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How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody

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Everything is getting more complex.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information we encounter each day. Whether at work, at school, or in our personal endeavors, there’s a deepening (and inescapable) need for people to work with and understand information.

Information architecture is the way that we arrange the parts of something to make it understandable as a whole. When we make things for others to use, the architecture of information that we choose greatly affects our ability to deliver our intended message to our users.

We all face messes made of information and people. I define the word “mess” the same way that most dictionaries do: “A situation where the interactions between people and information are confusing or full of difficulties.” — Who doesn’t bump up against messes made of information and people every day?

This book provides a seven step process for making sense of any mess. Each chapter contains a set of lessons as well as workbook exercises architected to help you to work through your own mess.

174 pages, Kindle Edition

First published November 4, 2014

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Abby Covert

2 books35 followers

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5 stars
427 (31%)
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468 (34%)
3 stars
342 (25%)
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97 (7%)
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30 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 124 reviews
Profile Image for Peter Morville.
Author 10 books178 followers
November 13, 2014
This book is a brilliant introduction to information architecture. It's short and easy to read but covers all the bases. It will make sense and prove valuable to anyone who messes with information. In other words, Abby really has written a book for everybody.
Profile Image for Julia Kulgavchuk.
44 reviews21 followers
May 16, 2016
This book is a mess. It's not a book really; I'd call it a pamphlet.

The text gives basic common sense-level knowledge about sorting out "messes". Now this doesn't sound that bad. The book explores some important points, such as "Start with why", "Who matters", "What before how". These considerations are indispensable for information architecture work and design-related work of any kind. Unfortunately the book is in a severe shortage of substance. These points need to be really well understood, accepted, internalized. If a book can help to get there, it's fantastic. Not this book though. It repeats overly generalized points in page-long shallow chapters, but adds no substance and doesn't do anything to turn them into knowledge. A header often says it all.

One good thing is a list of 10 types of diagrams. Then again, not that it's hard to find it elsewere.

The language is extremely simplified on purpose, as it is "a book about information architecture for everybody." The simplified definitions are good and it never harms to repeat them. It also makes for the blandest read ever.
Profile Image for Brian.
188 reviews13 followers
May 17, 2015
I came to this book with very high expectations after I heard it called the "Don't Make Me Think" of Information Architecture. Sadly, it didn't live up to that hype. In the hands of a good teacher I have no doubt this would be an excellent textbook to accompany a course, but on its own it's only OK. In trying to write a succinct and versatile primer on IA for anyone, Covert has gone too far in eschewing concrete examples. Many of the self-contained page-length lessons, which would otherwise be valuable, leave it up to the reader to supply a context for the information presented and it just doesn't work a lot of the time, at least not for a true beginner. Context and concrete/visual examples are precisely what made Don't Make Me Think such a great intro text.
Profile Image for Andy Thornton.
50 reviews1 follower
March 11, 2017
This is a deceptively thoughtful read, written as a short and snappy layman's guide to information architecture that belies its sophistication. It serves well as a intuitive reminder of the effort and focus necessary to solve sense-making problems effectively.

Abby does a great job of reframing complex concepts in a straightforward manner and the book helps shine a light on the implicit assumptions, biases, shortcuts and oversights often inherent in the work we do when architecting information.

Oddly enough, I really didn't like this book at first. Until about a third of the way through I felt it was trying too hard to be all things to all people (Abby explicitly states the 'beginners guide' as an aim), without necessarily succeeding in avoiding example scenarios and terminology that exposes the author as a digital web professional. Judged by this criteria it may not be an absolute success. However, the latter half of the book does an impressive job of dealing with complex themes without losing the concise simplicity of the writing style.
Profile Image for Kevin.
697 reviews6 followers
April 28, 2015
While I enjoyed and appreciated this book for what it was, a high altitude overview of IA, I really hoped the author would get a bit more into the details as they pertain to specific industries such as website design. Maybe a follow-up?
Profile Image for Karen Mardahl.
579 reviews27 followers
May 22, 2016
I think this is a great book for getting started with information architecture. I read it in about 100 minutes. I have the great big polar bear book ("Information Architecture for the World Wide Web"), but confess I have never gotten around to reading it. I am not an Information Architect, but I am interested in understanding information architect. Because it is not my job, I have made do with reading articles here and there over the years, but never reading that bigger book.

