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Episode 33: Abby Covert Makes Sense Out of Messes

Thought Feeder - A Higher Ed Digital Marketing Podcast
Thought Feeder
Episode 33: Abby Covert Makes Sense Out of Messes

Abby Covert joins the show to talk about information architecture, usability research, and adding humanity into the design process. This episode is sponsored by Squiz.

Transcript for Abby Covert Makes Sense Out of Messes


This episode is sponsored by Squiz

Specializing in higher education, Squiz creates extraordinary, personalized experiences for a digital world through our site search platform (Funnelback), CMS, student portal, integrations hub, and more. It’s time to move beyond antiquated systems to an open, flexible platform. Trusted by hundreds of top institutions across the globe, Squiz is your partner to move forward, faster toward a connected campus.

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Joel Goodman: Hi there. This is the third episode in a series on user experience design. And this conversation with Abby Covert happened back in December of 2020.  We’re grateful to her for being on this episode of Thought Feeder. It’s also sponsored by our friends at Squiz.

You can learn more about their digital experience platform at  

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Welcome to the Thought Feeder podcast. I’m Jon-Stephen Stansel and with me as always is my partner in crime, Joel Goodman. And today on the show we have Abby Covert. Abby is an information architect and the author of “How to Make Sense of Any Mess” and boy, do we have messes to make sense of. 

So thank you for being on the show, Abby, let, let’s start with just a little bit, tell us about yourself, the work you do and what drives you to, to make sense out of messes.

Abby Covert: Well first, thank you so much for having me. So yeah, I guess. Where do I start? I think messes are pretty inherent in being human. So that’s, that’s one I’ve been exposed to them since pretty much the day I could perceive things around me. I also came from a pretty unique background, I would say  . My grandfather is someone that in my life I’ve discovered was perhaps one of the first information architects by profession, but he did not know those terms.

So my whole life, I was really exposed to his work. Um, He worked for the military first and then later moved onto wall street. But his real passion in life was moving the world from paper to punch cards. And he spent a lot of his career doing communication and influence around that migration because it was just such a huge leap for people to make to think about things in these structured kind of database ways.

So I actually inherited his life’s work when he passed a few years ago. And until that point, I kind of knew that we had similarities, but when I started to dig through his actual portfolio, I realized like, Oh man, this was like, in me from the very beginning. And then looking back on it, I’m like, Oh right, I was totally the seven year old that like made a card catalog for our family library and then got really mad when people didn’t like obey the rules of checking things in and out. And you know, it kind of just touches every part of my life. 

So. So, yeah, I guess it was always a thing that I wanted to do. And then in terms of my education, I was homeschooled. So I spent quite a lot of time kind of contemplating existence in my room by myself. So I’m very introverted in that way. And then when I looked into kind of like the academic situation that I was going to find myself in undergraduate, I really thought that I wanted to lay out newspapers which I don’t really understand the, like, impetus of but I think it had to do with kind of like structuring things into kind of categories and labels and boxes.

 And so in high school I did some volunteer work that was in desktop publishing. So it was kind of like my entry into software and understanding like you can manipulate things for other people to consume using a computer. And yeah, once I got into college, I learned all about this like digital world.

I moved into an, a multimedia program and then ultimately discovered information architecture as a concept. And that really became sort of like the central thesis of, of my work going forward.  So I’ve been a professional information architect since 2004. And yeah, I’ve, I’ve worked in all sorts of contexts. I’ve been agency side, I’ve been in-house , I’ve been a consultant. I’ve been an author, a teacher and, yeah, just really love talking about messages and helping people make sense of them.

Joel Goodman: So JS alluded to this, but you know, most of the people that listen to our podcast work in higher education and higher education. Oh, man,

Abby Covert: What a mess.

Joel Goodman: WHat a mess?  

Abby Covert: I mean, if not before then in 2020, for sure. Right.

Joel Goodman: exactly. but, but I think like, you know, when we think about, especially like large scale digital projects, whether it’s like full transformation or it’s kinda more of an evolution of you know, we built our website, our very first website in 1998 and it was just these static HTML files. And then we finally moved to a content management system sometime around 2006. This is, this is, from my life around 2006. And you know, and then but we didn’t really think about all the content that was there and then, Oh, we need to have a redesign four years later, but you know, like.

For people like me that come in from an agency standpoint and go into help institutions figure out what’s going on with their website, a lot of times we’ll just enter into giant messes of, they may have like a legacy site and half of the pages are linked to, from their modern, you know, non-legacy site.

And they’re trying to, I don’t know, like there seems to be this. thought that you can just redesign a website and that’s good enough for, you know, that, that fixes things. And when I say redesign, I mean, visually redesign a 

Abby Covert: yeah. 

Moving the furniture around. Yeah.

