Making sense of any mess with Abby Covert

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Web Show we are joined by Abby Covert who will redefine how you see information architecture.

Skip to the interview or this week’s links.

This week’s show is sponsored by the teams at Opera and Media Temple. Why wouldn’t they with Abby on the show.

Paul: Hello and welcome to, the podcast for all those involved in designing, developing and running websites on a daily basis. My name is Paul and joining me is Marcus. Hello Marcus!

Marcus: Hello Paul, how are you?

Paul: I’m alright actually, I’m recovering from the excitement that was the eclipse this morning.

Marcus: Oh I was going to talk about that – about Sod’s law and how it’s a perfect example of Sod’s law. I’m looking out of my window now at a perfectly blue sky, from one side to the other, blue sky. 9.30am this morning we got a 90% solar eclipse and I reckon there was about a mile of cloud above me.

Paul: I almost didn’t notice the difference.

Marcus: Yes, I wandered downstairs and I thought ‘Blimey, it’s a bit dark down here’ and then I thought ‘Oh yes, it’s the eclipse!’ And that was it.

Paul: But it was the most pathetic experience… I tweeted this actually, I tweeted ‘You know you are living in the wrong country when there is a 90% solar eclipse and you barely notice the difference because of the cloud and misery that is Britain’.

Marcus: I remember the one in 1999 well.

Paul: So do I! That was great.

Marcus: I was stood in the middle of Waterloo bridge in London with about ten thousand other people, watching it. And that was something else, it was a touch cloudy but you could see the sun and what was happening. But today it was just a massive blanket over. But it’s just typical, I’m looking out at a perfect March afternoon and umm, yeah…

Paul: Next one apparently is 2090.

Marcus: That’s right. I don’t expect I will be around for that one.

Paul: No. I don’t think even my Son would be. He was gutted, cause my Son is really into physics and astronomy and all that kind of stuff so he was really gutted. So yes, grrr to the weather.

Marcus: Yes, but you can go on holiday to places, if you are really, really into it, basically you can chase them around the world.

Paul: Yes I did tell him that and suggested that he might want to do that. So that’s good.

Hey, I’m grr for another reason as well.

Marcus: You’re back home?

Paul: Well I am grr for two reasons then. I am in a grumpy arse mood. So a) I am back home, and working at a desk which sucks. I’ve been to some gorgeous places. Well you know – your family comes from down there. It’s been lovely weather and we’ve been sitting looking at gorgeous views and I’ve been working and it’s been great and fun and home sucks.

And then I come home and I’ve got grumpy. I’ve decided not to be a partnership and I need to become a Limited Company and sort out Terms and Conditions and VAT and so I am filling in paperwork and it’s like ‘I hate the world’.

Marcus: [Yawn]

Paul: Exactly!


Marcus: That’s how much I care about that Paul.


Paul: You’re full of love and sympathy aren’t you?

Marcus: Absolutely. I did have something to say then, but I can’t for the life of me…

Paul: It’s probably something smug along the lines of ‘I’ve got Chris to do all that kind of stuff’ which I had for thirteen years and now suddenly I don’t.

Marcus: If you ask him nicely I am sure he will help.

Paul: Actually I found a really good accountant. She is doing most of it.

Marcus: But we are both utterly, utterly run off our feet.

Paul: Good!

Marcus: Made the stupid mistake of going to (sorry got something in my mouth – got a hair in my mouth) going to the Smashing Conference.

Paul: Hang on a minute, hang on a minute. You never get a Newsreader say that do you? Or some professional broadcaster doing that?

Marcus: I am not reading the news.

Paul: You’re not very committed to professionalism I don’t think.

Marcus: It’s meant to be natural this, Paul.

Paul: I’m hugely envious the fact that you went to Smashing Conference.

Marcus: It was really good actually. You always get a few talks where you think ‘Meh’ but the majority of them were great. Really good. And my personal conclusion—I will write this up but I haven’t got time at the moment—is the message from the conference was ‘Grow Up’. It was basically ‘stop doing frivolous things and bring the web to the world in a way that is good and quick’ and stuff like that.

Paul: Stop worrying about whether your icons are flat or not, and worry about performance and usability and things like that?

Marcus: Yes, that. Exactly that.

Paul: Good.

Marcus: Yes it was a good, a really good conference. Loved it. Lots of good things came out of it. I took lots of notes because I thought ‘If you don’t take lots of notes, you’ll forget all of this and you haven’t got time to write it all up at the moment’. So I have got lots of notes which I will share in a blog post sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Paul: To be honest if you don’t write it up in notes, the act of writing it down actually helps you remember.

Marcus: It does, that’s true. But there was so much in such a short period I’d think ‘Oh what was that one about?’ So I’ve got it all, so I’m pleased.

Paul: Good.

Marcus: It was very good and I said hello to Vitaly and Cat as I was supposed to, from you.

Paul: So you’re really busy, that’s good. I’m really pleased.

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: So this podcast has turned into a catch-up on what’s going on in Headscape, time.

Marcus: Yes it has. We’ve had the go ahead from a organisation, but I can’t talk about them yet because it’s not official.

Paul: Now this really is getting quite dull. Maybe this bit we ought to take offline?

Marcus: Yes, let’s take it offline. I’m not only busy because of the good news things coming in, I’m busy because I spent two days at a Conference.

Paul: Yes, see? Mistake. Never go away and enjoy yourself, it’s not allowed. He says coming back from two weeks waltzing around.

Marcus: Oh I know what I was going to say. Working behind a desk, you say working behind a desk sucks. I don’t agree. Because every time when the weather gets properly nice I think to myself ‘I am going downstairs to sit outside’ as I have a lovely garden table, a big parasol. And I go down there and the birds are tweeting in my ears, the wind is blowing…

Paul: … and your screen reflections…

Marcus: …and I think I have the perfect place just up there, that is set out all perfectly for me.

Paul: It’s a fine line isn’t it. It’s got to be a mixture of both because I go stir crazy if I am just sitting at a desk all the time, and I do like mixing it up. What’s been really nice in the motorhome is that we park up, I’m sitting in the motorhome at a desk actually, but if I just look over the top of my computer there is a gorgeous view. And if I want to get up and wander around, I mean, you go and make a cup of coffee, I go and walk along the beach for ten minutes.

Marcus: Yes that’s lovely.

