Episode 28: Abby Covert, Etsy - How to Make Sense of Any Mess

October 17, 2019

Abby Covert, better known as Abby the IA, returns to the show for a repeat appearance to talk about information architecture, her influential book, How to Make Sense of Any Mess, and life in the design world as a new mom (congratulations!). In this episode, she breaks down the steps to information architecture as outlined in her book, and shares some real-world stories of sensemaking from her readers.

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About this week’s guest

Abby Covert

Abby Covert is the senior staff information architect at Etsy. She specializes in delivering a collaborative information architecture process and teaching those that she works with along the way. She speaks and writes under the pseudonym Abby the IA, focusing on sharing information architecture content with those working within the design and technology communities.

Abby is the author of How to Make Sense of Any Mess, a book about information architecture for everybody. She also holds credit for the invention of World IA Day—a global celebration of IA taking place in more than 50 locations around the world every February. Learn more about her work at AbbytheIA.com and follow her on Twitter at @Abby_the_IA.



Episode transcript

Kristina: Hello my friends and neighbors. Welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. I am your host, Kristina Halvorson. And each episode, I bring someone in from the content strategy industry who’s doing amazing work right now. And this week I asked Ms. Abby Covert who is the senior information architect at Etsy—she’s also known as Abby the IA—to join me to talk about her book, How to Make Sense of Any Mess, and all sorts of additional interesting topics because she’s amazing.

But, before we start the interview, I have two very special things to share with you, and actually both of them are that I need your help. Now the first one, I am doing an experiment that I would love for you to be a part of. I am going to do a listener Q&A episode.

And here’s how you can participate: If you have a burning question about content strategy, or something related to content strategy, I would like to ask you to call in and leave a message on our very fancy Google Voice mailbox. I’ll give you the number real quick now, but you can also find it on the show notes for this week’s episode at ContentStrategy.com/Podcast. The number is (510) 858-6927.

If you are driving in your car, do not punch that into your phone right now. It is illegal in the state of Minnesota and probably in your state too. Just saying—be responsible. Don’t text and drive. Hey, this is an experiment again. I’m really excited about it; I think we’re going to have a lot of fun with it. So please, for your chance to be on The Content Strategy Podcast, shoot me a voicemail.

Here’s the second thing that I need your help with. For the first time ever, I’m going to be doing a Content Strategy Podcast survey. That’s right. I am interested in you, and what you want to hear, and what you like about the podcast, what you wish were different about the podcast, how you would like to see the podcast reach new heights of amazingness, specifically just for you. So, if you could visit ContentStrategy.com/Survey and give us about four to five minutes of your time—it’s not a very long survey—to answer a few questions, I would be forever in your debt. So please, help us out: ContentStrategy.com/Survey.

Thank you so much for indulging me. And now, here’s Abby.


Kristina: Friends and neighbors, welcome back. It’s Kristina, and with me today once again for a repeat performance is Abby Covert. Abby is the senior staff information architect at Etsy and the author of How to Make Sense of Any Mess, a book about information architecture for everybody. She also holds credit for the invention of World IA Day, which is a global celebration of IA taking place in more than 50 locations around the world every February.

She speaks and writes under the pseudonym Abby the IA, focusing on sharing information architecture content with those working within the design and technology communities. Except isn’t a pseudonym something that you use so that people don’t know who you are?

Abby: Well, I would say that at a lot of conferences, people do not know what my last name is and I don’t hate that. That’s kind of awesome.

Kristina: That is awesome.

Abby: Yeah. Although my husband did get referred to as James the IA and somebody did suggest that I register “Baby the IA” and I haven’t done that. Yeah, so.

Kristina: Or “the IA dot baby.”

Abby: Yeah. It’s not a full family commitment is what I’m saying.

Kristina: I understand. As a side note, we’ve recently started talking about just registering a bunch of different words with “dot baby.”

Abby: Oh, yeah, for sure.

Kristina: “Content strategy dot baby” being the top one.

