Making Sense of Any Product by Abby Covert

BY CHRIS MASSEY ON JUNE 10, 2016

When people think about Information Architecture, they often think of walls covered in post-it notes and whiteboards covered in notes and diagrams. But these are just tools that represent plans and ideas and, more importantly, they’re a way to get into people’s heads and represent the information they’re working with.

Information is a ‘material’ that we build ideas, models and products out of, but it’s a tricky material to work with. Information doesn’t necessarily bear any relation to “truth” or objective facts, as it’s made up of perceptions extrapolated by observers. This also means that information is not the same thing as content – but we can make content, and carefully arrange it in a way that triggers the perceptions we want.

Information architecture is the practice of deciding how to arrange something to support a specific intention, and we can use it to consciously position our products better, and improve our customers’ (and colleagues’!) experiences. In this talk from Mind the Product San Francisco, Abby Covert shares some of the ways you can make sense of any product. She is an independent Information Architect, the author of HOW TO MAKE SENSE OF ANY MESS, teaches information architecture at The School of Visual Arts, and is also the current president of the Information Architecture Institute.

Three Lessons to Help you Make Sense of Any Product

1) Language Matters

This sounds like a simple thing, but it’s often the hardest lesson, and is the single biggest information challenge in most organisations – an insidious proliferation of names for the same thing! This may sound trivial, but here’s where it gets dangerous: without consistency of terminology and meaning, people can start to believe that there are different things in your product and organisation, when there are simply different labels. That might mean that your scope falsely increases, clarity decreases, and frustration mounts for your teams and your users (especially when you need to start doing things like translating all 14 terms for the same thing into 5 different languages!)

Model Differences v.s. Label Differences

To start pinning down your terminology and building clarity, you should focus on the assorted nouns, objects and verbs used in your products first. Find synonyms, and think about reconciling them on a case-by-case basis. It’s a great way to kick-start the sense-making process.

But bear in mind that one-label-per-noun / verb is not always the best way to go. You may need to use different language for different audiences and contexts, for example. The Goal is not simplifying for the sake of it – it’s to be aware and open about the duplication, and to be deliberate about your language so that different labels don’t result in different models in your code.

Controlled Vocabulary

Controlled Vocabularies are a powerful tool, and a simple one to create. Simply get your teams and stakeholders together and start building a list of specific words you use in your product – just a list, no fancy software or structures. What’s important is that it becomes a canonical list, so people can’t just add things to the organisation’s terminology without first consulting it and the people who made it.

When it comes to Products, language is a building material shared across the whole business, so this is an opportunity for teams to think about how their choices have effects across the business and on users. You’ll find legacy terms, industry jargon and internal language liberally sprinkled around your organisation, and their elimination can make major differences to everyone.

2) There is No Right Way

It’s crucial to remember that ininformation architecture – and this whole process of inspecting your product – it’s not about having a “right” way. It’s about having a meaningful conversation about how to organise things in whatever way makes sense for your product and your market.

In most contexts, a taxonomy is a tool of rhetoric, not an exact science. In the context of fresh fruit and vegetables, for example, there is a correct scientific way to classify everything in the supermarket, but it’s not a useful classification for grocery chopping. As a counter-example, if you’re trying teaching school children about the classification of plants, then the scientific taxonomy is the way to go!

The taxonomy you choose says something about your product, so pick the taxonomy that best suits the needs and intentions of you and your customers. Don’t inherit it from other systems or the sense that “we’ve always done it this way”!

To dig into this, you can kick start a conversation about other ways you might conceivably organise your product. Don’t expect to dig in and find a good solution right away – the discussion is a generative exercise to explore many alternative ways of organising your product. Get people to let go of there only being “one way”, and then choose the most appropriate way to structure your information (ideally with input from customers).

3) We Need Pictures

Visualisations give us something common and concrete to point to when explaining concepts, and can accelerate conversations. Drawing pictures helps us articulate – and maybe even adapt – our mental model of something. We need pictures that allow us to discuss complex things without people having to rapidly and continuously build & adapt mental models, as that not only prevents them from focusing on the conversation, but no two mental models will be alike.

That said, it’s important to remember that visualising complex processes takes time! In some cases, it can take weeks and months to explore all the aspects of a process, capture all the information, and try and give it some visual structure.

Don’t Simplify Unrealistically

Be careful of reductionism. If you try and take a highly complex set of ideas and process, and represent them in a beautifully clean, simple picture, you’re liable to be communicating an overly-simplified version of what’s going on, meaning that the reality is much more complex and messy, meaning that your diagram isn’t going to be much help. Make sure you orient your diagram to inspire realistic, not simplistic decisions. Sure, it’s harder to look at, but it’s also appropriate for it’s purpose.

And if you’re not sure, there is a simple test to tell if a picture is needed to explain an idea: if someone is gesturing with their hands while they’re talking, then they have a picture in their head that should be shared! If people are reluctant because they “can’t draw”, then draw a diagram yourself and share it around as a starting point for folks to disagree with and correct.

Creating clarity and intentionality in the information represented in your product is a hugely powerful process, and it will help create a better experience for your users, and your organisation. It will help you all reach agreement faster, and agreement drives momentum.

And Remember…

  • Talk about the language you use in your organization
  • Show an alternative way of organizing your product
  • Make a picture of the monster in everyone’s head

Information Architecture is for everyone, and the person who picks up the marker is the person who often ends up owning the product. If you’re willing to start the process, you can become the filter that people channel their ideas through.

About CHRIS MASSEY

Chris Massey has been marketing B2B software products to developers for 8 years, building communities, content and publishing platforms along the way. He's an editor for Mind the Product, as well as a fan of JTBD, JFDI, and JEDIs.

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