How to make sense of any mess

Paul Boag

How to make sense of any mess ” is not your everyday information architecture book. It is so much more inspiring than that.

I have worked on information architectures for years. I know the difference between a taxonomy and a lexicon. I had used all the tools, done my dues running card sorting exercises and battled with clients over labelling.

To be frank I thought I knew all I needed to and found the subject boring. Then I met Abby Covert.

Abby has challenged my perception of information architecture andhow I perceive the world around me.
Abby has challenged my perception of information architecture andhow I perceive the world around me.

Abby talked less about structure and more about phycology and perception. Much of her approach was almost philosophical as she considers issues of cultural bias or the nature of reality. She made me realise that information architecture is about so much more than organising. It is about understanding the way people perceive the world.

You can imagine then how excited I was to discover Abby was writing a book. Yet when it was finally realised it still surprised me.

Despite all I knew about Abby, I still somehow expected a practical guide to information architecture. One that focused on web design. What I got was so much more.

Abby’s book didn’t just challenge my perception of information architecture. It challenged my perception of reality as a whole. She made me realise just how subjective my view of the world is and how hard that makes it to communicate clearly with another human being.

Abby’s book does not read like any web design book I have ever read. Not only is it as much philosophical as practical. It is also structured in an interesting way (as you would expect). It is a book you can dip in and out of. It almost consists of a series of proverbs. Standalone snippets of wisdom.

This is not just a book for information architecture. It is a book for anybody trying to bring order to the universe. That includes almost any digital professional from designer to project manager or consultant.

Get yourself a copy

Quotes to wet the appetite

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

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

It's often easier to think about how things were then or how they are now before proposing changes.

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.

One tiny change can spark a thousand disruptions.

In my experience, a list of things you don't say can be even more powerful than a list of things you do.

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?

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?

Perfection isn't possible, but progress is.

What we remove is as important as what we add.