Clean up your Mess: Working with IA – Abby Covert on The Product Experience "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs November 11 2021 False Information Architecture, The Product Experience, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 7704 Clean up your Mess: Working with IA - Abby Covert Product Management 30.816

Clean up your Mess: Working with IA – Abby Covert on The Product Experience

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Back in the dark ages of web design — back when the job title Webmaster was a thing — every team included someone who specialised in Information Architecture (IA). These days, that work is often considered to be part of UX, but that can mean that we’re not doing the job well enough. Abby Covert joins us on the podcast to chat about why IA is important, how and when we should work with Information Architects, and how you can incorporate the principles and lessons from the discipline into your work.

Featured Links: Follow Abby on LinkedIn and Twitter | Abby’s Website | Abby’s first book ‘How To Make Sense Of Any Mess: Information Architecture For Everybody’ | Pre-order Abby’s forthcoming  book ‘Stuck: The Purpose, Process And Craft Of Diagramming’ | Max Cohn’s ‘Karl Marx Visits The Cheesecake Factory’ | IHOP’s omelette pancake batter secret feature at Huffington Post

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Episode transcript

Randy Silver: 

Hey Willie, I’ve learned something really important from our guests today.

Lily Smith: 

That’s really good, Randy. I mean, it’s sort of the point of the entire podcast. But why was today’s so special? Oh,

Randy Silver: 

it’s not every episode that I learned why the omelettes at the Cheesecake Factory are so damn good. And also from either suit and evil,

Lily Smith: 

hadn’t Island kind of what the Cheesecake Factory is, I may need to actually visit one to totally understand why it’s important to you to though. But I also learned some things that are actually quite relevant as well. Like what information architecture is, and how we use it in our everyday product lives, and how we can make sure that it’s good.

Randy Silver: 

And we also learned about how many words for video one product had before she got involved. Yeah, this was a really fun conversation. And it’s because we’ve got author and Information Architect Abbey covered here today.

Lily Smith: 

So enough blathering on from us to about what’s in the interview. Let’s just prioritise getting straight to it. The product experience is brought to you by mind the product.

Randy Silver: 

Every week, we talk to the best product people from around the globe about how we can improve our practice, and build products that people love.

Lily Smith: 

Because it mind the product.com to catch up on past episodes and to discover an extensive library of great content and videos,

Randy Silver: 

browse for free, or become a mind the product member to unlock premium articles, unseen videos, ama’s roundtables, discounts to our conferences around the world training opportunities.

Lily Smith: 

Mind product also offers free product tank meetups in more than 200 cities. And there’s probably one way Hi, Abby, it’s so nice to be talking to you today. So before we get stuck into the chat, it’d be really great if you could give us a quick intro into who you on what you do and how you got into it as well.

Abby Covert: 

Sure, well, first, thank you for having me, this is really awesome. I’m excited to talk to your audience about information architecture. So a little bit about me, I am an information architect, I’ve been practising for about 17 years now. When I went to university, it was really more with the expectation that I would come out with a print design degree. So my information architecture education started from that standpoint of thinking about hierarchies of type and form and colour and the use of language to communicate meaning was very much like, you know, relegated to the rectangle of paper that I was currently designing. When I got a little later in my education, I started to understand that those same principles were really applicable to the digital world. And by the time I got out of school, rich internet applications had taken over the world and everything was really changing and information architecture was a very needed skillset. So I got into the elevator of this field pretty early. At that point, there were a couple books that were out there about that practice, there were a lot of mailing lists that were forming and conferences, and I was able to kind of jump in there and really create a place for myself as being a person that could take all of that really heavy, more librarian focused information architecture content that was coming out from like the University of Michigan, and sort of marry it with this graphic design sensibility and the simplicity of meaning and kind of like crystallised focus. So I went on to write a book that’s called How to make sense of any mess, it claims to deal with any mess. And I hold true to that so far, I haven’t come up on one that really stumps it. And yet, for the seven years since I’ve been working for clients doing information architecture work, most recently, I spent the last four years as the information architect for Etsy. And I was pretty much the one of the founding team members that brought graph knowledge to that billion dollar business. So that was the biggest mess that I faced in my life thus far. And now I’m facing a next mess, which is I’m writing a book about diagrams that I hope to have out early next year. So yeah, that kind of catches us up to now.

Lily Smith: 

Amazing. Thanks, Avi, it sounds like you are definitely the go to person to talk about information architecture. But before we kind of carry on with the talk, just explain a little bit more about what it is because you’ve kind of alluded to it a little bit about making sense of mass and triangles and

Abby Covert: 

sure, information architecture, if you really take it down to its basics. It’s the way that we organise something to make sense as a whole. And if you just sit on that definition for a beat, you realise how many things that really applies to so that’s the structure and order that you place pages in a book. That’s the number of pages and the names of those pages and the content that exists on each of those pages. on a website, that’s the signs that you might use to direct people through an airport. And all of those things kind of underlying share the same basic principles of ontology, which is what does, what does the thing mean? taxonomy? What does that thing classify as? And then choreography, or topology? Like how do people move through that space. And so with those kind of three basic tenants, you can sort of look at any experience architecturally, and sort of draw out the information.

Lily Smith: 

And so I kind of had some experience with information architecture early on in my career, where it sort of seemed to be like, more fashionable to be talking about it. And you know, how these kind of trends come and go. But now, it seems to be a term that doesn’t come up as frequently. And also, a sort of role, I guess, that the designer or the UX person might take on is to think about how things are structured and how, what language we use and things like that. So how have you kind of seen it change over the years? And like, what’s your sort of view on where it should sit now as a function?

Abby Covert: 

Yeah. So I think it’s really interesting, if you think about information architecture, as the way that we arrange things to make sense as a whole, that means that it wasn’t created to manage technology. That means it wasn’t created to manage books, that means it was sort of like baseline humanities stuff, you know. So that kind of creates a quandary from the marketability of it as a thing in the tech world. So it’s, it’s a fundamental part of what every product manager, every engineer, every designer, every UX researcher, all of those people, it’s a fundamental skill that all of them are bringing to the table. And words and structure tend to be the materials that we all share. And so we can get into these really weird situations where, who decides how to divide the pie? Who decides what to call the things? Is it the marketing person? Is it the product manager? Is it the UX designer? Is it the engineer that wrote it into the database, all of those IAA decisions are left up in a lot of cases, to chance, right? So one of the things I like to say about AI is that you can’t have you can’t take it away, and you can’t add it, right. It’s like it’s always there. So you make it through the decisions that you make. So for companies that are fighting user experience fight that many of us are fighting daily, without thinking about information architecture, you’re probably not gonna get very far, but because it’s such a restaurant, and you don’t have to call it that to think about it, right? Like you’re having information architecture conversations all day long, you just don’t know to call it that. And like, when you talk about the structure of the navigation, like you’re talking about a taxonomy, but you don’t need to know that word in order to do that job. Well, right? You just need to know that things need to be structured for people to make sense, right. So that’s, that’s sort of I think, the crux of the the marketing issue that I would place information architecture into having is like, when the user experience field was born, which was very much born from the, from the community back in the day, if you like, look into the, the way that it works is like the interaction design community, the HCI community and the community all merged into, like the UX community. Well, when that happened, all of the roll divisions, stuff started to really come up. And it became like, what project is big enough that you have somebody who’s just responsible for the structure and the language. So you know, you have to look at it from that standpoint, like how big is your mess, if you have that you can draw in one diagram, you probably don’t need an Information Architect on your staff. If you’re a billion dollar business, that’s trying to figure out how to go from a purely taxonomic way of looking at things to the wild world of graph knowledge. And you want to do that without somebody with that responsibility. Good luck to you, you know, good luck. That’s that’s just where it goes. Because the incentive becomes the medium if my incentive in the organisation is to make that make sense. And that is my only incentive. I am different than people who are incentivized to ship products or people that are incentivized to serve the user, shipping products and serving the users can often be at odds as an information architects, I find myself coming into the middle and going, Hey, we actually have to serve both, we have to ship products that serve the needs of users. And that’s hard because product managers are like, well, but how do you know what’s going to serve all users, you can’t prove that it’s going to serve all users and the user experience people were like, but it can’t be all marketing, it can’t be all marketing, it has to actually have value to an actual person and so that that jam up in the middle. For years, we’ve called it the messy middle. And I think that that’s a really apt term.

