People architect information.
It’s easy to think about information messes as if they’re an alien attack from afar. But they’re not.
We made these messes.
When we architect information, we determine the structures we need to communicate our message.
Everything around you was architected by another person. Whether or not they were aware of what they were doing. Whether or not they did a good job. Whether or not they delegated the task to a computer.
Information is a responsibility we all share.
We’re no longer on the shore watching the information age approach; we’re up to our hips in it.
If we’re going to be successful in this new world, we need to see information as a workable material and learn to architect it in a way that gets us to our goals.
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.
Every thing has information.
Over your lifetime, you’ll make, use, maintain, consume, deliver, retrieve, receive, give, consider, develop, learn, and forget many things.
This book is a thing. Whatever you’re sitting on while reading is a thing. That thing you were thinking about a second ago? That’s a thing too.
Things come in all sorts, shapes, and sizes.
The things you’re making sense of may be analog or digital; used once or for a lifetime; made by hand or manufactured by machines.
I could have written a book about information architecture for websites or mobile applications or whatever else is trendy. Instead, I decided to focus on ways people could wrangle any mess, regardless of what it’s made of.
That’s because I believe every mess and every thing shares one important non-thing:information.
Information is whatever is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.
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 not data or content.
Data is facts, observations, and questions about something. Content can be cookies, words, documents, images, videos, or whatever you’re arranging or sequencing.
The difference between information, data, and content is tricky, but the important point is that the absence of content or data can be just as informing as the presence.
For example, if we ask two people why there is an empty spot on a grocery store shelf, one person might interpret the spot to mean that a product is sold-out, and the other might interpret it as being popular.
The jars, the jam, the price tags, and the shelf are the content. The detailed observations each person makes about these things are data. What each person encountering that shelf believes to be true about the empty spot is the information.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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 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 _____________.”
Reality happens across channels and contexts.
A channel transmits information. A commercial on TV and YouTube is accessible on two channels. A similar message could show up in your email inbox, on a billboard, on the radio, or in the mail.
We live our lives across channels.
It’s common to see someone using a smartphone while sitting in front of a computer screen, or reading a magazine while watching TV.
As users, our context is the situation we’re in, including where we are, what we’re trying to do, how we’re feeling, and anything else that shapes our experience. Our context is always unique to us and can’t be relied upon to hold steady.
If I’m tweeting about a TV show while watching it, my context is “sitting on my couch, excited enough about what I’m watching to share my reactions.”
In this context, I’m using several different channels: Twitter, a smartphone, and TV.
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.
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.
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:
Architecture before design.
You can tell complex stories in a diagram with boxes and arrows. A box represents a thing; an arrow represents a relationship between things.
These relationships can be one-way (e.g., dropping a package into a mailbox) or two-way (e.g., calling the postal service to see if it was delivered).
We use a diamond shape to represent a decision point. This allows us to diagram relationships that change depending on the circumstances.
When you’re making a diagram, keep the structure pliable. Give yourself room to play with the boxes, move them around, and see what happens.
Start by creating a box for each concept, each piece of content, and each process. Arrange the boxes based on how they relate to each other. Play. See what reveals itself as you move things around. Try a few different arrangements before you add the arrows.
Keep it simple. The more you add styling and polish, the less you’ll feel comfortable changing and collaborating on the diagram.
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.
- Make a block diagram that shows how the pieces of a concept interrelate.
- Demystify a process by making a flow diagram.
- Break your latest project down into its individual tasks and make a Gantt chart.
- Compare a group of restaurants in your neighborhood in a quadrant diagram.
- Explore what happens when concepts or objects overlap using a Venn diagram.
- Break any multi-user process into a list of tasks per user with a swim lane diagram.
- Depict the content and organization of your favorite website in a hierarchy diagram.
- Unload all of the cool ideas in your mind right now in a mind map.
- Explain how to make your favorite food with a simple schematic. Bonus point for exploding it!
- Make a journey map of a day in your life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are spaces between the places we make.
When you’re cleaning up a big mess, assess the spaces between places as well as the places themselves.
A place is a space designated for a specific purpose.
For example, if you built a public park, you might make a path to walk on, a picnic area, a playground, some bathrooms, and a soccer field. These areas were made with tasks in mind.
If parkgoers wear down a path through your fresh laid grass, you as the parkitect (ha!) could see it as an annoyance. Or you could see it as a space between places and pave over it so people can get where they want to go without walking through the mud.
A space is an open, free, or unoccupied area.
Space may not have a designated purpose yet, but that doesn’t stop users from going there.
No matter what you’re making, your users will find spaces between places. They bring their own context and channels with them, and they show you where you should go next. Find areas in flux and shine a light on them.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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?
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
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:
Classification can be exact or ambiguous.
Postal codes are what we call an exact classification. We can generally rely on the codes to hold steady. If the postal code is 10012, the building is in Manhattan. There’s nothing to argue about. It just is.
Ambiguous classifications require more thought to decide where something goes. The more ambiguous something is, the more it can be argued about.
Movie genres like Comedy and Drama may seem exact. But if you put three movie reviewers in a room and ask them to classify a dark comedy into one of those two genres, they may challenge each other.
Ambiguity and exactness relate to context as well.
For example, in editing this book, Nicole suggested I use the term “Postal code” instead of “Zip code” in the example above. Both would have expressed the point, but one is more exact for our context, which includes readers outside of the United States.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.