John Valentine
Tame your taxonomy sidebar
AuthorJohn Valentine
Minor edit2023-11-15
Categoriestechnical writing, data, style, content, structure, taxonomy, tasks, blog.

Taxonomies are views onto your content, to make it relevant for a purpose. Make your taxonomy tree easier to read, and use it with other content technology to make your content discoverable.

Content taxonomy can be complicated, so this article is a broad stroke that usually works for software documentation.

6 minute read

While your reader is losing energy to the taxonomy list, they're not being productive in the product.

Decide whether to expose taxonomy

Display a taxonomy only as a navigational aid for relevant articles, or in reference sections. Otherwise, the taxonomy display is cosmetic. Even though I like a good taxonomy, I've chosen not to display it for my personal site (this one).

You might instead use other UI devices to aid discovery, like breadcrumbs, inline links, search, previous and next links for journeys, or panels of relevant articles in selected places. In another content system I created, an article could belong to many taxonomies, and those taxonomies display as contents pages rather than a side-bar, and the system uses the data to build links for further reading.

If you do display a taxonomy, don't expose all of it to show off your knowledge base. That's likely to confuse your reader and make your site slow.

Limit length and depth


Your reader typically takes time to scan long lists of seven or more articles, so limit the number of articles in any list. I don't proscribe a strict limit, because clarity wins over other style guidance.


Deep taxonomies are difficult for your reader to navigate. If your reader is browsing content, or they land some distance from where they need to be, then with a deep taxonomy, they will need to select a topic to reveal the next step each time. Ideally, your reader lands at their destination straight from Search, or through links related to the current article, so again I regard a depth limit as a soft limit.


To avoid displaying the whole taxonomy, expose only the sibling articles, and maybe two ancestors and their children. Display the remaining ancestors as breadcrumbs.

Create a meaningful order for tasks

When you have a flat list of tasks related to an object or concept, index them in life cycle order, as if you're listing out a journey for the object, from creation to deletion. It's easier for your users to digest.

Imagine you're reading a help site for a platform or product. On the left of the page is a list of tasks articles.

  • Drawing
    • Combining Objects and Constructing Shapes
    • Drawing Sectors and Segments
    • Duplicating Objects
    • Rotating Objects
    • Assembling 3-D Objects
    • Connecting Lines
    • Converting Text Characters into Drawing Objects
    • Converting Bitmap Images into Vector Graphics
    • Converting 2-D Objects to Curves, Polygons, and 3-D Objects
    • Loading Line and Arrow Styles
    • Drawing Curves
    • Editing Curves
    • Inserting Graphics
    • Including Spreadsheets in Slides
    • Moving Objects
    • Selecting Underlying Objects
    • Creating a Flowchart

A group of articles in LibreOffice Draw help [1].

That's confusing. Time is ticking away for the reader, and while they're losing energy to the list, they're not being productive in the product.

When ordering items, prioritise concept articles at the top, and reference articles at the bottom. Readers tend to see the top item, and then scan the list faster, until the bottom item. Items in the middle of a long list are likely to be found only with prolonged attention.

Follow the reader's workflow

If you really must present more than seven items in a list, make it navigable in a way that your reader can detect. Let it outline a story where your reader can quickly find their place.

I've tackled these lists by presenting them in the order your reader might need them: life cycle order. Keep it relevant by only listing tasks that your reader will want to perform, which might mean you filter or partition articles to match your reader's role.

  • Things
    • Create a thing
    • Import things
    • Edit a thing
    • Review a thing
    • Approve a thing
    • Publish a thing
    • Export things
    • Hide a thing
    • Delete a thing

Don't use alphabetical order outside of reference sections. Alphabetical order only helps the content curator, not the reader. It only helps readers when they know exactly what to look for in the list, and they know the special words you used in the product.

Use consistent language

When you consistently use words of the same type, it creates a smoother reading experience, because your reader doesn't need to reframe the context for each phrase. Some guidance to help achieve this:

  • Use verbs for tasks, and nouns for concepts.
  • Use short imperative sentences for tasks, to speak more directly to the reader.
  • Use imperatives (create) rather than gerunds (creating).
  • Use unique titles to identify the context and avoid duplication on your site.


In this Acrobat Reader example [2], four article titles use different patterns, which slows comprehension:

  • Share and track PDFs online
  • Mark up text with edits
  • Preparing for a PDF review
  • Starting a PDF review

Articles in Sharing, reviews, and commenting, Acrobat Reader help [2].

Use taxonomies for relevant experiences

Consider a CMS that gives you many taxonomies. This lets you create customized experiences for users with different needs.

In my own CMS, the main points of entry are search, direct links, and taxonomies. There, any article may appear in multiple taxonomies, and the CMS filters articles for your role. This creates relevant experiences for users, and helps them find related articles on a learning journey.

Actionable summary

  • To keep your help UI clean and relevant, display limited taxonomy, if any.
  • Invest in effective search and UI devices like breadcrumbs.
  • List concept articles at the start, and reference articles at the end.
  • Display tasks in workflow order, or life cycle order.
  • Use many taxonomies if you can, to create relevant experiences.
  • Use taxonomy data to display links to continue your reader's journey.
  • Use consistent language, to help your reader find articles quickly.
  • Use different rules for reference sections.