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“Hey, nice IA!” said no one, ever.

Book review of How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody by Abby Covert

How to Make Sense of Any Mess, by Abby Covert
In her brief and playful text, Abby Covert gives designers the gift of clarity, a shot of courage, and a hefty dose of reality. I say designers here, knowing that she intended her accessible words for everybody, not just makers of software. Yet product designers will undoubtedly recognize the challenges she describes of how hard it is to “get to good” when untangling messes in collaboration with stakeholders.

Covert describes information architecture simply as “the way that we arrange the parts of something to make it understandable.” Think of how you find the right aisle for pickles in the grocery story, or ordering a “hoop hamper” online through Amazon. The choice of words used to describe the organization of information (and things) can provide clarity or confusion, depending upon how well the cues are interpreted. Covert explains that information architecture is like plumbing or electricity, as people only pay attention to it when it’s broken.

“Information architecture is the way that we arrange the parts of something to make it understandable.”

Many design decisions go into defining the structure of information. How broad or deep should the categories be? Are the labels too ambiguous or precise? Do people understand what the words mean, and does it jive with their mental model of how they’d expect to find something? Lastly, does the taxonomy serve the most important needs of the intended audience? Covert warns of the need to collectively agree on a lexicon of terms with stakeholders along with certain rules for its application, while keeping the words as simple as possible. Verifying their interpretation with potential or actual customers is a critical step in the selection of language that makes sense to all.

Design with, not for

Design is an act of collaboration with many “players,” including a plethora of stakeholders and end users. Inputs are gathered from many sources including observations, metrics, facts and opinions. Shedding light on the current reality helps everyone involved understand how big of a mess there really is. Asking difficult questions can reveal some hard truths, which Covert imagines in the form of scary trolls hiding in dark caverns. It’s not enough to know that the trolls are there; courageous action must be taken to thwart them. Covert refers to this process as “measuring the distance” between reality and intent. She advocates for defining shared goals to measure progress against and alleviate anxiety while building momentum.

“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.”

To untangle and “frame” the mess, designers have many tools at their disposal, including visual maps and diagrams that give shape to hierarchies, relationships, comparisons and flows. Information architects help others understand the current structure of information, and explore various options to solve the known problems. They interpret the needs of users and stakeholders, and filter possible solutions through the lens of the original stated intent.

People are complex, and information is subjective

What I love most about Covert’s book is her focus on the human dynamics at play. Data is not just interpreted by a machine that spits out the right solution, freeing all involved from the politics of decision-making; it is people, who bring with them the organizational memory of past failures along with their own preferences and opinions, who must weigh the options and constraints to agree on a direction.

“We listen to our users and our guts. There is no one right way.”

The bold headlines that summarize the intent of every page are carefully constructed of simple words that seem obvious. The repeated pattern could easily become tiresome, yet it doesn’t. Covert acts like a mentor, or yoda, that deconstructs complex, and sometimes emotionally charged problems into easily understood platitudes. The typography of the chapter introductions reinforces the power of simple words to convey meaning. Sense-makers seek clarity, an often elusive ideal that involves courageously facing reality and advocating for change.

Change is hard, and takes time

No matter how you slice it, change is hard. There are battles to be fought, criticism to be heard, and assumptions to be tested. Covert reminds us that information architecture is not glamorous work. In fact, if it’s done well, it’s practically invisible. Abby Covert’s words will help newly-minted and battle-worn designers alike take on the challenges of building empathy, serving many masters, and constantly preparing to adjust.

“When you see the world through the eyes of other people, you can spot weaknesses and opportunities for improvement.”

Photo credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr