My IA Summit 2006 Experience: Part 4: The Conference: Day 3

By Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Published: April 14, 2006

Conference: Day 3: Monday

“Here’s an interesting IA problem: How could the conference organizers schedule sessions in such a way that attendees wouldn’t experience conflicts?”

The conference lost a bit of steam on the last day. It was hard to find must-see sessions. This made me regret all the more that I’d missed sessions on Saturday and Sunday I really would have liked to have gone to, because they were scheduled against other sessions I really wanted to attend. Some of these sessions I missed include Kevin Cheng and Jan Jao’s “Communicating Concepts Through Comics,” James Refell’s “Design Patterns in the Real World,” and Thomas Vander Wal’s “IA for Efficient Use and Reuse of Information.”

Here’s an interesting IA problem: How could the conference organizers schedule sessions in such a way that attendees wouldn’t experience conflicts? What do sessions or attendees have in common? What are their differences? Who would want to learn about what topics or participate in certain types of sessions? What are the boundaries of people’s interests? If someone’s core area of interest is a certain topic, what other topics would they likely find of interest? Figure 1 shows a view from the Hyatt®.

Figure 1—Springtime blossoms brighten a rainy day in Vancouver

Springtime blossoms

On the other hand, the absence of absolutely compelling sessions led me to explore some rewarding sessions I might have missed altogether if they had been scheduled against those of big names in IA. In fact, I wish I’d stumbled onto the international IA track earlier in the day than I did.

Tagging and Beyond: Personal, Social, and Collaborative IA

Panelists: Danah Boyd, Scott Golder, Rashmi Sinha, Gene Smith, and Mimi Yin

“What’s really interesting about tagging is that it’s a social situation. You’re talking to each other. It harnesses your independent opinion.”
—Rashmi Sinha

In the morning, I attended the session “Tagging and Beyond: Personal, Social, and Collaborative IA.” This panel comprised a set of disconnected mini-talks rather than an interactive discussion. What should have been a very interesting topic was rendered dull by the superficiality and dryness of most panelists remarks—the exception being those of Rashmi Sinha, who is always engaging. Rashmi spoke about the progression of tagging from the personal to the social stream of consciousness. She described the four conditions of tagging:

  • cognitive diversity—and the dynamics of group decision-making
  • independence—about which Rashmi said, “What’s really interesting about tagging is that it’s a social situation. You’re talking to each other. It harnesses your independent opinion.”
  • decentralization—and decisions happening at the edges
  • easy aggregation of conceptual information

Social formations that tags support include ad hoc groups, many weak social ties, conceptually mediated ties, and crowds. Rashmi gave these tips for tagging:

  • “Tags should serve both the individual’s motive and the relationship between the individual and society, which must be symbiotic. People should do things for the greater good.”
  • “It shouldn’t be too easy to mimic the tags of others.”
  • “Don’t make finding the most popular too easy.”
  • “Natural interactions ensure good findability.”

A while after Rashmi had finished her presentation, I must admit to leaving this session early, out of boredom. In fairness, perhaps I was suffering a bit of burnout.

Going International

I attended two sessions on the international IA track. With their international focus and personal touch, the presentations of Isabelle Peyrichoux and Jason Hobbs were both very enjoyable. They got me out of my usual world and into the broader world of which I want to feel a part. After these sessions, we continued our discussion of international issues at lunch.

Montreal, Paris, Dakar: Conducting an International Intranet Needs Analysis

Presenter: Isabelle Peyrichoux

“ Be flexible. Follow the person’s flow. Let the person guide the interview.”—Isabelle Peyrichoux

In her presentation “Montreal, Paris, Dakar: Conducting an International Intranet Needs Analysis,” Isabelle Peyrichoux gave some good tips on conducting user interviews:

  • “Be transparent. Introduce yourself.
  • Be non-judgmental [and] empathetic.
  • Be flexible. Follow the person’s flow. Let the person guide the interview.
  • Be confident in the process and take risks. Follow your intuition.
  • Shut up! Let the person speak. Don’t influence the interview.
  • Listen carefully and remember. Go back to what was previously said.
  • Take notes. This makes the person feel “what I’m saying is important to you.”
  • Reformulate versus asking direct questions.
  • Start from what the [person] says.
  • Don’t ask [people] to design … for you.
  • Ensure [you] have all necessary data for each … task.”

