Information is not a fad. It wasn’t even invented in the information age. As a concept, information is old as language and collaboration is.
The most important thing I can teach you about information is that it isn’t a thing. It’s subjective, not objective. It’s whatever a user interprets from the arrangement or sequence of things they encounter.
For example, imagine you’re looking into a bakery case. There’s one plate overflowing with oatmeal raisin cookies and another plate with a single double-chocolate chip cookie. Would you bet me a cookie that there used to be more double-chocolate chip cookies on that plate? Most people would take me up on this bet. Why? Because everything they already know tells them that there were probably more cookies on that plate.
The belief or non-belief that there were other cookies on that plate is the information each viewer interprets from the way the cookies were arranged. When we rearrange the cookies with the intent to change how people interpret them, we’re architecting information.
While we can arrange things with the intent to communicate certain information, we can’t actually make information. Our users do that for us.
Information is architected to serve different needs.
If you rip out the content from your favorite book and throw the words on the floor, the resulting pile is not your favorite book.
If you define each word from your favorite book and organize the definitions alphabetically, you would have a dictionary, not your favorite book.
If you arrange each word from your favorite book by gathering similarly defined words, you have a thesaurus, not your favorite book.
Neither the dictionary nor the thesaurus is anything like your favorite book, because both the architecture and the content determine how you interpret and use the resulting information.
For example, “8 of 10 Doctors Do Not Recommend” and “Doctor Recommended” are both true statements, but each serves a different intent.
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:
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.
The meaning we intend to communicate doesn’t matter if it makes no sense, or the wrong sense, to the people we want to reach.
We need to consider our intended users. Sometimes they’re our customers or the public. Often times, they’re also stakeholders, colleagues, employees, partners, superiors, or clients. These are the people who use our process.
To determine who matters, ask these questions:
- Who’s most important to get agreement from?
- Who’s most important to serve?
- What words might make them defensive?
- What words might put them at ease?
- How open are they to change?
- How will this affect their lives?
- How does the current state of things look to them? Is that good or bad?
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?
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:
Our why, what, and how aren’t always determined in a linear process. The answers to these fundamental questions may change from moment to moment.
Your why may be “because you want this checked off your to-do list” or “because you want to play with certain materials or ideas.”
Your resulting what might be to “start making the first thing that comes to mind.”
They may not be lofty in intent, but the intent has been stated. These are valid answers to why and what that will serve as a guide for how you define what is good. Your actions will be the result of your answers.
How long would you spend on a task without understanding why it’s important or what you are actually accomplishing? Constantly answering these basic questions are a big part of our everyday life.
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
Karen is a product manager at a startup. Her CEO thinks the key to launching their product in a crowded market is a sleek look and feel.
Karen recently conducted research to test the product with its intended users. With the results in hand, she worries that what the CEO sees as sleek is likely to seem cold to the users they want to reach.
Karen has research on her side, but she still needs to define what good means for her organization. Her team needs to state their intent.
To establish an intent, Karen talks with her CEO about how their users’ aesthetic wants don’t line up with the look and feel of the current product.
She starts their conversation by confirming that the users from her research are part of the intended audience for the product.
Next, she helps the CEO create a list of questions and actions the research brought up.
Afterwards, Karen develops a plan for communicating her findings to the rest of the team.
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.
Reality involves many players.
As you go through the mess, you’ll encounter several types of players:
- Current users: People who interact with whatever you’re making.
- Potential users: People you hope to reach.
- Stakeholders: People who care about the outcome of what you’re making.
- Competitors: People who share your current or potential users.
- Distractors: People that could take attention away from your intent.
You may play several of these roles yourself. Be aware of potential conflicts there.
For example, if you believe your users are like you but they’re not, there’s more room for incorrect assumptions and miscommunications.
Reality doesn’t always fit existing patterns.
Beware of jumping into an existing solution or copying existing patterns. In my experience, too many people buy into an existing solution’s flexibility to later discover its rigidity.
Imagine trying to design a luxury fashion magazine using a technical system for grocery store coupons. The features you need may seem similar enough until you consider your context. That’s when reality sets in.
What brings whopping returns to one business might crush another. What works for kids might annoy older people. What worked five years ago may not work today.
We have to think about the effects of adopting an existing structure or language before doing so.
When architecting information, focus on your own unique objectives. You can learn from and borrow from other people. But it’s best to look at their decisions through the lens of your intended outcome.
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.
Create a list of words you say.
A controlled vocabulary is an organized list of terms, phrases, and concepts intended to help someone navigate a specific context.
Documenting language standards can reduce linguistic insecurity.
A good controlled vocabulary considers:
- Variant spellings (e.g., American or British)
- Tone (e.g., Submit or Send)
- Scientific and popular terms (e.g., cockroaches or Periplaneta Americana)
- Insider and outsider terms (e.g., what we say at work; what we say in public)
- Acceptable synonyms (e.g., automobile, car, auto, or vehicle)
- Acceptable acronyms (e.g., General Electric, GE, or G.E.)
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.
There’s distance between reality and your intent.
Your intent shows you what you want to become when you’re all grown up. But intent alone won’t get things done.
Breaking your intent into specific goals helps you to figure out where to invest your time and energy, and how to measure your progress along the way.
