Making sense of a mess

Design by Ronald Kaiser

Identify the mess

  • A mess is any situation where something is confusing or full of difficulty.
  • Causes for confusing information: too much information, not enough information, not the right information, or some combination of these.
  • Information is not a thing, it’s subjective.
  • It’s important to identify the edges and depths of a mess, so you can lessen your anxiety and make progress.

State your intent

  • We change our options by choosing our words
  • Good is in the eye of the beholder
  • Beauty and quality are not always related
  • Meaning can get lost in translation
  • Having a strong why will get you further
  • Why, what and how are deeply interrelated (this connects to Simon Sinek’s idea of a golden circle and the definition of systems from Thinking in systems (what=parts, how=interconnections, why=purpose))
  • Language is the material of intent
  • Face reality
  • When you discuss a specific subject, you subconsciously reference part of a large internal map of what you know. Other people can’t see this map. It only exists in your head.
  • We create objects like maps, diagrams, prototypes, and lists to share what we understand and perceive. Objects allow us to compare our mental models with each other.
  • Start with scope and scale.
  • Architecture before design
  • If people judge books by their covers, they judge diagrams by their tidiness.
  • Everything is easier with a map.

Choose a direction

  • People often get in their own way by becoming overwhelmed with choices, choosing not to choose instead. (this connects to Essentialism).
  • When we reference things, they exist within other things. Nothing exists in a vacuum.
  • One tiny decision leads to another, and another.
  • The way we arrange a place changes how people interpret and use it.
  • Without language, we can’t collaborate.
  • Create a list of words you say. Documenting language standards can reduce linguistic insecurity.
  • Create a list of words you don’t say.
  • Think about nouns and verbs.
  • Think about relationships between nouns and verbs.
  • Admit where you are.
  • Keep evaluating where you are in relation to where you want to go.

Measure the distance

  • Progress is as important to measure as success.
  • A baseline is the measurement of something before changing it. Without baselines, assumptions will likely lead us in the wrong direction.
  • Measurements have rhythm. Beware of its time frame.
  • Fuzzy is normal.

Play with structure

  • There are many ways to structure things.
  • Sorting is easy when clear rules are in place.
  • The most challenging part of classification is working with other people to agree on a set of rules.
  • Ambiguous classification require more thought to decide where something goes.
  • Ambiguity costs clarity.
  • Exactitude costs flexibility.
  • Ambiguity hides in simplicity.
  • Facets are the lenses we use to classify
  • The way you organize things says a lot about you.
  • The key to strong rhetoric is using language, rules and structures that your audience can easily understand and use.
  • Heterarchical: when individual pieces exist on one level without further categorization
  • Hypertexts don’t change where things are located, just how they’re found.
  • Signpost directing you to a store around the corner is also hypertext.
  • Most things need a mix of taxonomic approaches.
  • Learn these patterns: Broad and shallow, Narrow and deep, heterarchy, Sequence, Hypertext. (See illustrations from the book)

Prepare to adjust

  • Adjustments are part of reality
  • Making maps and diagrams alone at your desk is not practicing information architecture.
  • Discuss it until it’s clear. (this connects to Essentialism).
  • When structure and intent don’t line up, things fall apart.
  • People don’t compliment or even critique information architecture unless it’s broken.

Summary of the summary:

  • Shed light on the messes people see but don’t talk about
  • Make sure everyone agrees on the intent behind the work you’re doing together
  • Help people choose a direction and define goals to track your progress
  • Evaluate and refine the language and structures you use to pursue those goals
  • With those skills, you’ll always have people who want to work with you
  • It’s hard to face reality, but it’s more rewarding than hard.




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Ronald Kaiser

Ronald Kaiser

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