Last week on our UX community Slack channel, we hosted a live AMA with Abby Covert, Information Architect and author of How To Make Sense of Any Mess. These are the highlights from our one-hour chat.

Abby Covert is a renowned expert in information architecture. She’s also a speaker, curator, and author of the book ‘How to Make Sense of Any Mess’.

Deciding how something will be organized can seem simple, even obvious at first. But many organizations find that even simple projects can be stalled out due to lack of clarity, agreement and understanding around structure and language. According to her website:

“Information Architecture always exists. You can’t add IA or take IA away. All you can do is change it to better align with your goals.”

Here Abby helps our UX community make sense of their own messes, by answering questions on establishing IA practices, offering tips to get executive buy-in, Abby’s preferred research methods and the role of IA in a suddenly very different world.

(Please note, some edits have been made for spelling and clarity)

For people or organizations who do not understand the importance of IA, what should I tell them first? [Asumi]

I would say don’t tell them – show them. Pick a problem in the organization that is an IA problem. Show them the problem and talk about its impact. Then when they buy into this, teach them that this is an IA problem and these are the tools and methods we could use to solve it.

Can you share any tips for how you got buy-in for IA efforts at a company where they were being dismissed or disregarded? [Brenda]

I always try three times to convince someone of whatever we are talking about. I will throw what I have at them three distinct times. The third time I will tell them I will never bug them about it again, but would love to talk to them more if they ever want to. I am shocked how many people circle back to talk more.

What are the hardest challenges of establishing IA practices in a company that doesn’t have any, and what are the hardest challenges in well established IAs requiring further advancements? [Nenad]

Hardest challenges for establishing IA practice:

  • Everyone does IA work, so having someone specialize can feel like stepping on toes
  • Many people assume IA is a one time activity when in fact it is an ongoing practice – so resourcing conversations can be fraught

Hardest challenges for already established IAs:

  • Being pressured to generalize
  • Being asked how to get an IA job when there are very few out there

What research methods do you mostly use for IA? [Nikita]

I spend most of my research time on:

  • Conversational research with users
  • Stakeholder interviewing
  • Remote unmoderated usability test
  • Card sorting (open moderated, then closed unmoderated)
  • Tree testing

I do everything remote these days because of our user base being global. Although at Etsy we’ve obviously moved everything to remote recently.


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Everything in moderation


When should you tweak your internal IA vs. going for the large overhaul? [Sebastian]

The first thing you need to know is: how far away from the vision are you? If you are very far you might be better off with an overhaul but that’s not always the case.

The second question is, “How impactful is change on our users?” In some cases redesigning something bad that someone uses everyday is worse than them suffering from a bad product.

How much website information is too much information? [Christopher]

The best way to determine the right ‘information density’ for a website is to truly understand your audience, their context and your goals. If we are building a website for CDC employees handling a global pandemic we probably need more dense information than a website informing school children to not be scared of the same subject. So… it depends!

Countries around the world are publishing information about Coronavirus, but confusion continues. What can IA do to help solve this? [Asumi]

The number one thing IAs can do is use their abilities to make complex things clear to help those in their immediate family and local community to understand (and maybe translate) the orders of the country. For example, ‘shelter in place’ sounds scary, but when someone explains the idea of flattening the curve and tells you the why behind it all, it’s easier to understand.

Do you have any tips for massive systems-within-systems like university or government websites, where information might live across whole websites vs. being collected in one place? [Stacy]

Make a map of what exists. I know that seems daunting but it’s the only way to not be scared of it anymore. If you can be the map maker, you will relieve so much anxiety in others and enable hope that change is possible, because it’s just some boxes and arrows – what’s scary about that?!

Do you find any differences in practicing IA in-house and external? [OJ]

The biggest difference I see is in power dynamics. When you are external, you can use your external-ness as power and you can say things that people who work internally might not be able to say. But you are always serving the client, so it is far more likely you are only shipping ideas, not products, unless you are an innie (that’s for IA work specifically – I know many outties are shipping products for clients).

Any suggestions for helping content strategy and IA work better together? [Kavita]

A metaphor that has helped me with this in the past is “IA is building the car, but content strategy is making sure we don’t run out of gas.” I would say you could make a catalog of moments where your company was behind on CS and use it as a parable to make people understand the yin and yang of IA and CS.

When you first start working with a company, what recommendations do you have for finding people already doing IA or related work? [Brenda]

Ask for an org chart and talk to at least one of each ‘role’ – aim for both high and low in the organization, both do-ers and managers. Ask those people about IA tasks but not using IA language. So instead of asking “Do you make controlled vocabularies?” you can ask “When terms are unclear on a project, what do you do?”

What is your favorite conference and why? [Brian]

IA Conference (formerly IA Summit) hands down – because it is always fresher than other UX conferences. Many people are debuting talks that they want feedback on and the community aspect of the conference means a lot to me personally. Being an IA can be lonely, and once a year I get to just nerd out with like minds and that’s amazing. It’s remote this year if you are so inclined!

Who do you see as the current leaders in IA or UX? [Brian]

Hmmm this is a tough question as it is so broad. But here are a few female speakers/authors in the IA space who I very much enjoy following:

Karen McGrane
Carrie Hane
Lisa Marie Martin
Dan Klyn
Jorge Arrango

With the dissolution of the IAI, where are the important IA conversations happening? [Brian]

I don’t think we have figured that out just yet. There are some smaller email based groups that talk but with the current state of the world, it’s not very active at the moment. I still think World IA Day and the IA Conference are two communities actively pushing the space forward each year.


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Every other month, we have a special guest, sharing their knowledge and experience in a live AMA discussion. If you want to take part (or know anyone who’d love to) give us a shout out on Twitter @betterUX_