Definition: A situation where the interactions between people and information are confusing or full of difficulties.
Also referenced as: Messes (noun) Messiness (noun) Messed (verb) Messy (adjective) Nonsensical (adjective) Chaos (noun)
The word mess was used 52 times across 31 pages
Here are some of the many messes we deal with in our everyday lives:
These are the moments where confusion, procrastination, self-criticism, and frustration keep us from changing the world.
We made these messes.
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.
Here are three complexities you may encounter:
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.
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.
Over your lifetime, you'll make, use, maintain, consume, deliver, retrieve, receive, give, consider, develop, learn, and forget many things.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Did you ever play the telephone game as a child?
It consists of a group of kids passing a phrase down the line in a whisper. The point of the game is to see how messed up the meaning of the initial message becomes when sent across a messy human network.
Miscommunications can lead to disagreements and frustration, especially when working with others.
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.
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.
You may play several of these roles yourself. Be aware of potential conflicts there.
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.
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.
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.
As you review each one, imagine the parts of your mess that could benefit from reframing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you were choosing words for the aisle and department signs or the website, this exercise would help you along.
Verbs represent the actions that can be taken.
A post (n.) can be: written, shared, deleted, or read.
It's easy to adopt terms that are already in use or to be lazy in choosing our language. But when you're deciding which words to use, it is important to consider the alternatives, perceptions, and associations around each term.
How would your work be different if "authors writing posts" was changed to "researchers authoring papers," or "followers submitting comments?"
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:
Later, you overhear a coworker saying, "Sorry, it looks like we're sold out of Michael Jackson right now."
Your manager looks under "J" and checks the inventory, which says the store should have a single copy of Thriller.
You remember that it was part of the shipment of records you just filed. Where else could you have put that record, if not under "J"? Maybe under "M"?
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.
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."
Perfection isn't possible, but progress is.
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.
Stakeholders need to:
Users need to:
Be the one not bringing the ideas. Instead, be the filter that other people's ideas go through to become drinkable:
With those skills, you'll always have people who want to work with you.
It's rewarding to set a goal and reach it.
It's rewarding to see positive changes from the insights you gather.
It's rewarding to make this world a little clearer.
Abby Covert is an information architect. After ten years of practicing information architecture for clients, Abby worried that too few people knew how to practice it themselves. She decided that the best way to help would be to teach this important practice.
As she wrote the first draft, she identified a mess of inconsistencies in the language and concepts inherent in teaching an emerging practice. At the end of the semester, she had a textbook for art school students, but she didn't have the book that she intended to write for everybody. She had gone in the wrong direction to achieve a short-term goal.
She hopes that it makes sense.