Randy Silver: 

Okay, you’ve used the term graph a couple of times I’d like to get to that. But just before that, you’ve kind of made the case for having an information architect and made the case for not having one and I think it’s the same thing around product where there’s, you know, huge fun And most of Harry’s really gonna be talking about product owner is not a job. It’s a role that people play. And it sounds like what you’re saying is, in most cases, if you’re not big enough, if your message isn’t big enough, information architecture is a capability that the team needs. So where do we start in getting that capability? What do you know, if we, if we’re not big enough, if we’re not funded enough, if our problem is messy enough, where’s where’s a good place to start to make sure that we have a decent grounding in the capability across the team.

Abby Covert: 

So this is the interesting thing about the naming challenge, right? If the name goes away, the investment in education ultimately goes away, too, right? Like if companies aren’t buying information architecture by the name, then information architecture, as something that’s invested in from the content perspective starts to go away. What happens then is that people who are in situations where they face these incredible information, architecture challenges, they don’t have the words to type into the box to get the things that they need. And so we ended up with this, like really suburbanized internet, as a result, where you see people purely stealing the information architecture of their nearest competitor, right? It’s like, we’ll go look at all the competitors, see how they did it? And then do it that way. It’s like, Well, did you ask if they paid a dude on Fiverr? To do it over the weekend? Like, you got to be really careful of like, who you’re copying? How do you know it works? Yeah. And how do you know that it works for your user. So I think that like at the end of the day, that’s the advice that I find myself giving is not like, go get yourself a library degree and become an information architect or hire an information architect. It’s talk to your stakeholders and your users about words and structures, and have real conversations about how those things get in the way of whatever you’re trying to get done. And it really is that simple, and that hard, all at the same time.

Lily Smith: 

Okay, so just to clarify, we shouldn’t be stealing our competitors information, architecture, their navigation and Stop, please stop.

Abby Covert: 

That’s how we got mcmansions. Everybody architecturally speaking, this is how it happened, right? It starts with strip malls and ends with mcmansions. And like, we’re in a strip mall territory, everything kind of looks boring, and the same, but it’s getting gross. It’s getting really gross. So stop it, stop it out there. Stop it.

Randy Silver: 

Okay, so you, let’s get into graphs. And as you mentioned a couple times, and I mean, I know what a graph is, but I think you’re using that word in a slightly different way. So let’s disambiguate. What, what do you mean by graph from an audio perspective?

Abby Covert: 

Yeah, sure. So when you think about the organisation of information, things tend to go into different patterns, right, you have hierarchies, where there’s a category, like a parent, and then it has children or things within the category. So like, let’s say you had a product catalogue of clothing. And then within that you had a category of pants and shirts, and then you’d have items within those categories. That’s a hierarchy, right? But let’s say that you wanted to do something better than that, right? Something that customers are starting to expect, for example, this shirt goes with these pants, if you wanted to do that, you would be breaking the hierarchy. So there’s ways that you could do that, that would be super kouji from like, just replicating the hierarchy standpoint, you could make hierarchies for outfits, and then manually do that. Or you could start to understand those items at their attribute level, and then attaching things at that attribute level to other things. So you could say, blue shirts go with blue pants, for example. And so that, that idea of moving from hierarchical only, or, you know, heterarchy go only to graph based knowledge. Yeah, it’s a big concept that a lot of companies have been doing for a really long time. And a lot of smaller companies are finally getting the tooling to actually be able to get into the space, which is really cool and interesting.

Lily Smith: 

You kind of mentioned this earlier about how if your information architectures is wrong, and I mean it in the sort of the broadest sense of like, you know, you’re getting bits wrong across your business, across your language and your structure and stuff, then it you know, it’s going to have a huge kind of negative impact on the on the business. But like, how do you measure the success of it? And how do you sort of understand the failings of the information architecture that you’ve got?

Abby Covert: 

Yeah, I think that that’s a critical question. I believe that when that question is asked, people want very much for there to be like an answer that is going to always work. And it sucks that I cannot give you that answer. But what I can say is that there are almost always metrics that you can use. those metrics are a combination of qualitative and quantitative metrics in a lot of cases. So that’s something that you have to take into account. Along with qualitative and quantitative you also have to be looking for metrics that are above the line and below the lines like what the customer is actually seeing versus like, what’s happening in the back of house is in a lot of cases, the information architecture challenges that I work on, you know, they’re systems that are, you know, pieces of software, talking to other pieces of software. Talking to API’s that talk to other people’s software, like, there’s a lot going on there. So I think that it’s really important to acknowledge that, you know, there’s a lot going on there and that we need to kind of get in and look at all of those connections and look for the place where people are slipping through, like, what is the intended path that you want people to take? Where are they falling off, and what’s getting in the way there, I mean, often, it really does take looking at data to find the hole, and then going to the place where the hole exists on purpose with a bunch of users and watching them fall into the hole. And usually I know that they’re going to fall into the hole way before I’m done with the test. But I have to like produce 10 hours worth of footage of them falling into a hole before somebody will give me the money to fix the hole. So yeah, that’s that’s really what it comes down to is like, figure out what’s the number that isn’t moving the way people want it to move, and then move that number. And I’ve had it challenges that are about raising conversion rate. That’s a pretty common one, obviously, in e commerce. But I’ve also had ones that are like, get off this website and pick up the phone right now. Which is not necessarily one that you think about. We’re here all the time in in product management and e commerce. So yeah, there’s a variety of ways. I mean, one of my most favourite projects I did when I was consulting was redesigning the International House of Pancakes menu system. I’m not talking about their website menu, I’m talking about the piece of glossy paper on the table. And you know, we were able to see a sales increase store by store by replacing that menu system. So that’s real money. You know,

Randy Silver: 

God, I haven’t been to an AI hop in years, mostly because I live in the UK now. But next time I go, this is really fascinating to take.

Abby Covert: 

I learned so many things, I tell your your listeners a little secret for a reason that their omelettes are so delicious is because they put pancake batter in them. So just know that. Like, if you’re gluten free

Randy Silver: 

is so good and so bad. And so many

Abby Covert: 

I know No, I know exactly, exactly if you’ve eaten it, and I hope you understand.

Randy Silver: 

Okay, so that’s one practical example. I want to hear about a couple of other practical examples of things. And I saw a talk you did where this just lets go with flabbergasted I, how many words for video where they’re being used to work? Well, I am curious how many words for video? Could you actually come up with off the top of your head?