Paul: So that’s what I like. But I do know what you mean, often times I’ve gone to work in the garden, and I’ve just got hot and sweaty and I can’t see what I am doing.

Marcus: You think ‘What am I doing?’

Paul: You think ‘I’m enjoying this, I’m British, it’s sunny, I WILL be outside’.

Marcus: Exactly.

Paul: Yes, absolutely. Hey let’s talk about Opera.

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: Opera are our sponsor – they are sponsoring the transcription of this week’s show. Because they are really into accessibility in a way that I really respect and admire. For example I am going to talk about Opera Mini for a moment. Get this. See we think of Opera don’t we as they are the ‘Also-ran’ people, there’s kind of Firefox and Chrome and Safari and Internet Explorer… oh yes, and there’s Opera. That’s often how we think about it. But actually when it comes to mobile, that is complete and utter bollocks. Just listen to this, these stats – it completely blows your mind. Two hundred and sixty million people use Opera Mini every month. In India alone, they’ve just reached fifty million people and for tens of millions of people it’s the only way that they access the web. They only use Opera Mini on their feature phone. Because they have got low power—obviously this is in developing countries—they’ve got low power feature phones that can’t run a full web experience and so they run Opera Mini instead because it’s very lightweight. And do you know how many different types… can you imagine the device testing for this? Opera Mini works on over three thousand different devices.

Marcus: Yep.

Paul: I feel physically sick at the thought of that.

Marcus: Well Bruce Lawson spoke at Smashing Conference talking about Opera Mini, talking about the Web and talking about why the Web is important. And for many people, people you have just described, the web is teacher, doctor, voice to the world and it needs to happen through a feature phone. So don’t assume your audience has the latest iPhone. Because it doesn’t.

Paul: And that’s why I get so pissed off at these people that go, say things like ‘We are building a web app so it has to be reliant on JavaScript so this progressive enhancement stuff doesn’t apply in our situation’. Bollocks it does!

Marcus: So grow up basically.

Paul: Yes, grow up! There you go – this is a perfect example of that. So the other thing I love about Opera Mini is that it renders and compresses data on the server. So often it compresses data by 90% so it can send it to devices faster. And cheaper because in most countries people pay per megabyte. My initial reaction is, well I don’t live in a developing world, because I am very narrow minded and very bigoted. If it doesn’t affect me, then I don’t care. But then it occurred to me….

Marcus: Doesn’t exist, does it Paul?

Paul: …no I’m very…

Marcus: I don’t exist because you can’t see me.

Paul: I presume you ceased to exist when I put the phone down to you. The whole universe revolves around me. I mean, fifty million users in India – that could be a made up number. I’m not convinced India exists, because I’ve never seen it. So how do I know?

Marcus: Probably time to stop now Paul.

Paul: Is it?

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: Right. If you live in India, I am very sorry.

What was I saying? Ahh, the reason this interested me—I am dragging it back to the point—was because when you go abroad, or even in this country, right? Because I have, as a family, we have about twenty five GB of mobile data in a month. We burnt through that in two weeks.

Marcus: Twenty-five GB? That’s unbelievable.

Paul: Yep.

Marcus: I have two gigabytes. I get two gigabytes free a month with my contract that I’m on and I use probably about 100 MB usually. I used a lot more because I went to Oxford for the conference this month, but usually sod all.

Paul: See that’s what I mean, because we were away in the motorhome.

Marcus: But twenty-five GB? What were you doing, downloading films?

Paul: Well no, I was uploading films actually because I was recording a video series for Spotify and each one of them was 500 MB. So that gets through it fairly quickly but yes, it’s disgraceful, we use too much data. But my point is, when you go abroad you have 100MB or something, a silly amount. I am so installing Opera Mini, because if it can compress my data by like 90% then that’s something that’s really good. It compresses video as well, which of course removes buffering which is really good.

It’s not just feature phones, you can also run Opera Mini on Android, IOS, Windows Phone as well. And then suddenly it becomes a lot cheaper and a lot faster by using their browsers. They’ve also just released a new version with Flexbox and CSS rem unit supports and lots of things that I don’t understand. And two hundred and sixty million users are automatically going to be upgraded to that. I just love that.

So if you want to find more about them and what they are doing, you can go to to find out details of all the features that they can support and how you can test and stuff like that. If you want to more about Opera and download Opera Mini then go to

We probably spent too long on that, but it’s really interesting.

Marcus: You have to ask me a question. You have to ask me ‘what is my default browser’.

Paul: What is your default browser?

Marcus: Opera.

Paul: Really?

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: On your desktop or on your mobile?

Marcus: On my desktop.

Paul: Ahh now we’re talking about mobiles this week, so you need to catch up.

Marcus: I know but last week I was going to download it and start using it and it’s my default browser now.

Paul: Wow. You liked it that much?

Marcus: Well, I don’t dislike it at all. I think would be the best way to describe it. It works a treat.

Paul: It’s invisible.

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: Yes, that’s the way you want it to be isn’t it. Anyway that’s enough about Opera. Now next week you have to have downloaded Opera Mini.

Marcus: Yes I can do that.

Paul: I ought to do that – I haven’t done it either. Anyway, we’ve spent FAR too long talking about Opera. Bruce will be very happy with us. Let’s talk about the interview instead. So this week we have Abby Covert coming on the show. Now I’ve got a problem with Abby – I’ll tell you about Abby in a minute. I couldn’t work out – every time I talk about Abby I get this kind of cool vibe. I’ve met Abby, and she’s very cool don’t get me wrong, but it seems disproportionate to her as a person. An almost like this kind of secret agent vibe off of her. And I couldn’t work out why.

Marcus: Is it because of her name is Covert?

Paul: It is partly that, yes.


My wife watches this thing called Covert Affairs. Which is about a young woman that looks a bit like Abby as well, who becomes a Covert Operative. And so I now just associate Abby with Covert Affairs. So I am really sorry Abby. Because actually she’s not – well she might be a secret agent for all I know?

Marcus: I bet she’s not.

Paul: Well… you don’t know. See I don’t know? She travels around the world a lot, speaking at Conferences – good cover. I think there is an argument to be made here.

Anyway what she pretends to be as her day job is an independent Information Architect. She also teaches at the school of Visual Arts in New York and is the President of the IA Institute.

Wow, she sounds important.

Marcus: Very.