Joel Goodman: yeah, but, but it doesn’t help a lot of times, you know, you turned around like a university will spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars with an agency to redesign their website. But they won’t allow or even think about what’s happening on a, content  the side, on organizational side and the website launches six, eight, 12 months later and it does nothing, you know, like it, maybe looks a little bit better, but it does nothing.  and I think a lot of times just thinking through how you’re going to fix that mess, or even recognizing that there’s a mess in the first place. It’s just daunting. Right? And I think part of it, it might be a defense mechanism in the industry where you just like, you don’t want to look at it. You don’t want to deal with it. It’s a lot of work. You got a thousand other things going on. 

But I wondered if we could start kind of at the beginning of why really thinking through the architecture and the organization  of the content of the pages of the assets of everything across a digital presence is important for, I mean, on, in my opinion, it’s important for basically every single thing that comes out of, you know, that comes after that it affects it and touches all of it.

But yeah, could we, could we kind of start there and your thinking around that.

Abby Covert: yeah. Okay. So I think what you’re getting at is sort of like, why the architecture part? Like we have all this stuff. Stuff goes in places. When we get stuff can’t we just put it in places? Like why, why do we have to do that step ahead of time to decide where we’re going to put the things in the future and also to deal with this mountain of mess that is ahead of us in terms of what we currently have?

So I’m going to start with with a bit of a metaphor about grocery shopping. So let’s say that you’re grocery shopping for yourself and you’re putting away the groceries in your home. Okay. You’ve been putting away your groceries in your home, the way that you’ve been doing it for a number of years, it’s a pretty rote activity, right? You’re just like. Enacting all of the rules that are in your mind. 

Now, if I was standing there as a researcher and I asked you to tell me why you put all of the things away, the way that you did, you would tell me a pretty intricate set of rules that were very unique to you and the context that you have, or maybe the members of your family have with the things, the pieces of content that you’re putting away in your fridge and pantry.

Now, let’s say that I now take you out of your home. And I put you into my home. Okay. And I give you my groceries and I ask you to put away my groceries. When you open up all the cupboards, everything is bare. So you have an empty pantry, you have an empty refrigerator and you’re going to put away the groceries wherever they go.

Now, by doing that, you’re going to probably get all the groceries away. But now when you try to get me later on to file groceries, the same way that you did in my home, you’re going to really start to struggle. Right? 

So I think like this, hopefully this metaphor kind of lets your, your listeners understand that like it’s not actually the organizing part that is hard. It’s the deciding how to organize part that is hard. 

The other part that’s really important here is that architecture emerges when it hasn’t been put there on intention. So when you put the cereal in the refrigerator, instead of in the pantry, which I think is asinine, but you might think as normal, like that’s creating a structure. Now, did you sit down and make a map that said, Oh, all the cereal is going to go in the refrigerator? No, you didn’t. But you did make an architectural decision about where a person is going to find content. 

So it feels like in a lot of cases, back to the, the fear component that you mentioned, it feels like in a lot of cases, people look at these huge messes that are ahead of them and they just don’t start because they’re afraid of starting. And one of the first steps that I recommend in these kinds of situations is drawing a picture of the mess that is in front of you. Not the solution, not the like ultimate end goal of how you think the thing should be, or you wish it could be, but actually the reality of it. And the reason that I ask people to do that at this stage, when they’re like, you know, showing this kind of fear is because once they look at it, there’s two things that happen.

One, they can’t unsee it, so they’re compelled to change it. And two it’s actually not as scary as they thought it was. And I have found those two things to be the reality every single time I have ever given anyone advice on any mess ever. Regardless of the size or the severity or the number of systems involved or length of time that it’s been accruing because at the end of the day, it’s just it’s sort of like a thing we all have to do.

And it’s just a matter of kind of like deciding that now’s the time and facing it and being brave. Yeah, bravery is just, it’s one of those sense-making skills, but at the beginning of my career, I, I just really underestimated because you’re right. It is scary. Scary to look at all that and be, quote, “in charge” of making it better.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Yeah, I totally agree. I love the idea of actually drawing it out because you know, When it’s in our heads, we’ve got it there, but when we get it out on paper or however, we, prefer to get it out there. It, it makes a lot more sense, you know? And, and one thing that, that strikes me, Is, one thing you say is your book is not just for website. 

information architecture can apply to all things. You know, I think you said this book is for, for people who make it things. And, you know, I think generally when we think about web architect or information even saying web right architecture, we think about websites, but it’s not just websites. Right. You know this applies to graphic design. This applies to, you know whatever it is you’re, you’re, you’re making for me working in social media and working in social media, in higher ed, where we have, you know, I often say, you know, Nike has like one account to worry about, right.

then, you know, they might have customer service or whatever, but, you know, there’s @nike, right. In higher ed. We have @The_University, every college, every department, you know, the structures again, kind of like you’re saying, it’s, it’s just, we didn’t think about how we were going to organize it.

