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:
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.
Start with why.
Understanding the why behind what you’re making allows you to uncover your intent and potential.
When everyone knows why they’re doing something, the way forward is clearer and each person can understand their individual responsibilities.
Having a strong why will get you further. Having a weak why won’t make it any easier to get up in the morning. Your why should be part of everything you do, not just your mission statement.
Why? Because without a clear reason for doing something, even the most committed and loyal person will eventually abandon the hope of finishing the task.
To start with why, ask yourself:
- Why does this work need to be done?
- Why is change needed? Why do those changes matter? Why should other people care?
- Why hasn’t this been tackled correctly?
- Why will this time be different?
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.
Start with scope and scale.
Before you make objects like diagrams or maps, spend some time determining their scope and scale.
Scope is your clearly stated purpose for the diagram. The scope of a blueprint for an actual house is greater than the scope of a diagram explaining the rooms that make up a typical house.
Scale is the relative size of your diagrammatic work.The scale of a map covering a wall is greater than the scale of a map on regular-sized paper.
To think through scope and scale, ask yourself:
A schematic is a diagram of an object or interface simplified for the sake of clarity. Schematics are known by many other names including wireframes, sketches, lo-fis, and blueprints.
Since a schematic reduces complexity, unintended errors and ambiguity can be introduced. Would someone understand from the previous schematic to put cheese on top of the tomato sauce? Maybe not.
This is a case where an exploded schematic is useful, because it shows how the individual pieces come together to form the whole.
Maggie is the creative director for a small agency. She has a new client, and doesnt understand their business.
She reads their website, annual reports, and printed brochures, and still can’t pinpoint what they do. She’s not the only one. It turns out that no one on her team can figure out what the client’s business does either. Maggie knows she has to clear this up before overseeing work for the client.
Even if Maggie is the most talented creative director in the world, her work won’t matter much until she faces the reality that she doesn’t understand her client’s business. She needs to get a clearer mental model out of her client’s head and into her team’s hands.
In an attempt to face reality, Maggie asks her client to describe the business in the simplest way possible. “Like you would at a grade school career day,” she says.
With that as a basic model, she can ask better questions and compare her client’s mental model with her own. She uses a mind map to capture thoughts as they talk. After talking with her client, Maggie has a clearer understanding of their business and much more confidence that her team can support their needs.
Admit where you are.
Let’s say you’re on a weeklong bicycle trip. You planned to make it to your next stop before dark, but a flat tire delayed you by a few hours.
Even though you planned to get further along today, the truth is that pursuing that plan would be dangerous now.
Similarly, an idea you can draw on paper in one day may end up taking you a lifetime to make real. With the ability to make plans comes great responsibility.
Think about what you can do with the time and resources you have. Filtering and being realistic are part of the job. Keep reevaluating where you are in relation to where you want to go.
Be careful not to fall in love with your plans or ideas. Instead, fall in love with the effects you can have when you communicate clearly.
I once had a project where the word “asset” was defined three different ways across five teams.
I once spent three days defining the word “customer”.
I once defined and documented over a hundred acronyms in the first week of a project for a large company, only to find 30 more the next week.
I wish I could say that I’m exaggerating or that any of this effort was unnecessary. Nope. Needed.
Language is complex. But language is also fundamental to understanding the direction we choose. Language is how we tell other people what we want, what we expect of them, and what we hope to accomplish together.
Without language, we can’t collaborate.
Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to declare a direction in language that doesn’t make sense to those it needs to support: users, stakeholders, or both.
When we don’t share a language with our users and our stakeholders, we have to work that much harder to communicate clearly.
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.
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.
Create a list of words you don’t say.
A controlled vocabulary doesn’t have to end with terms you intend to use. Go deeper by defining terms and concepts that misalign with your intent.
For the sake of clarity, you can also define:
In my experience, a list of things you don’t say can be even more powerful than a list of things you do. I’ve been known to wear a whistle and blow it in meetings when someone uses a term from the don’t list.
Define terms for outsiders.
When I was in grade school, we did an assignment where we were asked to define terms clearly enough for someone learning our language. To define “tree” as “a plant that grows from the ground,” we first needed to define “plant,” “grow,” and “ground.”
It was an important lesson to start to understand the interconnectivity of language. I like to apply this kind of thinking in my work to uncover terms that are nested within other terms and their definitions.
To define a term clearly:
- Write down the meaning of the term as simply as you can.
- Underline each term within your definition that needs to be further defined.
- Define those terms and test your definition with someone who doesn’t know those terms yet.
- Look at each individual word and ask yourself: What does this mean? Is it as simple as possible?
Understand the past.
As you talk through your controlled vocabulary, listen for stories and images people associate with each term.
Language has history. Synonyms and alternatives abound. Myths can get in your way too, unless you’re willing to uncover them.
