As Figure 1 shows, IA Summit attendance has grown steadily throughout its history. (The first IA Summit occurred in 2000, but reliable figures are not available for either 2000 or 2001.)
Note—These numbers, which Dick Hill of ASIS&T has kindly provided, are approximate and may not represent total attendance.
Tag Me, I’m It
Conference badges were extra large this year to accommodate tagging with words or images that described the wearer. About eighty percent of attendees tagged themselves. Some had others tag them, as shown in Figure 2.
The badge holders also contained nuts for first-timers and bolts for everyone else. Attendees of prior IA Summits were supposed to collect nuts from—and presumably engage in conversation with—first-timers.
Because my interests are eclectic, I attended talks and seminars covering most of the major themes of the conference. A couple of identity-related themes for IAs permeated many of the talks:
- expanding the influence of IAs—which I could generalize to expanding the influence of user experience professionals
- IAs as storytellers and keepers of the vision
Here are some nuggets of wisdom from many different speakers—not just food for thought, but practical information I can use on my projects right now. One caveat: Because so many excellent talks happened at the same time, I was unable to attend some important topics with outstanding speakers. I look forward to learning about what I missed.
How IAs Can Influence Business Strategy
Many speakers touched on the topic of IAs and business, even if that was not the primary subject of their talk.
What the Speakers Said
The Management Innovation Group (MIG) pre-conference seminar, “Enhancing the Strategic Influence of IA,” which Victor Lombardi, John Zapolski, shown in Figure 3, Scott Hirsch, Harry Max, and Mark McCormick presented, was a gold mine of new ideas, along with ideas I’ve heard before, but needed to hear again.
A few of the key messages from the MIG seminar:
- To provide value at higher levels in a company, IAs should help executives reframe and understand their companies’ strategic challenges. As keepers of the vision, IAs can tell stories, reframe business problems, and graphically visualize a company’s products or goals. For example, IAs might come up with one diagram that says it all.
- In this light, we can see the modeling of business processes as a strategic IA role. IAs and interaction designers don’t just design Web-application user interfaces; we design work. Or as the panelists in the session “Enterprise IA: Not Just for the Web Any More” told us, we don’t just design Web sites; we design the processes that create them.
- When engaging in strategic decision-making, we should remember that the value of an IA is not telling executives how to run their businesses. Rather, the IA’s value is in deeply understanding the business, translating business issues for various stakeholders, and helping executives see different business opportunities.
- We should all be able to explain how our work affects the overall profitability of our companies. Imagine giving an elevator speech to a CFO—you’d need to explain your value proposition.
- The value proposition for an IA might go something like this: “To help [person or company] to achieve [goal], as an information architect, I [purpose]. Unlike other information architects, I [differentiator]. I do this by [process].”
- Over the years, there’s been a lot of discussion about the financial return on investment (ROI) of UX work. But ROI can be a red herring—that is, people may be focusing on the wrong issue. In general, there is no consistent numerical ROI for UX activities. The ROI depends on the project, the product, and the organization. Also, there are usually too many variables to claim that a product succeeds purely because of its user experience. Thus, ROI matters more as a process or a journey.
A slide from Scott Hirsch’s presentation, “Your Role As Change Agent,” appears in Figure 4.
Building on what to do to entwine IA with business, Samantha Starmer’s “Selling IA” showed us how to engage with executives. She recommended that, when speaking with executives, we match our presentations to the executives’ style: police cop (needs to control), visionary (wants to get excited about the project), scientist (wants to analyze details), or therapist (desires consensus and good feelings).
The ability to speak the language of business and finance is becoming more and more crucial for IAs. IAs can find common ground with executives—we have complementary skills, and we both want to create business value.
Tools, Techniques, and Deliverables
There were many practical sessions on tools, techniques, and deliverables.
What the Speakers Said
Often, what seems like an IA problem is really a management problem—or a change-management problem. In the session on Enterprise IA, we also learned that each department within a company wants to solve its own problems, without looking at the big picture across all departments. One change-agent technique is the role-playing workshop, in which the hidden agenda is encouraging empathy. Group A describes Group A’s problems. Then—and this must be a surprise—Group B must solve Group A’s problems.
In “Game Changing,”PDF Jess McMullin suggested a different group activity to help a team gain consensus on product requirements: Ask participants to design the box for the new product. The box must include a product name, tagline, a short description, long description, and so on. The team can actually lay out the box afterward in Photoshop® or Illustrator®, print it on heavy coated paper, and glue it together.
Karen Loasby described how “Metadata Games” at the BBC offer ingenious tactile ways of explaining structured-content authoring to naïve authors. For example, to communicate the concept of templated content elements in a content management system (CMS), the BBC asks its authors to create a new article for an online newspaper from pieces of existing articles—not by actually using a CMS, but by assembling laminated printouts of content elements such as titles, paragraphs, and photos into a new article. Creating the new article is literally like putting puzzle pieces together. Each piece of the puzzle is a content element that can fit only in a certain place.
Steve Mulder’s “Bringing More Science to Persona Creation” explained how to build personas that incorporate quantitative, statistically significant data, not just stories that are made up. Even so, for a persona to feel like an archetype, we must oversimplify and exaggerate the persona’s characteristics. Ignore small differences between personas; they get in the way of telling the story.
The panel discussion “Wireframes: A Comparison of Purposes, Process, and Products” offered an overview of the full range of IA deliverables and advice on when to use them. One key point was that the larger and longer the project, the more documentation there is; and the less trust that exists between team members, the more you need to write down. Panelists also noted that IA deliverables should generally be printable, because in many cases, stakeholders like to draw on them.
IAs typically create different deliverables for different purposes and different audiences.
The last few years have seen the pendulum swing away from massive, exhaustive project documentation toward fast, iterative prototyping. Depending on the project, the most productive approach may be somewhere in the middle of this continuum.
IA teams are using creative, innovative techniques for discovery and education. The challenge is to know when to use them, with whom, and how to couch innovative techniques in business terms.