Abby: Oh my god. “Content strategy dot baby.” Yes.

Kristina: “IA dot baby.” Everything dot baby. And then—have you watched Big Mouth? Because there’s a character on there that’s like a million years old and he’s always like, “Yeah, baby!”

Abby: No.

Kristina: There would just be a big GIF of that guy. “Yeah, baby!”

Abby: Amazing. Amazing.

Kristina: I’m pretty impressed by my impression there. Okay, if our listeners have not already stopped listening to the podcast—Abby, what have you been up to lately?

Abby: Well, let’s see. Since we last spoke, I birthed a human, and I spent five months keeping that human alive and thinking very little about information architecture (aside from figuring out the right schedule for feeding and diapering said child). So yeah, that’s the primary thing. I’m about two weeks into that. I would say the first two weeks after we got back from the hospital was, in between naps, me cleaning out closets and labeling everything while the baby was sleeping, and it was just like ... I don’t know. I went through a mad rush of information architecture nesting. It was pretty intense.

Kristina: Wow. That is not what I was doing for the first two weeks. I definitely, though—there were spreadsheets. There were spreadsheets for when they were fed and when they pooped and—

Abby: There has to be spreadsheets.

Kristina: There always has to be spreadsheets.

Abby: Yeah.

Kristina: Well, that’s amazing. But you’re back to a different kind of work. You’re back to IA.

Abby: Yeah. I’m back to IA. So this is my third week back at Etsy from parental leave. Parental leave, by the way, is amazing. More companies should have parental leave. If any of your listeners are in charge of such things for designers or the design community, please make that a priority because it’s amazing. So yeah, I’m about three weeks back and just getting my feet wet again, trying to figure out what I’m going to do in this new world where I am both an information architect and a mom.

Kristina: When you figure that out, please let the rest of us know.

Abby: I totally will, yeah.

Kristina: Because I’ve had children for 14 years and I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing as a content strategist and a mom. It’s something. So as you hit the ground running again, coming back to work, what are you excited about right now? What’s got your brain moving?

Abby: I think the most exciting thing for me is seeing how much the organization actually has changed. When you leave for a period of time like five months, which I did, you get to come back and have this reflection of how much has changed. But it ultimately made me reflect on a longer time scale than I expected. I ended up coming back and really spending time looking at what’s happened in the three years since I started working with Etsy. And that was a really interesting kind of exploration just because you get so close to the work that, when you come back to it after some breathing room, you can look at it fresh.

So, I think that we’re really tackling some very interesting challenges right now. I mean, the main thing is balancing between the need for structured data and the need for human intuition that can’t be derived from things that we’re going to ask people to enter into a database. So that’s the nut that we’re looking to crack in the short- and the long-term. And I guess that’s the thing that has me the most excited right now to go to work.

Kristina: One thing that I know about you is that when you came to work at Etsy a couple of years ago, they got in touch with you initially because of this book that you had written called How to Make Sense of Any Mess. Last time we talked, we were so excited to talk about the things we were talking about that we didn’t even get to talk about your book. And I said to you at that time, “We’ve got to have you back on the show to talk about how, in fact, to make sense of any mess.” And I want to know all the things about this.

So, first of all, tell us what the book is about.

Abby: Sure. How to Make Sense of Any Mess is a beginner’s guide to information architecture. And I really mean beginner very strongly. So it is purposely written at a sixth grade reading level. It is divorced from any kind of attachment to a medium or a channel that you might be working with information on. And it really is meant to be a very layman’s guide to the concepts and the underpinnings of information architecture. I also spent a lot of time thinking about the flow of the book as a sort of workbook.

So as you’re going through it, there are different exercises and diagram types and thought-provoking questions along the way to help you to make sense of whatever mess you’re currently grappling with. And I’ve heard from my readers those messes can be, “I’m in charge of redesigning our corporate intranet system.” Another mess might be like, “I have to figure out how I’m going to align my classroom for after summer break to a whole new set of teaching methodologies,” which I had a reader reach out to me about a couple months ago.

