Every thing is complex.
Some things are simple. Some things are complicated. Every single thing in the universe is complex.
Complexity is part of the equation. We don’t get to choose our way out of it.
Here are three complexities you may encounter:
Stakeholders are complex.
A stakeholder is someone who has a viable and legitimate interest in the work you’re doing. Our stakeholders can be partners in business, life, or both.
Managers, clients, coworkers, spouses, family members, and peers are common stakeholders.
Sometimes we choose our stakeholders; other times, we don’t have that luxury. Either way, understanding our stakeholders is crucial to our success. When we work against each other, progress comes to a halt.
Working together is difficult when stakeholders see the world differently than we do.
But we should expect opinions and personal preferences to affect our progress. It’s only human to consider options and alternatives when we’re faced with decisions.
Most of the time, there is no right or wrong way to make sense of a mess. Instead, there are many ways to choose from. Sometimes we have to be the one without opinions and preferences so we can weigh all the options and find the best way forward for everyone involved.
Intent is language.
Intent is the effect we want to have on something. We make language-based decisions whenever we talk about our intent.
Our language choices change how we use our time and energy. For every word we use to describe where we want to go, there’s another word that we’re walking away from.
For every amusement park you make, you’re not making a video game. When you intend to be fun for kids, you can use stories but not metaphors. If you want something to be relaxing, it’s harder to make it educational.
The words we choose matter. They represent the ideas we want to bring into the world.
We need words so we can make plans. We need words to turn ideas into things.
For example, if we say that we want to make sustainable eco-centered design solutions, we can’t rely on thick, glossy paper catalogs to help us reach new customers. By choosing those words, we completely changed our options.
What is good?
Language is any system of communication that exists to establish shared meaning. Even within a single language, one term can mean something in situation A and something different in situation B. We call this a homograph. For example, the word pool can mean a swimming pool, shooting pool, or a betting pool.
Perception is the process of considering, and interpreting something. Perception is subjective like truth is. Something that’s beautiful to one person may be an eyesore to another. For example, many designers would describe the busy, colorful patterns in the carpets of Las Vegas as gaudy. People who frequent casinos often describe them as beautiful.
However good or bad these carpet choices seem to us, there are reasons why they look that way. Las Vegas carpets are busy and colorful to disguise spills and wear and tear from foot traffic. Gamblers likely enjoy how they look because of an association with an activity that they enjoy. For Las Vegas casino owners and their customers, those carpet designs are good. For designers, they’re bad. Neither side is right. Both sides have an opinion.
What we intend to do determines how we define words like good and bad.
Good is in the eye of the beholder.
What’s good for a business of seven years may not work for a business of seven weeks. What works for one person may be destructive for another.
When we don’t define what good means for our stakeholders and users, we aren’t using language to our advantage. Without a clear understanding of what is good, bad can come out of nowhere.
And while you have to define what good means to create good information architecture, it’s not just the architecture part that needs this kind of focus.
Every decision you make should support what you’ve defined as good: from the words you choose to the tasks you enable, and everything in between.
When you’re making decisions, balance what your stakeholders and users expect of you, along with what they believe to be good.
How varies widely.
The saying “there are many ways to skin a cat” reminds us that we have options when it comes to achieving our intent. There are many ways to do just about anything
Whether you’re working on a museum exhibit, a news article, or a grocery store, you should explore all of your options before choosing a direction.
How is an ever-growing list of directions we could take while staying true to our reasons why.
To look at your options, ask yourself:
Language is the material of intent.
The words we choose change the things we make and how we think about them. Our words also change how other people make sense of our work.
In writing this book, my intent was to make it:
- Useful in a broad range of situations
As a result, I had to be comfortable with it not being these other things:
- Useful in specific situations
State your intent.
Like Karen, you need to make sure the language you use to state your intent doesn’t stand in your way. The following exercise will help you state your intent and clarify your language with other people.
- First, choose a set of adjectives you want your users to use to describe what you’re making.
- Then, choose a set of adjectives that you’re okay with not being used to describe the same thing.
