Collaborative information architecture with Abby Covert

Meeting Abby Covert was a defining moment of 2017. I’ve methodically absorbed her book, blog and presentations. You could call me a fan ; ) I wasn’t expecting our meeting to be punctuated with memorable (and sometimes hilarious), anecdotes.

Information architecture is everywhere

To begin,  IA or information architecture, is how we arrange things to give them sense.

It’s in the websites we use, the apps and software we download, the printed materials we encounter, and even the physical places we spend time in.

Why does IA need to be collaborative?

There are a few reasons why a collaborative approach supports better information arrangements :

  • It avoids communication heft. When people aren’t brought along on a journey,  they’re overloaded when they do become involved, which is jarring.
  • It avoids ambiguity. Defining what’s right in a silo is a waste of time. When you have 2 people who have different words to describe the same thing  there’s inevitably confusion around  what to call that thing and also on defining what that thing actually is.
  • It avoids ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ thinking where human centred design becomes secondary to business goals, instead of driving them

People can assume they understand something clearly, until they compare that understanding with another person’s

This simple philosophy, sets the context for an insightful excercise which could be repeated with groups of people – particularly with divergent views on the words and concepts which pepper our ecosystems.

Each of us was challenged to draw ‘information architecture’, its components, their elements and the layers between these. Visualising the concept helped to crystallise our understanding of it quickly. In pairs we compared our diagrams and discussed


– the pieces or connections

– the words used

We then visualised our shared meanings as one diagram. Working in groups of four we repeated this exercise.

It was messy, scrappy and surfaced new ideas  rapidly. In a well facilitated workshop this could be a powerful to to surface communication gaps and give meaning to similar concepts.

Designing conversations for stronger collaborations 

Getting tips on how to reinforce my stakeholder interview process was a personal highlight. This covered meeting people from a breadth of departments and levels to gather a holistic view of a customer journey.

She also talked about designing conversations to surface their:

  • Position
  • Convictions
  • Doubts
  • Questions

Whilst I specialise in an open-non-led interview technique, a structure for this will help me to guide and uncover richer stories and blind spots

St Catherines College and the elusive toilet key

A side note on the venue. St Catherine’s college at Cambridge University is an unlikely venue for a 21st century human centred design event. Firstly there are very few signs which newcomers might use to confidently find a reception and navigate to their designated meeting room. I sigh because it’s always sad to see stereotypes confirmed. This is a place for insiders, which has been opened to a diverse group of challengers. We are part of a tiny step forwards.

As if this is a warm up, we’re told that the water has been cut off and we are to share one key to a locked toilet across the courtyard. We joke about this nervously. We can handle this, I tell myself!

During the break I make a bee line for the key. The mysterious toilet doesn’t seem to be sign posted ( of course) so I wonder around and eventually find a door. This opens to a landing with a dusty stuffed penguin toy on a ledge.I guess that the arrangement is adhoc and I really need to wee. I eventually find the toilet, which wierdly seems to be part of a bathroom arrangement. As a researcher I’m used to improvising in unexpected situations. However this is definitely one of the strangest, and I’m swift to leave.

I later notice other toilet bound attendees heading in a completely different direction  : ( )

Overall, this was easily one of the  most engaged and engaging UX crowds I’ve been lucky enough to join this year. They had all faced challenges when collaborating to build shared meaning, so Abby’s practical tips were equally therapeutic and useful. I had a lot to share and learn from them and could easily have hung out for several more hours.

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