So yeah, it’s just looking at messes as a very human condition and then looking at information architecture as the set of skills that we all have the ability to hone. We just need that training and that assistance to understand that it’s even something that is a skill for us to work on.

Kristina: And tell me, where did the idea come to you? Was there a certain series of events that occurred where you were just like, “Oh man, people need this book?”

Abby: Yeah, yeah. I would say my journey into teaching really was the impetus for it. Just a little bit of context: the book is about to have its five-year anniversary, which is pretty cool.

Kristina: Congratulations!

Abby: Yeah, and I’m mind blown that five years have passed because people still will say, “Oh, Abby’s new book ...” and I’m just like, “Yo, we’re going on five years here people …”

But yeah, if I look back five years to when it was published, and then I reverse another 18 months to when I had started to teach information architecture at both Parsons and General Assembly at the time, and then later at the School of Visual Arts, the thing that I kept running into was that I saw this tremendous need to teach information architecture to graphic design students and design students who were coming from outside of the UX space.

But there wasn’t a lot of material out there that I could send them to that wasn’t very much tied to certain mediums and channels, mostly websites. So if I was going to point them to an information architecture book, it would most likely be Information Architecture for the World Wide Web at that point. Now it’s called Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond, but still very focused on web information architecture.

What I really wanted to do was have a class at Parsons, where it started, that was about information architecture thinking and it wasn’t about execution at a certain medium or in a certain set of patterns that you might have on, say, a website. So the book really was something that I started as a journey to write my kids a textbook basically for my class. The first version of the book is actually called Make Sense, and it is a textbook. I wrote it week by week while I was teaching at Parsons the very first time. I basically just set up the expectation with my students that I wanted to do this. I struggled with writing my curriculum and I didn’t have the materials I wanted for it so I was going to make them as we went, and so I did.

Through that semester I wrote—I think it was probably around 25,000 words. And that was the first version. And that first version is absolutely nothing like the book. It is so far removed from the book it’s kind of hilarious. There’s a very long rant about the meaning of cocktail straws. It’s very academic. It’s not at all where the book ended up. But it got me what I needed in terms of starting to think about how I would break down these concepts and how I might actually teach this outside of the context of web information architecture.                                                      

So once that happened and I was done with that semester, I started to think, “This is actually a project I want to bring forward. I want to make a book. I think there’s white space for this book.” So I started to think about how might I actually do that? And I was given a space by Allan Chochinov at the School of Visual Arts at the program that I had recently accepted a teaching position in for IA. He gave me an office space for the summer and he was basically like, “Yeah, just write.”

And I did. And it was amazing. I sat across from a 3D printer for an entire summer at this very empty loft in the middle of the School of Visual Arts, and I just emptied my brain entirely of all my thoughts on IA. I started to really see that the way that I think and the way that I like to consume content is in very short form. I’m very much like a deck writer. I’m not really much of an essayist. So I started to think, “What would the book look like if it was just a set of note cards?” Kind of like a slide deck. And I started to look at it from that perspective.

The second version of the book was a set of—I think there were about 100 four-by-six note cards and each note card had an individual headline and a bit about that headline. It was just an individual concept and I thought at the time I was going to use that to outline how I would then write the book. But as I started to open up my process and show people what I was doing, those note cards became this object that everybody just wanted. They were just like, “No, just give me the note cards. Just give me the hundred note cards with the headline and the little blurb. That’s what I want.” And about that time, I was introduced to this book called “A Hundred Things That I Learned in Architecture School,” and that was essentially what that book was. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.” I basically wanted to write that book but for information architecture.

It was about that time that I started teaching in the School of Visual Arts, and my students were being asked to write their thesis compendium books. So every week I was having them, “Reimagine your thesis as an elevator pitch. Reimagine your thesis as a lesson for an elementary school classroom. Reimagine your thesis as ...” So I just started doing it along with them. And over the course of that semester, I really got to the place where I identified that I wanted to talk about messes—not so much about information architecture and taxonomy and ontology and these big concepts. I wanted to turn them into smaller concepts that were more layman, that more people could adopt and think about.