Abby Covert: 

Oh my gosh, okay, here, let’s see if I can do it. Let’s see. Okay. video clip. real moment. Past, ah, yeah, I got to five, with like seven years of distance from eventually there were I want to say 13 or 14 was the number that we landed on. It was wild. And that was really interesting, because that was a very small company. It was a company that when I started working with them, they were less than 200 people startup. But they had recently acquired two other startups of approximately the same size or a little bit smaller. And they had fully functional shipped products out there all on different channels. So like one of them was like the Android Market corner. One of them was the iPhone market cornered, and then the other had the web cornered. And so they all merged. It was brilliant from a strategy perspective, nightmare. From a product perspective, think about that merging all that language, all of that customer support, the marketing, all those verbs, it was a nightmare. So it really was a challenging assignment to go in there. And basically like excavate out all of the language like I went in on a verb hunt, and I just went looking everywhere I could find it, I interviewed their customer service reps, I looked in the scripts that they used on the phone with their customers, I looked at all their emails, I looked at all the navigation, all of the interface links, and I just ripped everything out and made a huge Association map of all of it, so that we could go into a room with all of the product owners from all of the products and decide a direction and then we could figure out what the like multi year strategy to move all the way towards that direction might actually look like and then we had to go train everybody that this is actually going to happen and we’re really going to make all of these big changes. So yeah, it was it was that was a wild wild example. But a really common one I think that a lot of companies see and you know kind of skirt under the rug instead of dealing with

Lily Smith: 

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Randy Silver: 

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Lily Smith: 

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Randy Silver: 

So I’m curious, from a philosophy standpoint, I often go into companies that aren’t necessarily that excited about product or agile. But what they do care about is doing it right. And it’s they have an allergy to terms rather than an allergy to two concepts. And I tell them, I’m an agnostic about what you call this. So well, you know, I’ll use your vocabulary or your terminology, in what’s important is is how we do it. And that’s not customer facing, but when you’re dealing with with the teams and the organisation, is that the approach you take? Or is the actual terminology really important?

Abby Covert: 

In terms of teaching, like the background, and the academics of information architecture, I spend zero effort trying to enhance my co workers understanding of those things, unless they show interest, like, I have not yet had an assignment where somebody on that team didn’t show themselves to be a total nerd and want to get in on this stuff with me. And they end up going to the conferences and, you know, doing the whole thing. But no, for the most part, I don’t think that the words matter as much like I don’t, I don’t have any interest myself in selling information architecture as a brand, or like a framework or like assault, because it’s, it’s a basic human skill. Like it’s something that my almost three year old son is doing right now downstairs with his blocks moving around to make sense to himself. Like, it’s just not, I don’t think that it can be that fancy, because it’s too big. If that makes any sense. Yeah.

Lily Smith: 

So if we think about trying to define like the perfect IAA for your business, yeah. What are the ways in which you go about that? I mean, we kind of mentioned earlier about how, you know, you look at metrics to see where there might be problems, and you try and find the holes that people are falling into. But, you know, I’m thinking about sort of the businesses that have like you say, libraries of information, so like masses, amounts of organised products, or you know it for ecommerce businesses, or lots and lots of data available that can be read or Yeah. How do you experiment with that? Like, how do you begin to learn what the best structure is? Because obviously, if you are, if you have lots of data, or that needs to be organised, and you have lots of customers, people are gonna think about things in different ways. So that just feels like a huge challenge. Yeah.

Abby Covert: 

Yeah. So this is this is basically the reason that I wrote the book that I wrote, because I think that like, the idea is just so grandiose, you know, that like, you’re going to go and I think that a lot of people in approaching information architecture from that academic standpoint, or just from hearing about it from a business standpoint, want that that perfection, and you can’t have it, just like any other thing in this life, you cannot have perfection, but you can have progress. And I think that like that’s the message that my book has. So the book is organised into seven chapters, and it’s also the seven steps of what I would deem a process if you were to go through one should you read the book, you’ll find that it’s much more process in the Yoda like way of leading you through the philosophy behind information architecture, so that you can practice it yourself. But essentially, it really comes down to like, step one, identify the mess, like where’s the hole? What’s the thing? What’s the thing that’s making you angry? What’s the thing that’s making you sad or frustrated about whatever it is, the advice I have there is like it can’t be everything you can’t you can’t identify the mess cannot be everything is wrong, everything hurts and everything is on fire. Like you have to get more specific than that. And by getting more specific, you already have started to do the hard work right? Because often that’s the stuff that people stumble on the hardest they they live in this like mental model monster cavern where they’re like all of these huge problems coming for them all the time. And like sometimes you just have to step outside of that onto a piece of paper with some colleagues by yourself whatever it takes to identify what is the actual thing that you’re facing right now. Then step two, you state your intention tell us what you’re gonna do about it. Like what do you actually want to do? And like how far do you need to get then face reality? What do you actually have to work with? Like, step three is all about like yeah, you have a lot of grandiose plans but like q2 is almost over what are you going to do you know that kind of reality? Then you choose a direction you pick where you’re gonna go and you say like this is done we’re gonna do this we’re moving this way for progresses sake. Then you measure the distance you figure out, Okay, what are the metrics like right now and if we get to where we go, are we Want to go? What will they look like then ideally, then you play with the structure. Like once you have a set of metrics that you’re trying to achieve, there’s still like 70 million ways that you could achieve that objective. Right? So that’s when you start to get into, like, what are the structural ways that we could play with? What are the technical tricks of the trade that we can implement? What are the interface things? What are the, the challenges of connecting all the bits together? And like, what are the options, and then finally, step seven, prepare to adjust because none of that is going to work out the way that you planned it, even though you did a really good job thinking it through, it’s still going to be something totally different than what you expected. And so you gotta get ready for that part two. Yeah, so that I think that that’s like, for me a realistic cap capitalization of like, what is what does it mean to practice IAA?

Randy Silver: 

Okay, so on the metrics and the measurement side of it, easy, is there an objective measure of good IAA? Or is it purely subjective is in terms of it does help us achieve the goal and that makes it good?

Abby Covert: 

Yes, correct. Yes, yes, that’s exactly correct. There is no such thing as an objective Li good information architecture. And this is why as an information architect, it’s really hard when people want to see that and I keep saying, not doesn’t exist. Like I can tell you the stories of the information architectures that I’ve been under the hoods of, but I’m only gonna be able to tell you one perspective on it right? In my perspective is only crystallised in one moment in time. I mean, I have example is a great one I wrote about on my blog recently, that the hot menu was redesigned in COVID times, and it’s now a disposable print on the laser printer in the back office, single sheet of paper. I mean, when I worked on that project, getting them from a 15 page glossy spread down to 12 was like, I mean, throw me a ticker tape parade for getting it through. But times change, right? The reality of the situation changes. And the reason I bring it up is because there was this big article about like, praising that they had done this thing, and it was so great for the business and COVID times for the franchise owners. My menu, the one that was ticker tape parade, just like you know, seven, eight years ago, it was described as a 12 page, laminated monstrosity in the press.

Randy Silver: 

Have any of these people been to the Cheesecake Factory?

Abby Covert: 

Oh, my gosh, have you seen the Cheesecake Factory? Somebody? I think McSweeney’s has a cheesecake factory menu thing from last month. That’s amazing. Please look that up.

Lily Smith: 

I feel completely out of

Abby Covert: 

my debt. Okay. Do not work on a restaurant menu project if you ever want to eat out and be happy again, because like restaurant menus are the worst the pits

Randy Silver: 

Oh, here in the in the UK. Now they’re all done through QR codes. And you just look at it on your phone. So

Abby Covert: 

Oh, that’s so smart. See, see times they are changing. Never get comfortable with the tools or the the models like they all change. But the process doesn’t like the way that you think about the things doesn’t tend to change.

Lily Smith: 

So one of the tips that you gave in one of your talks was around having it was more around the kind of language side of things and having what you called a controlled vocabulary. And is that basically just like, oh my god, I forgot what you called them the list of words and then what they mean.