How Can Information Architecture Address Challenges to the Web in Third-World and Developing Contexts?

Presenter: Jason Hobbs

“The opportunity for developing contexts is to create an environment of needs-based solutions manifested leanly across the full duration of the relationship.”—Jason Hobbs

Jason Hobbs’s presentation “How Can Information Architecture Address Challenges to the Web in Third-World and Developing Contexts? provided interesting social commentary. Companies in South Africa find lots of reasons not to invest in Web sites:

  • “The bandwidth is too low.”
  • “We can’t design like they do overseas.”
  • “There aren’t enough users to make it worthwhile.”
  • “We’ll wait for broadband. We can start to design properly then.”

“We have a bit of an inferiority complex.” They also have misconceptions about where the value of the Web lies for them. It’s in marketing, not e-commerce and Web applications. “Ten percent of the population is on the Web.”

Jason gave us a tour of the community in which he lives and works—Johannesburg. It’s very different from those most of us know. Then, he described how IAs in the developing world need to initiate change:

  • “Answer customer needs.
  • Build channel trust throughout the relationship.
  • Design for our context—design light.
  • Work small user bases.
  • Educate, guide, and create awareness.
  • Drive [people] to the Web.
  • Use integrated communications.”

In conclusion, Jason said, “The opportunity for developing contexts is to create an environment of needs-based solutions manifested leanly across the full duration of the relationship. The needs-based approach, coupled with relationship-based journeys across the full lifecycle of engagement, promises to create trust and increase use.”

Sorting in an Age of Tagging: How IAs Can Use Sorting to Address Just About Any Research Question

Presenter: Rashmi Sinha

“Tagging is consensus-based categorization. Designers like control. Design of social systems means letting go.”
—Rashmi Sinha

Rashmi Sinha, shown in Figure 2, brings great energy and passion to everything she does, and her presentation on “Sorting in an Age of Tagging: How IAs Can Use Sorting to Address Just About Any Research Question,” was no exception.

She contrasted categorization—which has a higher cognitive cost, provides richer data, and is harder to aggregate socially—with tagging—which has the opposite characteristics. Better interaction design and perhaps flat organizational schemes or non-exclusive categories—“so items don’t hide”—might reduce the cognitive cost of categorization. Rashmi suggested trying a hybrid approach: “tag sorting”—doing a card sort on “user-generated tags” from del.icio.us. Why tagging?

  • “The Web has become social!
  • People hang out on the Web just for fun!
  • Tags make the Web a shared experience.”
  • Tags allow the “social transmission of information.”

Figure 2—Rashmi speaking about “tag sorting”

Rashmi Sinha

Rashmi made an interesting observation about the social Web: “Tagging is consensus-based categorization. Designers like control. Design of social systems means letting go.” Then, she compared menus—which are structured, stable over time, and comprehensive—and tag clouds—which have the opposite characteristics and “let current stuff bubble to the top.” Finally, she provided some guidelines and posed some questions about the “design of social systems”:

  • “Serve the individual’s selfish goals.
  • Create a symbiotic relationship between the individual and social.
  • When should individuals feel alone; when part of a group?
  • How to encourage social sharing?
  • How much mimicry to encourage?
  • How to accommodate local groups?
  • How to encourage expression of alternative viewpoints?
  • When to introduce social networks?
  • How to encourage wise crowds?
  • How to augment navigation with tags?”

Closing Plenary

Presenter: Peter Merholz

Peter Merholz, shown in Figure 3, closed the conference on a feel-good note. His joy in the IA community and the Summit was apparent and contagious. Peter is a very engaging speaker.

Figure 3—Peter Merholz giving the closing plenary

Peter Merholz

In his closing plenary, Peter drew a parallel between his own professional development and that of information architecture. Here is his timeline:

