Convergence and Emergence: 2008 IA Summit
Published: July 7, 2008
The 2008 IA Summit was held April 10–14, at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Miami, Florida, shown in Figure 1. It had the highest attendance in the conference’s nine-year history: Over 600 people signed up for the conference run by ASIS&T (American Society for Information Science and Technology). All the signs are that information architecture (IA) is a community and a practice that is growing, and that its sister disciplines—interaction design (IxD) and experience design—are well-represented at the conference—not just in terms of attendees, but also speakers.
Figure 1—Bank of America tower in downtown Miami
There certainly is a need for our design services, as a photo Kristen Johansen captured of the lifts—that’s elevators to those of you from the US—inside the conference hotel shows. (See Figure 2.)
Figure 2—An interface design failure
Photo by Kristen Johansen
This was my first IA Summit—and a conference that I had anticipated would be “one of the best I would ever go to,” as touted by a previous boss who had attended the Las Vegas Summit last year. Though I try to avoid hype at all times and was determined to look at the Summit through objective eyes, I must say the range of speakers was impressive.
IA Summits have always attracted a diverse crowd—not just information architects, but those involved in all aspects of user experience, from usability consultants to interaction designers and librarians to product managers and business analysts. This diversity in the community has provided it with a source of ever-evolving ideas and theories about how the practice can conduct itself and develop into the future. The dialogue around emerging tools and techniques is fascinating and inspirational—and not without disagreement and argument.
On Saturday night, amidst a Yahoo!-sponsored evening reception, information architects discussed new concepts presented on posters displayed around the room. This event was designed so attendees could interact with the poster’s authors, so it was a great way to engage in some conversation and gain inspiration.
As a first-timer, a few things struck me. This was a vivacious crowd—outgoing and talkative. The attendees here love to communicate, and the venue was very conducive to this. Groups could easily form and circulate, especially in the Miami sunshine overlooking the river, as Figure 3 shows. All the conference halls were arrayed around one central area, so going between sessions was an easy experience.
Figure 3—Area outside the conference hall, where people frequently met between sessions
Unfortunately, this was a weekend when American Airlines had grounded over a thousand flights for safety checks, and this had an impact on the schedule and the available speakers. I had particularly wanted to see Garrick Schmitt from AA | Razorfish, but alas, because of the problems with flights, he failed to materialize. The organizers did their very best to cope with this situation, and there was a minimum of disruption over the three days of the conference. They also ensured that popular sessions ran again in a few overflow rooms, and that was a popular decision made in difficult circumstances.
There were several social events for those new to the community and those who wanted to catch up with old friends. I have heard it said that some Summit attendees feel that they are on the periphery of a clique of Internet gurus that seems impenetrable to those who are new to the discipline, but I didn’t find this to be the case at all.
Once you get over the shyness of approaching somebody—be they well known or not—everybody was open to talking. I made at least twelve new friends that I intend to keep up with, and I wouldn’t call myself an outgoing type at all. As long as you are willing to discuss topics openly, I felt this community was perhaps the friendliest I have experienced at any conference.
Content and Presenters
Fortunately, I had convinced my company to invest in my enrollment in the workshops that preceded the main conference. This proved to be a good move, as I needed not only to overcome jet lag, but also to acquaint myself with the environs—Miami has many distractions—and the people attending the conference.
Day 1: Pre-conference Workshop: Yahoo! Pattern Library
Presenters: Erin Malone, Christian Crumlish, and Lucas Pettinati
On the first day of the pre-conference workshops, I opted for the Yahoo! Pattern Library, as I had recently written a sector-specific pattern library for my company. To actually be taught by the creators of the most celebrated pattern library how to produce one was a really useful opportunity, and I wasn’t disappointed. Figure 4 shows the workshop’s participants.