Abby Covert: 

Yeah, yep. dictionary. Yeah, it’s a dictionary for your context. So there’s, there’s this really interesting I mentioned at the very beginning, where we’re talking about the what information architecture is, there’s this concept of ontology? Well, I think that the way that people, at least in my teaching experience get ontology is by comparing it to lexicography. So lexicography is like writing lexicons. I want to write a dictionary. Well, to take a lexicographical perspective on a term is to find all of the meanings, all of the various meanings of what that could mean, to take an ontological point of view on that same term is to define it within context. So to say, for your business, that’s what this is. A good example is like, think about the like button, like on Facebook and in social media platforms, fundamentally change the lexicographical perspective on life as a noun, like right and was it a noun? Before social media, it wasn’t like the idea of a like, only had to exist once we had to capture it into a database. So they had to make an ontological call in their product about using like as a noun or not, and they do they call it a like, they refer to removing likes as nouns. But they didn’t have to do that they could have made a different choice. Same thing is like, you know, the the emojis that they choose to include on social platforms for giving your reactions. That’s an ontological decision. They’re they’re limiting the range of emotions that can be expressed on purpose based on their intentions. And so yeah, I think that that’s like a really interesting, like fundamental act of information architecture is figuring out what are the words that we say, and what do we mean when we say them? And it’s amazing how many teams fall down on just that really simple ask of like, if you can fit all of your team members down, and they really will define all of the same things the same way. Man, you’re really you’re crushing it. That’s awesome.

Randy Silver: 

So we’ve all had to do redesigns of sites in the past and products. And you know, when you change, the way things are laid out, a tour can totally throw people off. When you have to change the the vocabulary or the ontology about something. Is there it can do the same. Is there any lessons any hints about if you’re going to change terminology, and I realise I’m using a lot of these words interchangeably, which probably shouldn’t be. But, but yeah, but if you’re going to have to make this kind of change, is there anything that we should know a quick tip to minimise impact on customers,

Abby Covert: 

you’re going to go way slower than you want to go? that that would be my quick tip, the longer tip is, you’re gonna have to think about this from a value to your customers standpoint, in terms of how it rolls out to their view, more than the value to your standpoint. And that’s a really hard adjustment for a lot of businesses to make. So the thing that I think people maybe get wrong is that they never define the vision of where they want to get, they only define the vision that their customers will be comfortable getting to next. And that really limits you like that makes it so you can’t actually be working behind the scenes on a larger effort. So I mean, I think ideally, you sort of define what that end goal is out, and you’re working in that like, you know, 123, if you’re a small business three to five, if you’re a large business timescale, and then you’re looking at it from a rollout perspective, and you’re really focused on change management, like what are the steps that you’re going to take that are going to be the smallest impact to their process negatively, and the highest positive impact of their experience with the brand. And getting that balance, right is who it’s all about the once again, the reality of it, like if I’m working on a product, like, for example, I worked at Etsy on our community platform, and the seller community at Etsy is a vibrant and amazing community of people. I happen to be one of them. So I’m speaking for myself. We have a really crap messageboard functionality until a couple of years ago, and I was on the team that that redesign that and like, yeah, it was really hard, like, we move their cheese and everything was hard, and they had to find everything again. But they were still so happy because that thing was so much better than the thing that they had before. Now there are other times where you know, other more critical things, I worked on some banking software, you move things around in banks, and you don’t tell people, you are going to get calls and it’s going to cost money, and it’s going to be bad. So I think, you know, I hate to say this, it’s like the knuckle tattoo. Every Information Architect has. It depends, you know?

Randy Silver: 

Yeah, there’s a reason is a product people work together, we have the same tattoos. Yeah. Okay. This has been fantastic. I have one last question, because I know where we’re going to potentially go way too long. But it’s been great. So preview of your new book to degree, you’ve mentioned diagrams a bit earlier. I’m not sure if this is a quick question or not. But can you give us an example of a time when a diagram has gone wrong? Where it didn’t serve? The purpose was, I always like to draw things down and draw things out and assume that that means everyone else is going to get what I mean, but I know it doesn’t always work that way. What’s?

Abby Covert: 

Yeah, oh, okay. Hmm, I’m going to generalise because I don’t know that I can get very specific, but I think that there’s a commonality with diagrams, where we can show diagrams that are more complex and for us than they are for the audience that we’re showing them to. So a really good example of this is like, you know, marching a big graph database Association map that you can’t even read on a slide into an executive boardroom and showing it as proof of trust and value and the team that’s working on it right, that’s, that’s a move that many a pm will advise you to do, right? Like, we don’t have to understand the diagram, just put it on the slide, right. And that’s fine. Until it creates a sense of either false hope, or walls being built of like secret, secretive behaviour, like things going in a different direction than other people are aware of. So I think like you have to be really careful about sort of the level of fidelity that representing in your diagrams and making sure that when your diagrams travel, because good diagrams are to travel on their own. Make sure that they make sense on their own and that you don’t have to be there to talk about them. So I would say like Prime’s, the diagrams have gone really badly for me. I mean, aside from like, you know, I just really didn’t do a great job on the first draft of a diagram and it didn’t make sense to people. Which is all very common, or the 14th draft for that matter, but I think that it’s it’s more like times that I showed a diagram or let a diagram out of the lab before it should have been released into the wild You know, it had too large an audience and it freaks people out. And the freaking out can come in a lot of ways like I actually one that comes if it’s so far back I couldn’t possibly get in trouble is that I think about this all the time, because I was so young and I had no idea what I was doing. But there was a project for a Medicare programme and it was a pilot programme for telephonic health coaching. And they were using this like green tell us like, I mean, it was just the blacking green screen that computers used to have. That was what they were looking at every day while they’re answering the phones and we were designing them or rich internet application. And I mean, this was just like, mind blowing, they’d never even seen anything like this. I mean, the consumer web didn’t look like this at this point. So they’re looking at this prototype. And we brought in all these health coaches from the call centre to look at it and do usability tests right and I’m moderating it there were women that cried because they were so excited that they were going to use this thing it never shipped you guys never shipped we never they never sold that project like the comps that I made to I was only there to test one thing for like one week and like I didn’t have anything to do with anything but yeah, they never got that so like I think about that all the time, like the false hope of the work and like I think diagrams really fall into that in a lot of cases like we can make it look good on paper where faster than we can look good in the hands of users and we got to be really careful with that power.

Lily Smith: 

Amazing Avi Thank you It’s been so great talking to you and we shall definitely put a link to the book in the show notes. So if anyone else wants to make sense of their maths which I’m sure there’s plenty of people out there then they should check out the back

Abby Covert: 

awesome well if you’ve got a mess I’ve got a book for you.

Lily Smith: 

Does it also help you fix the mess in your house?

Abby Covert: 

Yes, I have actually so I I did this diagrammatic test kitchen for my new book with 50 users that I recruited off of my mailing list this last month and I was surprised by how many of them used it to organise parts of their house like somebody did. What he did like their kitchen cupboards they were like trying to figure out like a better way to fit everything somebody else did like packing for an upcoming trip they use like a block diagram to figure out what they were going to put in the different bags for like their family packing for a big trip. There’s somebody who did a schematic of their audio setup for their like their like TV and like receiver and all that stuff and like what cables we’re gonna need to put them all behind the wall and like do it all nice or whatever.

Randy Silver: 

We’re gonna need these people to come to my house and help.

Abby Covert: 

Probably not I mean, nobody says I suffer. You know what information architects.

Lily Smith: 

I really need some cheese cake now.

Randy Silver: 

Yeah, me too. Let’s wrap this up and go on a wild cheesecake. What is the cheesecake count?

Lily Smith: 

Sounds good to me. Take care of you listeners and see you next time.

Randy Silver: 

See you next time.

Lily Smith: 

haste, me, Lily Smith and me Randy silver. Emily Tate is our producer. And Luke Smith is our editor.

Randy Silver: 

Our theme music is from Humbard baseband power. That’s p au. Thanks to Nick Hitler who runs product tank and MTP engage in Hamburg and plays bass in the band for letting us use their music. Connect with your local product community via product tech or regular free meetups in over 200 cities worldwide.