Paul: Too important for this show. And she’s also author of the best book I’ve read for ages called ‘How to Make Sense of Any Mess’. And I’ll put a link in the show notes to her book. It’s definitely one worth reading. If you think you understand Information Architecture, you don’t. Read her book and then you will and listen to this interview as that will help as well. She’s a really cool person, very, very intelligent. Blew my mind reading her book, as you will hear from the interview.

Abby Covert

Abby Covert
Abby Covert is one of the most insightful voices on information architecture I have ever heard.

Paul: So we’ve got Abby joining us. Hello Abby, how are you?

Abby: Hello, I’m great, thanks very much for having me.

Marcus: Hello Abby!

Paul: So you’re in new York at the moment.

Abby: I am yes.

Paul: Is it as snowy as it seems to be everywhere else in New York?

Abby: Err yes, we had the snow ploughs out a few hours ago so it is walkable now. We’re not trying to shut down the city like we did last week, but there’s snow. It’s not a big deal.

Paul: I’m so envious. We don’t really get proper snow anymore do we Marcus.

Marcus: We got a little dusting last week and that was it.

Paul: Yes.

Marcus: We did get proper snow a few years ago. But then didn’t I read that there was a threat of life stopping snow and New York would be under twenty feet of snow, but then it didn’t really arrive. Is that right?

Abby: That is true. But I was flying to Copenhagen during that whole incident. So they cancelled my flight and I got to sit at home at watch as it did not snow, and we did not leave. So it was not great. But I think its better now. The city is very cautious about things ever since Sandy. So we definitely have weather anxieties I guess.

Paul: Yes I noticed that, that was the one thing that really threw me when I was in America last. Is where suddenly everybody around me got texts, including me of the kind of weather warnings. We don’t have that over here as we never get exciting weather.

Abby: Yes, that’s one of the more fun parts of being an American is getting those alerts on your phone. This time they actually sent it out at 11.30pm and so many people were in bed and suddenly all the phones in the house were going off with alarms and saying disasters!

Paul: Exciting stuff.

Abby: It’s interesting to watch. It was more interesting on the news than it was to live through.

Paul: I have got to say, no disrespect, that is a very American thing isn’t it. ‘We’re going to send a message to everybody’s phone in the world to tell them about this disaster’. While in Britain it will be like a vague comment by the weather man and that would be it.

Marcus: Well our messages would just be…. ‘Rain’. And the next day ‘Rain’.

Paul: It would be boring wouldn’t it.

Anyway we need to talk about the webby stuff. Because as you know Abby, I have recently read your book. Unlike Marcus, who hasn’t got round to it. Now, don’t feel bad Marcus…

Marcus: I’m feeling a little bit bad, I am terribly sorry. Of all the guests we have had so far, what you do is probably closest to what I do – or one of the things I do is close to what you do is probably the right way of putting it, so I probably should of. I’ve been otherwise engaged quite a lot lately, so my apologies.

Abby: No apologies necessary. That’s the reason to write a book, so it lives on and people can pick it up one day when they find the time.

Paul: So yes, I on the other hand, don’t do anything apparently and have time to sit around and read books. As I said in the review, and I’ll put a link in the show notes to that, I wrote it was a real revelation to me because it had this much broader picture of information architecture than maybe most people think of. So the first question I wanted to ask you was how do you define the role of an Information Architect? Where does it stop and start from your point of view?

Abby: I think one of the most important things to discuss around that question is this idea of defining Information Architecture versus the role of an Information Architect. I think those are a very different things and they come into play in different ways. So I’ll start with the Architect question, since that was what you actually asked.

From my standpoint, an Information Architect is a specialist that can go into an organisation or team and help them to think through the challenges that are brought on by looking across many diverse mediums and goals, intense personalities, politics what have you, and to come to a resolution with that team on the way that we are going to arrange the parts of something for it to be the most meaningful against the intent of the team. So if the team wants to sell more pancakes, we can rearrange the menu of the restaurant to sell more pancakes. If we want to get people to pick up the phone we can drive calls to a 1–800 number or a call-in campaign. It all has to do with taking what the medium is that is being worked with and sometimes realising that is more than one medium, being the web versus physical and being able to look across those things and work with people. And to find meaning and bring those things together because in reality users do not experience those things as much in silos as designers create them in silos. So as an Information Architect my job tends to be to look across those silos, to bring those people together and to have very honest discussions about goals and language and the structures impact on those things. So structures often do deteriorate your language or your meaning unfortunately when you don’t look at things holistically.

Paul: So you wanted to define Information Architecture as well, which I think is a very worthwhile thing to do. How do you define it from that point of view?

Abby: So the interesting thing about Information Architecture is that once you’ve defined it the way I think about it, it really turns into a retronym as opposed to a thing that was invented. It becomes something that has always been a part of being human in the way that we think of things. So I define Information Architecture as the way that we choose to arrange the parts of something to get our meaning across to others. Simple as that. So when we started to add page numbers to books, because we wanted people to be more easily able to reference things across books and too each other, we were practicing Information Architecture. When we published train schedules for the first time in support of this new idea of having something that had to run on a schedule we were practicing Information Architecture. And in the early days of the web when we realised that the hyperlink had dramatically changed what it meant to build a structure. Physically by moving it into this virtual space, we had this need that was very much filled by this idea called Information Architecture. And that’s sort of where we are at now.

Paul: Instantly you’ve kind of exploded out Information Architecture into a much bigger thing than most people think of it. Most people think of it as organising content within a website and you’ve talked about it as being essentially organising anything into some kind of structure. Now that then begs the question of, where does your job start and stop. Where are the edges of it? Are there edges of it?

Abby: I mean I feel like I can put a pretty clear edge on that I don’t design objects. So for example I don’t design the final thing that a user holds very often unless that user is a designer. So I make a lot of maps for business people, I make a lot of maps for designers to work with, for writers to work with, for technologists to reference in teams. But when it comes to the final thing that the User is touching I do not specify the interface, I do not pick the colours, I don’t decide what’s an icon and what’s not an icon. I have those discussions as part of my job with the people that make those decisions, but it is not my craft, it is not my specialty to make those decisions. And I try to remain respectful of that because otherwise it does get into a situation where there is a lot of opinions and a lot of rooms, so I try to not be an opinion on anything except for structural resilience and the quality of what we mean.