I find these rules helpful during this exercise:
- When put together, each set of words should neither repeat nor disagree with each other. The second set shouldn’t be a list of opposites from the first.
- Avoid negative adjectives, like slow or bad or ugly. Keep each word as neutral as possible. A good test is that someone shouldn’t be able to tell which list is positive or negative.
Opinions are like…
No matter how hard we try to be aware of opinions swirling around us, it’s hard to remain neutral. But in the end, progress can’t happen without a decision.
When you’re choosing a direction, you may run into these questions:
- What if I disagree with a user need or opinion identified in my research?
- What if I disagree with the way another stakeholder sees a core concept or decision?
- What if I don’t want to do this the way others want me to?
Some people choose to hide from the realities behind these questions. But if you shield your ideas and simply follow orders, you may end up with goal-crushing (and soul-crushing) results.
We have to balance what we know with what we see and what other people say.
We listen to our users and our guts. There is no one right way. There is only your way.
Rasheed is a consultant helping the human resources department of a large company. They want to move their employee-training processes online.
Rasheed’s research uncovered a lot of language inconsistencies between how employees are hired and trained in various departments.
He always expects to account for departmental differences, but he fears this many similar terms for the same things will make for a sloppy system design.
Rasheed has a choice. He could document the terms as they exist and move on. Or he could take the time to find a direction that works for everyone.
He decides to group the terms by similar meanings and host a meeting with the departments to choose which terms should lead, and which ones should fall back.
During the meeting, Rasheed:
- Questions acronyms and proprietary terms
- Eliminates accidental synonyms
- Documents myths, alternatives, and histories
Moving from why to what.
After you face reality, it still takes a tremendous amount of work and courage to move from understanding why something needs to change to knowing what you can do about it.
There are many directions to choose from. Each has its own twists and turns.
People often get in their own way by becoming overwhelmed with choices, choosing not to choose instead. Others are limited by frustration over things they can’t change immediately or easily.
Change takes time.
Start by choosing a direction to go toward. If you take one step in that direction each day, you’ll get to the finish line in due time.
If you spend all your time thinking about how far the finish line is and fearing never getting there, you’ll make slower progress or never make it at all.
We make places.
You can turn a space into a place by arranging it so people know what to do there. This act is called placemaking. If you arrange a table and chairs in the middle of a room, meetings, meals, study, and play are all potential uses of that place. But if you add a fancy dining set and linens to the table, you’re suggesting that it’s a dining area.
In placemaking, you choreograph a sequence of steps users can take and decide how you want them to move. You can recommend steps, but they’ll move wherever and however they want. They may move the place settings aside and open a laptop for a meeting. You can prescribe the steps, but they do the dancing.
The ways you enforce your way of doing things changes how users think about the place you made and perhaps ultimately, how they think about you.
You could add a sign that says “Dining Only Please.” You could also add waitstaff wearing tuxedos and glaring dispositions. Each of these would say something about you and the place you made.
The way we choose to arrange a place changes how people interpret and use it. We encode our intent through the clues we leave for users to know what we want them to do.
Reduce linguistic insecurity.
The average person gives and receives directions all day long, constantly experiencing the impact of language and context. Whether it’s a grocery list from a partner or a memo from a manager, we’ve all experienced what happens when a poor choice of words leads to the wrong outcome. Whether we’re confused by one word or the entire message, the anxiety that comes from misunderstanding someone else’s language is incredibly frustrating.
Imagine that on your first day at a new job every concept, process, and term you’re taught is labeled with nonsense jargon. Now imagine the same first day, only everything you’re shown has clear labels you can easily remember. Which second day would you want?
We can be insecure or secure about the language we’re expected to use. We all prefer security.
Linguistic insecurity is the all too common fear that our language won’t conform to the standard or style of our context.
To work together, we need to use language that makes sense to everyone involved.
Your ontology already exists.
Ontology always exists, but the one you have today may be messy or nonsensical. If you were trying to understand the ontology of your grocery store, your map might look like this at first:
By asking your customers for words they think about within a grocery store, your map could grow to reflect overlapping and related terms.
