I was recently playing 20 Questions with my good friend John.

The premise of the game is simple: One person, called the “answerer,” thinks of an object. The other player — the “questioner” — asks up to 20 yes-or-no questions in order to determine what object the answerer is thinking about. If the questioner guesses correctly within 20 questions, they win. If the questioner does not correctly guess the answer, then the answerer wins. The fewer questions asked, the more the questioner’s “win” is worth.

Through much practice, John and I have acquired decent skills in asking good questions and following them up logically. The key to winning the game, we’ve discovered, is asking good questions.

Here’s an example of a game we played in which John thought of an eagle and I successfully arrived at the correct answer in 15 questions.

  1. Is it alive? Y
  2. Is it an animal? Y
  3. Does it live on land? Y
  4. Is it bigger than a car? N
  5. Does it have fur? N
  6. Is it commonly kept as a pet? N
  7. Can you hold it in your arms? Y
  8. Does it have four legs? N
  9. Is it a bird? Y
  10. One we eat? N
  11. Is it colorful? N
  12. Can we find it near where we live? Y
  13. Is it larger than a chicken? Y
  14. Is it a vulture? N
  15. Is it an eagle? Y

After we have played a game, we like to go back and analyze our questions and answers. What questions could I have asked to arrive at the answer sooner? What questions were unnecessary, irrelevant, or not properly ordered?

Overall, there are a few general rules which will help ensure that you don’t waste your limited supply of questions.

1. The questions must start broad and gradually become more specific

The first question you ask is very important. It must lead you closer to the answer regardless of whether the answer is yes or no. John and I have discussed at length what the very best first question is. We’ve generally decided that “Is it alive?” allows us to ascertain useful information quickly that allows us to ask relevant questions that quickly lead to the right answer.

2. There is a sweet spot of specificity that creates maximum efficiency

There was one instance in which John thought of a turtle. I remembered him mentioning how he found turtles cute earlier that day, so I took a gamble and asked for my very first question: “Is it a turtle?”

I had arrived at the correct answer in one question. This is a very unusual situation. However. I had the knowledge and context to ask the single most specific question. It was the shortest game of 20 Questions we will ever play.

This example demonstrates an important concept: efficiency. The best question eliminates the greatest number of possibilities given the context.

If you always ask questions that are too general, you’ll never arrive at the correct answer. If you only ask questions that are too specific, you’ll eliminate a few possibilities, but likewise, you’ll never arrive at the correct answer.

The best questions lead to the correct answer the fastest.

3. Questions must be based on a common understanding

Our questions must have answers that we can agree upon outside of the game. Poor questions are subjective or require uncommon knowledge.

For example, “is it big?” is a subjective question. It can be answered correctly with either yes or no, depending on the answerer’s comparison. In our example game, if John was comparing an eagle to other birds in his head, he’d correctly answer Y, it is big. Whereas if I, the questioner, was comparing to animals as a whole, I might then think it’s something the size of a giraffe or whale.

The solution to this quandary is to make a specific comparison. That’s why I asked, “Is it bigger than a chicken?”

A question such as “Has my grandmother seen one?” requires uncommon knowledge. This question is impossible to answer with certainty.

Good questions rely on information that is known by both parties. Asking questions that one of us doesn’t know the answer to will only lead us astray.

20 Questions and enterprise taxonomy

In large content repositories, it is in everyone’s best interest for the user to spend the least amount of time and effort to get what they need. One of the most effective ways to help your users quickly find what they need is to create a taxonomy to organize your content.

Nobody wants to play 20 Questions when they’re looking for a specific piece of information. They especially don’t want to ask a bunch of questions (or submit a bunch of search queries) when they’re really just trying to make a purchase decision, make the purchase itself, or use what they purchased.

However, the rules of 20 Questions provide important parameters that can help you develop a taxonomy that is both functional and successful.

1. Categories must start broad and gradually become more specific

To start, users need broad categories of content that accurately represent what they contain. Starting with too many specific categories will result in an overwhelming number of initial options.

Subcategories provide an increasing level of specificity. But you shouldn’t have 20 of them. The goal is to get users to the content they need as quickly as possible.

2. Categories have a sweet spot of specificity that creates maximum efficiency

If your categories are too broad, each one will contain more possibilities than a user can easily decide between, and they’ll be overwhelmed. If your categories are too narrow, a user will have to sift through more categories than necessary and will end up wasting time.

There is a sweet spot that allows a user to easily find the content in the shortest amount of time. Finding the right balance is key.

3. Categories must be based on a common understanding

The structure of your taxonomy must be navigable with the common knowledge of the user. If your content is organized based on terms that the average user cannot understand, they will be unable to find the item they’re searching for.

This consideration is especially important when creating customer-facing content structures. While exclusively internal content structures can use categories based on company-specific knowledge, customer-facing structures must be based on a much more general understanding.

Why taxonomies exist

Taxonomies exist to facilitate efficient and effective content search. And while your users might enjoy a recreational game of 20 Questions, they sure don’t want to be forced into it when they’re looking for your content.

If you need help from the experts in creating an effective and efficient taxonomy, don’t hesitate to contact us. Save your users from playing 20 Questions today!

Max Swisher