Definition: Consisting of many different and connected parts.
Also referenced as: Complexities (noun) Complexity (noun) Complicated (adjective)
Related to: Channel, Choice, Classification, Context, Experience, Linguistic Insecurity, Taxonomy
It’s hard to shine a light on the messes we face.
It’s hard to be the one to say that something is a mess. Like a little kid standing at the edge of a dark room, we can be paralyzed by fear and not even know how to approach the mess.
These are the moments where confusion, procrastination, self-criticism, and frustration keep us from changing the world.
The first step to taming any mess is to shine a light on it so you can outline its edges and depths.
Once you brighten up your workspace, you can guide yourself through the complex journey of making sense of the mess.
I wrote this simple guidebook to help even the least experienced sensemakers tame the messes made of information (and people!) they’re sure to encounter.
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:
Users are complex.
User is another word for a person. But when we use that word to describe someone else, we’re likely implying that they’re using the thing we’re making. It could be a website, a product or service, a grocery store, a museum exhibit, or anything else people interact with.
When it comes to our use and interpretation of things, people are complex creatures.
We’re full of contradictions. We’re known to exhibit strange behaviors. From how we use mobile phones to how we traverse grocery stores, none of us are exactly the same. We don’t know why we do what we do. We don’t really know why we like what we like, but we do know it when we see it. We’re fickle.
We expect things to be digital, but also, in many cases, physical. We want things to feel auto-magic while retaining a human touch. We want to be safe, but not spied on. We use words at our whim.
Most importantly perhaps, we realize that for the first time ever, we have easy access to other people’s experiences to help us decide if something is worth experiencing at all.
Objects let us have deeper conversations about reality.
When you discuss a specific subject, you subconsciously reference part of a large internal map of what you know.
Other people can’t see this map. It only exists in your head, and it’s called your mental model.
When faced with a problem, you reference your mental model and try to organize the aspects and complexities of what you see into recognizable patterns. Your ongoing experience changes your mental model. This book is changing it right now.
We create objects like maps, diagrams, prototypes, and lists to share what we understand and perceive. Objects allow us to compare our mental models with each other.
These objects represent our ideas, actions, and insights. When we reference objects during a conversation, we can go deeper and be more specific than verbalizing alone.
As an example, it’s much easier to teach someone about the inner-workings of a car engine with a picture, animation, diagram, or working model.
Architecture before design.
You can tell complex stories in a diagram with boxes and arrows. A box represents a thing; an arrow represents a relationship between things.
These relationships can be one-way (e.g., dropping a package into a mailbox) or two-way (e.g., calling the postal service to see if it was delivered).
We use a diamond shape to represent a decision point. This allows us to diagram relationships that change depending on the circumstances.
When you’re making a diagram, keep the structure pliable. Give yourself room to play with the boxes, move them around, and see what happens.
Start by creating a box for each concept, each piece of content, and each process. Arrange the boxes based on how they relate to each other. Play. See what reveals itself as you move things around. Try a few different arrangements before you add the arrows.
Keep it simple. The more you add styling and polish, the less you’ll feel comfortable changing and collaborating on the diagram.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.