And yeah, it just kind of flew from there. Once the idea of a mess happened, that was really when it set into its current form. That’s about the time that I started working with Nicole Fenton, my editor, who is amazing. We went through, I think, two different revisions before we sent it to readers and then we went through another revision before it actually was published.

Kristina: Talk to me about some of the core tenets of the book. How do you invite people into the conversation? What guidelines are you giving them? How are you carrying them through the process of making sense of their messes?

Abby: I really challenged myself to think about it like a process. It feels like information architecture—and sensemaking in general—is just so in your head, that it really doesn’t feel like something that you could make into a step-by-step process. It feels like it’s too cognitive. It’s too heavy. It’s too about swirling in your brain and thinking things through. But I really challenged myself ... if I was going to get silly about it and make a process out of it, what would the steps of that process actually be? And I came up with seven steps and the book is structured into those seven steps. Each one of those steps has the underpinnings of thought relating to information architecture for that step, some exercises and thought starters around that step, and then a story of an actual person who’s at that stage of their journey in figuring out their mess.                                        

So the first step is to identify your mess, which is really about just admitting where you’re at and showing a picture of the problem state. Sometimes I think that’s the thing that actually unlocks people: just having a picture of the thing that they’re working on outside of their brain. I talk to my students a lot about how, when we keep things in our brain, they get bigger and they get scarier and they get more complex than they need to be. When we put them down on paper, we can actually confront them. So identifying the mess is the first step. Sort of like Alcoholics Anonymous, admitting your problems is the first step. It’s very similar in terms of—

Kristina: Oftentimes that’s the first couple of hours of a content strategy workshop. I think Scott Kubie here at Brain Traffic has done a great series on our blog around mapping content ecosystems, which is exactly that. It’s just, what are we looking at? What do we have here? Let’s get it out into the world and take a close look.

Abby: Yeah, yeah. Or if you look at the new book Everyday Information Architecture—which by the way, listeners, please go buy this book.

Kristina: I second that.

Abby: The whole idea about content auditing—a lot of that has to do with identifying your mess. That really is the first stage. And it can be the part that people never get through. When they realize what they’d have to do to actually go through and identify the mess, a lot of people turn back. A lot of people go, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s bigger than I want to get into.” But some people, and often people in our industry, it’s their job and they can’t turn back. This is just what we’re doing now.

So, identify the mess. And then once you’ve identified it, the next step is to state your intent. Think about all the different directions that you could go. And I really invite the readers to think deeply about the fact that that is a choice. Your intention is something that you set and the directional options that you have really do vary based on that decision.

If I decide I want to make this website be better for conversion, that’s not the same thing as better for engagement. There are just differences in terms of the intention that I’m going to set for myself. And then once we’ve set our intention, the third step is facing the reality, right? Because once we’ve set our intention, that doesn’t mean that we can actually achieve it in the time that was given to us or the budget that was given to us or the staff that was given to us or whatever. We have to kind of retrofit what we can actually do in the reality of our situation. It’s almost like you identify the mess and you kind of get cool with yourself about the fact that you’re going to make change. Then you kind of dream this world where your intention can be made clear, but then you have to reel it back to face that reality. And I think that’s actually a really important stage because it keeps it grounded to what actually happens in projects, as opposed to this kind of aspirational process where everything goes really well.

Kristina: I think what I have found is that when I introduce the word constraints—real world constraints—which is exactly what you’re talking about, people almost breathe a sigh of relief. Like, “Yes.”

Abby: Yeah, exactly.

Kristina: Can you talk to leadership about those, please?

Abby: Right. Can you please write some tight bullets of the things we don’t have right now? Because that would be really useful.

So that’s what face your reality is really about. It’s just a come-to-terms moment of, like, “Look, we know what the mess is. We know what our intention is. But that doesn’t mean that we can do exactly what we think we want to do. We have to take reality into account.”