Lily Smith: 

If there’s not one Nagy you can consider starting one yourself. To find out more go to mind the product.com forward slash product tank.

Randy Silver: 

Product tech is a global community of meetups. During buying for product people. We offer expert talks group discussion and a safe environment for product people to come together and share greetings and tips.

[buzzsprout episode='9233275' player='true'] Back in the dark ages of web design — back when the job title Webmaster was a thing — every team included someone who specialised in Information Architecture (IA). These days, that work is often considered to be part of UX, but that can mean that we're not doing the job well enough. Abby Covert joins us on the podcast to chat about why IA is important, how and when we should work with Information Architects, and how you can incorporate the principles and lessons from the discipline into your work. Featured Links: Follow Abby on LinkedIn and Twitter | Abby's Website | Abby's first book 'How To Make Sense Of Any Mess: Information Architecture For Everybody' | Pre-order Abby's forthcoming  book 'Stuck: The Purpose, Process And Craft Of Diagramming' | Max Cohn's 'Karl Marx Visits The Cheesecake Factory' | IHOP's omelette pancake batter secret feature at Huffington Post

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Episode transcript

Randy Silver:  Hey Willie, I've learned something really important from our guests today. Lily Smith:  That's really good, Randy. I mean, it's sort of the point of the entire podcast. But why was today's so special? Oh, Randy Silver:  it's not every episode that I learned why the omelettes at the Cheesecake Factory are so damn good. And also from either suit and evil, Lily Smith:  hadn't Island kind of what the Cheesecake Factory is, I may need to actually visit one to totally understand why it's important to you to though. But I also learned some things that are actually quite relevant as well. Like what information architecture is, and how we use it in our everyday product lives, and how we can make sure that it's good. Randy Silver:  And we also learned about how many words for video one product had before she got involved. Yeah, this was a really fun conversation. And it's because we've got author and Information Architect Abbey covered here today. Lily Smith:  So enough blathering on from us to about what's in the interview. Let's just prioritise getting straight to it. The product experience is brought to you by mind the product. Randy Silver:  Every week, we talk to the best product people from around the globe about how we can improve our practice, and build products that people love. Lily Smith:  Because it mind the product.com to catch up on past episodes and to discover an extensive library of great content and videos, Randy Silver:  browse for free, or become a mind the product member to unlock premium articles, unseen videos, ama's roundtables, discounts to our conferences around the world training opportunities. Lily Smith:  Mind product also offers free product tank meetups in more than 200 cities. And there's probably one way Hi, Abby, it's so nice to be talking to you today. So before we get stuck into the chat, it'd be really great if you could give us a quick intro into who you on what you do and how you got into it as well. Abby Covert:  Sure, well, first, thank you for having me, this is really awesome. I'm excited to talk to your audience about information architecture. So a little bit about me, I am an information architect, I've been practising for about 17 years now. When I went to university, it was really more with the expectation that I would come out with a print design degree. So my information architecture education started from that standpoint of thinking about hierarchies of type and form and colour and the use of language to communicate meaning was very much like, you know, relegated to the rectangle of paper that I was currently designing. When I got a little later in my education, I started to understand that those same principles were really applicable to the digital world. And by the time I got out of school, rich internet applications had taken over the world and everything was really changing and information architecture was a very needed skillset. So I got into the elevator of this field pretty early. At that point, there were a couple books that were out there about that practice, there were a lot of mailing lists that were forming and conferences, and I was able to kind of jump in there and really create a place for myself as being a person that could take all of that really heavy, more librarian focused information architecture content that was coming out from like the University of Michigan, and sort of marry it with this graphic design sensibility and the simplicity of meaning and kind of like crystallised focus. So I went on to write a book that's called How to make sense of any mess, it claims to deal with any mess. And I hold true to that so far, I haven't come up on one that really stumps it. And yet, for the seven years since I've been working for clients doing information architecture work, most recently, I spent the last four years as the information architect for Etsy. And I was pretty much the one of the founding team members that brought graph knowledge to that billion dollar business. So that was the biggest mess that I faced in my life thus far. And now I'm facing a next mess, which is I'm writing a book about diagrams that I hope to have out early next year. So yeah, that kind of catches us up to now. Lily Smith:  Amazing. Thanks, Avi, it sounds like you are definitely the go to person to talk about information architecture. But before we kind of carry on with the talk, just explain a little bit more about what it is because you've kind of alluded to it a little bit about making sense of mass and triangles and Abby Covert:  sure, information architecture, if you really take it down to its basics. It's the way that we organise something to make sense as a whole. And if you just sit on that definition for a beat, you realise how many things that really applies to so that's the structure and order that you place pages in a book. That's the number of pages and the names of those pages and the content that exists on each of those pages. on a website, that's the signs that you might use to direct people through an airport. And all of those things kind of underlying share the same basic principles of ontology, which is what does, what does the thing mean? taxonomy? What does that thing classify as? And then choreography, or topology? Like how do people move through that space. And so with those kind of three basic tenants, you can sort of look at any experience architecturally, and sort of draw out the information. Lily Smith:  And so I kind of had some experience with information architecture early on in my career, where it sort of seemed to be like, more fashionable to be talking about it. And you know, how these kind of trends come and go. But now, it seems to be a term that doesn't come up as frequently. And also, a sort of role, I guess, that the designer or the UX person might take on is to think about how things are structured and how, what language we use and things like that. So how have you kind of seen it change over the years? And like, what's your sort of view on where it should sit now as a function? Abby Covert:  Yeah. So I think it's really interesting, if you think about information architecture, as the way that we arrange things to make sense as a whole, that means that it wasn't created to manage technology. That means it wasn't created to manage books, that means it was sort of like baseline humanities stuff, you know. So that kind of creates a quandary from the marketability of it as a thing in the tech world. So it's, it's a fundamental part of what every product manager, every engineer, every designer, every UX researcher, all of those people, it's a fundamental skill that all of them are bringing to the table. And words and structure tend to be the materials that we all share. And so we can get into these really weird situations where, who decides how to divide the pie? Who decides what to call the things? Is it the marketing person? Is it the product manager? Is it the UX designer? Is it the engineer that wrote it into the database, all of those IAA decisions are left up in a lot of cases, to chance, right? So one of the things I like to say about AI is that you can't have you can't take it away, and you can't add it, right. It's like it's always there. So you make it through the decisions that you make. So for companies that are fighting user experience fight that many of us are fighting daily, without thinking about information architecture, you're probably not gonna get very far, but because it's such a restaurant, and you don't have to call it that to think about it, right? Like you're having information architecture conversations all day long, you just don't know to call it that. And like, when you talk about the structure of the navigation, like you're talking about a taxonomy, but you don't need to know that word in order to do that job. Well, right? You just need to know that things need to be structured for people to make sense, right. So that's, that's sort of I think, the crux of the the marketing issue that I would place information architecture into having is like, when the user experience field was born, which was very much born from the, from the community back in the day, if you like, look into the, the way that it works is like the interaction design community, the HCI community and the community all merged into, like the UX community. Well, when that happened, all of the roll divisions, stuff started to really come up. And it became like, what project is big enough that you have somebody who's just responsible for the structure and the language. So you know, you have to look at it from that standpoint, like how big is your mess, if you have that you can draw in one diagram, you probably don't need an Information Architect on your staff. If you're a billion dollar business, that's trying to figure out how to go from a purely taxonomic way of looking at things to the wild world of graph knowledge. And you want to do that without somebody with that responsibility. Good luck to you, you know, good luck. That's that's just where it goes. Because the incentive becomes the medium if my incentive in the organisation is to make that make sense. And that is