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.
Information architecture is all around you.
Information architecture is the way that we arrange the parts of something to make it understandable.
Here are some examples of Information architecture:
- Alphabetical cross-referencing systems used in a dictionary or encyclopedia
- Links in website navigation
- Sections, labels, and names of things on a restaurant menu
- Categories, labels and tasks used in a software program or application
- The signs that direct travelers in an airport
We rely on Information architecture to help us make sense of the world around us.
Stakeholders are complex.
A stakeholder is someone who has a viable and legitimate interest in the work you’re doing. Our stakeholders can be partners in business, life, or both.
Managers, clients, coworkers, spouses, family members, and peers are common stakeholders.
Sometimes we choose our stakeholders; other times, we don’t have that luxury. Either way, understanding our stakeholders is crucial to our success. When we work against each other, progress comes to a halt.
Working together is difficult when stakeholders see the world differently than we do.
But we should expect opinions and personal preferences to affect our progress. It’s only human to consider options and alternatives when we’re faced with decisions.
Most of the time, there is no right or wrong way to make sense of a mess. Instead, there are many ways to choose from. Sometimes we have to be the one without opinions and preferences so we can weigh all the options and find the best way forward for everyone involved.
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.
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.
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?
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
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 has many intersections.
Tweeting while watching TV is an example of two channels working together to support a single context.
A single channel can also support multiple contexts.
For example, a website may serve someone browsing on a phone from their couch, on a tablet at a coffee shop, or on a desktop computer in a cubicle.
When you begin to unravel a mess, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of things that need to come together to support even the simplest of contexts gracefully on a single channel.
“It’s just a ____________” is an easy trap to fall into. But to make sense of real-world problems, you need to understand how users, channels, and context relate to each other.
What channels do your users prefer? What context are they likely in when encountering what you’re making? How are they feeling? Are they in a hurry? Are they on slow Wi-Fi? Are they there for entertainment or to accomplish a task?
Considering these small details will make a huge difference for you and your users.
While you’re thinking about scope and scale, consider the timescale you’re working with.
A timescale is a period of time your map or diagram represents. There are three main timescales:
It’s often easier to think about how things were then or how they are now before proposing changes.
As an example, if we wanted to make sense of changes to the American healthcare system over the last year, we could diagram at each of the three timescales:
- Then: How did healthcare work ten years ago?
- Now: How does healthcare work today?
- When: How do we want health care to work after we’ve made these changes?
Objects like diagrams, maps, and charts aren’t one-size-fits-all. Play with them, adapt them, and expand on them for your own purposes.
The biggest mistake I see beginner sensemakers make is not expanding their toolbox of diagrammatic and mapping techniques.
There are thousands, maybe millions, of variations on the form, quality, and testing of diagrams and maps. And more are being created and experimented with each day.
The more diagrams you get to know, the more tools you have. The more ways you can frame the mess, the more likely you are to see the way through to the other side.
To help you build your toolbox, I’ve included ten diagrams and maps I use regularly in my own work.
As you review each one, imagine the parts of your mess that could benefit from reframing.
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.
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.
We combine taxonomies to create unique forms.
Taxonomies shape our experience at every level. We use taxonomies to make sense of everything from systems to objects. It often takes multiple taxonomic approaches to make sense of a single form.
A Form is the visual shape or configuration something takes. The form is what users actually experience.
Even a simple form like this book uses several taxonomies to help you read through the content, understand it, and use it.
A few taxonomies in this book:
Adjustments are a part of reality.
From moment to moment, the directions we choose forever change the objects we make, the effects we see, and the experiences we have.
As we move towards our goals, things change and new insights become available. Things always change when we begin to understand what we couldn’t make sense of before. As a sensemaker, the most important skill you can learn is to adjust your course to accommodate new forces as you encounter them on your journey.
Don’t seek finalization. Trying to make something that will never change can be super frustrating. Sure, it’s work to move those boxes and arrows around as things change. But that is the work, not a reason to avoid making a plan. Taking in feedback from other people and continuously refining the pieces as well as the whole is what assures that something is “good.”
Don’t procrastinate. Messes only grow with time. You can easily make excuses and hold off on doing something until the conditions are right, or things seem stable.
Perfection isn’t possible, but progress is.
The sum is greater than its parts.
We need to understand the sum of a lot of pieces to make sense of what we have.
For example, let’s say we’re working on bringing a product to the market. To support this process, we might create:
These are all important pieces individually, but we need to look at them together to answer questions about the whole such as:
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:
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.
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.