Faceted Classification, Faceted Search [Organizing Content 6]

In the last post, I argued that topic-based navigation systems generally fail for users. Topic-based navigation has some merits, such as allowing users to see topics in context, to discover other topics through browsing, and to provide one perspective on the organization of the material, but topic-based navigation shouldn’t be the only means of navigating the content. Another way to allow users to find your content is through faceted classification and faceted search.

Faceted Classification

In a faceted classification system, you tag your content with a specific set of attributes. You then provide different arrangements and sorting of the content based on those attributes.

For example, if you have an online paint store, the set of attributes for your faceted classification system might include brand, color, texture, shine, thickness, and cost. You can then allow users to navigate the paint products by each of these attributes.

Sarah Maddox notes that in Matthew Ellison’s Turning Search into Find presentation at the AODC 10 conference, he gave an example of faceted classification with the shoe store sportsshoes.com.

Faceted classification system

Faceted classification system

Many times faceted classification systems allow you to combine and narrow down the attributes to get closer and closer to your information. Sarah notes that

Matthew introduced the concept of the “scent of information”: If people can see that they’re getting nearer to the information that they’re want, they’re quite happy to keep combining facets to narrow down their search.

Faceted classification and faceted search systems are actually quite common on the web. When you search for something on Google, the left pane provides a list of facets that you can use to limit the search results to a specific category of information.

Google's faceted search

Google’s faceted search

In the above example, I searched for “undercover agents.” Using the facets, I can limit the results to show images, videos, news, discussions, shopping sites, maps, books, or other formats that contain the words “undercover agents.”  This is the way Google has categorized the different types of information it indexes.

Amazon also provides a faceted search. When you search for a product, such as Beauty and the Beast, you see a list of facets in the sidebar to narrow the results.

Faceted browsing on Amazon

Faceted browsing on Amazon

Grooveshark also provides a faceted search based on the term you search for.

Grooveshark's faceted search

Grooveshark’s faceted search

Navigation Features

The most popular sites on the web may not all be set up with faceted classification and faceted search, but they do offer other types of navigational features. These other navigational features could informally be called facets, but according to Peter Morville, author of Search Patterns and Ambient Findability, these organization systems are more like features rather than facets. But they still organize and arrange the content into structures that aren’t based on hierarchical topic containers. Here are a few examples.

Hulu allows users to choose among the following:

  • Gallery content
  • Channels
  • Most Popular
  • Recently Added
  • Collections
  • Trailers
  • Spotlights
  • TV
  • Movies
  • Search

Wikipedia provides users with these navigational features:

  • Featured content
  • Current events
  • Random article
  • Today’s Featured Article
  • In the News
  • On this day
  • Today’s featured picture
  • Categories
  • Index

The New York Times provides these features for navigating the content:

  • Today’s Paper
  • Video
  • Most Popular
  • Times Topics (like an index)
  • Categories
  • Most E-mailed
  • Most Blogged
  • Most Viewed
  • Most Searched
  • What We’re Reading
  • Reader’s Recommendations
  • Most Recent

Coming back to Amazon, when you view a product on Amazon, you get a ton of interesting navigational features for finding more content:

  • Customers Viewing This Page May Be Interested in These Sponsored Links
  • What Do Customers Ultimately Buy After Viewing This Item?
  • Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought
  • Tags Customers Associate with This Product
  • Customer Reviews
  • Customer Discussions
  • Look for Similar Items by Category
  • Your Recent History

You can see the wide variety of faceted classification, faceted search, and other navigation features on the web. Why don’t we borrow more of these faceted navigation models to provide alternative organization systems for our help content? Why is it that, despite the abundance of these alternative navigation systems, most technical writers still stick with a traditional topic-based, hierarchical folders? In contrast to many sites on the web, the organizational structure of most online help files hasn’t changed in 20 years.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Char James-Tanny

    Have you read Jared Spool and Christine Perfetti’s “Designing for the Scent of Information” (http://www.uie.com/reports/scent_of_information/)? I think that this might be what you’re aiming at…a way to combine website “scents” with Help files.