my only incentive. I am different than people who are incentivized to ship products or people that are incentivized to serve the user, shipping products and serving the users can often be at odds as an information architects, I find myself coming into the middle and going, Hey, we actually have to serve both, we have to ship products that serve the needs of users. And that's hard because product managers are like, well, but how do you know what's going to serve all users, you can't prove that it's going to serve all users and the user experience people were like, but it can't be all marketing, it can't be all marketing, it has to actually have value to an actual person and so that that jam up in the middle. For years, we've called it the messy middle. And I think that that's a really apt term. Randy Silver:  Okay, you've used the term graph a couple of times I'd like to get to that. But just before that, you've kind of made the case for having an information architect and made the case for not having one and I think it's the same thing around product where there's, you know, huge fun And most of Harry's really gonna be talking about product owner is not a job. It's a role that people play. And it sounds like what you're saying is, in most cases, if you're not big enough, if your message isn't big enough, information architecture is a capability that the team needs. So where do we start in getting that capability? What do you know, if we, if we're not big enough, if we're not funded enough, if our problem is messy enough, where's where's a good place to start to make sure that we have a decent grounding in the capability across the team. Abby Covert:  So this is the interesting thing about the naming challenge, right? If the name goes away, the investment in education ultimately goes away, too, right? Like if companies aren't buying information architecture by the name, then information architecture, as something that's invested in from the content perspective starts to go away. What happens then is that people who are in situations where they face these incredible information, architecture challenges, they don't have the words to type into the box to get the things that they need. And so we ended up with this, like really suburbanized internet, as a result, where you see people purely stealing the information architecture of their nearest competitor, right? It's like, we'll go look at all the competitors, see how they did it? And then do it that way. It's like, Well, did you ask if they paid a dude on Fiverr? To do it over the weekend? Like, you got to be really careful of like, who you're copying? How do you know it works? Yeah. And how do you know that it works for your user. So I think that like at the end of the day, that's the advice that I find myself giving is not like, go get yourself a library degree and become an information architect or hire an information architect. It's talk to your stakeholders and your users about words and structures, and have real conversations about how those things get in the way of whatever you're trying to get done. And it really is that simple, and that hard, all at the same time. Lily Smith:  Okay, so just to clarify, we shouldn't be stealing our competitors information, architecture, their navigation and Stop, please stop. Abby Covert:  That's how we got mcmansions. Everybody architecturally speaking, this is how it happened, right? It starts with strip malls and ends with mcmansions. And like, we're in a strip mall territory, everything kind of looks boring, and the same, but it's getting gross. It's getting really gross. So stop it, stop it out there. Stop it. Randy Silver:  Okay, so you, let's get into graphs. And as you mentioned a couple times, and I mean, I know what a graph is, but I think you're using that word in a slightly different way. So let's disambiguate. What, what do you mean by graph from an audio perspective? Abby Covert:  Yeah, sure. So when you think about the organisation of information, things tend to go into different patterns, right, you have hierarchies, where there's a category, like a parent, and then it has children or things within the category. So like, let's say you had a product catalogue of clothing. And then within that you had a category of pants and shirts, and then you'd have items within those categories. That's a hierarchy, right? But let's say that you wanted to do something better than that, right? Something that customers are starting to expect, for example, this shirt goes with these pants, if you wanted to do that, you would be breaking the hierarchy. So there's ways that you could do that, that would be super kouji from like, just replicating the hierarchy standpoint, you could make hierarchies for outfits, and then manually do that. Or you could start to understand those items at their attribute level, and then attaching things at that attribute level to other things. So you could say, blue shirts go with blue pants, for example. And so that, that idea of moving from hierarchical only, or, you know, heterarchy go only to graph based knowledge. Yeah, it's a big concept that a lot of companies have been doing for a really long time. And a lot of smaller companies are finally getting the tooling to actually be able to get into the space, which is really cool and interesting. Lily Smith:  You kind of mentioned this earlier about how if your information architectures is wrong, and I mean it in the sort of the broadest sense of like, you know, you're getting bits wrong across your business, across your language and your structure and stuff, then it you know, it's going to have a huge kind of negative impact on the on the business. But like, how do you measure the success of it? And how do you sort of understand the failings of the information architecture that you've got? Abby Covert:  Yeah, I think that that's a critical question. I believe that when that question is asked, people want very much for there to be like an answer that is going to always work. And it sucks that I cannot give you that answer. But what I can say is that there are almost always metrics that you can use. those metrics are a combination of qualitative and quantitative metrics in a lot of cases. So that's something that you have to take into account. Along with qualitative and quantitative you also have to be looking for metrics that are above the line and below the lines like what the customer is actually seeing versus like, what's happening in the back of house is in a lot of cases, the information architecture challenges that I work on, you know, they're systems that are, you know, pieces of software, talking to other pieces of software. Talking to API's that talk to other people's software, like, there's a lot going on there. So I think that it's really important to acknowledge that, you know, there's a lot going on there and that we need to kind of get in and look at all of those connections and look for the place where people are slipping through, like, what is the intended path that you want people to take? Where are they falling off, and what's getting in the way there, I mean, often, it really does take looking at data to find the hole, and then going to the place where the hole exists on purpose with a bunch of users and watching them fall into the hole. And usually I know that they're going to fall into the hole way before I'm done with the test. But I have to like produce 10 hours worth of footage of them falling into a hole before somebody will give me the money to fix the hole. So yeah, that's that's really what it comes down to is like, figure out what's the number that isn't moving the way people want it to move, and then move that number. And I've had it challenges that are about raising conversion rate. That's a pretty common one, obviously, in e commerce. But I've also had ones that are like, get off this website and pick up the phone right now. Which is not necessarily one that you think about. We're here all the time in in product management and e commerce. So yeah, there's a variety of ways. I mean, one of my most favourite projects I did when I was consulting was redesigning the International House of Pancakes menu system. I'm not talking about their website menu, I'm talking about the piece of glossy paper on the table. And you know, we were able to see a sales increase store by store by replacing that menu system. So that's real money. You know, Randy Silver:  God, I haven't been to an AI hop in years, mostly because I live in the UK now. But next time I go, this is really fascinating to take. Abby Covert:  I learned so many things, I tell your your listeners a little secret for a reason that their omelettes are so delicious is because they put pancake batter in them. So just know that. Like, if you're gluten free Randy Silver:  is so good and so bad. And so many Abby Covert:  I know No, I know exactly, exactly if you've eaten it, and I hope you understand. Randy Silver:  Okay, so that's one practical example. I want to hear about a couple of other practical examples of things. And I saw a talk you did where this just lets go with flabbergasted I, how many words for video where they're being used to work? Well, I am curious how many words for video? Could you actually come up with off the top of your head? Abby Covert:  Oh my gosh, okay, here, let's see if I can do it. Let's see. Okay. video clip. real moment. Past, ah, yeah, I got to five, with like seven years of distance from eventually there were I want to say 13 or 14 was the number that we landed on. It was wild. And that was really interesting, because that was a very small company. It was a company that when I started working with them, they were less than 200 people startup. But they had recently acquired two other startups of approximately the same size or a little bit smaller. And they had fully functional shipped products out there all on different channels. So like one of them was like the Android Market corner. One of them was the iPhone market cornered, and then the other had the web cornered. And so they all merged. It was brilliant from a strategy perspective, nightmare. From a product perspective, think about that merging all that language, all of that customer support, the marketing, all those verbs, it was a nightmare. So it really was a challenging assignment to go in there. And basically like excavate out all of the language like I went in on a verb hunt, and I just went looking everywhere I could find it, I interviewed their customer service