I regard this book as an introduction or "setting things straight" book, and as such, I feel it was great. Over the summer, I will read Andrew Hinton's "Understanding Context". That will be a much more substantial, more in-depth look at information architecture. Reading Abby Covert's book is a nice preparation for that. I can see me sharing sections of it with developers, system architects, product owners, etc. via the online version of the book (http://www.howtomakesenseofanymess.com).

The diagram section, especially the matrix diagram, is useful. I want to try the matrix diagram on a particular project I have, and I think it would be useful on some other projects in the pipeline. I have made diagrams before, but it was nice to have her top 10 styles laid out like this for comparison. It gave them more context.

I really like the language section in Chapter 4: Choose a Direction. This is stuff I do know, but I like the way she presented the information. To use her own words, "language matters". I could see me using this to explain some of my work to people not in my field (technical communication). I feel I get tongue-tied (annoying when you are a communicator!!) when people question something I do and the question is unexpected or new to me. Abby Covert has a few chapters that can get my words in order once more. :)

I finished reading the book, but I will re-visit it again. There are some exercises at the end of each chapter. I did not do them while reading. I did think about them for a bit, but I think they are good exercises (like doing scales on the piano), so they are handy to use when I need some practice.

I think this book is also a quick answer to the discussions I've (anecdotally) heard about on the internet among UX people - "are we forgetting our roots in information architecture?" Those people can grab a coffee or two and get a refresher course from this book in less than two hours.

Now I am ready to read Andrew Hinton's "Understanding Context" book over the next couple of months!
Profile Image for Attila Bujdosó.
12 reviews1 follower
January 14, 2021
When the author says "If you rip out the content from your favorite book and throw the words on the floor, the resulting pile is not your favorite book." she is right. Unfortunately, she didn't apply this thinking to her own book.

If you throw a bunch of tweet-long ideas, comments, observations and statements into a book, the result is not a very good book. Some diagrams are good, though.
Profile Image for Ivan Chernov.
121 reviews7 followers
May 3, 2022
Хорошая начальная книжка по тому, как заниматься систематизацией информации. Здесь это подаётся как информационная архитектура, но для меня выглядит как построение онтологий или введение к системному мышлению. При этом учёт субъективных точек зрения не идёт, и в книге описываются только приёмы по описанию происходящих процессов.
66 reviews
March 11, 2020
Nice introduction to Information Architecture, with simple advice on how to process and organise a complex topic. With templates to guide you and some examples, it's easy to follow and to read, and most of the times it feels all common sense, but the one that is not so evident to apply.
I think a good way to make the most of this book is to take an example of some "mess" of yours and try to apply as you read the steps. Else, it makes a collection of good-to-know recommendations on defining intent, structure drawing, concepts definition, measuring... That stays very conceptual.
Profile Image for Carlos Alonso.
49 reviews3 followers
July 17, 2018
Una introducción elegante y abierta sobre el concepto de arquitectura de información. El libro ofrece una metodología y una serie de lecciones aplicables a cualquier contexto en el que necesitemos organizar información para que otras personas puedan acceder a ella y tomar las acciones oportunas.