We just did it.

Abby Covert: Yeah, it’s emergent. Yeah.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: So I think we can, can use information architecture to help higher ed social media. But you know, whenwe have maybe hundreds of accounts, where would you suggest just using social media as a, as a, as a example for things outside of the web where would we start to clean up this mess once we, once we’ve written it down?

Abby Covert: Yeah. So I think that it’s, I’m so glad that you called out to your listeners, that it’s not just about the web and that that’s going to be applied to all mediums. I think that’s really important. Along with that though. I think we need to understand that each medium, that we’re making sense in needs to be understood as its own medium.

And so when I’m doing e-commerce, I need to understand the patterns of e-commerce. When I’m doing content management systems, I need to understand the patterns of content management systems. Right. So I feel like when. When you’re looking at the medium of social media, you need to have a real intimate understanding of that medium as something that you’re working with. As one of the materials that you’re working with.

And so if you were to sort of like, look at the mess that you find yourself in, let’s say you have hundreds of social media accounts for this one university, and you’re trying to sort of get to a place where you have one holistic communication strategy to rule them all. Right? If you were going to do something like that, It would involve having sort of like a come to the carpet moment with all of the different people that manage all of those different accounts.

If I was taking on a challenge like that, I would recognize first the deep humanity that’s part of the problem. So every person that has one of those accounts I would go ahead and say is like, you know, some sort of like a a visionary, right? They like set up the social media account for their part of the university because they saw it as something that needed to be done maybe before there was guidance on it, or when there was very light guidance on it. Or maybe because they were afraid there might be guidance one day and they didn’t want to fall victim to it.

 I’ve, I’m not saying I’ve heard all of these examples in my career, but I have 

Joel Goodman: That’s definitely  (happened)  

Abby Covert: So when you go into that, with that, that understanding that humanity, and you go to each one of those people and you talk about your vision and you get their perspective, and then you bring all of those people together around a campfire, and you talk to them about the power of social media and the power of uniting the social media strategy so that you can lift all boats, right? That’s when they don’t mind that you take away their credentials and tell them that their avatars have to look a certain way or that you need them to, you know, use a certain style when they’re citing things or linking to things.

Like that’s when you can start to have those conversations. But what I see happen too often is the opposite, right? Somebody with a bold idea to create unity comes in and crashes, everybody’s little kingdoms and goes, you can’t do that. You can’t do that. You can’t do that. Why would you do that? You know, this is not proper. This is not the way you do things. 

And they sort of like You know, just kind of bull in the China shop through the change, and then people end up getting annoyed and, you know, going and fiefdoms and you know, all those things. I’m not saying I’ve ever seen any of this happen JS. I’m just saying I have, and don’t do that.

So yeah, I think like if you were going to tackle that, that sort of a thing, you’d have to look at social media as a medium in itself, and you’d have to see that people were kind of the center point, right?

Joel Goodman: Do you think it’s important for brands like in relation to this or brands, companies, institutions, organizations, to think about the way that Their content and their information and their accounts and everything that they do like holistically? Because I like part of the thing that I worry about is that for an institution, if you’ve got just, it’d be, because you’d mentioned fiefdoms, the term in higher ed is silos, which

Abby Covert: Oh, I was going to say department, but,


Joel Goodman: We always say silos and it drives me nuts. I’m just tired of it. But it’s, you know, it, it really is that it’s, Someone feels that they can do it better, or someone doesn’t feel supported by the other offices or someone just needs their corner of control. And so you get all of these, almost autonomous units all around the university that are acting on their own.

But I wonder if there’s benefit in terms of developing a coherency from your social accounts and maybe even the content you’re putting on them, to how people get from those to your website. Or from the way that search results end up showing up in search engines, third-party search engines and not site search, and how that kind of flows. Like if you can generate continuity. And if there’s, if there’s a way that having a holistic approach helps that if there are ways to do that, even like, I mean, what, what is the best, you know, a trademark, a registered trademark, the best way to do that.

Abby Covert: Oh, man. Okay. Well, I will not give you the registered trademark The Best way to do that because I I’m a big believer in the idea that good is always subjective. It’s always based on your intention. So I would say like, when is thinking about things holistically from a structure standpoint, when does that behoove you?

I would say when it is not serving you, well, the way that it is structured today. So that’s something that I think people try to falsely go for is like this seeking of perfection of like our website doesn’t look right. It doesn’t feel right. It’s, it’s old. We haven’t touched it in five years, but like, what is actually wrong with it doesn’t become the central part of the conversation sometimes ever and often, not until much later in the process. 

