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.
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.
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.
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:
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 _____________.”
Start with scope and scale.
Before you make objects like diagrams or maps, spend some time determining their scope and scale.
Scope is your clearly stated purpose for the diagram. The scope of a blueprint for an actual house is greater than the scope of a diagram explaining the rooms that make up a typical house.
Scale is the relative size of your diagrammatic work.The scale of a map covering a wall is greater than the scale of a map on regular-sized paper.
To think through scope and scale, ask yourself:
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?
3. Gantt Chart
A Gantt chart depicts how processes relate to one another over time. Timelines, and project plans are both common examples of Gantt charts.
This type of chart helps us to understand relationships between people, tasks, and time.
Watch out for options and opinions.
When we talk about what something has to do, we sometimes answer with options of what it could do or opinions of what it should do.
A strong requirement describes the results you want without outlining how to get there.
A weak requirement might be written as: “A user is able to easily publish an article with one click of a button.” This simple sentence implies the interaction (one click), the interface (a button), and introduces an ambiguous measurement of quality (easily).
When we introduce implications and ambiguity into the process, we can unknowingly lock ourselves into decisions we don’t mean to make.
As an example, I once had a client ask for a “homepage made of buttons, not just text.” He had no idea that, to a web designer, a button is the way a user submits a form online. To my client, the word button meant he could change the content over time as his business changes.
Admit where you are.
Let’s say you’re on a weeklong bicycle trip. You planned to make it to your next stop before dark, but a flat tire delayed you by a few hours.
Even though you planned to get further along today, the truth is that pursuing that plan would be dangerous now.
Similarly, an idea you can draw on paper in one day may end up taking you a lifetime to make real. With the ability to make plans comes great responsibility.
Think about what you can do with the time and resources you have. Filtering and being realistic are part of the job. Keep reevaluating where you are in relation to where you want to go.
Be careful not to fall in love with your plans or ideas. Instead, fall in love with the effects you can have when you communicate clearly.
Rasheed is a consultant helping the human resources department of a large company. They want to move their employee-training processes online.
Rasheed’s research uncovered a lot of language inconsistencies between how employees are hired and trained in various departments.
He always expects to account for departmental differences, but he fears this many similar terms for the same things will make for a sloppy system design.
Rasheed has a choice. He could document the terms as they exist and move on. Or he could take the time to find a direction that works for everyone.
He decides to group the terms by similar meanings and host a meeting with the departments to choose which terms should lead, and which ones should fall back.
During the meeting, Rasheed:
- Questions acronyms and proprietary terms
- Eliminates accidental synonyms
- Documents myths, alternatives, and histories
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.
Understand the past.
As you talk through your controlled vocabulary, listen for stories and images people associate with each term.
Language has history. Synonyms and alternatives abound. Myths can get in your way too, unless you’re willing to uncover them.
Gather the following about each term:
When it comes to language, people are slow to change and quick to argue. Documenting these details will help you make your controlled vocabulary as clear and useful as possible.
Think about relationships between nouns and verbs.
When you combine nouns with appropriate verbs, the resulting sentences can be referred to as requirements for what you’re making.
From the previous example:
- An author can write a post.
- An author can delete a post.
- Any user can share a post.
- Any user can read a post.
This list of requirements defines the ideal solution. Each requirement tells us who should be able to do what in the eventual state.
When you take the time to make requirements concrete and prioritize them, you can better understand what you’re actually making.
If you’re designing an interface that prioritizes reading, it will be fundamentally different than an interface that prioritizes writing, even with the exact same list of requirements.
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:
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.
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?
Use worksheets to mine data from people.
Once you have a list of indicators to guide you, think about where the data could come from.
A worksheet can help you capture important details that only exist in people’s heads or personal records.
You can fill out a worksheet in a meeting or distribute copies of it and collect them after people have time to answer your questions. To choose the best way to gather the data, keep these considerations in mind:
- Time: How much are you asking for, and how long might it take?
- Access: How many sources are your respondents using to find answers? Who else might they need to contact?
- Bias: Are they applying their own thoughts and preferences, or delivering data?
If your users or stakeholders need a significant amount of time, access, or thought to answer your questions, let them get back to you instead of trying to get through the worksheet together.
Baselines help us stay in touch with reality.
The first step in understanding how something is performing is to measure it as it is.
A baseline is the measurement of something before changing it. Without baselines, assumptions will likely lead us in the wrong direction.
Here are two examples:
- If a prominent department store saw quarterly profits increase by $1.5M after their Super Bowl ad, the ad may be seen as effective. But if the baseline of regular quarterly profit increase for this brand is typically $5.5M+ after a Super Bowl ad, we’d judge the ad differently.
- Imagine an elementary school is reporting test scores averaging in the C+ range for the majority of their students. This may seem unimpressive, or even worrisome, until our baseline is introduced: average test scores this time last year were a D+.
When we have a baseline, we can judge performance. Without that, we may mistake the ad as successful and the teachers as incapable.
Sorting is easier than deciding how to sort.
Sorting is the act of arranging content according to established rules. The act of deciding how to sort something within a taxonomy is called classification.
If you have a large pile of things, it may take a lot of time to sort through them. But sorting isn’t the hard part. Classification is.
Think about sorting a bag of groceries into a pre-arranged pantry. Everything has a place. You’re simply following the plan. Easy, right?
Now unload that same bag into a kitchen without rules for where things go. How much longer would it take you? How much more frustrating a task would it be? How much variation would you get when the next person unloads groceries?
Sorting is easy when clear rules are in place. But without those rules, assumptions take over and things end up in places where they can be harder to find.
The most challenging part of classification is working with other people to agree on a set of rules.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
This is hard.
It’s hard to decide to tear down a wall, take off the roof, or rip up the floorboards. It’s hard to admit when something architectural isn’t serving you.
It’s hard to find the words for what’s wrong.
It’s hard to deal with the time between understanding something is wrong and fixing it.
It’s hard to get there.
It’s hard to be honest about what went right and what went poorly in the past.
It’s hard to argue with people you work with about fuzzy things like meaning and truth.
It’s hard to ask questions.
It’s hard to hear criticism.
It’s hard to start over.
It’s hard to get to good.