  • 1975—Richard Saul Wurman coined the term information architects.
  • 1989—In the same year, Richard Saul Wurman wrote Information Anxiety, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, and Marcia Bates wrote her seminal essay, “The Design of Browsing and Berrypicking Techniques for the Online Search Interface.”
  • 1993—Peter discovers Information Anxiety, by Richard Saul Wurman. Its thesis: “In a world with such rapid creation of information, we need to be explicit about how we organize and present that information.”
  • 1996—Richard Saul Wurman wrote Information Architects. Peter went to work for Studio Archetype—one of the first design studios to use the title information architect—where they practiced “design for understanding”.
  • 1997—Peter wrote an article on “Navigating the Internet,” for The Net, a defunct Web magazine, in which he interviewed Peter Morville, who with Lou Rosenfeld wrote the column Web Architect for the Web Review.
  • 1998—Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville wrote Information Architecture for the World Wide Web—the polar bear book.
  • 2000—Peter attended the first IA Summit; then at IA 2000, Peter Morville and Samantha Bailey’s workshop on “Synonyms and Taxonomies.”
  • 2001—Peter published his “Innovation in Classification” on peterme.com.
  • 2003—Thomas Vander Wal coined the term folksonomy.
“With the publication of the polar bear book and the first IA Summit, information architecture became solely a Web phenomenon. … It become synonymous with developing Web site taxonomies. … It became restricted in scope to … documents and pages on the Web.”—Peter Merholz

Of course, we can always count on Peter to be provocative. He remarked that “with the publication of the polar bear book and the first IA Summit, information architecture became solely a Web phenomenon. Even worse, for many, it become synonymous with developing Web site taxonomies. … When IA fell under the influence of the librarians, it became restricted in scope to that with which librarians are comfortable—documents and, specifically, documents and pages on the Web.

“But that’s starting to change. And it’s starting to change for one simple reason—user research—specifically, ethnographic-style research. We go beyond focusing on just the product under question and endeavor to understand more about our users’ contexts—the multiple ways they engage with an organization, the pressures they face as they attempt to do so, and the like.

“Research makes it apparent that you can’t reduce the problem to a single domain or channel—like Web sites. People interact with multiple channels in order to get things done.”
—Peter Merholz

“The increasing acceptance of user research is leading to a profound change in information architecture practice. This is because research makes it apparent that you can’t reduce the problem to a single domain or channel—like Web sites. People interact with multiple channels in order to get things done. And since information architects want nothing more than to satisfy the user, they recognize that focusing their energies solely on a Web site is insufficient.” Figure 4 illustrates this idea.

Figure 4—Cross-channel information architecture

Cross-channel
  information architecture

It is clear that Peter Merholz has a broad concept of information architecture and that he likely takes his concept of information architecture from Richard Saul Wurman’s book Information Architects. Peter said, “The bulk of [its] case studies refer to information design and graphics. But … there are also case studies of CD-ROMs, wayfinding within office buildings, and museum design, including signage, flow of exhibits, and the like.” However, Peter also noted that the term information architect didn’t catch on till Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville appropriated it for their concept of information architecture. It seems to me there is good reason for this.

By the time Wurman’s Information Architects came out, the term user experience had been in use for several years. It was rapidly gaining adoption, and people applied it to the design of CD-ROMs and museum exhibits in addition to other digital products. The term information architect, as Wurman originally used it, didn’t seem quite applicable to the breadth of things to which he applied it. However, the term sounded just right for Lou and Peter’s concept of information architecture.

We now have a flourishing community of information architects practicing information architecture, but increasingly with disagreement about precisely what an information architect is and does and a tremendous amount of overlap with what interaction designers and UX architects do. Peter has even coined a new term for it: cross-channel information architecture. This gives new meaning to the term scope creep. What we call ourselves is an information architecture problem we need to solve. Otherwise, we risk confusing the people we want to hire us.

“Information undergirds and pervades a remarkable amount of our daily lives. I want an information architect, or, at least, someone aware of the principles of information architecture, to have a hand in the design of the spaces and processes that have information as a substrate.”—Peter Merholz

Peter went on to say “Information undergirds and pervades a remarkable amount of our daily lives. I want an information architect, or, at least, someone aware of the principles of information architecture, to have a hand in the design of the spaces and processes that have information as a substrate.” That sounds more like it to me.

Next, Peter gave a new twist to the “concept of design thinking. The idea, essentially, to apply the thinking approaches that designers take to other realms, typically business problems. Well, I believe the world could do with more IA thinking. IAs are, at heart, exceedingly pragmatic problem solvers. We like things that look good, and we recognize the power of an emotional connection. But we also recognize that, at the end of the day, people seek to just get [things] done. And we love building systems that allow people to do that. What joins together all the people in this room is, at heart, a desire for pragmatic problem solving, with the sole result to serve the user; to improve things.”