So I would start there with just like the idea that, like, it’s not always a thing that you need to do just for doing its sake. So let’s say that like you, as a practitioner are annoyed, that the tone of voice that is used across social media and the online properties are different. Right? Let’s say that one is a super casual and one is super academic and you’re just annoyed by it. Well, that’s fine. You’re annoyed by it. But when you look into it, who is it actually holding back? What are the impacts of the thing? And do you actually have the decision-making power to change the thing or to influence the thing by the people who can change it?

And if you do, and you have reason to, to come to that proclamation, then do it, but also know that if you’re not the decider part of making that proclamation. Is actually bringing the decider along with you too, to understand the reason for it, because it can’t just be, Hey, you know, Hey Susan, I know that you own the web and I own social media.

And I just think that the style guide should be the same. Well, Susan’s looking at a mountain of content going, “I don’t have the staff to go and update all of my content to be like your content. Why don’t you update all your content to go like mine? Yours is shorter, J.S.” 

So you see what I’m saying? So Susan and J.S. In that moment are not on the same team, but there’s a moment where you could be right. If, if you discovered something about like, so Joel, you’re talking about like, is there a proper way to connect the pieces together? Part of the problem in this scenario is that nobody owns the connection between the two things. Right. It’s like the spaces between the places become the parts where the friction is introduced.

That’s where the embed URL didn’t actually reconcile itself properly. And you end up on something dead in the middle of an otherwise beautiful page. Like this happens to people, especially on the web all of the time. There’s also the reason that public parks often have little worn trails through grassy areas because people aren’t paying attention to where people actually want to walk.

They’re just putting lanes where they want to put them based on. I don’t know the way that it looks in the way that the building is or something. So with all those things considered, you have to start to change the way that you think about ownership. If you really want to tackle these kinds of problems, right?

Somebody owning social media, you have to draw the lines. Do you just own the feed or do you own the experience from the time that somebody clicks on that link until it’s resolved somewhere? Cause there’s a, there’s a, a much different process and mentality and resource schema that you would put into place from that.

And I feel like. So often those are the things that are broken, right? You can have like the most wonderful piece of content in the world. You can have the most salient tweet about it, but connecting those two things together is remarkably hard to do consistently across all platforms, you know, with transclusion and you know, all the, all the fancy jive, always changing.

So yeah, it’s not easy, but I have a, a theory that it’s all about people and their relationships and, and the people in the space has between yeah. Take Susan out to lunch, J.S. Just take her out to lunch and say, Susan, we got to talk about our style guide.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: W w once it’s safe to, to do that without social distancing I’m game for it until then Susan and I are going to get to zoom a little bit.

Abby Covert: Yeah. Zoom lunch, man. Actually don’t, don’t eat lunch on zoom. It’s so weird. Everybody knows that.

Joel Goodman: No one to watch anyone eating.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: And you know, that, that brings, it brings a good point and, and talking about, about the spaces in between and, and bringing the decider along. And sometimes I think the deciders live in those spaces in between a little  (bit)  

Abby Covert: Yeah. 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: And, with the exception of taking the decider out to lunch, 

Abby Covert: Yeah. 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: I think some of the times the struggle comes with, that leadership thinking that items that are cluttering our websites, some of that disorganization is what is vital to the website. You know, that everybody has their own little pet projects. Okay. We can’t not have this on the homepage because, you know professor Z won’t be able to find his you know, portal to Banner or whatever. So how, how do we, how do we get that decider on, on board with, with restructuring and, and cleaning up the (mess)  

Abby Covert: Hmm. So I’m going to go with your very specific example of professor Z not being able to 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: say professor X, but then I remember like, Oh, they’re actually

Abby Covert: No, we can’t talk about that. Yeah. We have to make up a fake professor that we can talk about. Okay. So professor X, so let’s say that that’s actually the thing, right? Like you have a real salient strategy for how you want to change the architecture of something to remove this link that professor X is like, I need this thing. Right? 

If you were to do that, you would need to go through the process of really determining two things. One is that professor actually important to the overall project? Or do you just, do you feel annoyed that a single person is getting that kind of weight, you know? Cause it could be that the impact of removing that link and the downstream effects of doing so could actually have negative impacts on the people that you’re trying to create this website for.

So often what I find in questions like that is that there’s a deeper question, which is, do you actually know the purpose of the thing that you are building and the people that you are building it for? And once you know it, do you agree on who those people are and those purposes with the people that have brought you here to do that thing? Because you could think that, you know, what the purpose is and who the people are, and you could have beautiful personas and, you know, a PowerPoint deck of the purpose that you want to bring for those personas. But if you show that to this person who is in charge, and the only comment they have back to you is if you remove that link from the homepage, Professor Z is not going to be able to find his cheese. 

you can’t let that comment crush the whole schema. Right. You have to work through the iteration for what it is.

So in that situation, I would probably go at it with like the “toddler whys”, you know? Like, okay. So let’s talk about that. 

Why is it that professor Z uses the homepage to get to that thing? 

