Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Why I Love Folksonomies

Because I am not my users.

I guess I've always known this, but it hit home today during a blue-sky planning meeting for a new project. I was subjecting the team to my usual exhausting exhaustive start-up questionnaire when we reached this question: "Do you use meta tags within the site to catalog content properties, etc.?" This is my entree to discussing thesauri, controlled vocabularies and the like.

The initial response was less than enthusiastic, citing workload, a lack of resources, the scope of the effort and so on—all from the team's perspective. So I made a fast U-turn.

"What concerns me is that your users don't have the same domain knowledge as you," I suggested. "They're coming to the site with imperfect information, modulated by transmission through media and other individuals. They're going to be searching for terms that you never imagined. I just want to be sure they can find what they're looking for."

That got the team rolling. And I said to myself, "What we need to do is let users create the tags for our content. Mix them with a good thesaurus and we're on Broadway!"

I don't know if it's practical, but here's something I'd love to try. User-centered design rightly emphasizes going to the source, to end-users. We typically do this with interviews, contextual observation, usability tests, surveys, card sorts and other user analysis tools. Can we add "folksonomy creation exercises" to the list—that is, invite representative users to assign tags/labels to our content? They wouldn't have to sort it or taxonomize it; we'd simply ask, "What would you call this? How would you label it? What words would you use to describe this?" We could then incorporate the results into the site thesaurus and metadata.

Has anyone done anything like this?


Blogger DonnaM said...

I've thought about this a number of times and am reasonably sure that it won't work in most situations. The tags people come up with will just reflect words in the existing content. I think we'd really need to make the motivation high by really thinking about how it would fit into their life.

Maybe it could work in specialist domains, but I'd think not in general.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Dave Rogers said...

Thanks, Donna. I love the part about motivation.

I wasn't as clear as I might have been. In this case, the content is actually a catalog of products, many of which have unusual or creative names that could be easily confused. My original idea was to show pictures of the products (perhaps with a brief written description) to users and ask them to provide words they'd use to label or tag it. My hope is that, at the very least, we'd get some insight into the terms users might enter when searching for a specific product.

I'd love more comments on this as we're doing the project budget and schedule in the next week or so.

11:38 AM  

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