Definition: A structure with many nested levels of classification.
Also referenced as: Depth (noun)
Related to: Hierarchy, Narrow, Shallow
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.
Carl is a design student getting ready to graduate. But first, he has to produce a book explaining his design work and deliver a ten-minute presentation.
While Carl is a talented designer, public speaking makes him queasy and he doesn’t consider himself much of a writer. He has drawers and boxes full of notes, scribbles, sketches, magazine clippings, quotes, and prototypes.
Carl has the pieces he needs to make his book and presentation come to life. He also has a momentum-killing fear of the mess he’s facing.
To help Carl identify his mess, we could start by asking questions about its edges and depths:
It’s your turn.
This chapter outlines why it’s important to identify the edges and depths of a mess, so you can lessen your anxiety and make progress.
I also introduced the need to look further than what is true, and pay attention to how users and stakeholders interpretlanguage, data, and content.
To start to identify the mess you’re facing, work through these questions:
Looking good versus being good.
Pretty things can be useless, and ugly things can be useful. Beauty and quality are not always related.
When making things, we should aim to give equal attention to looking good and being good. If either side of that duality fails, the whole suffers.
As users, we may assume that a good-looking thing will also be useful and well thought-out. But it only takes a minute or two to see if our assumptions are correct. If it isn’t good, we’ll know.
As sensemakers, we may fall victim to these same assumptions about the relationships between beauty and quality of thought.
Beware of pretty things. Pretty things can lie and hide from reality. Ugly things can too.
If we’re going to sort out the messes around us, we need to ask difficult questions and go deeper than how something looks to determine if it’s good or not.
These levels deeply affect one another.
Once you know what level you’re working at, you can zoom in to the appropriate level of detail. Sometimes we need to zoom all the way in on an object. Other times it’s more important to zoom out to look at the ecosystem. Being able to zoom in and out as you work is the key to seeing how these levels affect one another.
When you’re deep in the details, it’s easy to forget your broad effect. When you’re working overhead, it’s easy to forget how your decisions affect things down on the ground. Making changes at one level without considering the affects they have on other levels can lead to friction and dissatisfaction between our users, our stakeholders, and us. One tiny change can spark a thousand disruptions.
For example, if we owned a restaurant and decided to eliminate paper napkins to be environmentally friendly, that would impact the entire restaurant, not just the table service our diners experience.
We’d need to consider other factors like where dirty napkins go, how we collect them, how often they’re picked up and cleaned, how many napkins we need on hand between cleanings, and if we should use paper napkins if something spills in the dining room.
One tiny decision leads to another, and another.
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.
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.
Play with Structure
Because your structure may change a hundred times before you finish making it, you can save time and frustration by thinking with boxes and arrows before making real changes. Boxes and arrows are easier to move around than the other materials we work with, so start there.
Try structuring the mess with common patterns of boxes and arrows as shown on the next page. Remember that you’ll probably need to combine more than one pattern to find a structure that works.
- Assess the content and facets that are useful for what you’re trying to convey.
- Play with broad and shallow versus narrow and deep hierarchies. Consider the right place to use heterarchies, sequences, and hypertext arrangements.
- Arrange things one way and then come up with another way. Compare and contrast them. Ask other people for input.
- Think about the appropriate level of ambiguity or exactitude for classifying and labeling things within the structure you’re pursuing.
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?