If you were choosing words for the aisle and department signs or the website, this exercise would help you along.
Design with, not for.
It’s important to discuss and vet your ontological decisions with stakeholders and users. Talking about language choices gives you a chance to test them.
It may sound obvious, but it’s quite common to think something is clearly defined before talking about it with other people.
A good starting point in exploring ontology is to bring everyone together to make a list of terms and concepts. Ask each person to share:
Go through each term as a group and use this as a forum for educating each other on what you know about language and context. Don’t “uh huh” your way through words you’ve never heard or don’t understand. Instead, untangle acronyms and unfamiliar phrases.
If someone uses a different word than you do, ask for clarification. Why do they use that word? Get them to explain it. Complexity tends to hide in minutiae.
Think about nouns and verbs.
Nouns represent each of the objects, people, and places involved in a mess.
As an example, a post is a noun commonly associated with another noun, an author.
Verbs represent the actions that can be taken.
A post (n.) can be: written, shared, deleted, or read.
Verbs don’t exist without nouns. For example, an online share button implies that it will share this post.
Nouns are often created as a result of verbs. A post only exists after posting
It’s easy to adopt terms that are already in use or to be lazy in choosing our language. But when you’re deciding which words to use, it is important to consider the alternatives, perceptions, and associations around each term.
How would your work be different if “authors writing posts” was changed to “researchers authoring papers,” or “followers submitting comments?”
Progress is as important to measure as success.
Many projects are more manageable if you cut them into smaller tasks. Sequencing those tasks can mean moving through a tangled web of dependencies.
A dependency is a condition that has to be in place for something to happen. For example, the links throughout this book are dependent on me publishing the content.
How you choose to measure progress can affect the likelihood of your success. Choose a measurement that reinforces your intent. For example:
- If you want to become a better writer, you might measure your progress against a goal like: “Write every day.”
- If you want to write a novel in the next year, your progress may be better measured as: “Write 500 words towards the novel per day.”
Use worksheets to mine data from people.
Once you have a list of indicators to guide you, think about where the data could come from.
A worksheet can help you capture important details that only exist in people’s heads or personal records.
You can fill out a worksheet in a meeting or distribute copies of it and collect them after people have time to answer your questions. To choose the best way to gather the data, keep these considerations in mind:
- Time: How much are you asking for, and how long might it take?
- Access: How many sources are your respondents using to find answers? Who else might they need to contact?
- Bias: Are they applying their own thoughts and preferences, or delivering data?
If your users or stakeholders need a significant amount of time, access, or thought to answer your questions, let them get back to you instead of trying to get through the worksheet together.
Measurements have rhythm.
Some things are best measured moment to moment. Others are best measured over weeks, months, years, or even decades.
The right rhythm depends on your context and your intent. When you’re choosing a rhythm, think about the ways you collect data, how specific it needs to be, and how complex it is.
Consider these factors:
- Timeframe: Is this measurement most useful after one hour, one day, a season, a year, or an entire decade? What’s a better baseline: yesterday, last month, a year ago, or twenty years ago?
- Access: Is the data readily available? Or does it require help from a particular person or system?
There are many ways to structure things.
A structure is a configuration. An unorganized pile is a structure. So is a table of contents or a house of cards. Every thing has a structure.
To choose a good structure for what you are making, you need to find one that:
There will always be several structures you can use.
Allowing your content to try on a structure you believe to be bad or wrong can be helpful. When we determine what something won’t be, we often reveal a little more about what it will be.
Don’t settle for the first structure you come up with. Take the same things and arrange them, not in one way, but in two or three ways. Compare them. Iterate. Test. Refine. Combine. Change. Argue.
Taxonomy is how we arrange things.
When you set out to arrange something, how do you decide where the pieces go? Is it based on what looks right to you, what you believe goes together, or what someone told you to do? Or maybe you let gravity or the alphabet determine the order?
To effectively arrange anything, we have to choose methods for organizing and classifying content in ways that convey the intended information to our intended users.