Marcus: It may be stating the obvious but information is the key word and information is everywhere and not just on websites, it’s all over the place. So you can be an Architect of Information as you said, relating to things like books. I probably should know this, but I don’t know who coined the term. Where does it come from? Do you know Abby?

Abby: Yes it was quite an academic paper back in the late sixties, I think it was ’68 and then it was brought more into a rebirth I would say by Richard Saul Wurman bringing it up at the American Institute of Architects. So they have an annual meeting, similar to the IA summit that we have, real Architects have those too. Richard Saul Wurman was heavily involved in chairing that conference and he made the theme of the conference the architecture of information, along with his opening address. That was far before thoughts of it being applied to digital space. He, along with anyone working at that time, knew what the impact of the computers would be on what they were doing, but he was still talking about it in terms of things like books and museum displays and experience design in that real life sense of the work as opposed to the digital life sense.

Paul: What I find so fascinating about this is that you say that you don’t interfere in the design process, or you don’t do the design, you don’t set the colours etc, but when you talk about Information Architecture in the way that you do, it really does touch on so much. And one of the phrases that you use in the book and you used it in the talk when I first heard you speak is ‘Going down the rabbit hole’ and finding out where that takes you. Do you want to explain that a bit, as I love that concept?

Abby: Yes, so I mean I try to talk to my students pretty openly about the fact that Information Architecture is something that even if you’re not an Information Architect specialist, you’re going to be practising it as part of your job otherwise you are sort of working on the surface level. And the idea of understanding that getting past the surface I think is best representative in a metaphor of finding these places that other people don’t necessarily want to go. Like subjects they don’t want to open up for discussion, these cans of worms they are often referred to as. And often those are actually the key to the success of the resilience of the system over time. So I really encourage designers and technologists and business people alike to get more comfortable as we get into the mushier cross-channel world of finding those things and going into those rabbit holes of crazy and saying like ‘Woah, what is down there? What are we actually dealing with?’ Because I do find there is a lot of anxiety that keeps people out of the hole but there is also a lot of resolution that can only be found once inside of it. So that’s where, I think, you have to strike a balance. You don’t want to drag your entire team down a rabbit hole just because… because it’s Thursday. You want to have a reason, but it does turn out that a lot of times a lot of conversations end in ‘Well we don’t want to go down that rabbit hole’, or ‘We don’t want to open up that can of worms’. And then six months, nine months, twelve months later, those are the problems that teams from the outside are being brought in to fix. Because they didn’t go down that rabbit hole, and therefore they decreased efficiency, scalability and resilience over time.

Paul: I see the other aspect to that as well is that we sometimes turn around and say things like ‘Well it’s not my job to interfere with that’. And that was the other thing that I picked up from your book and hearing you speak, that you can’t approach Information Architecture in this silo manner and you need to just pursue it wherever it takes you. And it can take you to all kinds of strange places.

Abby: Yes, and that’s why I stated before, I don’t like to, I try not to have opinions about what’s going on as much as possible. Just simply because my job is to wrangle all of the opinions so why would I add one more to the mix of the mess that I’ve already got to deal with. Because in a lot of cases that is the reason to bring in a specialist as opposed to have it live only in the generalist process. If you bring someone in from the specialist standpoint, they are able to ask those hard-hitting questions. And in some cases, I am sent into rabbit holes and asked to report back and say like, ‘Hey how bad is it down there? Is it like really bad – do we have to send a whole team, or can you come back up and tell us what’s going on?’ And there is value in that.

Paul: So where do you feel, if you are talking to somebody maybe that’s not doing Information Architecture fulltime, but it’s an element of their job. Where should they be focusing? Where is either the real points where good work can be done, or the real dangers that can be encountered?

Abby: The first thing I would say is if you’re practising Information Architecture at your desk by yourself, you’re probably not getting anywhere. So that’s a big clue. Information Architecture as a practice is much less about the tools and more about the process and the questions that you are asking and the collaborative decisions that are being made so I would definitely encourage anyone who is doing information architecture as part of their process to really see if the collaboration part is being done at that point in the process. Because what I see a lot of times is that something like a site map or a flow diagram won’t really be collaborated around and it will just be set by someone at their desk alone, in the diagram and then it will be presented. And that presentation is almost like a statement of work, like an agreed-to scope of what’s going on. And the problem is that often times that’s met with a ‘Wait a minute, how did you get here? What made you put that box there? What made you choose those arrows to connect those two boxes together? Tell me that process.’ I feel often times, that we miss that step and we end up getting into apologetics and critique on a document that really shouldn’t be created until some of those baseline conversations are had and work-shopped through.

Paul: That’s interesting, you talked about conversations there, talked about workshops and you talked about process. Talk us a little bit through about…ok so it’s got to be collaborative to produce Information Architecture, it’s a collaborative process. But how do you do that? Do you meet with stakeholders individually? Do you get them into a room, work-shopping with them together? What’s the best approach there?

Abby: I just got back from doing a Consulting engagement where it was pretty typical of my process. I can give you that as an example.

So leading up to the first time that I’m ever going to meet these persons at all, I would have a set of stakeholder interviews. I usually do those via Video chat so can at least get to know them, sometimes voice is the only option so we go with that. And I really focus those conversations not on scope, but on identifying problems. Like the real emotional stuff. I ask them about what keeps them up at night. I ask them about what the biggest challenge is to getting their goals done for the year. Things like that – I would say very Management Consulting type of questions.

And from there I am usually able to get a pretty good overview of what’s going on and how many rabbit holes I might be dealing with. And the people I am talking to at that point are generally in a larger organisation either at the C level or Senior Director Level. And generally from there I am usually told some differing perspectives on certain things that are pretty crucial. I’m usually also able to identify from those conversations efforts that have been done in the past that have impacted as a result of those conversations not being had or resolved. So with that, I can lead them through the first set of workshops. I try to get it into two days which is humane and I also really like Thursday/Fridays so that people have one half of their week as work and then the other half, so they are totally dedicated.

