No matter who you are, your world is more complex and more information-packed than ever. To learn more about embracing the messiness that comes with design and innovation, we interviewed Abby Covert, author of How to Make Sense of Any Mess, a book that serves as a comprehensive guide to information architecture, written in a way that’s useful for everyone, even if you aren’t an information architect. Covert wrote the book after more than a decade practicing information architecture without a book for her students or clients that summarized what information architecture is, and why it is important.
Covert also saw the need for an “army of sensemakers,” or people who could be prepared for the information-based challenges they would face living and working in today’s world. “I believe that information architecture is the right framing of theory and practice to prepare someone to make sense of any mess they might face,” said Covert.
During our conversation with Covert, she helped us to see information in a new way, setting the stage for us to be able to “wrangle any mess” that comes our way.
People Architect Information…And Messes
To get more comfortable with the idea of making sense of complexity, it helps to have a better understanding of “information architecture.” Information architecture is all around us, from signs on the street, to systems used in a dictionary, to the labels used on a restaurant menu. Information architecture influences how we arrange the parts of anything to make it more understandable as a whole. It’s also a critical step in the process of constructing any new product or innovation, and directly impacts how we synthesize observations and learning, how we present or display our stories or prototypes. It even influences how we evaluate and build-on our evolving concepts or models.
In her book, Covert succinctly defined information architecture as tools and concepts that help people make sense of messes made of information (and people). Information architecture helps us arrange things to make them understandable, helping us navigate messes caused by misinformation, disinformation, not enough information, or too much information, said Covert.
When asked what “information” is, and why it matters, Covert added that as a concept, information is as old as collaboration and language. In other words, this idea of information is no fad or trend. She was also quick to point out that many times organizations use content, data (or even information) interchangeably.
“Data is facts, observations, and questions about something. Content can be cookies, words, documents, images, videos, or whatever you're arranging or sequencing,” wrote Covert in her book, giving an example of jam and jelly on a shelf to further explain: “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.”
Information is Subjective, Not Objective
Covert points out that information is not a thing, a foundational assertion when it comes to synthesizing information so we can better understand and create for consumers.
We have to start making the shift to understanding information as whatever a user, or consumer, interprets it as—and not seeing information as what we think or want them to interpret it as. “It’s a thing that’s in your user’s mind,” said Covert. “What ends up happening is companies assume that if the content exists, users will understand it, or, if one set of users understood it, then all users will understand it. What ends up actually happening is that perception is forgotten and not talked about in a business context very often.”
Regardless of the amount of time you may put into creating touch points with consumers, if you haven’t thought about the perception, and the information that the content will result in, you may not resonate with consumers. We may arrange things with the intent to communicate information with consumers, but we cannot actually make that information.
One of the core tenants of information architecture that applies to better understanding consumers is a mental model. “It is [key] to understanding how perception really works when it comes to throwing content around and hoping for the right information to land in the minds of your consumers,” Covert told us. For example, there is denotation versus connotation of words that you use. “If I say the word ‘cheap,’ for example, the definition of the word ‘cheap’ is much different than the connotation that the word ‘cheap’ leaves in somebody's head.”
Once again, that requires us to know the perception of various things in our consumers’ minds. It also might require mapping out how stakeholders perceive a product or service, and the surrounding experience and content being associated with a brand. “It’s important to think about: how do people think about your product or your service or the content that you're making, and how might that differ from the way that your stakeholders or your designers or your technologists might think about it?”
Meaning is complex, demographic and subjective to consumers, stakeholders, partners, and those close to the brand.
“Admitting that we can't rely on anything objective when it comes to perception [is important],” said Covert. We can think through, “If my consumers think about it this way, and my stakeholders think about it that way, where do we actually land with the implementation?”
Covert hinted at the importance of gaining empathy for deep consumer insights, also recognizing how there’s also a sort of politics of sensemaking for any business unit or organization: “Politics and the perception within an organization of what users believe, without a lot of research basis, can actually end up in making things that are based on the wrong mental model.”
Reduce Linguistic Insecurities
Reducing linguistic insecurity can “force” us to get close to consumers to either test or validate any assumptions about the perception of a brand or service.
Covert’s advice for teams is to deal with language and verbiage ambiguities at the beginning of a process so that as a product is developed or built-upon, language and word choice isn’t just ignored until the very end. “Actually get all of the people involved in your project into the same mindset to think about language,” she said.
“Paying attention to language at a very non-specific to the interface kind of way seems really simple…but ends up being quite complex and very often ignored in practice,” she said. “Start to make lists of words that you use, and get into the semantic arguments that are inherent in being human, because a lot of organizations actually ignore them. The marketing people say one thing, and the technology people say another thing, the designers say a third thing, and the users are completely confused as to which one is correct, and all three end up on the interface.”
A multi-functional group can first examine the nouns they use. Then they can work with their verbs and “always be very, very shy with adjectives,” she said. “If we can actually focus on what the nouns are—what are the objects, the tangible things—and then what are the verb, what are the actions, that users can take on them? Then we can get to a point of clarity that you wouldn't be able to get to when you're swimming around in this huge sea of language that's not very easy to parse.” Instead of delaying those conversations (and decisions) until later in the creative process, teams are now able to align on one model, instead of having various models, and competing ways of articulating those models that do the same thing.
Throughout the process, keeping the consumer, and the consumer’s perception, beliefs and attitudes top of mind is critical. Also be sure any language or verbiage decisions are then used across all teams and partners, in addition to being used with consumers.
Making the Unclear, Clear: Every One of Us Is Responsible
And this reflects one of the key lessons from Covert meant for product managers to product designers to technologists: if we are in the position of creating products for others, the architecture of information that we choose will greatly affect our ability to deliver our intended message and experience to consumers. This is a concept that’s not going away. If we think harder about the information we architect, we can have greater success in making sense of these messes we will eventually encounter.
About Abby Covert
Abby Covert, author of How to Make Sense of Any Mess, specializes in delivering a highly collaborative information architecture process and teaching those that she works with along the way. Abby speaks and writes under the pseudonym Abby the IA, focusing on sharing information architecture content with those working within the design and technology communities. She teaches information architecture at The School of Visual Arts, Parsons: the New School and General Assembly NYC. Abby prides herself on being an active organizer and mentor within the IA community. She currently serves as the president of the Information Architecture Institute and as an advisor for the Information Architecture Summit. Find her website at abbytheia.com