Figure 4—Workshop in action
Photo by Erin Malone
Not only did Erin Malone, Christian Crumlish, and Lucas Pettinati tell us how to construct a pattern library, they also discussed the concept behind building one, the history behind Yahoo!’s development of their own collection of patterns, and how to manage and evangelize the use of a pattern library within a company. Here are some of their key points:
- “A pattern describes an optimal solution to a common problem within a specific context.” Context differentiates a pattern from a standardized treatment.
- A pattern library needs to be a living thing. It must be published online where all users of the library can access and refer to it. It needs developers at its core and the code behind the pattern to ensure the patterns are workable, useful, and immediately effective.
- Developing a pattern library requires debate and conversation within a community of decision makers for it to thrive. Patterns are not prescriptive, but descriptive. They are a more democratic way of implementing design changes in which best practices become the foundation of patterns.
- Pattern libraries help empower people by encouraging collaboration. They serve as a bridge between people, allowing an agile approach to implementing solutions.
- “People will not turn away from saving time and money. Rapid prototyping enables that.”—Erin Malone
I was already sold on the idea of using patterns and their importance, but learning about the history behind them, how to manage a pattern library, and where within Yahoo! the UX team that develops patterns is placed—within the Development group—were really useful key insights.
During the workshop, we worked together in teams, which was a good way to start to get to know my peers. So, from this point on, I had some familiar faces to say hello to in the corridors or with whom to share a beer in the hotel bar.
As a parting gift, Yahoo! gave each of us a memory stick with their entire library on it, plus stencils for Visio, OmniGraffle, and Illustrator to help us with wireframe generation. Like the whole workshop, this gift was well thought through and delivered. The passion and commitment of the presenters really shone out and made for an enjoyable first day.
Day 2: Pre-conference Workshop: Information Architecture 3.0
Presenter: Peter Morville
On Day Two, there was again a wealth of choice from among some of the leading lights of the IA community.
I decided to attend Peter Morville’s Information Architecture 3.0. I had read both Ambient Findability and the polar bear book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, so I thought this would be a progression from those keystones in IA thinking. Figure 5 shows a slide from his presentation.
Figure 5—Information Architecture 3.0 title slide from Peter Morville’s presentation
In many ways, though, Morville’s presentation was more of a review of all the key points from his books, with extra elements thrown in. I enjoyed the session, but some felt it was more of a lecture rather than a workshop.
There were a few in the audience who either had a personal point to prove or just liked the sound of their own voices. This generated some noise around topics about which I would have liked more constructive discussion. However, I think the main topics Morville talked about during his presentation will formulate ideas for his latest book about search patterns, which is due out later this year. Morville’s key points included the following:
- Compelling content is the key factor that tips the scale in determining at what ranking a search result ends up. Inbound links are a massive factor.
- We have to make judgments and identify questions, but we must test them on our users. In an associative learning experience, we must strive for the 80/20 rule. A user’s search query evolves, so simply reducing the time to find may determine a user’s ability to find.
- A search interface is the second most accessed area on a page, regardless of layout or site purpose.
- The ability to include users without disturbing the experience is key. Many Web 2.0 sites engage users in helping with the organization of site content. This willingness to be messy and iterate makes for a lot of change and noise, but this change is good for information architecture, and many of these sites do have good information architectures. (Morville cited Flickr as an example.)
- Remember our roles will evolve; the name of what we do will change. We need to do more than just follow our users to create solutions that are creative and innovative. Information architecture is both a project and a process.
- Ethnography is the killer user study tool.
- IA strategy commonly throws up challenges to a company’s strategy, and change management will be a common factor in many IA projects.
- Facilitate conversations to establish success metrics. Is the client happy a year later? Customer satisfaction and metrics define success.
- “Iterative design is good, but you need a structured method to stop going around in circles.”—Peter Morville
- We must evangelize and be bridge builders. In the collaboration space, you must allow people to collaborate. We need to learn from experience and design for the future, as we are producing the legacy systems of tomorrow
Morville’s talk really encapsulated a lot of the themes that recurred throughout the next three days of the conference. At the time, it felt like a 7-hour brain dump from one of the leading thinkers in the field. To this end, I was happy to be there, but perhaps because of the style of delivery, I think many people felt that they were sold short.
From my point of view, Morville raised some important questions. He was also candid in admitting he didn’t have all the answers and shared some project failures that he had experienced.
What Morville did, like many good teachers, was ask more of us at the end of the session than at the beginning. If you expected to leave with all the answers to what IA 3.0 is, the likelihood is that you left with more questions. This is not a bad thing in this domain. We are still evolving as information architects, as is the Web.
This was a thought-provoking session that showed how Peter Morville can be a catalyst for advancing the discipline with new ideas and techniques. He certainly raised some really important issues in terms of what information architecture is, where is it going, and how important it is that we are instrumental in the design of systems.
Days 3–5: Conference Highlights
The following presentations were the ones I gained the most from, but from talking with other attendees, I know I missed many other great presentations. This is an unfortunate element of any conference, and this review is a personal one. I recommend you go to the IA Summit Web site where there are links to presentations on SlideShare and audio files on Boxes and Arrows. A majority of the presentations are available on SlideShare.
Keynote: Journey to the Center of Design
Presenter: Jared Spool
I remember the almost audible shock from the audience when Jared Spool, shown in Figure 6, opened up with a slide that stated UCD is dead. I know a few people really thought he went a step too far, but it certainly grabbed your attention. I think the main thing for me was that he did at least qualify this statement through some very well observed and researched analysis.
Figure 6—Jared Spool giving his keynote
Photo by Kristen Johansen
The key points of Spool’s talk follow:
- User-centered design (UCD) came from psychology and human factors, not product design. Companies that design through a UCD process are missing a vitally important element. If 20% of your users provide more than 80% of your revenue, designing for all users is inefficient. In effect, UCD is an inefficient methodology that has become dogma.
- Spool has studied the best design teams and found they use tools and techniques rather than processes and methodologies. The best teams ignore their methodologies, and the least successful are chained by theirs.
- Spool’s stone soup story illustrated the nature of collaboration. In the anecdote, the stone was an object that helped people work together. The stone could be a metaphor for a methodology, but it is not the thing that makes the product—or the soup in this case.
- People are the most important parts of a process—those that facilitate—not the process itself.
- The goal is to create informed design. What gets measured gets done, and yet, what gets rewarded gets done well. We should build a reward system based on informed measures.
- The determining factors in whether a company achieves a quality user experience
through its products are
- gathering feedback from users to gain a clear vision of their future
- a corporate culture that rewards failure
Spool’s deliberately inflammatory start aside—remember Spool is an entertaining showman—I think he offered a collection of valid and well-timed observations. As we move onward into an ever more agile development environment, these ideas are vital in defining success. In companies that have embraced UCD and in which it has become the only method of tackling a problem, UCD’s becoming an obstacle to progress is a very real threat.
Spool rightly suggests we need to think about being adaptive and versatile in the way we approach our problems and offer solutions that are sympathetic to the context in which they reside.
There were amusing moments of audience participation and meanderings around the ineffectiveness of the US Transport and Security Association. But the main point of this hour-long talk was how important the culture of a company is in defining its success. (In my mind, this relates to a recent post by Peter Merholz about getting a design director onto a company board of directors.)
Spool’s talk was not so much a dig at UCD as a methodology, but more about the business strategy a company needs to produce a quality user experience through its products.
You could argue that information architects are not at the right level to influence cultural change, but actually, I think it’s exactly the right area in which to apply some pressure to make companies more dynamic and responsive.
Once we got over the initial attention-grabbing headline, this keynote delivered some eminently sensible thoughts, and I hope they resonate with change agents, including information architects, and that we do something about it.
