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Book Review: How to Make Sense of Any Mess

Posted on March 30, 2016 by Sara Kennedy

About this Article

This article is a review of the book How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert, written from two points of view. How to Make Sense of Any Mess is a book about information architecture and how it can be used by everyone. To prove this, Sara Kennedy, a Front End Developer, and Bella Wenum, an Information Architect, will share their own perspectives on how this book has influenced them.


The book can be read in linear order, in varied sections, or you may even follow a particular term via an indexed lexicon included in the free online version. It’s short and sweet (the print version is only 174 pages) and cuts out all the fluff and tech speak. It’s a great introduction to information architecture, but it also makes for a valuable reference to keep handy. 

Abby defines a mess as “any situation where something is confusing or full of difficulty,” and lists examples of messes we all encounter:

  • The structure of teams in organizations
  • The process we undertake in working together
  • The ways products and services are represented, sold, and delivered to us
  • The ways we communicate with each other

There’s a clear seven-step process for thinking through these messes:

  1. Identify the Mess - identify the edges and depths of your mess
  2. State Your Intent - make sure your intentions and language are clear
  3. Face Reality - visualize your mess with various diagrams
  4. Choose a Direction - figure out what to do and take steps toward it
  5. Measure the Distance - set your goals
  6. Play with Structure - work on the structure until you find one that makes sense
  7. Prepare to Adjust - be prepared for changes and adjust accordingly

Abby provides questions, examples, diagrams, and worksheets for each step that help you tackle your mess.


Information Architect’s Perspective

~Bella Wenum

I specialize in information architecture and usability, so it’s my responsibility to make sure things are organized so that they make sense to users. I use knowledge gained from this book every day as I work on projects because even though organizing things comes naturally to me, this book still provides a lot of useful advice. Whether I am analyzing business requirements, creating navigation labels, or laying out a site in a wireframe, there are nuggets of wisdom from it that always prove to be valuable. 

One part I find particularly useful is the discussion of Why, What, and How in Chapter 2: State Your Intent. This is the most important part of any project - keeping everyone on the same page.

  • Why —> Determines Requirements
  • What —> Determines Goals
  • How —> Determines Features

Why, What, and How all depend on and impact each other; they are the driving force of the project. A change to one could mean a change to them all so it’s imperative to take regular steps back during iteration to make sure they are all still aligned with each other and your intentions are still clear. You can’t only ask Why, What, and How during the beginning of a project; pose these questions regularly to make sure everything is still on track.

Clarity of language (words, acronyms, etc.) is another notable takeaway from this book. How many times have you used an acronym only to find out it means something different to another person? I bet it’s happened at least once or twice. Abby discusses the importance of having a consistent language in a project. How do we communicate with each other when words mean different things to everyone involved? Not very easily. Take the time to be clear; define terms and acronyms in a project so that everyone involved shares the same language to make communicating more efficient.

You don’t have to be an Information Architect to appreciate this book. How to Make Sense of Any Mess is for anyone that has ever faced a confusing situation and needed a little help figuring out how to wrangle the mess.


Front End Developer’s Perspective

~Sara Kennedy

I am an expert on jumping head first into a problem (or mess) and immediately looking for solutions. I have approached many projects with a Ms. Fix-It attitude, looking to solve a problem before I fully understand it.  Being a problem solver isn’t bad in certain situations, but when developing a website or application, solving first and questioning second can lead to a lot of frustration for both the development team and the users.

I recently found myself needing a better way to approach large messes, so I asked my Information Architect friend Bella what she would recommend as a resource.  How To Make Sense of Any Mess was the first book she recommended.  

First of all, I love the fact that the book is accessible for free online and that all of the topics covered are short and quick to understand.  Like most people, I stay busy so this format made it easy for me to fit this into my schedule.  

Right away the book gave me ways to slow down my inner Ms. Fix-It.  Within the first few chapters, I understood:

  • Information is what a user interprets from a particular arrangement or sequence of things. Not only the presence but the absence of content or data can be informing to a user.
  • Asking why, what and how are important parts of the initial discovery process, but are valuable questions to ask repeatedly during a project’s development.
  • Team members each have unique mental models of a project.  It’s important for everyone to share their mental models and work together to create a group model/understanding. The book provides a number of diagramming tools to help with this.

My most lasting takeaway from this book is the definition and value Abby gives to the practice of information architecture. My favorite visualization she gives for IA practice came in Chapter 7: Prepare to Adjust:

  • Information architecture is like the frame and foundation of a building. It's not a building by itself, but you can't add the frame and foundation after the building is up.
  • Imagine trying to open a fancy restaurant in an old Pizza Hut. The shape of its former self persists in the structure. The mid-nineties nostalgia for that brand is in its bones. Paint the roof; change the signage; blow out the inside; it doesn't matter. The building insists, "I used to be a Pizza Hut."

She’s right that you can’t accomplish everything with just the facade or design, and this description stuck with me as a clear example of that... or maybe it stuck with me because I have a soft spot for old-school Pizza Huts. Either way it stuck.

This Liberty Tax building is one of our local examples in Cayce, SC.

This Liberty Tax building is one of our local examples in Cayce, SC.


Messes are everywhere and we deal with them every day.  They’re much easier to tackle when you have a process and tools to think your way through them. Practicing information architecture in your project can be hard at first, but making space for this practice leads to better products that work for more users and more rewarding successes for your team. 


Follow us on Twitter - Bella (@belladactyl) and Sara (@SaraLKennedy)