So I like to get as many of the decision makers as possible into a room together and then we really start talking about goals from the standpoint of you each have individual goals. And this company has goals, but the thing that we’re building is an ecosystem of digital and physical things that is supposed to meet all of those goals and so we need to bring it together to see where the overlaps are. So through some guided exercises about goal setting – I like to use a tool called Performance Continuums which I recently wrote a blog entry about last week on how I teach those to my students, but from that activity I am usually able to get to a place where I understand the differing perspectives, I can see the holes in their language just through the way they are verbalising it and then at the end of the day one they usually feel like ‘Oh holy cow, we actually do have a mess – we kind of knew that… but’. Usually the person who brought me in is very aware of that… but to bring everybody into that moment of going ‘Oh, there’s a lot here and yes there are a lot of cracks in between the things’.

And then day two is really about developing whatever taxonomies they need to serve the needs of what we talked about on day one. So for this particular company it was… they have an ecommerce situation and they have grown to a global brand pretty quickly and their ecommerce has not grown with that. And so we had to work out some sort of strategy for them to prioritise the markets that they are going to reach with an ecommerce redesign effort in the next six months, nine months, and eighteen months out. And that’s a conversation that they had been trying to have in lunchrooms and the last ten minute next steps of meetings that they have been having for months.

I didn’t invent these problems for them and I didn’t invent the ability to solve them, but the facility to getting them there does tend to be my job.

And then it’s drawing what they said. By the time I get back to my desk I am documenting. I am not making decisions.

Paul: Yes that makes a lot of sense. There’s one kind of ‘Yeah… but’ in there. I always look for the ‘Yeah…but’s’ and the one ‘Yeah…but’ that comes to my mind that I know we struggle with from time to time and I know that a lot of other people struggle with, is getting at the right people. You talked there about that you were doing interviews with C-suites, that kind of thing in quite large organisations. How do you succeed in doing and more importantly, how do you then get them to block out two days of their time in workshops?

Abby: That is the hardest part of my job. Honestly, and to be honest I don’t do a great job of doing that myself, what I do a great job of is waiting. I have a company right now that I started talking to in December and we know that we want to work together, we know exactly what we want to do objective wise and they would love it if I would just do it for them. But I won’t. I just won’t. So I work with my clients very flexibly and do tend to get sent to Copenhagen on the red eye to a meeting and it can be a little bit intense sometimes but sometimes the stakeholder interviews will take months to pull together. And that’s just the length of the engagement. I think that is actually probably one of the biggest pieces of advice I give to my students is ‘Be ok with realistic timing’ because it’s the way organisations like that work. They have their own pace. Even in large start-ups that I’ve worked with, it can be really hard to get everyone into a room.

But for the company I started talking to in December I got a note from them yesterday that they’ve blocked out two days at the end of May and I’ve got plane tickets and they are ready to go.

Paul: Wow.

Marcus: Excellent.

Abby: But I have to wait until the end of May so it’s like a bit Tetris game with my Management Consulting life, but that’s also very unique to the way that I choose to run my business. So I don’t know how much of it is like me versus anyone else.

Paul: It sounds like to me, the key of what you were saying there, is not so much of waiting but it’s the refusal to do it any other way. Basically to say, ‘Well this is the way I work, I can wait, I can wait. You get people in the room and I can be there’. Rather than the pressure to ‘Oh couldn’t we just do it with these people?’

Abby: ‘Couldn’t I just jump on skype?’

‘Couldn’t I just give you an hour?’

‘Could we just fit this into half a day?’

‘Couldn’t you just come in on Thursday and leave Friday?’

I’ve heard it all and to be honest with you, that is part of the sales job of running your own show is going through that process. It’s not necessarily the fun part of the job but what I do know is that being an Information Architect is much like being a coffee filter and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how good the filter is. If the coffee sucks, it’s going to suck.

I don’t like to put any time on my side in, until they are ready to do the work.

Paul: Yes, I like that. I like that a lot.

Marcus: So do I. And I wish we could do that. I’m impressed by that a lot. Because what often happens is ‘If you want this job we have to have it done by X or Y’. I’ve often said, as Paul has, you need to learn when to walk away from things, maybe I am not as good at taking my own advice as I should be. Possibly.

Abby: How you best work, I think you really need to look at that over time and see the impact. Look at the last project you got with a rush start date on and think about if I had done it the way I wanted to, in the timeframe I wanted to, would it be better? And just ask yourself that honestly. Because there might be things that you’re demanding from a timing perspective that aren’t necessary and maybe that lengthening is something you could let go of. So maybe there’s a compromise between those things.

Paul: I see a lot of it comes down to actually, like you say, it’s a sales job. It’s making the client realise that if they don’t put the work in, it’s going to be inferior. And convincing them that ok, there may be other people out there that are saying ‘Oh we can take this off your hands and make it all wonderful’.

Abby: And there are, there absolutely are.

Paul: It’s convincing them that that isn’t the truth of it, that it will be better if they put in the effort.

Abby: And it’s not something that ends at the sales job unfortunately, it’s actually an attitude that needs to be carried through all those activities as well. I ran into something recently where we were in a taxonomy discussion in one of those workshops and there was a pretty core disagreement that one of the people in the room had a slightly higher title than the other person that was in differing opinion, and leading them through the conversation of ‘No you’re not going to say whatever. You’re going to put your point out there and we’re going to have a real discussion until there is resolution here’. I think that takes courage more than anything.

Paul: Yes.

Abby: I feel I have been working more on courage than diagrammatic techniques for much of my career.

Paul: That’s the other thing that struck me is that the kind of work you’re talking about here and the kind of people you’re interacting with, it needs a certain self-confidence and a certain… it’s not easy is what I am getting at. These kinds of people can be relatively intimidating people. They are Senior Management, mainly middle-aged men of a certain age. Do you find that that’s an issue from your point of view?

Abby: No, I’ll be honest, that doesn’t describe my reality. I’ve worked with a pretty diverse set of people over the course of my career but I would say that people do come in with their own frameworks of the world and the way that the working world specifically works. Especially if you are on the side of the organisation that is more management and you’re making major decisions for the way other people’s time and other people’s money is being allocated. There is like this wall that you have to break through with those people sometimes, to let them know ‘Hey you’re not being judged on your opinions in this meeting. You’re being judged with your ability to collaborate and help us come to resolution’. Because there are a lot of cultures that in corporations, and the larger the corporation I have noticed the larger the corporation this is, to have your hierarchy create this system of intimidation around opinions and decision making and who’s in the room changes the conversation and kind of stuff. I do deal with that more than the demographic realities of organisations.