    And have you seen http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dd776252(v=VS.100).aspx (Microsoft Help System Documentation)? Microsoft is using a new TOC, one that changes as you move around (“following the scent”, as it were). It’s no longer one really long TOC, but one that retains a more manageable size, based on your selections.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Char, thanks for the links on the scent of information and the Microsoft Help System Documentation. I’ll check them out.

  • http://www.vanarsdall-infodesign.com Eddie VanArsdall

    Tom, you make a great point about the fact that help authoring has been stuck in dinosaur mode for years. IMO, part of the problem is that our traditional help compilers don’t offer us a lot of automated features for truly enhancing search. Granted, the methods of enhancement have to come from the mind of the help author, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could use a GUI to build your list of facets and set up the links automagically?

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Eddie, do you think the Search Filter Set in Flare could provide a mechanism to achieve a faceted search? If you use the concept markers as the attributes for topics, then essentially you can narrow down your search based on these concepts/facets? It seems like it would work. But for some reason, it doesn’t have nearly the same impressiveness as other faceted search systems.

      • http://www.vanarsdall-infodesign.com Eddie VanArsdall

        The search filter set generally works well and does provide a nice enhancement to search in Flare projects. Like you, I only wish there were a little more flexibility and extendability.

  • tjrainey

    Are there any examples out there of an actual help system that uses a faceted search? The Google example would seem to be the closest to how it could be used, but then those facets aren’t exactly based on the content, but instead are based on the way the content is provided.
    I’d like to see how an actual help set (and not a product site) implements this. It’s a cool concept, but I’m skeptical as to how useful it would be in tech docs.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Yes, we’re moving towards that. You’re right that faceted classification/search is more easily implemented with products and more tricky to implement with information. The problem is that, apart from format, the attributes of information are usually just topics, which is what I’m trying to get away from in my navigation.

  • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

    One resource I’m looking for is research on how users enter search terms in search boxes. I find that I usually enter 2-4 word phrases that describe the action I want to do. I also use the imperative verb tense. So if I’m trying to “create a new team” in an application, in the search I would type “create team.” Surely there’s a study out there that reviews the common phrase patterns and verb forms of searches. This is key to SEO both on the web and in help files. Anyone have a link or book they can point me to?

    • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/marcia-johnston/9/8a4/4a3 Marcia Johnston

      Great possibilities to explore here. I love the idea of using tags to slice the information in a topic set in a variety of ways — and giving users access to those tags as alternative ways into the Help.

      Char beat me to recommending Jared Spool and Christine Perfetti’s “Designing for the Scent of Information” (http://www.uie.com/reports/scent_of_information/). Readable, research-based, and full of insights into search behavior. I haven’t read it in a few years. It was worth paying for. Time to pull it out again.

      Tom, you say, “The problem is that… the attributes of information are usually just topics.” Not sure I get your point. Could you be implying that a “typical” topic set (whatever that is) has few facets? Surely not. And whatever you’re getting at, why is it a problem?

      Elaborate, please.

      • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

        Thanks again for the link recommendation. I really appreciate all your input.

        I tried to elaborate on this problem of help topics having few facets outside of topical information itself in my latest post.

      • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

        Thanks for referring me to the resource, even though it’s behind a paywall.

    • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/marcia-johnston/9/8a4/4a3 Marcia Johnston

      Here’s another must-read, by Erik Ojakaar and Jared M. Spool: “Getting Them to What They Want: Eight Best Practices to Get Users to the Content They Want (and to Content They Didn’t Know They Wanted).”


      It’s web-oriented, of course, but your premise is that search behavior is search behavior, so why not apply what works on the web to Help? I’m with you.

      • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/marcia-johnston/9/8a4/4a3 Marcia Johnston

        Here’s a long P.S. —

        I hope you (Tom and others) will keep circling back to your earlier theme of organizational strategies for the print version of a topic set too. Even in a linear, three-dimensional medium, readers of documentation still hunt and peck and “search.”

