How To Make Sense of Any Mess

Covert, A., & Fenton, N. (2014.). How To Make Sense of Any Mess.

The first step to taming any mess is to shine a light on it so you can outline its edges and depths. 12

Beware of pretty things. Pretty things can lie and hide from reality. Ugly things can too. 35

We have to think about the effects of adopting an existing structure or language before doing so. 55

People use aesthetic cues to determine how legitimate, trustworthy, and useful information is. 64

Demystify a process by making a flow diagram. 76

Language is complex. But language is also fundamental to understanding the direction we choose. Language is how we tell other people what we want, what we expect of them, and what we hope to accomplish together. 88

Remember that there’s no right or wrong way to do something. Words like right and wrong are subjective. 118

Don’t seek finalisation. Trying to make something that will never change can be super frustrating. 148

[The practice of information architecture] is the practice of deciding which structures we need so our intent comes through to users. 154


Morville, P. (2014). Intertwingled.

If we hope to understand and manage a complex, dynamic system, we must practice the art of frame shifting. 5

It’s increasingly difficult to get the information architecture right without governance. To make lasting change, we must align our information and systems with culture. This requires new literacies. It’s not enough to know design. We must be fluent in frame-shifting so we can explore categories, connections, and culture from multiple scales and myriad perspectives. 35

In designing taxonomies and vocabularies, we serve as architects of understanding. We shape how users view the business, the topic, the task. For better or worse, our groups and labels endure across channels and platforms. 46

All too often we use radio buttons when checkboxes or sliders would reveal the truth. We do it to our users and we do it to ourselves. 68

Our plans are not only subject to butterflies but to the cobra effect as well. In colonial India, the British government tried to reduce the number of venomous snakes in Delhi by paying cash for dead cobras. It worked for a while until people began breeding cobras, then the government killed the bounty and breeders set their snakes free. Our actions may achieve the opposite of our goals especially when humans are involved.  91

The ethnographer needs to understand the meaning behind the behaviour. 125

Ethnography is tricky since we aim to discover from our informants not just the answers but the questions as well. 126

Culture is a system of symbols and relationships. Using domain analysis and taxonomy construction, ethnographers make maps that show how people have organised their knowledge. 127

The architect Eliel Saarinen said “always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context: a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” I find this advice useful as an athlete, as a dad, and as an information architect. 143

What are the relationships between categories, connections, and culture? Where are the links, loops, and levers? How can we use our ways of seeing to effect change at a higher level? 167