad hoc taxonomy that you started with. But it’s worth spending some time to get your system in order. The productivity pay-off can be huge.

Link: Where new ideas take root –

(via Bob DuCharme on the Taxocop mailing list; free registration required to read the article on

When you’re on the inside of any system, it’s hard to see things from other perspectives. But companies and organizations are starting to realize the benefit of making the effort to organize around how customers think of the information domain.

But a couple of years ago Mike Mack, Syngenta’s CEO, took the bold decision to switch tack. He realised that while the previous organisational map made perfect sense to scientists, Syngenta’s customers – ie farmers – looked at the world with a different lens. Most notably, they did not usually wander into an agribusiness store and say: “I need fungicide.” Instead they just said: “I want to grow better rice.”

So Mack reorganised the entire company into eight divisions defined by crops, not chemistry. Thus if you walk around the greenhouses, labs and offices near Windsor today as I recently did you will see chirpy labels saying “rice” – not “fungicide”.

What would it mean to flip the taxonomy at your business? Internally or externally? If we did that where I work, I suspect we’d streamline a lot of processes that we usually struggle with.

UPDATE 9-13-14: Bill Schrier says pretty much the same thing about governments: People Live Horizontally but Government Organizes in Silos

Overthinking Simplicity

Photo by Wade Morgen -
Via Marco Arment, I found this post by Lukas Mathis about his experience switching from an iPad to a Windows Surface tablet. The main reason he gives for switching is that the simplicity of ithe Pad makes it hard for him to do productivity work, er, productively.

“Apple has decided to make the iPad as simple as possible, but sometimes, this simplicity comes at the expense of power. Not having any kind of window management or split-screen view makes the iPad much easier to use, but it also means you can’t look at an email and at a Pages document at the same time. Preventing apps from interacting with each other cuts down on complexity, but it also means that it is difficult or sometimes even impossible to use multiple apps in conjunction on the same task. Not having any kind of system-level concept of a file or a document means that people are less likely to lose track of their files or documents, but it also means that you are often very limited in what you can do with the things you create in an iPad app.”

Simplicity is a tricky thing to grapple with. What kind of simplicity are we talking about here? Simplicity in visual design? In a solution? Of a process? The iPad simplifies much of the cognitive overhead required to use a computing device. It simplifies app installation and upgrades, peripheral management (in that you don’t need peripherals to use the iPad), battery management, connectivity, portability, app management, file storage, and lots of other aspects of computing. In doing so, it simultaneously makes some aspects of computing more complex.

As Mathis points out, for some computing tasks where having access to two apps at the same time increases productivity, the iPad offers a less than ideal experience. If you need to do these kinds of tasks frequently, the iPad has not simplified them for you. In fact, it has made these kinds of tasks more complex, not less.

Mathis’s argument put me in mind of the trade offs I wrestle with when designing taxonomies and navigation. When designing navigation labels, shorter words and phrases are better, right? Well, not if they make it harder to understand the thing being labeled. Fewer choices in a navigation menu are better, right? Not if the things your customers are looking for are left out. A global header with two or three choices is simpler than one with 15, right? Not if you’ve made the customer click to find something they could have found previously at a glance, or if they never click because they simply assume you don’t have what they’re looking for.

These trade offs often take the guise of aesthetic simplicity versus functional simplicity. These are not equivalent, though they are frequently conflated. Aesthetic simplicity removes buttons, decoration, text, and anything else that’s visually superfluous. Functional simplicity removes steps in a process or cognitive overhead (the need to think intently about your interaction or experience). Both types of simplicity are desirable, but I believe that functional simplicity ultimately wins over more users than aesthetic simplicity.

But the dimensions are a bit more complex than this simple dichotomy. Functional simplicity exists on a spectrum. What’s simple to me may not be simple to you. This is somewhat analogous to the way experts tend to use more precise terms than laymen. It’s simpler for horticulturists to communicate using correct Latin plant designations, for instance, than to try to struggle through the ambiguity using common names.

For Mathis, the iPad isn’t functionally simple. From his perspective, the Windows Surface — by allowing the use of two apps at once — is simpler than the iPad for his most important or frequent tasks. For me, the additional complexity of the Surface overall isn’t worth trading my iPad to get a simpler experience for this particular use case.

To each his own. Simplicity is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s great that we have a choice of devices — and terminology — to meet our individual needs.

Photo by Wade Morgen –