Oh, well, professor Z is not really great at technology. So, you know, it’s just the thing. 

Oh, okay. So professors, he’s not good at technology.

So how did it come to the point where professor Z goes to that site? 

Oh, well his graduate research assistant set the website, to his homepage on his browser. 

Oh, okay. Cool. So why did that do? 

Oh, because he couldn’t figure out how to use the bookmark menu. 

All right. Great. Now we can talk about a different solution that does not involve having a link to this thing for one person on the homepage. It involves one graduate research assistant changing one setting on one professor’s desktop computer to go to a different link instead of the one that we currently send him to. 

And we could make them a whole page that says, good morning, professor Z. Welcome to the day. Here are all the links that you need today. And by the way, here’s a link to a lesson on how you might learn how to use the technology that is important to your job here at the university.

 I think that often when the decider is making a statement like that, like, Oh, we need, or, Oh, we can’t we shouldn’t like, there’s always something underneath that and it often is coming from a place of fear of, of like change and the ramifications of the change. So they’re not thinking about, you know, the link itself. They’re thinking about all of the emails and phone calls that are going to get when the link disappears. Right. So you have to resolve that part sometimes to get people over that hump.

Joel Goodman: J.S., I think Abby just solved, like the, maybe number three problem with higher education websites throughout all of history.

Abby Covert: just go change the links in their browser.

Joel Goodman: Well, I mean, JS and I recently recorded an episode about news pages and news stories and how, news is presented on university websites. And then also how that carries over to,  social media, Twitter, and things like that. And just kind of the, the fractures that happen when a university media relations team decides that they need to set up a news, Twitter account to put out all their press releases on. 

But their goal isn’t actually matched up with reality. They think, Oh, people in the press want to see our stories separate from all of our marketing content that we’re putting out on the main university website. But then the question is, Does the press actually even follow your account that’s putting out the press releases?

Abby Covert: Honestly in a lot of cases that I see and not necessarily in education, but just like in marketing versus PR for example, you see just a fiefdom. You’re just like, Oh, well I control this account and I have a certain number of posts in a week. And that’s my team’s calendar to control. I’m not going to just give you some of my posts and I don’t want your stuff all up in my stuff. 

And like the minute that the ownership streams cross people have to make decisions about how they’re going to do things together. So it makes sense that instead of that, they would just go, Oh no, we’ll just start our own account. Right. And until the ramifications of that decision are illustrated at a high enough level to someone in charge of things from that umbrella perspective, kind of do whatever they want. Right? 

So that’s what ends up Too often happening to organizations is they sort of like they’re like really big ships and they can sail around for a real long time and they keep getting all these little barnacles all over them. And like how many social media accounts is it before it’s too many barnacles and you have to like, take your ship out and start to, you know, scrape off the hull?

Otherwise it’s going to slow you down. Right? But you can sail around with quite a few barnacles. So it’s, once again, it’s like the things that bother you as a practitioner are not necessarily the things that are going to be the most impactful things to change all the time. 

So it’s about understanding that it’s more than just heuristics. It’s more than just aspiration that it really is about meeting a need with architectural decisions. And sometimes that means that like the architecture is kind of janky, you know? 

Joel Goodman: Yeah. So along those lines we’re and also connecting back to what we were talking about with kind of how architectures tend to emerge even if you’re not being intentional about it, they just actually kind of show up.  So I’ve kind of used that approach in my past work where instead of just letting them emerge naturally and, and letting chaos reign, so to speak until it becomes ordered in some way . 

But like, I really liked this approach of, basically using typical UX research methodology to figure out what, the best, you know, again, registered trademark information architecture organization of, of web pages, organization of, you know, whatever it is, even, leaning into like conversion rate optimization practices for just content on a page, sort of a thing. I like using this side of researching with real people, figuring out who the target audience is, researching looking at all the data that’s there and then letting letting that architecture kind of emerge out of the needs that, that I know the real people have versus just letting it happen  without any barriers, without any, without any input. And I, I’m wondering if you see that, kind of the role that the actual user, the actual participant, the actual  target audience, you know, however you wanna put them in there, the role that they play in kind of uh, cooperatively developing information architectures and orders to the, the content and the data that we have.

Abby Covert: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I would say like, if you’re doing information architecture work and you’re not doing research with your end user I guess you’re doing stark-itechture?. Like I don’t, I don’t know if that’s like actually a concept we talk about in digital, I guess we should maybe cause I’m sure that many people are doing that.

So that’s just like point 1. In case there’s any question out there of whether or not you can just drive to the taxonomy store and go, I’m making an e-commerce taxonomy for, you know, 36 to 42 year old people who have German shepherds. Like you can’t. You, you just can’t do that. 

So you have to do the hard work of understanding the audience. You have to do the reconciliation, even if you yourself are very close to the audience of how you might differ and how your own bias might change the decision architecture. So there’s, there’s that part of it. 