Si te estás iniciando en arquitectura de información o quieres tener un conocimiento básico de la materia es un libro muy recomendable como punto de partida.
Profile Image for Darryl Wright.
68 reviews2 followers
January 14, 2022
The style of this book is fascinating. The ideas are presented briefly and succinctly, almost as if it was written for a child, and yet without condescension. As the book goes on the ideas start to resolve into something far larger than the opening sections would have suggested. It’s big ideas about information architecture presented in bite sized pieces.
Profile Image for Tyler.
17 reviews27 followers
December 30, 2019
Absolutely brilliant book. Possibly my second favorite professional book of the year (after Brave New Work). Essential for anyone doing knowledge work, solving problems, or spending time in new territory. Extremely readable and well-designed, perfect for always being on my desk.
Profile Image for Samantha.
Author 28 books140 followers
January 8, 2023
In trying to be general enough to be useful in a variety of settings and situations, this may be too general. It doesn't mean much just reading it straight through. But, it's designed as sort of a workbook, and there are some very useful questions and patterns of thinking. I don't think I'll know how useful it is until I apply it to a particular problem and see how well it serves me.
Profile Image for Jordan Jackson.
40 reviews12 followers
June 24, 2018
Honesty, this could have been a long form blog post, but never the less an informative read.
Profile Image for Adriana.
146 reviews
July 30, 2021
Muy buen libro para empezar a aprender a estructurar un proyecto, saber qué elementos se deben de tomar en cuenta tanto del producto como de stakeholders, limitaciones, tiempos, etc.

Brinda un panorama amplio que se puede complementar muy bien con un curso básico de Arquitectura de la Información.
61 reviews79 followers
June 27, 2020
Quality of the writing: 3
Quality of the content/organisation/research: 4
Impact on my perspective: 2
Resonance: 3
Rereading potential: 4
Overall score: 3.5

The reason I read it: Trying to do some thinking about how to organise some information in particular, also hoping it might include some general principles. 

Context of reading: I had various problems in mind to try to solve using this book. I also read a textbook on a similar topic at the same time. 

Review:
How To Make Sense of Any Mess is an introduction to information architecture (which Wikipedia defines as 'the structural design of shared information environments'). Abby Covert leads you through a step-by-step process for making sense of mess, with the main stages being:

1. Identify the mess
2. State your intent
3. Face reality
4. Choose a direction
5. Measure the distance
6. Play with structure
7. Prepare to adjust

Identifying the mess means learning about your users and stakeholders, the information you're dealing with, and its current state - which Covert suggests drawing in whatever fashion you like. 

Stating your intent is about establishing your criteria for good, how your message comes across, who you're communicating to, the language to use, and the problem you're trying to solve. 

Facing reality is about moving on from the abstract and touching the territory so you can be realistic. Covert recommends using diagrams to represent and communicate reality. 

Choosing a direction is about making steps towards your intent and thinking about it on different levels. 

Measuring the distance is about breaking your intent down into measurable goals and choosing the right indicators of success. 

Playing with structure is about deciding how to organise the mess so it makes sense to users, reflects your intent, and helps achieve your goals. 

Preparing to adjust is about accommodating what you encounter along the way. 

How To Make Sense of Mess looks simple and is written in the most basic language possible, with numerous diagrams designed to look like something one might sketch on the back of a napkin. It's the sort of book you could skim through in an hour and get little out of. Or you could do as I did and spend half a day working through the implications of each page and carrying out the exercises Covert includes. While there's not much hand-holding, the lessons are practical and versatile. It's best suited to reading when you have a mess to make sense of, then to referring to again and again with future messes. 

Interesting tidbits:
-Information is whatever we convey through a particular arrangement or sequence and whatever someone interprets from that

- The language we use to describe something shows our intent with it

- Every decision made in design should be in accordance with a pre-decided notion of what counts as 'good'

- Always ask: how will we know if we've succeeded?

- Reality happens across multiple channels and contexts

- Creating maps and diagrams helps other people see your mental model of a problem

- You turn a space into a place by arranging it so people know what to do

- Sometimes we confuse suggesting options with giving opinions

- How you choose to measure progress affects your likelihood of success

- Ambiguity costs clarity, exactitude costs flexibility.
Profile Image for Marcin Zaremba.
Author 5 books97 followers
December 30, 2016
Meta-książka. Żywy przykład na stosowanie rekomendacji wymienionych w niej samej.

