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Adobe Robohelp

Faceted Classification, Faceted Search [Organizing Content 6]

May 20, 2010 • findability, general

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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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.