Information architect Abby Covert is one of the most distinguished thought leaders in the field of information architecture. Over the past few years, she has introduced and promoted several innovative ideas designed to help us transform “informational messes” into well-structured and useful information. Eager to share her thought-provoking ideas with others, we are pleased to feature her in this recorded webinar, How to Make Sense of Any Mess.
This article highlights a few of Abby’s ideas that, in my opinion, make her work so meaningful and engaging.
One: We all play a role in architecting information
For those who are not familiar with Information Architecture (also referred to as IA), it is the structural design of shared information environments. That’s one technical definition. Abby has a few definitions of her own that provide more clarity:
- How to arrange something to get a specific intention.
- The way we choose to arrange the parts of something to make it understandable as a whole.
Seen from this vantage point, everyone participates in the architecting of information.
Most of us spend our lives in what Abby calls “places of information.” These “places” include conversations, print media, digital communications, organizational meetings, etc. If you think about it, everything is a place of information, and we constantly play an active role in shaping it (receiving, transforming, creating, organizing, and transmitting information).
To avoid contributing to what Abby calls the “mess” of information that plagues the world, upgrading our IA skills can only help us improve what we already do on a daily basis, which is “architecting” information.
Two: Everything we do exists amid a multiplicity of nested architectures
Take a look around and you will see intertwingled architectures of physical and non-tangible structures. Your computer screen presents a 3D architecture that guides and enables action. The room containing your computer offers yet another architectural scheme. So too does your building, your block, your neighborhood, your city, etc.
The same intertwingularity applies to information. The information you create by way of interpretation is data actively transformed through your immense cognitive architecture. It is what Abby calls the “huge map of knowledge” which you carry around in your brain and superimpose over every bit of information you receive.
Navigating these complexities in a collective setting, such as the workplace, can be difficult. As Abby states, “The majority of messes we face are made up of information (and people).” We are all part of a collection of informational ecosystems. Our ability to successfully contribute to these ecosystems demands our awareness of their structure and our skills in navigating or arranging their parts.
Three: There is no such thing as “true” information
One of Abby’s favorite examples is the categorization of vegetables. Are tomatoes, avocados, and squash vegetables or fruit? If you’re a grocer or a shopper, these items are veggies (after all, they’re savory like most other veggies). But if you’re a botanist or a science teacher, of course, they’re “fruit,” as they match all the scientific criteria that qualify them as fruit.
If you ask yourself what the “true” categorization is, Abby will rightly tell you that “there is no such thing as true information… only spin.” In other words, “meaning” is not a universal principle. It is a mode of perception that people have in common or to which they agree. How something works and what it allows us to do is far more important than any “true” meaning devoid of relevant function. With that said, we may all agree that strawberries are berries (even if they are not) and that bananas are not berries (which they are).
Four: Information is not content
Content can produce information, but so can the lack of content. Another of Abby’s favorite examples is a photo of two types of cookies behind a display case. Suppose you wanted to buy a cookie and noticed that there were seven oatmeal raisin cookies but only one chocolate cookie. Why might there be only one chocolate cookie left? Is it more popular? Or did the baker make more oatmeal raisin cookies anticipating that it may sell out? Is the chocolate cookie not as fresh?
In this example, Abby clearly differentiates content from information. Information is the meaning(s) you derive from content or the lack of it. The cookies in the example envelop several potential meanings, some of which may contradict one another. Your interpretation of content or data is what transforms it into information. Your “map of knowledge” intersects and combines with select facets of content upon which you create (rather than “find”) meaning.
Five: Try using alternative ways to categorize something
In a short flip board style video titled What do you mean?, Abby playfully demonstrates how the structure of information can change the meaning of information. Change a term’s categorization according to its different facets, and you change how it is perceived and potentially used.
In an organizational setting, it may be helpful to try categorizing products or services in at least two different ways. For example, Abby states that many businesses categorize products by department. But what if you were to categorize a product by customer persona, task, cost, revenue potential, competitors, or other customer-driven uses? By using alternative forms of categorization, your views and actions toward a given product may change.
In conclusion, this article barely scratches the surface of what Abby has to offer regarding information architecture. Her talks and published materials are very inspiring, thought-provoking, and actionable. Check out Abby’s recent webinar, How to Make Sense of Any Mess.