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Abby Covert: Using Information Architecture to make sense of messes

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Have a mess that needs to be taken care of? Here's some practical advice from one of the leaders in the IA field.

It must have been Abby Covert’s lucky day: hearing Nobel Laureate and former US Vice President Al Gore mention “information architecture” 11 (eleven!) times in his closing keynote at From Business to Buttons 2016.

Abby, who gave her talk earlier in the day at the conference, is one of those in our broad field of people who try to make technology and information more humane, useful and accessible, who call themselves information architects, or IAs for short.

What is IA? It’s a bit like interaction design’s big – slighty overlooked – sister: a craft and an art more concerned with making sense and order, than fancy and funny interactions. (Which makes Al Gore’s endorsment even more satisfactory.)

IA has strong roots in library science; in creating order and structure, classifying information, sorting things into practical and understandable categories.

But IA also has a more extrovert, instructive side, concerned with getting people to understand complicated issues. The term was originally coined in connection with what we today call infographics (by Richard Saul Wurman, an architect by training).

All in all, although IA can be used in a narrow sense (usually, the structure of a web site), it is more interesting to see it in it’s broader sense: How to make sense of any mess – the title of Abby’s talk and her recent book.

In her talk (see the video below!) Abby gave examples of a few practical tools for creating order and structure from messes. It’s no wonder Al Gore was thinking along the same lines in his closing keynote: How can we make sense of the mess the world is in today? How can we stop climate change, restore democracy (that Gore described as “hacked”), move on to a cleaner, more sustainable future?

Your messes – a web site, an intranet, a corporate structure – will be small in comparison to the fate of the planet. But hey, let’s fix the small problems quickly so we can focus on the big ones, OK?