And then the next part is around choosing a direction. Even when you’re set on a path, there are still a lot of different ways to go down that path. There are different speeds, different methodologies, different ways that you can go. Choosing that direction ultimately allows you to really commit. It’s like, “Okay, we’re executing now. We’re no longer hemming and hawing about what things are. We’re choosing a direction. We’re committing and we’re moving forward.”

Once we’ve committed to a direction, we have to measure the distance. We have to figure out how far we actually are away from that thing right now and how we are going to know when we get there. And really build in that piece about measurement, which I find way too many people do not talk about in lockstep with design.

And then playing with structure, right? The idea that once you’ve actually decided where you’re going, there’s still a multitude of options for how you might structure that thing that you’re making. That website might be organized by product. That website might be organized by audience. It might be organized by time. It might be organized by what’s new versus what’s old. We could do all these things.

And then lastly, prepare to adjust. This has definitely been called out by my readers as sort of my love note of bravery to them because I think that this is hard work. Sensemaking is hard work. It’s getting inside of people’s hearts and minds and really understanding, “What are we doing together?” And making decisions. That’s not easy work.

In a nutshell, that’s kind of the breeze-over of the book.

Kristina: Tell me some other cool stories that you’ve heard from readers.

Abby: Well, I can tell you that almost all of the stories in the book are actually based on people. Before the book was in existence, my way of thinking about information architecture is something that I’ve talked to people about for years. I’ve had friends that approached me with problems that they’ve had, like making their wedding fit into the budget that they were hoping they would stick to versus the aspirations that they had. I’ve led people through information architecture challenges around that or figuring out the mission of a nonprofit.

One of the most exciting ones for me was a friend of mine who has a retail store in New York City. The last decade has really just hit her hard. She’s been in business there for 30 years. She has a very white space position in the market. Nobody else does what she does, but ... her retail business was really, really struggling. And one of the stories in the book is actually based on her and this moment that we had at her house in Tucson, Arizona, where she basically just unleashed on me, “Hey, messes. I think I have them. You should help me solve them.” And we just talked through them and did some exercises and she was able to really get some clarity. So I would say that it doesn’t take a designer to do any of the things that are outlined in this book, which is something that I’m probably the most proud of.

Kristina: I’m sure that you see Marie Kondo everywhere and you’re just like, “Ah, you’re up in my grill, Marie Kondo.” Do you find that readers recognize that they need what you have offered outside of the web? I mean, are they attracted to the book because of the title? Have you done any specific marketing around that? How are you getting your book into their hands?

Abby: I will be totally honest with you. It has been a completely grassroots effort. I have done very little in the way of marketing, which I think honestly speaks to what my readers are getting out of the book. I have heard from people that my book has sold itself in places like airports. People will walk up to people reading this book and say, “What is that book about? I need that book.” And they don’t even know what it’s about. Everyone has a mess and everyone wants to make sense of that mess. That concept I think makes a lot of sense to people. See what I did there?

Kristina: I do.

Abby: So it just ... it’s been this thing that is unbelievable. It makes me so happy. And then to see it got picked up in Japanese. I worked with Viviana Nunez to translate it into Spanish recently. People really gravitate toward the concept so I haven’t had to do too much pushing. I am starting to think about that for the five-year anniversary, though: Are there audiences out there that would really benefit from it that I just haven’t been able to get to? And Oprah hasn’t called yet, so I know I haven’t hit the top of the pops.

Kristina: Exactly. You know, this is ridiculous, but in speaking with you, I’m suddenly realizing that the 10-year anniversary of Content Strategy for the Web is right now.

Abby: Oh my god. Congratulations!

Kristina: Thank you. How? I don’t even have any words. It’s because I spent so much time going, “Oh, I’m sorry that the last edition was seven years ago. I’m sorry.” But yeah, how about that? Maybe we should do something about that at Brain Traffic.

Abby: Ta-da!

Kristina: Awe. We’re both celebrating each other.