reps, I looked in the scripts that they used on the phone with their customers, I looked at all their emails, I looked at all the navigation, all of the interface links, and I just ripped everything out and made a huge Association map of all of it, so that we could go into a room with all of the product owners from all of the products and decide a direction and then we could figure out what the like multi year strategy to move all the way towards that direction might actually look like and then we had to go train everybody that this is actually going to happen and we're really going to make all of these big changes. So yeah, it was it was that was a wild wild example. But a really common one I think that a lot of companies see and you know kind of skirt under the rug instead of dealing with Lily Smith:  Sprake formally usually isn't all in one product research platform that lets you ask bite sized questions to your customers within your product or existing user journeys. Randy Silver:  Companies like Dropbox square, open door loom, and shift all use springs, video interviews, concept tests and micro surveys to understand their customers at the pace of modern software development. So they can build customer centric products that deliver a sustainable competitive advantage. Lily Smith:  So if you apply Have an agile product team that wants to obtain rich insights from users at the pace you ship products. Then give sprig a try for free by visiting sprig comm again, that's sprig SP r I g.com. Randy Silver:  So I'm curious, from a philosophy standpoint, I often go into companies that aren't necessarily that excited about product or agile. But what they do care about is doing it right. And it's they have an allergy to terms rather than an allergy to two concepts. And I tell them, I'm an agnostic about what you call this. So well, you know, I'll use your vocabulary or your terminology, in what's important is is how we do it. And that's not customer facing, but when you're dealing with with the teams and the organisation, is that the approach you take? Or is the actual terminology really important? Abby Covert:  In terms of teaching, like the background, and the academics of information architecture, I spend zero effort trying to enhance my co workers understanding of those things, unless they show interest, like, I have not yet had an assignment where somebody on that team didn't show themselves to be a total nerd and want to get in on this stuff with me. And they end up going to the conferences and, you know, doing the whole thing. But no, for the most part, I don't think that the words matter as much like I don't, I don't have any interest myself in selling information architecture as a brand, or like a framework or like assault, because it's, it's a basic human skill. Like it's something that my almost three year old son is doing right now downstairs with his blocks moving around to make sense to himself. Like, it's just not, I don't think that it can be that fancy, because it's too big. If that makes any sense. Yeah. Lily Smith:  So if we think about trying to define like the perfect IAA for your business, yeah. What are the ways in which you go about that? I mean, we kind of mentioned earlier about how, you know, you look at metrics to see where there might be problems, and you try and find the holes that people are falling into. But, you know, I'm thinking about sort of the businesses that have like you say, libraries of information, so like masses, amounts of organised products, or you know it for ecommerce businesses, or lots and lots of data available that can be read or Yeah. How do you experiment with that? Like, how do you begin to learn what the best structure is? Because obviously, if you are, if you have lots of data, or that needs to be organised, and you have lots of customers, people are gonna think about things in different ways. So that just feels like a huge challenge. Yeah. Abby Covert:  Yeah. So this is this is basically the reason that I wrote the book that I wrote, because I think that like, the idea is just so grandiose, you know, that like, you're going to go and I think that a lot of people in approaching information architecture from that academic standpoint, or just from hearing about it from a business standpoint, want that that perfection, and you can't have it, just like any other thing in this life, you cannot have perfection, but you can have progress. And I think that like that's the message that my book has. So the book is organised into seven chapters, and it's also the seven steps of what I would deem a process if you were to go through one should you read the book, you'll find that it's much more process in the Yoda like way of leading you through the philosophy behind information architecture, so that you can practice it yourself. But essentially, it really comes down to like, step one, identify the mess, like where's the hole? What's the thing? What's the thing that's making you angry? What's the thing that's making you sad or frustrated about whatever it is, the advice I have there is like it can't be everything you can't you can't identify the mess cannot be everything is wrong, everything hurts and everything is on fire. Like you have to get more specific than that. And by getting more specific, you already have started to do the hard work right? Because often that's the stuff that people stumble on the hardest they they live in this like mental model monster cavern where they're like all of these huge problems coming for them all the time. And like sometimes you just have to step outside of that onto a piece of paper with some colleagues by yourself whatever it takes to identify what is the actual thing that you're facing right now. Then step two, you state your intention tell us what you're gonna do about it. Like what do you actually want to do? And like how far do you need to get then face reality? What do you actually have to work with? Like, step three is all about like yeah, you have a lot of grandiose plans but like q2 is almost over what are you going to do you know that kind of reality? Then you choose a direction you pick where you're gonna go and you say like this is done we're gonna do this we're moving this way for progresses sake. Then you measure the distance you figure out, Okay, what are the metrics like right now and if we get to where we go, are we Want to go? What will they look like then ideally, then you play with the structure. Like once you have a set of metrics that you're trying to achieve, there's still like 70 million ways that you could achieve that objective. Right? So that's when you start to get into, like, what are the structural ways that we could play with? What are the technical tricks of the trade that we can implement? What are the interface things? What are the, the challenges of connecting all the bits together? And like, what are the options, and then finally, step seven, prepare to adjust because none of that is going to work out the way that you planned it, even though you did a really good job thinking it through, it's still going to be something totally different than what you expected. And so you gotta get ready for that part two. Yeah, so that I think that that's like, for me a realistic cap capitalization of like, what is what does it mean to practice IAA? Randy Silver:  Okay, so on the metrics and the measurement side of it, easy, is there an objective measure of good IAA? Or is it purely subjective is in terms of it does help us achieve the goal and that makes it good? Abby Covert:  Yes, correct. Yes, yes, that's exactly correct. There is no such thing as an objective Li good information architecture. And this is why as an information architect, it's really hard when people want to see that and I keep saying, not doesn't exist. Like I can tell you the stories of the information architectures that I've been under the hoods of, but I'm only gonna be able to tell you one perspective on it right? In my perspective is only crystallised in one moment in time. I mean, I have example is a great one I wrote about on my blog recently, that the hot menu was redesigned in COVID times, and it's now a disposable print on the laser printer in the back office, single sheet of paper. I mean, when I worked on that project, getting them from a 15 page glossy spread down to 12 was like, I mean, throw me a ticker tape parade for getting it through. But times change, right? The reality of the situation changes. And the reason I bring it up is because there was this big article about like, praising that they had done this thing, and it was so great for the business and COVID times for the franchise owners. My menu, the one that was ticker tape parade, just like you know, seven, eight years ago, it was described as a 12 page, laminated monstrosity in the press. Randy Silver:  Have any of these people been to the Cheesecake Factory? Abby Covert:  Oh, my gosh, have you seen the Cheesecake Factory? Somebody? I think McSweeney's has a cheesecake factory menu thing from last month. That's amazing. Please look that up. Lily Smith:  I feel completely out of Abby Covert:  my debt. Okay. Do not work on a restaurant menu project if you ever want to eat out and be happy again, because like restaurant menus are the worst the pits Randy Silver:  Oh, here in the in the UK. Now they're all done through QR codes. And you just look at it on your phone. So Abby Covert:  Oh, that's so smart. See, see times they are changing. Never get comfortable with the tools or the the models like they all change. But the process doesn't like the way that you think about the things doesn't tend to change. Lily Smith:  So one of the tips that you gave in one of your talks was around having it was more around the kind of language side of things and having what you called a controlled vocabulary. And is that basically just like, oh my god, I forgot what you called them the list of words and then what they mean. Abby Covert:  Yeah, yep. dictionary. Yeah, it's a dictionary for your context. So there's, there's this really interesting I mentioned at the very beginning, where we're talking about the what information architecture is, there's this concept of ontology? Well, I think that the way that people, at least in my teaching experience get ontology is by comparing it to lexicography. So lexicography is like writing lexicons. I want to write a dictionary. Well, to take a lexicographical perspective on a term is to find all of the meanings, all of the various