Making Sense of IA Messes

“The number one challenge of teaching information architecture, is getting people over fear,” says information architect Abby Covert. Abby’s new book, How to Make Sense of Any Mess, guides would-be information architects past their fears. We’re very excited to have the opportunity to ask her about the messes she’s encountered, the solutions she’s discovered, and how a little IA knowledge can go a long way toward improving any UX design.

Thanks for speaking with us Abby! You talk about fear a lot throughout your book. Why do you think that fear is so common when dealing with messes?
The number one challenge of teaching information architecture, is getting people over fear. People don’t need to be taught how to group things together or label them. They need to be taught to get over the fear of doing so. The fear that they will make bad or useless groups or labels. The fear that trying to sort something out will actually make it worse. The fear that they won’t be able to make sense of it. The fear that they will get things wrong and have to do it again. The fear that it will take a really long time to sort it all out.

The only way through the fear is time. Change takes time. Comfort with something new takes time. Recovering from the loss of the old way takes time. Deciding where to go next takes time. Knowing if you did a good job takes time. But too often people want things now. They want to sit down and “do the IA” and be done.

One thing you bring up early in the book is the difficulty with finding “truth” without first “unearthing inconsistencies, questions, and opportunities for improvement.” Part of the difficulty in doing this stems from the knowledge that opening a can of “truth” worms could lead to scope creep or an overwhelming amount of work. Can you give us some advice on how to deal with these fears?
To be honest, I worry about the frequency with which I get this kind of question.So yes, you are correct that many people believe that going down various rabbit holes of complexity will change their project size and therefore impact their scope. I have two main thoughts on this:

  1. I believe that it is our professional obligation to analyze the architectural landscape before making changes to it. Think about a general contractor in the built-world just adding a new floor to a building without first assessing whether it could stand. I know this may sound dramatic, but I find that often I am called in as a specialist to clean up messes that exist because too many individual project teams did not do the due diligence of assessing what they were building next to, on top of or underneath.
  2. If you don’t deal with the complexity now, and you want to keep the job/client you have, then you will eventually have to deal with it. Or like the tell-tale heart it will beat beneath the floorboards forevermore.

I think the fear that we all live with is so common because perfection isn’t possible, but progress towards something better than where we are is. It takes a lot of courage to be ok with taking the time to get there instead of giving up.

I love that your book is dedicated to your grandfather, “the first information architect [you] ever knew.” I assume he didn’t work with websites; what is the connection you make between his work and the IA work you do today?
How to Make Sense of Any Mess
I’m really glad you asked this question. To start, no my grandfather has never been billed as or paid as an information architect. He never learned that those two words could be put together until far after he was retired. It was when I was in college and told him about it.

At the time he was writing and self-publishing his memoirs and I was helping to restore all the cartoons he drew while serving in the United States Navy over the course of his 30 year career there. His book is called “The Maverick Sailor” and it is about his life’s work cleaning up a mess of paper and process created by the parts of the Navy that he encountered.

He knows words like efficiency, process, system, and ecosystem. He knows the importance of labels and their impact on categorization. He knows that you can have a better, deeper talk about something if you have an object to reference. He taught himself how to make sense of messes made of information and people before the world of Google and the Undo button. He moved people’s desks, changed labeling and filing systems, and worked primarily in a medium that at the time was set to “change everything” : Punch Cards. To do this he used little more than markers and a flip chart.

He is also the reason I wanted to write this book for everybody. There are many self taught people architecting information all over the world. An endless supply of would-be-mavericks waiting to be given permission and the right tools. I wanted to write a book to help them to hone their budding super powers as sensemakers. He recently gifted me his portfolio of flipchart presentations and cartoons. All I can say is that there is no question that I went into the family business. Which I suppose is making sense of messes 😉

One thing that caught my eye is this great quote: “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.” Obviously your grandfather is an influence, what else drew you to focusing on people?
I focused on people because I watch every day as more and more people are impacted by these “things” we make. And these things we are making are in many cases not made not of plastic or wood or concrete anymore, instead they are made of something perhaps much more complex to mold: information. I watch as these things become real places we go to, places that impact our world view and our behavior. I thought it was time to empower people to learn and understand the impact that their information architecture has on their success and on the people who use it.
At one point you define information as “What each person encountering that shelf believes to be true about the empty spot.” Can you expand on that?
It might seem philosophical, because it is. But there is no one version of truth. There is only our own subjective version of it. You can’t see mine, I can’t see yours. If we are both looking at the same thing, we are still able to see that same thing differently. I may see an empty spot on a grocery store shelf as a place where a popular product lives when it is not sold out. You may see it was a place where a recalled product used to live. In this scenario, we are both looking at the same content (products, shelves, labels) but we are interpreting different information, because we have different experiences that brought us to this point.
You clarify early on that information is not data or content. How do you differentiate the three, and why is that differentiation important?
Data includes facts, observations, and questions about something. Content can be products, words, documents, images, videos, or whatever you’re arranging or sequencing.

For example, if someone is looking at a website that you designed:

  • Data: Any observations they make about it, any past experience they have related to it, their demographics and psychographics, their abilities, their context of use, questions or assertions that the experience sparks for them, how quick it is to respond etc…
  • Content: The pictures, the words, the colors, the transitions, the available actions, etc..
  • Information: What they believe to be true and false about your intent before, during, and after the experience. Perhaps they take away “This is an awesome company offering a valuable service for a fair price.” but they could also take away “This is an ok company and I am not sure I want to pay for this service.” from the same content.

The reason to pay attention to the difference is control. Or rather lack thereof. We have control of our content and how we arrange and sequence it, but that’s all we have control of. Existing is not the way content becomes the kind of information we want. It only makes that long treacherous journey if it makes sense to those it was intended for.

I think that perhaps it is important to our explanation of things that we reserve the word information to describe that smushy, uncontrollable material our users make in their minds. I feel we must stop misleading our coworkers and clients into believing we can make information, with the hope that this opens up opportunities for us to understand the information that our content actually results in.

Obviously information architecture serves many purposes – some more user-focused, and others more business-focused. What do you think is the most valuable thing about IA, and why do we need it so badly?
The most valuable thing anyone can do in this messy time we are all living in is to reduce the linguistic insecurity within their own workplace and context. Practicing IA is all about getting everyone on the same page, literally and metaphorically. In my experience the ability to get on the same page is the critical difference between working on a project that has momentum and one that is stuck in the bogs of indecision and fear. I truly believe IA can be practiced by anyone and I believe if done honestly and collaboratively, it will always make things make a little more sense.

Thank you so much for speaking with us Abby! Readers can buy How to Make Sense of Any Mess on Amazon, and ask additional questions in the comments below, or on Twitter.

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