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.
Knowledge is complex.
Knowledge is surprisingly subjective.
We knew the earth was flat, until we knew it was not flat. We knew that Pluto was a planet until we knew it was not a planet.
True means without variation, but finding something that doesn’t vary feels impossible.
Instead, to establish the truth, we need to confront messes without the fear of unearthing inconsistencies, questions, and opportunities for improvement. We need to be open to the variations of truth that are bound to exist.
Part of that includes agreeing on what things mean. That’s our subjective truth. And it takes courage to unravel our conflicts and assumptions to determine what’s actually true.
If other people have a different interpretation of what we’re making, the mess can seem even bigger and more hairy. When this happens, we have to proceed with questions and set aside what we think we know.
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.
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.
To do is to know.
Knowing is not enough. Knowing too much can encourage us to procrastinate. There’s a certain point when continuing to know at the expense of doing allows the mess to grow further.
Practicing information architecture means exhibiting the courage to push past the edges of your current reality. It means asking questions that inspire change. It takes honesty and confidence in other people.
Sometimes, we have to move forward knowing that other people tried to make sense of this mess and failed. We may need to shine the light brighter or longer than they did. Perhaps now is a better time. We may know the outcomes of their fate, but we don’t know our own yet. We can’t until we try.
What if turning on the light reveals that the room is full of scary trolls? What if the light reveals the room is actually empty? Worse yet, what if turning on the light makes us realize we’ve been living in darkness?
The truth is that these are all potential realities, and understanding that is part of the journey. The only way to know what happens next is to do it.
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:
What before how.
There are reasons it makes sense to wait to cook until after you know what you’re making. For these same reasons, we all know not to construct a building without a plan.
When we jump into a task without thinking about what we’re trying to accomplish, we can end up with solutions to the wrong problem. We can waste energy that would be better spent determining which direction to take.
When deciding what you’re doing, ask yourself:
- What are you trying to change? What is your vision for the future? What is within your abilities?
- What do you know about the quality of what exists today? What further research will help you understand it?
- What has been done before? What can you learn from those experiences? What is the market and competition like? Has anyone succeeded or failed at this in the past?
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:
By facing reality, we can find solutions.
Whenever we’re making something, there are moments when it’s no longer time to ponder. It’s time to act, to make, to realize, and perhaps to fail.
Fear is an obvious but elusive partner in these moments. Fear can walk ahead of us and get all the glory, leaving us pondering and restless for more, more, more. Maybe we fear failure. Maybe we fear success. Maybe we fear light being shined our way.
Confronting your fears and knowing what is real is an important part of making sense of a mess.
Facing reality is the next step on our journey. In this chapter, we’ll discuss rabbit holes of reality you are likely to have to explore as well as some diagrammatic techniques you can take with you to document what you find down there.
Before we go on, I have to warn you of the many opportunities ahead to lose faith in yourself as you climb through and understand the details of your reality. It can start to feel like the mess wants you to fail in making sense of it. Don’t worry. That thought has occurred to everyone who has ever tried to change something. We all have to deal with reality. We all want what we want and then get what we get.
Reality involves many factors.
No matter what you’re making, you probably need to consider several of these factors:
- Time: “I only have _____________________.”
- Resources: “I have _____________________.”
- Skillset: “I know how to ________________ , but I don’t know how to ______________ yet.”
- Environment: “I’m working in a ___________.”
- Personality: “I want this work to say _________ about me.”
- Politics: “Others want this work to say _________________ about ____________.”
- Ethics: “I want this work to do right by the world by __________________.”
- Integrity: “I want to be proud of the results of my work, which means _____________.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Goals are our lens on the world.
Goals change what’s possible and what happens next.
Whether big or small, for today or this year, goals change how you spend time and resources.
The ways you set and measure goals affects how you define a good day or a bad day, valuable partners or the competition, productive time or a waste of time.
Goals are only reachable when you’re being realistic about the distance between reality and where you want to go. You may measure that distance in time, money, politics, talent, or technology.
Once you figure out the distance you need to travel, momentum can replace the anxiety of not knowing how to move forward.
Flags tell us if we’re headed in the right direction.
Flags are useful because they allow us to know when something important happens. We can attach a flag to most indicators.
These are all examples of flags:
- Having a loved one call when they arrive at their destination safely
- A dashboard light that reminds you to get gas in the next 50 miles
- A weekly email that shares customer service feedback with a design team
- An email alert when competitors are mentioned in the press
- A monthly report of how many users drop off at each step of an online registration process
Flags allow us to use data more proactively.
Jim owns a retail store. His profits and traffic have been declining for the last few years. His employees are convinced that, to save the business, the company website needs to let people buy things online. But all Jim sees is more complications, more people to manage, and more expenses. He thinks, “If we sell on the website, we have to take photos, and pack and ship each order. Who will do that?”
With rent going up and profits going down, Jim isn’t sure if changing the website will save his business. He doesn’t know the distance he needs to travel to get to his goal. He wonders, “Will improving my website even help? Or will it just make things worse?”
To think through this decision, Jim:
If Jim’s goal is to increase in-store traffic and reduce expenses, an online store probably doesn’t make as much sense as other things he could do.
Facets are the lenses we use to classify.
A facet is a discrete piece of knowledge you can use to classify something. The more facets something has, the more ways it can be organized.
Using the record store as an example, the following facets are available for each record:
- Record Name
- Artist Name
- Record Label
- Release Date
If a particular facet is interesting but the data to support it doesn’t exist or is hard to gather, it might not be the best plan to use that facet.
For example, finding out which instrument models were used on each album may be interesting, but it is also likely to be quite time-consuming to collect.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?