Facets in your Future

Jun 08, 2004

Facets may help solve the thorniest problem of digital publishing today: How to help users find their way around your documents. Whether it's Web content, document management, or a sophisticated knowledge management application, visitors want more than a good search engine to get around. They want a navigation scheme that makes sense to them. This means letting them have it their way.

If a top-notch information architect was on your design team, she categorized and classified your content, then arranged it in one or more taxonomies to support clean drill-down paths. Visitors build their mental model on this shared mind map of your site, so you better get it right, or allow the user to fine tune it with facets, since even the best organized taxonomy has its limitations. The canonical example of a faceted directory is an ecommerce site like Wine.com, where visitors can browse by wine type, region, winery, or price. Finding the right content management system is not unlike a search for the best wine and facets can help.

Take a look at the classic Web site directory architecture of Yahoo! or the DMOZ Open Directory Project, a portal to over four million Web sites. Like library books placed on their proper shelf, each Web site has one and only one place in the directory. To find a site, you must drill down the master taxonomy or hierarchy. For example, content management Web sites on the ODP are found in Computers: Software: Internet: Site Management: Content Management. Subdirectories arrange CMS products into open-source, XML, as well as various programming languages, like Java, Perl, and PHP. And they list hosted systems at application service providers in a separate category. What if you are looking for an open-source content management system written in PHP, based on XML and hosted at an ASP? What do you do? You do it their way and look in four different places.

How Do You Facet?
What are facets and how do they work? As you probably guessed, they are attributes, characteristics, or features of something that can be named, and then used to group things. The four sample facets we use for the Open Directory Project are license (open-source or proprietary), hosted, markup language, and programming language. But there are many more technology facets not included in the ODP, like operating system, Web server, and database, and functionality facets like workflow, access control, versioning, WYSIWYG editing, etc.

The faceted directory we use lets us quickly hone in on CMSs that fit our requirements. With a faceted directory structure, we can isolate the facets and decide which of them is most important. A faceted directory rearranges itself and puts your priorities on top. If your IT shop insists on a certain OS platform or programming language, you can make one of these your top facet. You can continue to drill down into less important features, but at any time you can see how many systems are available that fit your criteria to that point. When the number is reasonable, it's time to inspect the products more closely.

Another way facets allow users to look at the list of features and functionalities constructed is as a checklist of requirements that may fit your needs. A good faceted directory will provide careful and clear descriptions of each facet plus a comprehensive glossary of technical terms, so users can understand what they are choosing.

The CMSML project aims to identify dozens of features of CMSs that can be identified to serve as facets, then to create XML descriptions of CMSs. (CMS vendors are invited to join a working group to identify these key features.) A technical glossary will make the feature descriptions clearer. In our case, a faceted directory of CMS is intended to help decision makers in their selection process. (A draft version is running at CMSReview.com.) A Feature Comparator provides head-to-head comparisons of major CM systems and these comparisons are syndicated to CM-related Web sites around the world.

So do more than get organized: get faceted and help those who need your content find what they need in the way that works for them.