I also, I, I feel like there’s, there’s something to say about just like understanding that users are not going to make the architecture for you, even if you give them every single opportunity to. So I’m going to call out card sorting as like the activity that I see designers make the mistake of thinking users are going to do their work for them the most often. 

So, it’s pretty common knowledge that when your usability testing something that when a user struggles with something that you don’t ask them how to fix it. You’re just watching them struggle with it, and then you’re going back to your work and you’re kind of fixing and iterating it through. But what I see happening with card sorting as a methodology when you’re testing an actual structure is that people assume that there’s going to be some arrangement of cards that the user makes themselves and that is going to be the architecture. 

So it’s like I did a card sort with 20 users and I have 20 architectures that came out of that. Now what do I do? Because they think, which one do I choose? How do I Frankenstein them together? And, and ultimately what that lands people with is this feeling like there is that taxonomy out there that is perfect. They just have to go discover it, right? That somebody has it. And they just have to ask the right person the right set of questions and it’s going to be discovered. 

What happens in the reality, I think of, of good architecture work is that people are taking research as an input, and they’re not seeking users to make the architectural decisions for them. They’re instead using a user’s input as just one of the very many inputs that they have into the process.

Because along with that, you really have to be balancing what the business or the organization needs from the thing that you’re creating. I mean, if users want something, but it’s going to drag down the, the core metric that is paying for the thing you’re building, it doesn’t really matter what the users want, right? And that’s something that I think a lot of people really struggle with is like, there’s like, almost like this altruism of user-centered design. Like there’s a penultimate doing well for the user, but in reality, it’s, it’s about helping organizations not be evil in the pursuit of their goals, right, and the “their goals” part is that’s not, that’s not just sometimes that’s all the times. 

So, you know, if their homepage needs to reduce time on site, you know, I worked with a client one time that they wanted their app to reduce time on site because they wanted them to pick up the phone. And that seems very strange if you take all of the context of you know, their business challenge, the like industry that they’re in the user that they’re after. But if I was to fill in all those details for you, I can tell you right now you would understand the “because reasons.” And I think that too many people don’t allow themselves to understand that that’s probably true about the thing they’re working on too, is that the thing doesn’t exist in the form that you need it to, you will need to do the hard work and no user is actually going to do it for you.

Joel Goodman: and you got to think like, if you’re doing the right research, there’s so many user voices speaking into it anyway, and they’re going to be there’s nuance within that. People want slightly different variants and versions of, of the same thing.

Abby Covert: Well, this is why you gotta be, you gotta be really careful with methodology too. Like I, I got a, a mentoring request from somebody pretty recently who had done an open card sort where they got over a hundred respondents. You just can’t like, I’m sorry. You basically like good, good for you. You have a very lot of data. What to do? 

I, you know, I don’t know! That’s too many! That’s too many structures. And so we had this really interesting conversation about like the role of open and closed card sorting and what method you use for what intention, because like, they were not far enough in the process to be asking that many people, their opinions yet they were actually really early in the process and they were asking a really open-ended thing.

And so that method actually would have done them much better if it had been a smaller pool of people to look at, you know. Versus like, I have a structure I want to test, let me throw hundreds of people at it and see what the outliers are.

Joel Goodman: Yeah. So to put it, to put it in higher ed terms, you got to have some goals before you figure out what the tools are that you’re gonna use to reach those goals. And then you should probably have some data to help inform that also.

Abby Covert: mean, you know, yeah. It’s sorta that’s yeah, no big deal.

Joel Goodman: Awesome. I’ve done similar. Actually, I had, there was a project I worked on where the primary goal was it was, we were redesigning a site we were redesigning basically the content and structure of pages, as well as just kind of general, general navigation of the site. And it was very much around how do we get the people on the site to call or just fill out a form so that we can call them back.

And then their internal metric was, as soon as we get this request for information, we’re going to try and call them back within certain number of seconds, sort of a thing. And so they were making this, these UX decisions across the entire organization. It wasn’t just, here’s a digital thing, but it was, it was a recognizing that, there really aren’t lines and barriers between the digital and the temporal.

Right? It’s like the,

Abby Covert: Not for the user!

(I don’t know why there’s) Still this thinking everywhere. You know, like

Because of the way people are hired and paid. I mean, like, it makes, it makes so much sense. It’s like you would go back to the silos conversation. You know, organizations are set up in hierarchical structures where people have lines of what they are and are not accountable for and responsible for.

And there’s incentive schemas that dictate the way that decisions are made for all of those individual people. If you have individual incentive schemes across all of those different silos, the likelihood that what’s going to come out at the top is going to be holistic is very low. So it’s, it just, it makes so much sense.

It’s like, why is it like this? Because it was built like this. That’s why, because reasons. 