        Speaking of print, I think that the subject of indexes, which came up briefly in an earlier post, has been too quickly dismissed. Many of the principles of “back of the book” indexing carry over into the ideas we’re exploring. We might not want to create indexes exactly, but like indexers, we’re interested in giving people effective “ways in” to information as an alternative to the hierarchical TOC. Like indexers, we want to present various ways to slice that information. We want to use key words that people already have lodged in their heads. (Jared Spool and company call these “trigger words” in their Web research). We want to give users choices so that they can find what they’re looking for according to different mental maps and vocabularies.

        Professional indexers understood search behaviors long before key words were clickable. Indexers refer to ” topic analysis” as an important and unique value that an index brings. The term “topic” here refers not to an information module, as in task topic or concept topic, but to topic threads that run through an information set, cutting through the TOC hierarchy. Tags share this characteristic.

        An index’s “topic analysis” derives from the subentries grouped under main entries. Some of the tag examples that you’ve given have a simple nested structure too (Product Type: shoes, tops, football boots). So, tag groupings have the capacity to provide this kind of valuable topic analysis just like well-chosen index entries.

        There’s a whole lot more to say about the art of indexing — and I’m convinced that much of it would carry over to the art of creating successful faceted navigation — but I fear that I’ve just blathered on saying obvious things, so will stop now.

        Enjoying everyone’s comments.

        • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

          Marcia, I am planning to come back to the organization of printed content. Organization print content will take principles of linearity and non-linearity into mind.

          Re indexing, I agree that indexes provide a useful way to navigate and find content. My current problem with indexes is related to the help authoring tool I’m using (Flare). Index keywords provide meta-keywords for the topic, so that user search returns are heavily influenced by the presence of keywords in the topic. The problem is that I create meta keywords based on how users enter search strings, but this same pattern doesn’t fit how people browse an index.

          For example, suppose the topic is Create a New Operations Team. If someone were searching for the topic, they may search for “create team.” That’s generally how I search for content. I type in exactly what I want to do, using a verb in the active/imperative tense and the noun, and stringing together a short 2-4 word phrase.

          But if I were browsing an index, I would look for “Teams, creating.”

          How, then, do you create the index word for the topic? If I choose “teams, creating,” it won’t have the exact match as the user’s search string. Hence it won’t be as beneficial for the search. But if I write “create a team,” then the index won’t be that helpful.

          Unfortunately I don’t see a way to create multiple indexes in Flare.

      • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

        Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out.

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  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/eileenpotter Eileen Potter

    Interesting to see how many of us have read “Designing for the Scent of Information” and are continuing a great conversation here. We seem to be drifting naturally into structures that are typically covered in library science coursework so this link might help.
    http://www.ontopia.net/topicmaps/materials/tm-vs-thesauri.html. I thought this was an interesting description of faceted classification and a different way to look at your content if you replace “document” with topic…
    Ranganathan’s original proposal (1930, also known as Colon Classification) consisted of five facets:

    This facet was intended for the primary subject of the document, and is considered the main facet.

    The material or substance the document deals with.

    The processes or activities the document describes.

    The locations described by the document.

    The time period described by the document.

    Using Tom’s Example: “Properly Delivering a Burn Notice”, it might look something like this:
    • Personality — Employee Relations
    • Matter — Termination
    • Energy — Communication Methods
    • Space — via email, in-person
    • Time — after probation period, immediately
    My biggest concern when organizing and writing content is remaining focused on what the user wants to accomplish (“fire someone”) versus organizing based on industry/experienced user jargon (“deliver burn notice”). The novice user has no concept of a “burn notice” and will not search on the term or recognize it when browsing.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Eileen, it was interesting to see the way you applied Ranganathan’s original proposal to my hypothetical example. It’s a bit of a stretch for me to go from Matter to Termination, or from Energy to Communication Methods, but your doing so sheds some light on how those facets could be remotely useful in thinking about organization.

  • Patrick Moore

    That really makes up for an impressive post.Do check out this informative article on faceted search: http://www.lucidimagination.com/Community/Hear-from-the-Experts/Articles/Faceted-Search-Solr

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