Każda strona to mikro-felieton bądź mikro-definicja związana ze sposobami na opanowanie chaosu przez stosowanie zasad architektury informacji.

Całość jest przyjazną sekwencją idąc od najważniejszych, wręcz aksjomatycznych pojęć (różnica między informacją, daną a wiedzą) i przechodzi płynnie do struktur oraz taksonomii a kończy na roli biznesowej architektury informacji.

To nie jest książka, którą odkłada się na półkę po przeczytaniu. Warto ją mieć zawsze blisko, gdy zwątpisz czy wiesz co robisz (jeśli projektujesz coś skomplikowanego)
Profile Image for Avaricce.
5 reviews
January 27, 2017
A book filled with such generic advice that it's applicable to (almost) anything. Which makes it fantastic and disappointing at the same time; disappointing if you were hoping for a "magical" solution, or expected some hard, precise, specific instructions when you picked it up.

There's no magic, but then again, it's not that complicated either - just answer a bunch of questions about yourself/your work/whatever problem you're facing, and you'll solve it in no time...right? Right?

Still, some really good quotes in there. And depending on your current state of mind, parts of it might actually motivate you to finally tackle that one thing you've been putting off for too long.
Profile Image for Omar Mizdaq.
31 reviews1 follower
May 29, 2018
2 and a half stars. Too vague to be much use when read alone as an introduction to IA. The only scenario I can envision in which this would have much value would be as a design book club choice. I'm sure that in the hands of experienced designers, the abstract, nebulous one-page lessons that comprise the content would serve as jumping off points for many an enlightening discussion. As it stands, though, the lack of concrete examples (beyond facile references to supermarkets etc) mean that you'll likely turn the final page having gained little of practical benefit.
Profile Image for Matthew Hodge.
593 reviews21 followers
December 14, 2016
There are some good bits of advice in here about things to think about when you're trying to convey information but oddly enough, for a book on information architecture, it seemed a bit random.

I felt like I didn't quite grasp a process or a system to use so much as a few principles. (And some examples of tables and charts which was useful.)

Ultimately, a book I wanted to like more than I actually did.
Profile Image for Omar J.
5 reviews
February 15, 2018
A short and succinct read on thought processes around designing an Information Architecture. Abby Covert keeps the language simple and tries to keep the topics generic enough so it can be applied to all disciplines. As an experienced designer, it was a helpful reminder of the fundamentals but it felt a bit too dumbed-down. I think it’s geared for beginners but if that’s the case, it’s too generic and lacks thoughtful examples to help a beginner frame these principles.
Profile Image for Sarah.
100 reviews8 followers
June 26, 2019

This book is so useful as a thought exercise but tough as a practical workbook for approaching information architecture for documentation. Because it lacks specificity, it’s on the reader to take the high-level questions and really sit with them. Not for the faint of heart, but a great read when sitting in the midst of many challenging messes. I took more notes as the book progressed and got slightly more concrete.
Profile Image for Carolina Bento.
30 reviews11 followers
August 28, 2016
Excellent introduction to Information Architecture.
It's a very concise and straight-forward book, focusing on a handful of core topics.
Each topic's examples are were simple and yet were very powerful to summarise the underlying idea of the topic/chapter.
I'm looking forward to explore some of the recommended books from the "Further Reading" section.
Profile Image for Chad.
397 reviews20 followers
December 1, 2020
This book should be required reading for anyone who organizes things and/or works on the web. I was initially disappointed by what felt like a lack of concrete examples, but the carefully crafted thought process and lessons on each page won me over. I would love to read more by this author.
Profile Image for Stacy Taylor.
59 reviews8 followers
March 29, 2016
I didn't care for the format, which was basically like a collection of 100 one minute elevator pitches. It made for a quick read, but it lacks substance and depth. I guess that was kind of the point, but I didn't get as much out of it as I'd hoped to.
Profile Image for Tara.
42 reviews1 follower
July 5, 2017
This book is awesome and super helpful! Abby Covert, has done some great work explaining how to organize systems and information in a simple and precise way. Best quote in the book: " Perfection isn't possible, but progress is." I'll be repeating that one 'til I'm dead.
Profile Image for Alyssa.
97 reviews45 followers
October 18, 2022
To start to identify the mess you’re facing, work through these questions:

