Making sense of any site's mess

NEW YORK--”How do you make sense of any mess?” That was the first question information architect Abby Covert threw at the audience last December 10 at the Designers & Geeks meetup at the Spotify offices.  

 

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That is the challenge in a world faced with increasing amount of complexities. “No two people have the same understanding of information architecture. That’s how challenging mess is,” she said.The obvious hurdle is also about how Information is not something you can put up or down.

 

Information architecture, she said, is how we arrange parts to be understandable as a whole. She suggests looking closely at language:

  • How many words are you using in your organization.

  • How many duplicative nouns does your team deal with?

  • How many duplicative verbs are related to those nouns?

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For the first bullet point, think about how you want to use, say, edit or modify--and figure out if they are the same thing. Controlled vocabularies (Covert’s term) or what publications call style guides can help a company speak with a voice that is theirs to learn.

 

Going by nouns or verbs, she cites how “one label per noun or verb is not always the best way to go. Simplifying is not the goal. The goal is to know what you mean when you say what you say.”

Covert said she actually gets hugs when she helps companies control their vocabularies. The trick is to write down the words you don’t use and not to use words used by competitors.

To start a controlled vocabulary, she suggests going through this exercises:.

  • Identify & define nouns first

  • Identify nested nouns

  • Eliminate duplicative nouns

  • Attach verbs to nouns

  • Beware of adjectives

But nothing is going to happen if organizations wait for someone to do this. Covert suggest you “be the one to slay the semantic dragon in your organization.”.

 

It’s also crucial to know "there is no right way" if you talk to anyone that deals with information architecture.

 

For someone who likes to organize stuff, Covert said she argued with her partner once about how to organize their vinyl records. She initially argued why it should be by last name but later found out how most music-streaming sites actually use the first names of artists.

 

“Taxonomy is rhetoric,” she said. “That means what matters is reaching your goals.”

 

What tools can you use to organize your thoughts? “Card sorting is a good step. This means using Post-Its, for instance. Pictures also give people something in common to point to. Visualize something that is hard to explain. “I use Omnigraffle for word association,” she said.

 

Other thoughts she tackles, which comes in her book, “How to Make Sense of Any Mess”: “Be careful of reductionism. Acknowledge complexity. With agreement comes momentum.”