UX book review: How to make sense of any mess

5 min read Optimal Workshop

Starting a new job can be a period of intense information overload – meeting new colleagues, adjusting to new systems and processes and taking on new challenges. I’ve been eased into my role in Optimal Workshop’s brand new User Research team thanks to a thoughtful and well-organised on-boarding process, as well as the friendly and helpful faces around me. The hot Havana coffee sitting on my desk when I arrive each morning certainly helps too!

As we settle into our new roles, both Ania and I (the new User Research team) will be reviewing and assimilating existing research, identifying directions for further research and feeding insights into Optimal Workshop’s product development process. We’ll also be writing regular blog posts about the research that we’re carrying out and what we’ve learned from it.

Before we get started with the proper user research stuff though, I’ll kick off my first blog post with a quick book review. Perhaps appealing to my slightly overwhelmed first-week-in-a-new-job brain, Abby Covert’s How to make sense of any mess caught my eye while browsing Optimal Workshop’s well-stocked office library.

Introducing Abby the IA and her book

Abby Covert, who goes by the pseudonym Abby the IA, is the author of How to make sense of any mess. Abby is an independent information architect based in New York City and currently President of the Information Architecture Institute. She also teaches at The School of Visual Arts, Parsons: the New School and General Assembly NYC.

As you’d imagine of a book by an accomplished information architect, How to make sense of any mess is clearly set out and carefully organised. There are seven well-defined chapters with bold titles such as ‘State Your Intent’ and ‘Face Reality’, which guide you along Abby’s recommended approach for tackling any mess.

The chapters are made up of single page ‘lessons’ that are each headed with a short phrase that functions as an insight, an instruction or sometimes a question (eg.‘To do is to know’, ‘Start with why’ and ‘What are you making?’). These lessons then go on to discuss concepts, issues or truths relating to the practice of information architecture in the broadest sense.

Each chapter also introduces a ‘character’, a kind of persona, who has successfully managed a particular mess. The chapters then conclude with a worksheet for the reader to try out the techniques themselves. The worksheets are simple to reproduce or they can be downloaded from Abby’s website. Specific links are mentioned in the text.

Information architecture for everybody

Abby set out to a write book about information architecture for everybody and I think that How to make sense of any mess achieves this goal. Over 174 easily digestible pages, she explains why information architecture is important, not just for digital professionals and information science specialists, but for anyone who makes anything. As she underlines in the book’s introduction “Having to progress in the face of chaos, confusion and complexity is something we all have common”.

In order to keep the text accessible, Abby minimizes the use of any technical terms and takes great care to define and explain her choice of words. Around 100 of these words are defined in an indexed lexicon at the back of How to make sense of any mess. Notably, she avoids referring to any particular role or job title when referring to her readers, but instead describes them generally as ‘sensemakers’.

Abby also does not limit the application of information architecture to any particular thing, but rather emphasizes the relevance of the practice to a wide range of uses. She explains “I could have written a book about information architecture for websites or mobile applications or whatever else is trendy. Instead, I decided to focus on ways people could wrangle any mess, regardless of what it’s made of.”

When providing examples to illustrate particular terms or concepts, Abby describes everyday situations, alongside their technical equivalents. For example, a ‘sequence’ could be the checkout process on a website, but also the steps in a recipe book. A ‘flag’ could be a monthly report of how many users drop off at each step of an online registration process, but also having a loved one call when they arrive safely at their destination.

There’s a sense of self-effacing humor throughout How to make sense of any mess. In the section where Abby demonstrates ten diagrammatic and mapping techniques (pp 66-75), this is done completely using the theme of pizza. I also found myself putting down the book to google “used to be a Pizza Hut”.

Strength in simplicity

How to make sense of any mess is not an in-depth, technical text on information architecture but it is excellent primer for those that are unfamiliar or new to the field. In addition, I think that this simple but clever book also has something to offer the more seasoned IA professional. As well as practical tips, the book is peppered with articulate insights that feel like advice from an older, wiser sister:

“The most important thing I can teach you about information is that it isn’t a thing. It’s subjective, not objective. It’s whatever a user interprets from the arrangement or sequence of things they encounter.” (What’s information?, p. 20)

“The more diagrams you get to know, the more tools you have. The more ways you can frame the mess, the more likely you are to see the way through to the other side.” (Expand your toolbox, p. 65)

“Be careful not to fall in love with your plans or ideas. Instead, fall in love with the effects you can have when you communicate clearly.” (Admit where you are, p. 102)

“When you see the world through the eyes of other people, you can spot weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. Don’t hide from other stakeholders or wait until the end of the project to talk to users” (It’s easy to reach agreement alone, p. 150)

As simple as these statements may seem, it can be all too easy to forget or overlook these truths when dealing with the complexities of information, design, stakeholders and users.

I’d recommend this book for anyone tackling any mess – both those just getting started or those looking for a fresh perspective when coming up against repeated challenges and obstacles.

Preview the first 10 pages of How to make sense of any mess or learn more about Abby’s process in writing the book.

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