A goal is something specific that you want to do. A well-defined goal has the following elements:
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.”
Indicators help us measure progress.
Most things can be measured by systems or people.
Indicators tell you if you’re moving towards your intent or away from it. A business might use averages like dollars per order or call response time as indicators of how well they’re doing.
It’s not always easy to figure out how to measure things, but if you’re persistent, you can gain invaluable insights about your progress.
The good news is the work it takes to define and measure indicators is almost always worth the effort.
To find the right indicators, start with these questions:
Examples of indicators follow.
- Satisfaction: Are customers happy with what you’re delivering against your promises?
- Kudos: How often do people praise you for your efforts or contributions?
- Profit: How much was left over after expenses?
- Value: What would someone pay for it?
- Loyalty: How likely are your users to return?
- Traffic: How many people used, visited, or saw what you made?
- Conversion: What percentage of people acted the way you hoped they would?
- Spread: How fast is word getting around about what you’re doing?
- Perception: What do people believe about what you’re making or trying to achieve?
- Competition: Who has similar intents to yours?
- Complaints: How many users are reaching out about an aspect of your product or service?
- Backlash: What negative commentary do you receive or expect?
- Expenses: How much did you spend?
- Debt: How much do you owe?
- Lost time: How many minutes, hours, or days did you spend unnecessarily?
- Drop-off: How many people leave without taking the action you hoped they would?
- Waste: How much do you discard, measured in materials and time?
- Murk: What alternative truths or opinions exist about what you’re making or trying to achieve?
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.
Set your goals.
Think about what you’re trying to accomplish.
- Revisit what you intend to do and why. Now break it down into specific goals.
- Make a dream list of what would be measureable in an ideal world. Even if the measurement is fuzzy or hard to find, it’s useful to think about the best-case scenario.
- Remember to mine data from people.
- Measure the baseline of what you can. Once you have your dream list, narrow it down to an achievable set of measurements to gather a baseline reading of.
- Make a list of indicators to potentially measure.
- List some situations where you’d want to be notified if things change. Then, figure out how to make those flags for yourself.
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
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.
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.
Joan is the social media coordinator for an airline that recently merged with another airline. Overnight, her team became responsible for twice as much work as before. She’s also now responsible for managing twice as many people.
As the details of the merger iron out, duplicative channels have to be dealt with. For example, they now have two Twitter accounts and two help directories on two different websites. To tie everything together, Joan:
Argue about discuss it until it’s clear.
It’s totally normal for fear, anxiety, and linguistic insecurity to get in the way of progress. Learning to work with others while they’re experiencing these not-so-pleasant realities is the hardest part of making sense of a mess.
Tension can lead to arguments. Arguments can cause resentment. Resentment can kill momentum. And when momentum stalls, messes grow larger and meaner.
To get through the tension, try to understand other people’s positions and perceptions:
If it isn’t under the floorboards, it’s a façade.
Information architecture is like the frame and foundation of a building. It’s not a building by itself, but you can’t add the frame and foundation after the building is up. They’re critical parts of the building that affect the whole of it. Buildings without frames do not exist.
It’s hard to relay your intended meaning through façade alone. When your structure and intent don’t line up, things fall apart.
Imagine trying to open a fancy restaurant in an old Pizza Hut. The shape of its former self persists in the structure. The mid-nineties nostalgia for that brand is in its bones. Paint the roof; change the signage; blow out the inside; it doesn’t matter. The building insists, “I used to be a Pizza Hut.”
(Now type “used to be Pizza Hut” into Google’s image search and enjoy the laugh riot!)
We serve many masters.
No matter what the mess is made of, we have many masters, versions of reality, and needs to serve. Information is full of history and preconceptions.
Stakeholders need to:
Users need to:
It’s our job to uncover subjective reality.
An important part of that is identifying the differences between what stakeholders think users need and what users think they need for themselves.
Make room for information architecture.
If you find yourself needing to promote this practice, here are some ways you can talk about it:
You: “Wow, we have lots of information floating around about this, huh?”
Them: “It’s a bit unruly, isn’t it?”
You: “Yeah, I think I can help though. I recently learned about the practice of information architecture. Have you heard of it?”
Them: “Never heard of it. What is it?”
You: “It’s the practice of deciding which structures we need so our intent comes through to users.”
Them: “Is it hard? Do we need an expert?”
You: “Well, it isn’t hard if we’re willing to collaborate and make decisions about what we’re doing. I have some tools we can try. What do you think?”
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.
Abby Covert is an information architect. After ten years of practicing information architecture for clients, Abby worried that too few people knew how to practice it themselves. She decided that the best way to help would be to teach this important practice.
After two years of teaching without a textbook, Abby told her students that she intended to write the book that was missing from the world: a book about information architecture for everybody.
As she wrote the first draft, she identified a mess of inconsistencies in the language and concepts inherent in teaching an emerging practice. At the end of the semester, she had a textbook for art school students, but she didn’t have the book that she intended to write for everybody. She had gone in the wrong direction to achieve a short-term goal.
She was frustrated and fearful of starting over. But instead of giving up, Abby faced her reality and used the advice in this book to make sense of her mess.
To get to the book you are reading, she wrote over 75,000 words, defined over 100 terms as simply as she could, and tested three unique prototypes with her users.
She hopes that it makes sense.
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?