Short version: If somebody has to create a new pool of keywords from scratch, but doesn't understand how to do it, what is a good way to teach them how to pick good keywords?

TL:DR version

My employer has an internal database of animals, and everybody is complaining that they can't find what they are searching for. This is understandable, as the item description rarely contains useful search terms.

We (= the inhouse IT department) implemented a keyword functionality. In the future, anybody entering a new animal should attach existing keywords to it (there is currently no way for users to add new keywords, but I suspect a manual process involving phoning the DB owner will establish itself).

The DB owner has access to an interface which lets her enter keywords as strings instead of choosing them. She now has to go through the existing ~2500 animals and assign keywords to them. These will be later available to users.

The problem is that the DB owner, while being very intelligent and a good professional, has an unfortunate anti-talent for structuring information. She is also uncomfortable with computers, and while she uses them, she prefers working on paper whenever possible.

This time, she did the first few dozens of animals, and we discovered that what she entered was not keywords, but lengthy descriptions. For example, if an animal has a mutation in the ptgs-1 gene, she enters a mutation of the ptgs-1 gene leading to disruptions in the COX-2 cycle, exhibits squamous cell hyperplasia when the right thing to enter is probably a ptgs-1 keyword and a squamous cell keyword. I tried to explain to her briefly that this is not how she is supposed to do it, but this didn't help.

Sadly, nobody else can do the tagging, as not even the other scientists have the necessary knowledge in biology. My boss scheduled a talk with her where we will try to educate her. We are thinking of creative ways to get her to understand how tagging with keywords and keyword-based search work, so she can somehow get the job done. Any ideas how to help her build the correct mental model? I have a vague concept of letting her attach paper labels to (copies of) animal descriptions printed on paper, but I am not sure how well can I build the analogy, and I am also afraid of coming across as patronizing if I start playing paper games with her.

*update in response to the current answers. *

  • The keywords are really needed here. There is no full-text to be searched, just structured information, and it is not the information used for search queries. For example, a mouse can be good for researching obesity, but the word "obesity" will not appear anywhere in the record, so the idea is that the author will be able to add it as a keyword.
  • I was serious about the "anti-talent" part. It is like being tone deaf, only for information structures. She is determined to do the job despite this being very hard for her, and I want to help her. But solutions have really be something which will work for a child, or for your favorite grandma who can't find her cookie recipe on the computer if the file isn't on the desktop.
  • Show her the catalog information of animal articles on Wikipedia and ask her to do the same. Commented Oct 31, 2013 at 19:15
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    Why bother users with entering keywords when full text indexing/search nowadays is so readily available in database servers? Commented Nov 1, 2013 at 12:43
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    If she enters a mutation of the ptgs-1 gene leading to disruptions in the COX-2 cycle, exhibits squamous cell hyperplasia then searching for ptgs-1 should still bring up the relevant record by searching in the keyword text. What's the issue..?
    – Alex
    Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 15:17
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    Just FYI, TL;DR means 'Too Long; Didn't Read' so it goes with the SHORT version.
    – Shawn D.
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 19:27
  • @ShawnD. I know what the abbreviation stands for. I use it for the version which the usual skimmer will label as "too long". Now you mention it, your idea also makes sense.
    – Rumi P.
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 13:36

7 Answers 7


Try to explain it in terms of reverse searching. Basically, "if you needed to find this database entry later, but you forgot its name, what would you type in the search box?"

  • If taken literally - which I'm not sure it's meant as such - then you might as well let her type a long text, since you can just search for those words in those long texts. That way, you're changing the app to fit the problem, as opposed to changing the problem.
    – Dirk v B
    Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 22:44

You'll want to convey the benefits of proper tagging to her. What's in it for her? Show her that, demonstrate how it works, and you'll get buy-in.

Your user sounds like a scientist. She'll get it. I'm guessing that you're absolutely right about this being a mental model mismatch. She seemed to think you were looking for alt text, based on the sample you posted, and the example tags you shared.

Let her peek behind the curtain. Analytical types need to understand how things work. Telling them what the procedure should be will not work, so I would not recommend a job aid for this type of user. I would recommend some one-on-one time and a demonstration of how to get the results she desires from the system by proper keyword construction.

You have a great opportunity to take a potentially difficult working relationship and turn this user into a strong advocate for what you do, because this system will benefit greatly from your collaboration.

  • Thank you, but see the update: she is the rare scientist for whom it won't work. I already have a good relationship with her, it is just that structuring information is a very confusing topic for her. In another project, I have to re-explain once per month why a record about a breeding experiment whose sole output is a mouse is not the same thing as an animal record describing the same mouse :(
    – Rumi P.
    Commented Nov 4, 2013 at 10:38
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    Interesting -- a scientist who doesn't have an affinity for classifying things. Might this be suited to a folksonomy structure that opens up the keyword task to all comers? Commented Nov 4, 2013 at 15:05

A couple of slightly "hacky" solutions:

  • Turn every single word into keywords; I'm imagining there's a search box somewhere (as opposed to a list of all keywords) and the client won't search for "the" anyway.