* Users: Who are your intended users? What do you know about them? How can you get to know them better? How might they describe this mess?
* Stakeholders: Who are your stakeholders? What are their expectations? What are their thoughts about this mess? How might they describe it?
* Information: What interpretations are you dealing with? What information is being created through a lack of data or content?
* Current state: Are you dealing with too much information, not enough information, not the right information, or a combination of these?


A good controlled vocabulary considers:
* Variant spellings (e.g., American or British)
* Tone (e.g., Submit or Send)
* Scientific and popular terms (e.g., cockroaches or Periplaneta Americana)
* Insider and outsider terms (e.g., what we say at work; what we say in public)
* Acceptable synonyms (e.g., automobile, car, auto, or vehicle)
* Acceptable acronyms (e.g., General Electric, GE, or G.E.)

Review your list of defined terms with some of your users. Refine the list based on their feedback.

Common indicators.
* Satisfaction: Are customers happy with what you’re delivering against your promises?
* Kudos: How often do people praise you for your efforts or contributions?
* Profit: How much was left over after expenses?
* Value: What would someone pay for it?
* Loyalty: How likely are your users to return?
* Traffic: How many people used, visited, or saw what you made?
* Conversion: What percentage of people acted the way you hoped they would?
* Spread: How fast is word getting around about what you’re doing?
* Perception: What do people believe about what you’re making or trying to achieve?
* Competition: Who has similar intents to yours?
* Complaints: How many users are reaching out about an aspect of your product or service?
* Backlash: What negative commentary do you receive or expect?
* Expenses: How much did you spend?
* Debt: How much do you owe?
* Lost time: How many minutes, hours, or days did you spend unnecessarily?
* Drop-off: How many people leave without taking the action you hoped they would?
* Waste: How much do you discard, measured in materials and time?
* Murk: What alternative truths or opinions exist about what you’re making or trying to achieve?


When making a cup of coffee, the filter’s job is to get the grit out before a user drinks the coffee. Sensemaking is like removing the grit from the ideas we’re trying to give to users.

What we remove is as important as what we add. It isn’t just the ideas that get the work done.

Be the one not bringing the ideas. Instead, be the filter that other people’s ideas go through to become drinkable:
* Shed light on the messes that 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.
Profile Image for McKenzie Richardson.
Author 63 books54 followers
March 3, 2020
For more reviews, check out my blog: Craft-Cycle

I had to read this book for my Information Architecture course and it is by far my favorite book we have read up to this point.

This is a great first resource for learning about Information Architecture and the information provided is wide enough to be applicable to many situations outside of official information science areas. If you need to make sense of a mess in your life and/or profession, this is the book to find out how.

Covert writes in a way that is simple, informational, and, dare I say, fun. It is easy to see what she is talking about. One thing that I really enjoyed is that she practices what she preaches, so to speak, in providing clear definitions paired with examples that are easy to relate to. In some of my other class readings, the examples are so tech-heavy that I kind of get lost in them. Covert instead ops for more generalized examples such as putting away groceries, examining school grades, and tweeting while watching TV.

The book is broken down into seven sections that act as procedural steps to addressing your mess. Each chapter contains page-long lessons that are easy to digest, as well as scenarios that apply the principles and worksheets to help the reader do the same.

I also loved the indexed lexicon at the back of the book that combines an index and a glossary, making information even easier to find.

This was a great book and I honestly think I would enjoy it even if I didn't have to read it for class. The simple cover is a great representation of the information inside. It is clean and simple. Covert does her best to abstract a lot of information without overwhelming the reader, and I for one think it was a great success. She applies the principles she teaches to create a book that is helpful, useful, and interesting.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 124 reviews

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