Gather the following about each term:
When it comes to language, people are slow to change and quick to argue. Documenting these details will help you make your controlled vocabulary as clear and useful as possible.
Fuzzy is normal.
What is good for one person can be profoundly bad for another, even if their goal is roughly the same. We each live within a unique set of contradictions and experiences that shape how we see the world.
Remember that there’s no right or wrong way to do something. Words like right and wrong are subjective.
The important part is being honest about what you intend to accomplish within the complicated reality of your life. Your intent may differ from other people; you may perceive things differently.
You may be dealing with an indicator that’s surprisingly difficult to measure, a data source that’s grossly unreliable, or a perceptual baseline that’s impossible to back up with data.
But as fuzzy as your lens can seem, setting goals with incomplete data is still a good way to determine if you’re moving in the right direction.
Uncertainty comes up in almost every project. But you can only learn from those moments if you don’t give up. Stick with the tasks that help you clarify and measure the distance ahead.
Sorting is easier than deciding how to sort.
Sorting is the act of arranging content according to established rules. The act of deciding how to sort something within a taxonomy is called classification.
If you have a large pile of things, it may take a lot of time to sort through them. But sorting isn’t the hard part. Classification is.
Think about sorting a bag of groceries into a pre-arranged pantry. Everything has a place. You’re simply following the plan. Easy, right?
Now unload that same bag into a kitchen without rules for where things go. How much longer would it take you? How much more frustrating a task would it be? How much variation would you get when the next person unloads groceries?
Sorting is easy when clear rules are in place. But without those rules, assumptions take over and things end up in places where they can be harder to find.
The most challenging part of classification is working with other people to agree on a set of rules.
Ambiguity costs clarity; exactitude costs flexibility.
The more ambiguous you are, the more likely it is that people will have trouble using your taxonomy to find and classify things.
For every ambiguous rule of classification you use or label you hide behind, you’ll have to communicate your intent that much more clearly.
For example, what if I had organized the lexicon in the back of this book by chapter, instead of alphabetically? This might be an interesting way of arranging things, but it would need to be explained, so you could find a term.
The more exact your taxonomy becomes, the less flexible it is. This isn’t always bad, but it can be. If you introduce something that doesn’t fit into a category things can get confusing.
Because there are many words for the same thing, exact classifications can slow us down. For example, I recently tried to buy some zucchini at a grocery store. But it wasn’t until the clerk in training found the code for “Squash, Green” that she could ring me up.
Humans are complex.
Tomatoes are scientifically classified as a fruit. Some people know this and some don’t. The tomato is a great example of the vast disagreements humans have with established exact classifications.
Our mental models shape our behavior and how we relate to information.
In the case of the tomato, there are clearly differences between what science classifies as a fruit and what humans consider appropriate for fruit salad.
If you owned an online grocery service, would you dare to only list tomatoes as fruit?
Sure, you could avoid the fruit or vegetable debate entirely by classifying everything as “produce,” or you could list tomatoes in “fruit” and “vegetables.”
But what if I told you that squash, olives, cucumbers, avocados, eggplant, peppers, and okra are also fruits that are commonly mistaken as vegetables?
What do we even mean when we say “fruit” or “vegetable” in casual conversations? Classification systems can be unhelpful and indistinguishable when you’re sorting things for a particular context.
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.
“Hey, nice IA!” — said no one, ever.
No one comments on the plumbing or electricity of a building unless the toilet is clogged or the lights aren’t working. Then all of a sudden, pipes and wires are a hot topic of conversation.
Similarly, people don’t compliment or even critique information architecture unless it’s broken.
The “information architecture part” is almost invisible when separated from how something looks and how it’s made. For example, we can’t evaluate the quality of the structure of this eBook without considering how it was written, edited, designed, illustrated, typeset, marketed and delivered.
If you practice information architecture for the glory, get ready to be disappointed.
But if you practice it for the clarity it can bring, get ready for some seriously interesting work.
It’s far more rewarding than hard.
It’s rewarding to set a goal and reach it.
It’s rewarding to know that you’re communicating in a language that makes sense to others.
It’s rewarding to help someone understand something in a way they hadn’t before.
It’s rewarding to see positive changes from the insights you gather.
It’s rewarding to know that something is good.
It’s rewarding to give the gifts of clarity, realistic expectations, and clear direction.
It’s rewarding to make this world a little clearer.
It’s rewarding to make sense of the messes you face.
Make sense yet?
- Have you explored the depth and edges of the mess that you face?
- Do you know why you have the intent you have and what it means to how you will solve your problem?
- Have you faced reality and thought about contexts and channels your users could be in?
- What language have you chosen to use to clarify your direction?
- What specific goals and baselines will you measure your progress against?
- Have you put together various structures and tested them to make sure your intended message comes through to users?
- Are you prepared to adjust?