As shown in Figure 5, Peter cited David Fiorito’s “brilliantly succinct description of what information architects do.”

Figure 5—David Fiorito on IA

David Fiorito on IA
“I think that Web 2.0 puts the architecture in information architecture.”—Peter Merholz

All of these things are “relevant to Web 2.0. In fact, I think that Web 2.0 puts the architecture in information architecture. … The bulk of information architecture currently on the Web isn’t really architecture. It’s some form of hyperdimensional document organizing. We’re not creating a space that people move through and engage with. We’re classifying material to be retrieved. But with Web 2.0, we are providing an architecture—a space….”

Peter heralded the end of cyberspace. “Cyberspace was considered a domain separate from the real world. But as digital networked media pervades more and more of our lives, the idea of a discreet region called cyberspace starts to feel like an anachronism. Who here has a mobile phone on them? … Well, you’re all carrying cyberspace in your pocket. And once that happens, distinguishing that from the real world becomes impossible.”

“We’re an idealistic bunch. We want to make the world a better place. We’re trying our best to improve society, culture.”—Peter Merholz

In conclusion, Peter said, “We’re an idealistic bunch. We want to make the world a better place. We’re trying our best to improve society, culture. … We’re idealistic about our goals, our ends. But we’re also a pragmatic group.” On this point, I heartily concur with Peter. That’s why being immersed in the IA community for a week was such a great experience.

Five-Minute Madness

The Five-Minute Madness that immediately followed the Closing Plenary had the spirit of a testimonial meeting. Many people stepped up to the mic to express their feelings about being IAs, being part of the IA community, and being part of the broader UX community and about their IA Summit experience.

A burgeoning number of IAs attended this IA Summit. To help make the many first-time Summit attendees feel welcome, Lou Rosenfeld had come up with the idea of having newcomers give nuts to helpful IA Summit stalwarts, which they could add to their bolts. Not surprisingly, at the end of the conference, the winner with the most nuts on her bolts was Christina Wodtke and, at the Five-Minute Madness, she was awarded a free admission to next year’s IA Summit in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Other Nuts and Bolts

“AOL brought new meaning to the concept of shrink-wrapped with their maple-leaf-shaped packaging for their conference T-shirt. It’s so good I can’t bring myself to open it.”

Other than a few snafus with some sessions being held in rooms that were too small, the organizers of the Summit did a great job overall. The Hyatt provided a comfortable venue for the conference, in a convenient location.

Each attendee received a nice zippered bag with a shoulder strap, but the sponsors didn’t put the IA Summit logo on it, which reduces its value as a memento. AOL brought new meaning to the concept of shrink-wrapped with their maple-leaf-shaped packaging for their conference T-shirt. It’s so good I can’t bring myself to open it.

The big badges that let people tag themselves and one another were a great idea. The badge holders also accommodated a mini-program—another great idea, but poorly executed. Its tracks weren’t labeled for content—that is, tagged—and room numbers were absent.

The printed program was very poor. Its information was incomplete and poorly organized; its form factor, too large; its cover and staple binding, too flimsy; its paper, while nice and thick, too glossy; and there were no pages for notes. The Conference Proceedings CD-ROM is pretty useless. I gave up on looking for presentation slides after not finding any on repeated tries. Is there really any there there? Maybe, next time, the organizers should just bow to the reality that most presenters won’t have their slides ready in time for inclusion on a CD-ROM before the Summit and, instead, create and ship them to attendees after the conference is over.

Morning and afternoon coffee breaks encouraged mixing and conversation. At lunchtime, tables with question-mark signs invited first-timers who wanted to meet new people or had questions to eat lunch with a few repeat Summit attendees. The food was the best I've had at any conference—which coming from a vegan with special dietary needs is high praise.

Postscript

Subsequent to the conference, most presenters have generously published their PowerPoint® slides on the IA Summit 2006 Web site, and the organizers have done a great job of maintaining the site.

Once the IA Summit had closed, I finally found the time to make it over to Stanley Park with Laurie Lamar to see the totem poles, shown in Figure 6, and the waterfront on the Burrard Inlet. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset on this last day of the Summit. The organizers couldn’t have chosen a better setting for the conference.

Figure 6—Visiting the totems in Stanley Park

Pabini and totems in Stanley Park

Photos by Pabini Gabriel-Petit and Laurie Lamar

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