meanings of what that could mean, to take an ontological point of view on that same term is to define it within context. So to say, for your business, that's what this is. A good example is like, think about the like button, like on Facebook and in social media platforms, fundamentally change the lexicographical perspective on life as a noun, like right and was it a noun? Before social media, it wasn't like the idea of a like, only had to exist once we had to capture it into a database. So they had to make an ontological call in their product about using like as a noun or not, and they do they call it a like, they refer to removing likes as nouns. But they didn't have to do that they could have made a different choice. Same thing is like, you know, the the emojis that they choose to include on social platforms for giving your reactions. That's an ontological decision. They're they're limiting the range of emotions that can be expressed on purpose based on their intentions. And so yeah, I think that that's like a really interesting, like fundamental act of information architecture is figuring out what are the words that we say, and what do we mean when we say them? And it's amazing how many teams fall down on just that really simple ask of like, if you can fit all of your team members down, and they really will define all of the same things the same way. Man, you're really you're crushing it. That's awesome. Randy Silver:  So we've all had to do redesigns of sites in the past and products. And you know, when you change, the way things are laid out, a tour can totally throw people off. When you have to change the the vocabulary or the ontology about something. Is there it can do the same. Is there any lessons any hints about if you're going to change terminology, and I realise I'm using a lot of these words interchangeably, which probably shouldn't be. But, but yeah, but if you're going to have to make this kind of change, is there anything that we should know a quick tip to minimise impact on customers, Abby Covert:  you're going to go way slower than you want to go? that that would be my quick tip, the longer tip is, you're gonna have to think about this from a value to your customers standpoint, in terms of how it rolls out to their view, more than the value to your standpoint. And that's a really hard adjustment for a lot of businesses to make. So the thing that I think people maybe get wrong is that they never define the vision of where they want to get, they only define the vision that their customers will be comfortable getting to next. And that really limits you like that makes it so you can't actually be working behind the scenes on a larger effort. So I mean, I think ideally, you sort of define what that end goal is out, and you're working in that like, you know, 123, if you're a small business three to five, if you're a large business timescale, and then you're looking at it from a rollout perspective, and you're really focused on change management, like what are the steps that you're going to take that are going to be the smallest impact to their process negatively, and the highest positive impact of their experience with the brand. And getting that balance, right is who it's all about the once again, the reality of it, like if I'm working on a product, like, for example, I worked at Etsy on our community platform, and the seller community at Etsy is a vibrant and amazing community of people. I happen to be one of them. So I'm speaking for myself. We have a really crap messageboard functionality until a couple of years ago, and I was on the team that that redesign that and like, yeah, it was really hard, like, we move their cheese and everything was hard, and they had to find everything again. But they were still so happy because that thing was so much better than the thing that they had before. Now there are other times where you know, other more critical things, I worked on some banking software, you move things around in banks, and you don't tell people, you are going to get calls and it's going to cost money, and it's going to be bad. So I think, you know, I hate to say this, it's like the knuckle tattoo. Every Information Architect has. It depends, you know? Randy Silver:  Yeah, there's a reason is a product people work together, we have the same tattoos. Yeah. Okay. This has been fantastic. I have one last question, because I know where we're going to potentially go way too long. But it's been great. So preview of your new book to degree, you've mentioned diagrams a bit earlier. I'm not sure if this is a quick question or not. But can you give us an example of a time when a diagram has gone wrong? Where it didn't serve? The purpose was, I always like to draw things down and draw things out and assume that that means everyone else is going to get what I mean, but I know it doesn't always work that way. What's? Abby Covert:  Yeah, oh, okay. Hmm, I'm going to generalise because I don't know that I can get very specific, but I think that there's a commonality with diagrams, where we can show diagrams that are more complex and for us than they are for the audience that we're showing them to. So a really good example of this is like, you know, marching a big graph database Association map that you can't even read on a slide into an executive boardroom and showing it as proof of trust and value and the team that's working on it right, that's, that's a move that many a pm will advise you to do, right? Like, we don't have to understand the diagram, just put it on the slide, right. And that's fine. Until it creates a sense of either false hope, or walls being built of like secret, secretive behaviour, like things going in a different direction than other people are aware of. So I think like you have to be really careful about sort of the level of fidelity that representing in your diagrams and making sure that when your diagrams travel, because good diagrams are to travel on their own. Make sure that they make sense on their own and that you don't have to be there to talk about them. So I would say like Prime's, the diagrams have gone really badly for me. I mean, aside from like, you know, I just really didn't do a great job on the first draft of a diagram and it didn't make sense to people. Which is all very common, or the 14th draft for that matter, but I think that it's it's more like times that I showed a diagram or let a diagram out of the lab before it should have been released into the wild You know, it had too large an audience and it freaks people out. And the freaking out can come in a lot of ways like I actually one that comes if it's so far back I couldn't possibly get in trouble is that I think about this all the time, because I was so young and I had no idea what I was doing. But there was a project for a Medicare programme and it was a pilot programme for telephonic health coaching. And they were using this like green tell us like, I mean, it was just the blacking green screen that computers used to have. That was what they were looking at every day while they're answering the phones and we were designing them or rich internet application. And I mean, this was just like, mind blowing, they'd never even seen anything like this. I mean, the consumer web didn't look like this at this point. So they're looking at this prototype. And we brought in all these health coaches from the call centre to look at it and do usability tests right and I'm moderating it there were women that cried because they were so excited that they were going to use this thing it never shipped you guys never shipped we never they never sold that project like the comps that I made to I was only there to test one thing for like one week and like I didn't have anything to do with anything but yeah, they never got that so like I think about that all the time, like the false hope of the work and like I think diagrams really fall into that in a lot of cases like we can make it look good on paper where faster than we can look good in the hands of users and we got to be really careful with that power. Lily Smith:  Amazing Avi Thank you It's been so great talking to you and we shall definitely put a link to the book in the show notes. So if anyone else wants to make sense of their maths which I'm sure there's plenty of people out there then they should check out the back Abby Covert:  awesome well if you've got a mess I've got a book for you. Lily Smith:  Does it also help you fix the mess in your house? Abby Covert:  Yes, I have actually so I I did this diagrammatic test kitchen for my new book with 50 users that I recruited off of my mailing list this last month and I was surprised by how many of them used it to organise parts of their house like somebody did. What he did like their kitchen cupboards they were like trying to figure out like a better way to fit everything somebody else did like packing for an upcoming trip they use like a block diagram to figure out what they were going to put in the different bags for like their family packing for a big trip. There's somebody who did a schematic of their audio setup for their like their like TV and like receiver and all that stuff and like what cables we're gonna need to put them all behind the wall and like do it all nice or whatever. Randy Silver:  We're gonna need these people to come to my house and help. Abby Covert:  Probably not I mean, nobody says I suffer. You know what information architects. Lily Smith:  I really need some cheese cake now. Randy Silver:  Yeah, me too. Let's wrap this up and go on a wild cheesecake. What is the cheesecake count? Lily Smith:  Sounds good to me. Take care of you listeners and see you next time. Randy Silver:  See you next time. Lily Smith:  haste, me, Lily Smith and me Randy silver. Emily Tate is our producer. And Luke Smith is our editor. Randy Silver:  Our theme music is from Humbard baseband power. That's p au. Thanks to Nick Hitler who runs product tank and MTP engage in Hamburg and plays bass in the band for letting us use their music. Connect with your local product community via product tech or regular free meetups in over 200 cities worldwide. Lily Smith:  If there's not one Nagy you can consider starting one yourself. To find out more go to mind the product.com forward slash product tank. Randy Silver:  Product tech is a global community of meetups. During buying for product people. We offer expert talks group discussion and a safe environment for product people to come together and share greetings and tips.