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.
Things may change; the messes stay the same.
We’ve been learning how to architect information since the dawn of thought.
Page numbering, alphabetical order, indexes, lexicons, maps, and diagrams are all examples of information architecture achievements that happened well before the information age.
Even now, technology continues to change the things we make and use at a rate we don’t understand yet. But when it really comes down to it, there aren’t that many causes for confusing information.
- Too much information
- Not enough information
- Not the right information
- Some combination of these (eek!)
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.
Good is in the eye of the beholder.
What’s good for a business of seven years may not work for a business of seven weeks. What works for one person may be destructive for another.
When we don’t define what good means for our stakeholders and users, we aren’t using language to our advantage. Without a clear understanding of what is good, bad can come out of nowhere.
And while you have to define what good means to create good information architecture, it’s not just the architecture part that needs this kind of focus.
Every decision you make should support what you’ve defined as good: from the words you choose to the tasks you enable, and everything in between.
When you’re making decisions, balance what your stakeholders and users expect of you, along with what they believe to be good.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
Keep it tidy.
If people judge books by their covers, they judge diagrams by their tidiness.
People use aesthetic cues to determine how legitimate, trustworthy, and useful information is. Your job is to produce a tidy representation of what you’re trying to convey without designing it too much or polishing it too early in the process.
As you make your diagram, keep your stakeholders in mind. Will they understand it? Will anything distract them? Crooked lines, misspellings, and styling mistakes lead people astray. Be careful not to add another layer of confusion to the mess.
Make it easy to make changes so you can take in feedback quickly and keep the conversation going, rather than defending or explaining the diagram.
Your diagram ultimately needs to be tidy enough for stakeholders to understand and comment on it, while being flexible enough to update.
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.
6. Swim Lane Diagram
A swim lane diagram depicts how multiple players work together to complete a task or interact within a process. The result is a list of tasks for each user. This is especially useful when you’re trying to understand how different teams or people work together.
A schematic is a diagram of an object or interface simplified for the sake of clarity. Schematics are known by many other names including wireframes, sketches, lo-fis, and blueprints.
Since a schematic reduces complexity, unintended errors and ambiguity can be introduced. Would someone understand from the previous schematic to put cheese on top of the tomato sauce? Maybe not.
This is a case where an exploded schematic is useful, because it shows how the individual pieces come together to form the whole.
Maggie is the creative director for a small agency. She has a new client, and doesnt understand their business.
She reads their website, annual reports, and printed brochures, and still can’t pinpoint what they do. She’s not the only one. It turns out that no one on her team can figure out what the client’s business does either. Maggie knows she has to clear this up before overseeing work for the client.
Even if Maggie is the most talented creative director in the world, her work won’t matter much until she faces the reality that she doesn’t understand her client’s business. She needs to get a clearer mental model out of her client’s head and into her team’s hands.
In an attempt to face reality, Maggie asks her client to describe the business in the simplest way possible. “Like you would at a grade school career day,” she says.
With that as a basic model, she can ask better questions and compare her client’s mental model with her own. She uses a mind map to capture thoughts as they talk. After talking with her client, Maggie has a clearer understanding of their business and much more confidence that her team can support their needs.
Face your reality.
Everything is easier with a map. Let me guide you through making a map for your own mess.
On the following page is another favorite diagram of mine, the matrix diagram.
The power of a matrix diagram is that you can make the boxes collect whatever you want. Each box becomes a task to fulfill or a question to answer, whether you’re alone or in a group.
Matrix diagrams are especially useful when you’re facilitating a discussion, because they’re easy to create and they keep themselves on track. An empty box means you’re not done yet.
After making a simple matrix of users, contexts, players, and channels, you’ll have a guide to understanding the mess. By admitting your hopes and fears, you’re uncovering the limits you’re working within.
This matrix should also help you understand the other diagrams and objects you need to make, along with who will use and benefit from them.
Control your vocabulary.
Are you facing a mess like Rasheed’s? Do your stakeholders speak the same language? Do you collectively speak the same language as your users? What language might be troublesome in the context of what you are doing? What concepts need to be better understood or defined?
To control your vocabulary:
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.
I once had a project where the word “asset” was defined three different ways across five teams.
I once spent three days defining the word “customer”.
I once defined and documented over a hundred acronyms in the first week of a project for a large company, only to find 30 more the next week.
I wish I could say that I’m exaggerating or that any of this effort was unnecessary. Nope. Needed.
Language is complex. But language is also fundamental to understanding the direction we choose. Language is how we tell other people what we want, what we expect of them, and what we hope to accomplish together.
Without language, we can’t collaborate.
Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to declare a direction in language that doesn’t make sense to those it needs to support: users, stakeholders, or both.
When we don’t share a language with our users and our stakeholders, we have to work that much harder to communicate clearly.
Your ontology already exists.
Ontology always exists, but the one you have today may be messy or nonsensical. If you were trying to understand the ontology of your grocery store, your map might look like this at first:
By asking your customers for words they think about within a grocery store, your map could grow to reflect overlapping and related terms.
If you were choosing words for the aisle and department signs or the website, this exercise would help you along.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.