Paul: Oh that’s encouraging. So if you had to—this is kind of a dumb question, I am almost embarrassed to ask the question—if you had to identify one secret source to doing solid IA work, the one thing people really need to consider, what would you home in on?

Abby: Question asking. I think that we are, at least in my design education I was not taught to properly ask questions. It took me a really long time working internally, externally both from the Consulting and Agency perspective, to understand the impact of asking good questions. And also the implications of asking bad questions. So I do find a lot of my time with my students is spent on that.

Paul: I think there was another element that I picked up from the book that I find very enlightening was this idea of language and how language is very open to interpretation and misunderstanding. So it’s not only the question asking, but it’s also how to interpret the answers correctly. Is that a fair comment?

Abby: Oh yes, for sure. I think one of the most important questions you could ask somebody in most situations you would find yourself in design is ‘What do you mean when you say that?’

Paul: Yes.

Abby: Because I don’t think we ask people that enough and often not only is it – if you’ve never been asked that at work, it definitely throws people off. But I think it is really important for us to get underneath the difference between the content we are putting out and the information that lives in other people’s heads and the only way to do that is to ask and to really use whatever objects we need to have that conversation deeply and thoughtfully and not just talk with our hands and ‘Aha’ through it.

Paul: That was the thing that kept coming across when I first heard you speak is this idea of all of the time I’m digging deeper. Not presuming you understand the situation too soon and not settling for the first thing somebody says but to actually dig under the surface.

Abby: Yes, Richard Saul Wurman said brilliantly that ‘It’s the journey from not knowing to knowing’. I really feel that is what I try to instil not just in my work, but the work of whatever team I am talking to. If you walk into the first meeting thinking that you know the answer, how deep are you really going to go?

Part of that is the responsibility to say ‘I don’t know the answer and that’s ok’. And people don’t always feel very comfortable with not having the answers to things. You’ve got to make a safe space where it’s ok to not know.

Paul: Also I think people sometimes struggle with you as the expert not knowing the answer going in. There’s this expectation that you’ll have the answer that you’ll know what’s right and what’s not right in a particular situation rather than you’ll have a process that gets you to the answer.

Abby: Yes, I think that between people believing I know the answer but won’t give it to them and people believing that there is a pattern that will always work, those are the big monsters in my IA closet. And I am like ‘Oh God, this again?!’ Because both of those things, it’s not going to happen. I am not going to tell you how to do it as I don’t know any more about your business than you do. I will help you figure it out though.

Paul: That’s a really good point. That thing of they think you’re hiding the answer from them. It’s almost like ‘Oh we’re going through this Consultancy process because they’ve got to be seen to be open and collaborative and including people’ and you’re going ‘No, no, it’s because I really need to understand what’s going on here!’ It does my head in.


Abby: No, there is definitely a moment where exactly that happens in the meeting. There is that moment where somebody realises ‘Oh you actually ARE doing this in real time, you’re not just fattening us up for the kill later’. But I do think that there is a lot of agency theatre that goes on. I’ve definitely seen a lot of that, I’ve been part of that in my past. The dog and pony show of bringing out the Decks. Decks on parade. But I don’t like to have much of a part of that anymore.

Paul: So that brings me nicely onto the last question really which is, is there actually best practice in Information Architecture or does it vary so much between audience and company requirements that essentially you are feeling your way every project?

Abby: I like to assume at the beginning of every project that it will be the special snowflake that it wants to be. But I also do find that there are times where the examples that exist out there are useful to either lean on or replicate entirely. I mean there is just not that many ways to cut something when you are working with the same materials, the same business model and the same type of organisation. But I will say that doesn’t happen very often. Unless you are working in the same vertical for competitive clients, I don’t see a lot of lift and shift going on in my work.

Paul: Ok, that’s good.

Abby: But what I do see is that the craft kind of overtime of practicing Information Architecture, you do get into the groove of certain diagram types being good at proving certain points or certain documentation techniques being more well received by certain types of organisations. So you learn those things over time, I would say. More than the patterning of the actually way you are arranging their stuff.

Paul: I guess as well you build up a toolkit of approaches and methodologies that help move people towards the final deliverable. So even though the deliverable itself necessarily have any standard model or best practice, maybe there is a set of best practice in how you move towards that deliverable? Is that a fair comment?

Abby: Sure, there’s absolutely ways to diagram thoughtfully and diagram not thoughtfully. Those things are definitely teachable and they are skills that you can glean. Oh if I could rid the world of bad diagrams…

Paul: Now I’ve got to ask the follow up question, but you’ve raised that.

Marcus: I want to ask a question as well.

Paul: Let me do mine first, then you can do yours Marcus.

What makes a bad diagram then?

Abby: The audience of the diagram not understanding it.


Marcus: But people nodding because they are embarrassed that they should understand it.

Abby: Oh I see it all the time. I also see a fair bit of designers judging diagrams for their aesthetic appeal and not realising the inherent value in the diagram. I see ugly technology diagrams that from the design mentality are actually quite useful to the technologist that they are meant to communicate with. I think that being able to separate your ‘what looks good’ from ‘what is good’ situation with diagrams is a really important first step.

The second is sloppy. There are sloppy diagrams and there are neat diagrams and I have not yet found a way to prove this point, but I don’t see much need in the world for sloppy diagrams. Make your lines straight. Make your boxes straight. Align stuff, clean it up, everything will be better, everyone will understand more. Maybe I will disprove myself at some point, I might find a context for a trashy, messy, sloppy diagram is actually better. Who knows?

Paul: The only scenario I can ever think of in regards to that is that sometimes if it is too neat and too tidy, people think it’s too set in stone to change.

Marcus: And they might judge the aesthetic quality of it as well.

Paul: Go on then Marcus, what was your question?

Marcus: Yes, sorry to add another question that you don’t know about Abby.

Abby: Oh I’m so excited!

Marcus: Whooo! This is going to be the best question you’ve ever been asked.

Because I kind of fell into doing IA work, I am just interested to know, you mentioned you had design training and you also mentioned that you teach people and I’d like to know a bit more about that too, but how did you end up doing Information Architecture? Were you a Graphic Designer before? Basically how did you end up doing this?

Abby: So I went to school to undergraduate for Graphic Design and I actually focused in Typography but I was also recruited in my second year of undergrad into a programme called Multimedia Studies which I guess dates me a little bit. Maybe the kids are still saying that word – Multimedia.