Joel Goodman: Hadn’t thought about  (that)

Abby Covert: Yeah. But it, but it works for what it was built for, right? Like organizations were not built that way because of like wanting to get the best output for creative decision making right? They were built that way for efficiency.

And is it efficient? Are we efficient? Pretty  (much)

Joel Goodman: that’s yeah,

Abby Covert: Yeah, we’re efficient at not doing very good work sometimes, but we’re efficient. So yeah, I mean, architectures are always going to deliver the value for which they were created to deliver. And that’s, that’s what an org chart was created for

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Or charts.

Abby Covert: the original information architecture, the organizational chart.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Well, Oh, you want to talk about, about space in between like there’s so much space in between on that org chart. And I think social media is a prime example of that. Where everywhere I’ve worked in social media it’s been at a different department, whether it’s under marketing media relations, and even in higher ed it’s in subheadings.

So it’s in marketing, under enrollment management. Currently I am, I am in marketing under advancement and fundraising,

Abby Covert: yup. Because reasons. Yeah.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: And it covers the entire unit and it doesn’t fit into one space. There’s a media relations aspect to it. Yes. There’s a marketing aspect. There’s a customer service aspect and finding those connections and, and what that authority is, where okay, well, I’m not in the media relations office, so I don’t really have authority over media relations and finding those connections is such a, a difficult thing. And I, I think maybe cleaning up that mess and looking at that org chart and finding some of these new emerging fields, of re-evaluating, where they fit in I think it’s really important. I’ve seen so many schools where social media is in a certain department because they were the first ones to think of it and they created the account and that’s where they are,

Abby Covert: Yeah. I mean, yeah. And there’s so much about like the department that people are within versus the label that they’re given for their role. And those things can be very different. Like I’ve had roles where my title in the HR system was not the title that was on my email signature. Right. 

And we all have had that, that joyous moment, right? Where like you don’t fit in the box that the system gives us. So we’re going to make a, a fake box for you to go in, and then you’re going to have your own label, but it’s all boxes and labels, and it’s not actually all that different than making sense of messes on websites or, you know, in, in my pantry or, you know, last weekend I helped my husband sort all the wood in our garage and I’m gonna go ahead and say that I used the exact same process I would use if we were tackling the org chart in your organization, or if we were tackling a website for that organization.

Now I will also say it is very common that whatever the organizational structure of the organization, it tends to be the default structure everybody goes to for the website. and that’s something that you’ll see often or for the brochure about the organization or for whatever other medium they’re working on collaboratively.

It sort of like becomes this built in structure that we all rely on to make sense of each other. And we can almost convince ourselves that it makes sense outside of the organization at times, where we think so much, that this is part of who we are as an organization, that our users also care about it that way.

And so then you see, you know, things being buried under labels that don’t make sense to users because that’s a name that we use internally.

Joel Goodman: I want to underscore this so much because it’s because it’s very, especially in higher education and there are a lot of universities and colleges that have done the work to move this along and, and progress themselves out of it. But there, I think there’s long been this assumption and I think it’s an assumption that just doesn’t, it doesn’t go checked at all, for the most part, but that, because we are structured as university and we live in these structures all the time and work and operate in these structures all the time, it makes complete sense to someone that has never interacted with our organization whatsoever.

And so, I don’t. I don’t,

Abby Covert: I mean, if you don’t, if you don’t dwell on it very long, it is reasonable to think that the thing that makes reasonable sense to you will make reasonable sense to other people. And it, it like once you’ve done the work. Of thinking about it. You can’t undo that. And so I see people change, you know, like that’s the good news on this, is I see people change. I see people go from, no, I need to, I need to do it in my words, because that makes sense to me and other I’ll just communicate through it is sort of the, the way about, I’ll just send another email, explaining that that’s the link  now. Or, I’ll just, I’ll send a tweet that we’ve named it this, instead of that, you know, all these things, but at the end of the day, it really just takes people looking at the thing and saying, what’s the impact. What’s the impact of doing it this way? And is it okay? 

Joel Goodman: And it’s nice, like higher ed has been moving in that direction, which is great. It’s there a lot more. I get a lot more RFPs or, actual people coming and talking to me for help, where they, they really are there. You know, our site has been built, under the base of the org chart model of what we have internally. And we know that prospective students don’t know anything about it, and we know that it’s not being effective for our goals. We need someone to help us figure out what. W what that organization, like what the main content should be and to reorganize, this sort of thing. And it, it’s happening. It’s weird to me that it’s been happening for like a decade and it’s still not completely taken over higher ed, but I, I, uh, I don’t, I, I started thinking about like Marshall McLuhan. It’s like websites as an extension of the organization as media as extension of man. Uh, 

Abby Covert: It really is. It really is. And I feel like, you know, it’s hard to, especially for people that have been working in this medium of digital technology for, you know, the, the length that the three of us have, it’s maybe hard for us to understand how new we all are at this and how we really are emerging. I mean, like I’m still having a really hard time with the 140 character thing.