Structural methods for organization and classification are called taxonomy.
Common examples of taxonomies include:
- The scientific classification for plants, animals, minerals, and other organisms
- The Dewey Decimal system for libraries
- Navigational tabs on a website
- Organizational charts showing management and team structures
The way you organize things says a lot about you.
Classifying a tomato as a vegetable says something about what you know about your customers and your grocery store. You would classify things differently if you were working on a textbook for horticulture students, right?
How you choose to classify and organize things reflects your intent, but it can also reflect your worldview, culture, experience, or privilege.
Those same choices affect how people using your taxonomy understand what you share with them.
Taxonomies serve as a set of instructions for people interacting with our work.
Taxonomy is one of the strongest tools of rhetoric we have. The key to strong rhetoric is using language, rules and structures that your audience can easily understand and use.
Taxonomies can be hierarchical or heterarchical.
When taxonomies are arranged hierarchically, it means that successive categories, ranks, grades, or interrelated levels are being used. In a hierarchy, a user would have to select a labeled grouping to find things within it. A hierarchy of movies might look like this:
- Romantic comedies
- Classic comedies
- Slap-stick comedies
Hierarchies tend to follow two patterns. First, a broad and shallow hierarchy gives the user more choices up front so they can get to everything in a few steps. As an example, in a grocery store, you choose an aisle, and each aisle has certain arrangement of products, but that’s as deep as you can go.
A narrow and deep hierarchy gives the user fewer choices at once. On a large website, like usa.gov, a few high level options point users to more specific items with each click.
When individual pieces exist on one level without further categorization, the taxonomy is heterarchical. For example, each lettered box in the arrangement in this illustration is heterarchical.
Taxonomies can be sequential.
Sequence is the order in which something is experienced. Some sequences happen in a logical order, where the steps are outlined ahead of time.
Other sequences are more complex with alternative paths and variations based on the circumstances, preferences, or choices of the user or the system.
These are all examples of sequences:
- A software installation wizard
- New patient sign-up forms
- A refund process at a retail store
- A job application
- A recipe
- A fiction book
- The checkout process on a website
Like any taxonomy, the categories and labels you choose affect how clear a sequence is to use.
Adjustments are a part of reality.
From moment to moment, the directions we choose forever change the objects we make, the effects we see, and the experiences we have.
As we move towards our goals, things change and new insights become available. Things always change when we begin to understand what we couldn’t make sense of before. As a sensemaker, the most important skill you can learn is to adjust your course to accommodate new forces as you encounter them on your journey.
Don’t seek finalization. Trying to make something that will never change can be super frustrating. Sure, it’s work to move those boxes and arrows around as things change. But that is the work, not a reason to avoid making a plan. Taking in feedback from other people and continuously refining the pieces as well as the whole is what assures that something is “good.”
Don’t procrastinate. Messes only grow with time. You can easily make excuses and hold off on doing something until the conditions are right, or things seem stable.
Perfection isn’t possible, but progress is.
It’s easy to reach agreement alone.
Maybe you’re working on a project independently and you’re the only stakeholder and user.
More likely, you’re working with other people to serve other people. In that scenario, making maps and diagrams alone at your desk is not practicing information architecture.
Your whole team should be able to influence and react to your tools and methods. You should be making prototypes to get feedback from users on language and structure.
Getting everyone involved early is crucial. Every step you take should come from the direction you choose together. If you don’t get agreement up front, prepare for more work later.
When you see the world through the eyes of other people, you can spot weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. Don’t hide from other stakeholders or wait until the end of the project to talk to users.
Be the filter, not the grounds.
When making a cup of coffee, the filter’s job is to get the grit out before a user drinks the coffee. Sensemaking is like removing the grit from the ideas we’re trying to give to users.
What we remove is as important as what we add. It isn’t just the ideas that get the work done.
Be the one not bringing the ideas. Instead, be the filter that other people’s ideas go through to become drinkable:
With those skills, you’ll always have people who want to work with you.