Abby: Very exciting.

Kristina: Yeah. Are you going to write another book?

Abby: I am. Yeah, I’m working on it now ...

Kristina: Because you have a baby.

Abby: Yeah. Because I have a baby and I’m doing this thing called sleep training, which usually has me up at ungodly hours of the morning.

Kristina: Gosh.

Abby: And yeah, I have all this ... just these swaths of unallocated hours that I have to write books. No, I really am writing at hour and half an hour increments while he’s either sleeping or screaming, which you know—

Kristina: Well, that’s really admirable though because most writers I know, including me, we have to sit there and screw around for three hours before we can be productive. So that’s pretty amazing that you can just sit down and start hammering out words.

Abby: It’s not always good. It’s not always good. I got 300 words today and I think there was one good sentence that, seriously ... I think I worked for like the whole week for one really good sentence.

Kristina: I know, I know. The sentences are hard. The rants are easy.

Abby: Exactly. Yeah, my rant on cocktail straws? That came out really ... Man. That thing. I should really dig that gem out at some point.

Kristina: You should. I would read that in two seconds.

Abby: No, I don’t think so.

Kristina: What else are you into right now? Are you reading any good books? Are you following any certain trends in the industry?

Abby: Well, on a side note of things that I’m into that I think are information architecture adjacent but maybe not enough IAs or UX minded people know about ... I’ve gotten really into bullet journaling recently. Are you aware of this trend?

Kristina: Do you know what? Scott Kubie has done some bullet journaling in his time. I have to confirm that. That may need to be edited out, but I’m pretty sure that he has.

Abby: Oh, man. I feel like I know Scott Kubie and if he’s not currently bullet journaling, will you tell him to? Because he would love it.

Kristina: This is my point. Maybe I’m just assuming that he’s doing it.

Abby: Scott, if you’re listening, you now bullet journal. This is what you do now. Yeah, so I’ve been ... I don’t know. That was part of my maternity leave: finding things to fall down rabbit holes on that were not internet related trends or industry things or reading academic literature. I really tried to avoid all that stuff and I got really into high intensity interval training and bullet journaling. Those are the two things that I like adopted in my life since we last spoke.

Kristina: Those are two things that very high performing people, such as yourself, often get into. And the rest of us are just like, “Oh, you’re just making me tired. I’m tired.” I know I should do that, but I just want to go watch the new Veronica Mars series.

Abby: Oh my god, me too. Bless her.

Kristina: I know! I’ve started rewatching it from the beginning so I can—

Abby: I have to do that. I have to do that for sure. It’s good.

Kristina: Well, I really appreciate you, with the all the stuff that you have going on, hopping back on to chat with me about the topics that we did not talk about last time. Obviously, I think that my listeners have probably already purchased this book either previously or now by the end of this podcast, but we’ll include links in the resources section on ContentStrategy.com. What else? Anything else before I let you go?

Abby: Make the world a clearer place, kids. It’s getting real messy out there and I took a couple of months off there, but man, the web didn’t get better. I would say it probably got worse. So yeah, we’ve got some work to do.

Kristina: We do. But that’s what keeps us employed.

Abby: Yeah.

Kristina: It’s what gets us out of bed every day.

Abby: That’s why y’all get paid the big bucks.

Kristina: And on that note, Abby, where can people find you online?

Abby: You can find me at AbbytheIA.com or on Twitter, @Abby_the_IA. And if you want to see real cute baby pictures, you can always look me up on Instagram.

Kristina: Or coming soon, “the IA dot baby.”

Abby: “The IA dot baby.”

Kristina: All right. Thanks a lot, Abby.

Abby: Thank you so much.


Kristina: Thank you so much for joining us today. This podcast is produced by Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy, and makers of fine conferences and workshops. Please visit BrainTraffic.com for more details and sign up for our mailing list to hear about new workshops, dates, and locations, as well as content strategy insights and little personal notes from me with hilarious jokes.

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About the podcast

The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.

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