Like I. 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: It’s 280 now!

Abby Covert: I know, I know, and I’m wasting a whole lot of space, but like, I can’t get myself out of the mentality that I have 140. And like I find myself saying 140 in, in passing in conversation, like, and there’s, or even like the, the most recent thing on, on Twitter with retweets. I mean, that just like blew my mind that like, you just like have to take that extra step of a blank  tweet.

Joel Goodman: Purposeful friction, like.

Abby Covert: Or even the idea that we went from, like, uh, like we had to name the things and that’s been emergent, like a quote retweet was that was a label that a designer at Twitter had an agonizing amount of meetings deciding with somebody else. I guarantee you. If that designer’s listening today, I’d love to hear the story.

You know, there’s all these things that I think we are deciding as they come. And like, I speak to a lot of people who are newer in our industry and they’re really expecting that there’s like a manual somewhere that if they find the right person, we’re going to hand it to them. And y’all, it’s not there. We are writing the manual as we go and it’s changing every minute. 

And like, do I think that we should be farther by now? I mean maybe. Like, I think, I think that the web is kind of trash, but like it’s sort of beautiful trash. Like I was listening to something yesterday. I don’t don’t remember what it was, but the sentiment of like, if this whole year had happened 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have video technology the way that we do now to bridge that gap. 

And like, is it trash that we have to deal with this whole new, like realm of harassment via video chat and people like doing awful things with this new medium? Absolutely. That’s, that’s disturbing. We will work through it, just like we work through every other thing and we have to go through the ugliness and the dark times. And so, yeah, I think like with education, should you guys be farther by now? Like maybe, but this is also not your focus. Like the digital technology part is to get to the part that, that you’re actually doing.

You know, and it’s as something that schools were handed as sort of like this whole new bag of tricks, when, honestly, from what I can understand, they weren’t all that comfortable using the old bag of tricks right? They weren’t all that good at advertising and marketing in the prior to the digital world.

So it’s sort of like never been solved in any medium, if you asked me or from what I’ve seen, And so, yeah, it’s not all that surprising that the same problems would exist now, just in a digital way. I don’t know. Maybe that’s just me.

Joel Goodman: J.S. And end it there. I think we should. Yeah, I think that’s the mic drop.

Abby Covert: I have a mic. I’m not dropping it. They’re

Joel Goodman: either. Yes. 

Abby Covert: to

Joel Goodman: I mean, this is great, Abby, thanks so much for talking with us. you, do you want to plug your book and your work and like anything that, that we can do to help, promote the work that you’re doing we want to help with, so 

Abby Covert: Oh, 

sure. Yeah. so let’s see things to plug well World IA Day, World Information Architecture Day is an event that I hold very close to my heart. It happens every February. it is going to be remote for the very first time in 2021. we actually got in right under the wire and did a live event last year, right before things shut down. So, yeah, please support that. It is a free event that’s happening in, I think up to 40 something, local communities. So it’s local organizers, it’s all volunteer driven. if you have organizations that are looking for. recruiting in the areas of information, architecture, content strategy, UX, and just technology as a whole, it’s a great sponsorship opportunity, especially in those local meetup environments. and then for me, is where you can find my work. I recently launched an Etsy shop. so that’s, uh, you can find that Abby the IA on, on Etsy. Um, yeah, I think that’s, that’s probably about good.

 Joel Goodman: Thank you so much for listening to the Thought Feeder podcast. If you’d like to listen to back episodes, you can visit us at We’ve got transcripts of all of them as well as ways where you can subscribe.

We’re also on Apple Podcasts, Spotify Podcasts, Google podcasts, Amazon, actually, I don’t know if we’re on Amazon yet. We’re on a bunch of podcasting, uh, aggregators so wherever you listen to podcasts, we’re probably there. We’d appreciate a like, or rating there, wherever it is that you listen to us.  You can also follow us on Twitter @ThoughtFeedPod

J.S., It’s been good to talk to you. We want to thank Abby Covert for being on the show today. Abby, thank you so much.

Abby Covert: Thank you both.

Joel Goodman: And once again, we want to thank our friends at Squiz for sponsoring this episode of the Thought Feeder podcast.  Specializing in higher education, Squiz creates extraordinary personalized experiences for a digital world through their site search platform, Funnelback, their CMS, their student portal, their integrations hub, and tons more.

It’s time to move beyond antiquated systems to an open flexible platform. Squiz’s platform is trusted by hundreds of top institutions across the globe. And they want to be your partner to move forward faster toward a connected campus. You can find out all about their products at They’re also on Twitter and LinkedIn and everywhere else.

So make sure to check out Squiz and again, a huge thank you from both myself and J.S. For sponsoring Thought Feeder.