Paul: I don’t think they are!

Abby: No I don’t think so. But essentially what it was, was a trial programme where they took two Graphic Designers, two Photographers, two Music Technologists, two Programmers and two Animators and they put us all in a lab that was exclusively ours for two years and we took special classes together that was across those disciplines and then we took our own classes within our disciplines. And our main drive was that we were supposed to create something together as like a small company would at the end of it. So we made an interactive video game. I was the environmental art director for that, so I created all the digital places within the game, including the way that they looked as well as the visual styling of them. So that was my education side.

I learnt about Information Architecture from my Print Design teachers so I took a class called Information Architecture which the main deliverable was a poster that was breaking down a complex thought topic into something that you could teach to people looking at a poster on the street. So those kind of words were thrown around but I never thought I would come out of school and become a professional Information Architect. That was not something that was brought to my attention until I graduated and I was hired by a company via Craigslist to design a set of icons for banking software in Bermuda. And that sounds about as sketchy as it is. I was paying the bills with icons at that point, it was my first job out of school. And when I went to go give them the icons the Technical Architect had photo-shopped the icons into the interface to show me and I got really upset. I was just like ‘This is not usable, I don’t know what you guys are trying to get across here but this is not the way I would do it. Icons don’t make sense here, and by the way, the whole way the software looks and this doesn’t make sense. I can’t see being any part of this’.

And the project manager asked me if I knew what Information Architecture was and I said ‘Of course I do, I’m a print designer’. And he said ‘No, no, no’. And he gave me the Polar Bear book.

Paul: Really?

Abby: He did, yes. I was 21 years old and I was standing in an Office Park in New Hampshire and three weeks later I started my first day as an Information Architect at that Consultancy. They wanted to take a chance on me.

Paul: I need to put a link in the show notes to the Polar Bear book just in case people don’t know what it is.

Abby: Ahh yes, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld.

Marcus: I’m slightly disappointed though I have to say because basically you did a load of stuff that trained you up, as Graphic Design, training etc and you kind of fell into doing Information Architecture but really didn’t have a connection. I was hoping you were going to tell me you went and trained in Information Architecture.

Abby: No I haven’t done that, not yet.

Marcus: Neither have I. You’ve mentioned that you teach people – who are you teaching? What is it part of, if anything?

Abby: So I teach at the School of the Visual Arts, here in New York City and I am part of a programme called Products of Design. Products of Design is an amazing programme, very small – we have sixteen students this year and their focus is on learning the way of the design world as to opposed to picking a specialty. So they are taught some classical industrial design skills around working with physical materials. They are taught interaction design and screens, they are also taught to cook and sew and sculpt and paint and things like that. So it’s very renaissance. So in their second year, their last semester, they have me as their thesis teacher. So we have instead of a classical thesis programme we have Information Architecture as the way that the thesis comes together and they are asked to publish a book of twenty-five thousand words, describing their intent and their work. They have to give a twelve minute TED-style talk and they have to produce a three to five minute video about their work and the relationship it has to the industry that they are working within.

Paul: That’s quite a thesis there, if I may say so. That’s quite a lot you’re asking from them.

Abby: They’re given a year, typically thesis is the last semester, but they are given the full year. During the first semester they are finding their topic and finding their way through to a more resilient point on that topic. And by the mid-term defence, we have that at the end of the first semester, the faculty from their next semester comes in to evaluate their progress, give them some feedback. And when they come in for the next semester, being their last, all their classes are actually around their thesis. So they are taking a screen-based interaction design class where all of their project work is around their thesis. It’s all individual work towards that body, they are taking a class I am so jealous of, on futures. So futuring and speculative design and once again all the work that they do is towards that. They are taking a wonderful experience design class with Emily Bolt which resulted in some amazing, amazing experiences last year. One of my students opened a Super-Hero Training Gym and another did an Ice Cream Shop that was meant to teach people how to have safe sex.


So it’s really fun. I absolutely love my teaching.

Marcus: That’s fantastic.

Paul: We could carry on forever.

Abby: I know, I could go on about my students for at least another twenty minutes, so you need to cut this off.

Paul: Yes, well we told ourselves we were going to stick to forty minutes for these interviews. I could talk to you forever, Abby. It’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show.

Where can people find out more about you?

Abby: and I’m always on Twitter.

Paul: Oh yes, as we all are. Right thank you very much for coming on the show and hopefully we can get you back on the show in the future to talk about some of this stuff in more depth still. But thank you very much.

Abby: Thank you so much for having me.

Marcus: Thanks Abby.


Paul: So you have to go out right now and buy her book. Because it’s brilliant. Have you read it yet Marcus?

Marcus: Of course I have.

Paul: I thought you had – you read it before the interview didn’t you?

Marcus: No I haven’t read it at all.

Paul: Oh right.


You so should do. It’s a brilliant book and it’s short as well.

Marcus: Well I’ve kind of got it from the horses’ mouth, you know?

Paul: But it’s not as good as reading it. A forty minute interview with Abby, amazing though she is obviously, doesn’t go into as much detail as the book. And also in the book you can highlight things and quote them at people in an aggressive manner when they don’t agree with you.

Marcus: There was a guy at Smashing Conference, the first guy to speak… who was talking about basically reading and it was good stuff. Christopher Murphy. His talk was ‘A good writer is a good thinker’. He was basically saying that you need to read stuff on stuff you don’t think you need to know about.

Paul: Yes! Yes, yes, yes!

Marcus: Like he was using the example of economics. And Maths, and Music and stuff like that. And all this kind of thing will make you pretty much better at anything you do.

Paul: Oh I’ve been saying this for so long. This is a pet subject of mine. I am fed up with Designers and Developers only ever read the latest JQuery Plugin. I mean, how many tutorials can you read on JQuery? How many articles can you read about Design Inspiration? Go and read something else, read something about psychology, sales, economics or whatever.

Marcus: Psychology, anthropology, economics, pricing models, maths, heuristics I have written down here.

Paul: I love them all. Yes great. I’ve never read anything on maths so that might be pushing my luck a bit.

Marcus: I don’t know – it is fascinating stuff, maths.

Paul: I know, I’m not saying it’s not fascinating I’m just saying….

Marcus: …it would hurt?

But yes he also mentioned a book that I will be buying called ‘How to read a book’ by Mortimer J Adler.


