What’s Your Angle? The Many Benefits of Faceted Classification

Time and again, faceted classification has proven itself to be a flexible and accommodating way to find information. Countless e-commerce sites on the Internet, as well as mobile apps, have made faceted browsing the preferred means of navigating a domain of information, especially those with which one is not totally familiar. Government departments and agencies can benefit from this by leveraging user (civil servants, but also everyday citizens) familiarity in this type of information seeking behaviour (Amazon, eBay, etc.) in their daily lives.


(This is what faceted classification looks like; my search was refined by my needs. Source: ebay.ca)

Faceted classification allows the search to feel intuitive to users, since they are the ones setting the parameters. In other words, they create the relationships between the different aspects of a given item; their search results mirror the way they formulate it. This approach allows the users to be the decisive factor for their search, rather than the information itself.

This very intuitive user experience can be replicated for electronic document management from in any business context. In the case of the Federal Government’s solution, GCDOCS, faceted classification helps users find information by refining their search by document type, date, project, or whichever metadata has been attached to a given file, either by the user or, preferably, by the system via the folder inheritance feature. It is better to automatically add metadata because it requires no effort on the part of the creator. However, there are some fields that call for user intervention, such as document type, which is something that cannot be determined electronically, for now.

For cultural institutions, the challenge of assigning metadata to an object is complicated by the fact that different types of works (books, archives, paintings, film, etc.) have discipline specific vocabulary for the same facets. For instance, a book has an author, while a painting has a painter, but both are behind the creation of the work. In order to leverage any previous descriptors, we must first gather all the available metadata under the same vocabulary, which will serve as the basis for our facets. Following the previous example, both “author” and “painter” could now fall under the facet of “creator”, a broader term that still serves the purpose of describing a given aspect of a work.

For all its benefits, faceted classification does pose a few challenges. When developing a faceted classification system for a given department or agency, it is crucial to determine the facets according to their users’ needs and expectations. Furthermore, users are distracted by  their busy lives, and might not be able to grasp the full benefit of defining a structured vocabulary that looks towards future, rather than present, use; this makes defining a set of facets a challenge. Implementing a faceted classification system requires a lot of time and energy from both the developer and the user testing group. Nevertheless, faceted classification is a tried and tested solution to the problem of information seeking online, and it is coming to federal institutions because of the necessity to make their content available to all.


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