    If I'm wrong, and you do have a list of all keywords, perhaps that's not the right move.

  • Try naming them something other than keywords; topics, traits, taxonomy, tags, etc. Sometimes, naming something slightly different can help a user understand better. I've had this work for me in the past.

For bonus points though, I'd like to suggest the following;

Change the solution, not the problem

Without wanting to sound like a negative Nancy here, I'd like to question your solution to the initial UX problem, rather than questioning the user's "problematic" habits.

As a designer (both UI and UX) one of the most important aspects of your job is implementing a solution that fits your audience. Your current solution, no matter how you look at it, does not.

I'd suggest full text search rather than keyword searching. Perhaps look at the final database and aggregate common words and turn those into keywords, or maybe compiling a list of the most probable ones beforehand (you'll need your client's help with this), or maybe even automate aggregation for the future. These require a lot of extra work, but might be worth exploring.

Here are some other, perhaps quicker UI-changing solutions;

  • change the UI so that the client can't enter more than x characters
  • change the UI so that the client is forced to enter x separate words, or otherwise put a focus on them being separate bits, as opposed to a line of words.
  • 2
    Sadly, none of them will work in this specific case. But especially the last two seem like a wrong approach to me - if what she is trying to do is wrong, putting a barrier to her usual wrong action will lead her to using a workaround which 1) might not be the right action, and 2) is frustrating. I much prefer to teach her what the right action is, especially in this case where I have the opportunity for a personal talk with her. As for why it won't work, it is because a single "keyword" can be as short as "obesity" or a phrase as "tumor alpha necrosis factor", it doesn't make sense when split.
    – Rumi P.
    Commented Nov 4, 2013 at 10:46
  • "might not be the right action" <- I can't really say anything to that argument :] As for the second one; the point wasn't to limit characters. That was an example. It's about indicating that they're supposed to be separate strings. So have "Keyword 1" and "Keyword 2" and "Keyword 3" labels, with 3 input fields. Plus an [add another] button, or any such solution where you focus on adding multiple values over 1 long line.
    – Dirk v B
    Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 22:18
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    the interface she used already follows your second suggestion. The first argument was that if we teach her what the right action is, we get higher probability of her adopting it, than if we just prevent her from executing her current wrong action by technical means
    – Rumi P.
    Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 10:38
  • Well, I still think full text search is the solution to go for. Let her type what she wants to type, then go in and use those long-winded descriptions to either generate keywords yourself, or allow her to search for them. That way, you have the words, just not in a nicely aggregated list, but in small heaps. You can use that however you want.
    – Dirk v B
    Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 22:42

I have two alternative suggestions.

  1. To get her working along the right lines, get her to use two nouns (or noun phrases) for each animal. Only two. No more. Should focus her mind. (I'm assuming her anti-talent doesn't prevent her from identifying noun phrases.) No verbs allowed. This will probably be wildly off, potentially missing several nouns and adjectives too, but it may focus her mind and get her into the habit of what is allowed as a keyword.

  2. Since she can't grasp keywords, don't have her create the keywords. The users know the keywords they are searching for. She doesn't. Furthermore, she doesn't have to know the keywords, she just has to ok them as the database owner. So here's what you do: go look in the database search records for all the keywords the users are searching for. Those are your keywords. Set your classification-blind user a different task. Here's a keyword for her, ptgs-1 say. Now she goes and looks through all the animals and indicates whether that keyword applies to that animal or not. If she really does have the knowledge, as you say, then she must surely be able to do that?

With any luck, the second way of doing it is accurate, if slow, and hopefully she'll see how dreadfully slow it is for her and she will find some way that her brain will allow, to speed up the process.

  • Your second option is exactly what I think needs done. Look at what people are searching for and give her that list to start with. Ask her to place those words on all relevant entries. Then ask her to go back and look at the tags, filling in gaps where there are similar tags. For example, "ptgs-1" might mean there is also a "ptgs-2", so add that to the list and add her tag all related animals.
    – Zak
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 19:47

Reverse the roles; give the person (Person Y) a top-down look, as if floating above the person searching, or looking over the person searching's shoulder.

In this process, you can explain that Person X is a first year computer science student, and Person Y, the administrator, is their lecturer. As a first year student, Person X might start to recognise certain basic terms of, say, OOP programming, and then search for articles containing words such as "encapsulation" or "inheritance", but the student may not know yet what the terms mean in respect to OOP programming, but if these terms are defined as keywords, the student will be able to find articles pertaining to those keywords, and use the articles to learn.


Have you tried hooking up the description fields to something like Open Calais or Apache Stanbol or Alchemy API?

These tools are capable of (imperfectly, in my experience) extracting keywords which you could then present as a model to your user with a prompt:

Are these correct? Would you like to add any more?

Additionally, I'd suggest auto-complete on the tag fields and surfacing the 'tag index' page so your user can see what the output is.


Ask the user to imagine her aut (I mean, "that" aunt) naming the animals.
Or tell the user to picture herself describing them to said aunt.

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