Paul: I think I might have to buy that. I’ve got such a long list of books I want to read. I never have enough time.

Marcus: Ditto, and my problem as I was discussing with Chris the other night, I’m very naughty about only reading story books because I love them so much.

Paul: I know.

Marcus: And I’ve just kind of got this endless list. I’ve got probably six books waiting and I just go from one to the other, to the other. And am I going to break that with a book on economics?

Probably not.

Paul: I forced myself for a while to alternate. And then I got lazy again and started going back to science fiction books. It’s not good. Not good.

Marcus: I’ve discovered a new author by the way.

Paul: Oh yes?

Marcus: A guy called Neil Gayman.

Paul: Oh everybody knows Neil Gayman.

Marcus: No they don’t.

Paul: Yes they do.

Marcus: No they don’t, because I mentioned him to someone the other day and they hadn’t heard of him.

Paul: Neil Gayman is one of the most well-known British writers.

Marcus: Well he’s new to me.

Paul: He’s good friends with Terry Pratchet. Oh wasn’t that sad.

Marcus: Yes, he wrote a book with Terry Pratchet actually, I haven’t read that one yet. But basically I am going through the Neil Gayman books and they are fab.

Paul: Yes he’s awesome. He wrote a Dr Who episode but you won’t care because you don’t like Dr Who.

Marcus: I don’t watch it, so no.

Paul: No. Can I talk about MailChimp? Not MailChimp, no – we’re talking about MediaTemple. That’s embarrassing. I’m good at this, honest.

Marcus: Very professional Paul.

Paul: I discovered yet another service MediaTemple offer. I say I discovered, because MediaTemple are rubbish at giving me points to talk about so I make up my own.

Marcus: Oh right, so this doesn’t actually exist?

Paul: No, I got it from their website. I didn’t make it up. ‘MediaTemple offer a…’

Marcus: …free cakes!

Paul: ‘free cake and free hosting and free everything that you can imagine’. Just go to and email them and say ‘Paul says….’

Don’t do that.

So I will tell you about the real services they offer. They’ve got a team of people that are dedicated to helping you move your site. Because that’s a big pain in the arse moving from one hosting environment to the other. You literally just fill in the shortest form in the world and that’s all you do. The next business day they give you a ring, they ask you a few questions, have a chat with you. They then work out what the best platform is for you to be moving to and then that’s it! And they do it all for you. No downtime on your site whatsoever, $150 per site you do it on, but this is real people doing it manually themselves to make sure it’s right, not some fancy automated service. And they’ll also help you move away from MediaTemple if you want to.

Marcus: What? Well they are getting paid, so…

Paul: Yes. So if you decide ‘Oh MediaTemple isn’t right for me’ for whatever reason, then they’ll help by doing it for you.

Marcus: The naughty person in me hopes that they mess it up every now and then.

Paul: What just on purpose? ‘You bloody leave us, you’ll pay the price?!’ You’re a bad person. I’m sure they are much nicer.

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: So I thought that was a cool service to offer. I really like that a lot. And also if you’re unsure, like one of the problems is you might be thinking ‘Well I’ve got quite a specific server configuration, is it going to work if I move across onto MediaTemple?’ The great thing about using this service is that they’ll tell you whether or not it will and look at it and identify it for you. And so if they say they can’t transfer it because it’s not compatible you don’t pay anything, so I think that’s awesome. So $150 per site I think is an absolute bargain.

But of course you’ll also need your MediaTemple hosting with them unless of course you are moving away from them! But if you are moving to them and you want this deal to help you out, you’ll need your hosting as well and you can get a special discount on your hosting, using the Promo code BOAG for 25% off your web hosting! So all you need to do is go to Temple and enter that promo code when you sign up and then you’ll be able to find as well this site transfer service at the same time and it will all be glorious and wonderful. So there you go!

Marcus: Woop!

Paul: Sorry?

Marcus: Woop.

Paul: Woop? Is that all you’ve got to say on it? Woop? Anyway, Marcus, joke time.

Although, I need to warn you. I got the transcription back for last week’s show. You remember we were talking about Tommy Cooper? And I made the mistake of saying to Meg who transcribes it, I said to Meg on the show, go and find a nice video for Tommy Cooper to include in the show notes.

Marcus: Right.

Paul: She got a bit carried away.


And I think wasted several hours researching Tommy Cooper. So she put this little note in the bottom of the show notes that I have left in, saying she now knows every joke you are going to say between now and the end of the season.

Marcus: Well this isn’t a Tommy Cooper joke.

Paul: Ahh I was hoping. So you’ve shown Meg her come-uppance and proven you have a wider repertoire than Tommy Cooper.

Marcus: Yes this is from a friend on Facebook. And it’s my favourite joke for a long time.

Paul: Oh you’re really bigging it up.

Marcus: I know, I am bigging it up, and I think it’s more of a joke that’s better written down than said out loud, but hey, I am going to say it anyway.

‘It’s hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs, because they always take things literally’.


Paul: No, I don’t get it.

Marcus: They always take things… literally.

Paul: Oh right!


Paul: I’m sorry, that is entirely my fault. I always get this vague moment of panic when you tell a joke.

Marcus: Oh shit, am I going to get it?

Paul: Yes, if I don’t get it I’m just going to look really thick and everybody’s going to be going ‘Oh honestly Paul, it’s so obvious’.

Marcus: It’s a joke when you go ‘Huh and then Ohhh’.

Paul: No it’s a good one, and it’s not a Tommy Cooper joke.

Marcus: Well it might have been, but I don’t think it was. (italicTranscriber edit: It is! It is! And I got it straight away!)

Paul: It doesn’t sound like…well it does, it’s got that short snappiness. But it sounds a bit too intellectual for Tommy Cooper. Tommy Cooper was just silliness.

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: Anyway, you want to know who’s on next week’s show don’t you?

Marcus: Who’s on next week’s show Paul?

Paul: And I’ve actually looked it up this time. And it’s Aarron Walters.

Marcus: Oh I remember speaking to Aarron.

Paul: Yes, Aarron is from MailChimp hence, I said MailChimp when I meant MediaTemple earlier. And he’s coming on and he’s talking about branding and personality and all that kind of stuff so I think it’s going to be a really great interview. So tune in for that next week, episode 13. Unlucky for some, probably for us, so there you go.

Marcus: Bye!