How to make sense of any open source mess

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Open source development and collaboration takes place online, in places made of information. From individual commit messages to project websites and even larger digital structures, each piece of information we create is part of a mess. This is not a slight against open source; all human endeavors are messy, because that is just the way we are as human beings. We all bring our own strengths and failings, wisdom and ignorance, to everything we do.

The craft of making sense of these messes is known as information architecture. By thinking about—really thinking about—the what, why, and how of information, Information Architects seek to make things clear for everyone. By making the complex clear, everyone benefits. Granted information architecture, as abstract as it is, can be a difficult concept to fully comprehend, and like most fields of study it has its own, rich collection of professional literature, which presents a barrier of entry to the newcomer. So where can a layperson start? Thankfully, there is a book written with the non-specialist in mind; a book perfect for open source enthusiasts wishing to improve their skills and make the information structures they are a part of clearer and easier for others to interact with.

Abby Covert's How to Make Sense of Any Mess is a excellent, beginner-friendly, way to learn about information architecture. First published a few years ago, and now freely available in a web version, Covert's book teaches readers how to think about organizing information and to understand how information is structured, not as abstract concepts but as useful skills unto themselves.

How to Make Sense of Any Mess is organized into seven short sections, any of which can be read and understood in under an hour. In fact, according to the book's introduction, the book will introduce the reader to information architecture "in the time it takes to fly from New York to Chicago." The seven sections are:

  1. Identify the Mess
  2. State Your Intent
  3. Face Reality
  4. Choose a Direction
  5. Measure the Distance
  6. Play with Structure
  7. Prepare to Adjust

Each of the sections contains a series of mini lessons, and each lesson introduces the reader to an information architecture concept in only a few pages. In addition to standard, descriptive lessons, there are also worksheets the reader can fill out as part of the learning process.

Covert begins at the beginning with explaining how to "identify the mess." This chapter lays the groundwork by explaining how we make messes of information and how to step back and see the big picture in order to start bringing order to the chaos. The subsequent chapters further explore the information architecture process, giving the reader the tools and knowledge to work towards making sound choices in the process of working through a information architecture problem step-by-step, though Covert acknowledges that the "steps are in order but most projects are not, so feel free to skip around or jump to a specific term from the lexicon."

The lexicon is perhaps the most interesting feature of How to Make Sense of Any Mess. It goes beyond defining complex terms (which are all clearly defined and explained) and actually provides definitions for what most would dismiss as basic concepts, like "how", "what", and "why". By taking the time to define even basic terms, the lexicon actually helps the reader learn to think about the meaning and context of words. Sure, the definition of "what", for example, is very straightforward, but how often does one take the time to really think about what the word means? Even better, in the online edition, the lexicon displays each use of a word, with full context, after the definition. The reader can clearly see all 166 uses of the word "what" with all the surround text, so they can fully appreciate the meaning of the word.

Any open source enthusiast wishing to improve the often chaotic, haphazard info-dumps that make up the project websites and product documentation in the open source world should take the time to read How to Make Sense of Any Mess. The lessons it contains are extremely valuable, and Abby Covert is an excellent teacher. Putting her lessons into practice will help us make sense of our messes.

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