IA Enterprise Portals
Presenter: Joe Lamantia
I wanted to see this presentation primarily because I have been following Lamantia’s five-part series on his building blocks system on Boxes and Arrows. Figure 7 shows Joe Lamantia taking the audience through his slides.
Figure 7—Joe Lamantia’s presentation
Photo by Bart Vermeersch
In his talk, Lamantia outlined the main principles of his building blocks approach. Building blocks have the following characteristics:
- portable—syndicated, reused, duplicated, and distributed
- independent—can work alone and also within a hierarchy when stacked together
- inheritance—scalable, with interactions and relationships that are remembered between page elements
- layering—blocks cover all aspects of the experience.
From a professional point of view, I have felt this concept has a real use for CMSs. Though this presentation focused on enterprise portals, which are “universal, ubiquitous, and permanent” and hold “more pressure, politics, and risk” than the average Web site.
The presentation unfortunately suffered from running short of time, so half the audience got up and left to go to their next session. Lamantia continued amid three minutes of hubbub, describing his building blocks system, which is designed to “escape flatland” and offers a richer and more diverse user experience. His system fits very well with design pattern libraries, because it breaks up the components of Web sites into sections that sit within a hierarchy and have solid logic behind them.
I see no reason why Lamantia’s theory cannot expand into all kinds of Web sites, because it offers a way of organizing pages in a widgetized way. My company is currently investing in a CMS that would benefit from the architecture Lamantia proposes. The system is vendor neutral and technology independent, so that is yet another reason for following this approach to building the information structures of sites.
I found this a useful session, but I did want more and wondered whether a 45-minute session was enough. Perhaps a workshop would have been better, because it was a conceptually challenging talk that may have been too complex for such a short time slot.
How to Be a User Experience Team of One
Presenter: Leah Buley
In terms of engaging the audience, this session was a personal favorite—not only because of the subject matter, as I am a lone-wolf IA in the company I work for— because of the manner in which Buley, shown in Figure 8, conveyed her subject matter. I strongly suggest you see her presentation on SlideShare.
Figure 8—Leah Buley giving her presentation
Photo by Javier Valasco
What really stood out was her enthusiasm, and that energy is absolutely vital when working on projects with clients who may not be confident in you or who need encouragement.
Buley outlined her methods of idea generation, how to assemble an ad hoc team, and the methods she uses for picking the best idea. She really focused on collaborating, testing, and showing ideas spontaneously. She offered a whole range of tools and techniques that would enable rapid prototyping based on a large number of initial ideas.
Buley stated that design principles are very important, because they not only let you refine the ideas you generate, but also help you defend those ideas. These mantras enabled her to give confidence to other team members and the client, because they helped establish her authority and showed that she cared.
Those three elements—confidence, authority, and being conscientious—really do define a professional, and of course, being a good designer! By the end of the session, she had a few people cheering in the aisles. It was a rallying call for all those lone UX people out there. Being there let me realize that many people do work in isolation, and that is exactly why this conference is unique and so important to them.
Inspiration from the Edge: New Patterns for Interface Design
Presenter: Stephen Anderson
Extending the Gaming Experience to Conventional UIs
Presenter: John Ferrara
These two presentations effectively demonstrated that the jump from standard Web interfaces to something more intuitive—like the iPhone—has become reality. Both of these talks interested me, because I think the medium in which we interact with information will eventually become increasingly game-like. In other words, the tools we use to access information will be as easy as playing a game on a Wii console.
Anderson, shown in Figure 9, wanted us to “look beyond the industry rivals and say no to default thinking.” His presentation was about seeking inspiration that influences design. With new technologies, almost everything is possible and software is changing.
Figure 9—Stephen Anderson
Anderson stated that natural behavior is superior to learned behavior, citing the iPhone, on which you touch and drag a page to move down and can push the contents of a page around. Yet on a Windows interface, when you click a down arrow on a scroll bar, the page goes up. The four key takeaways were:
- Look beyond the surface.
- Think outside the UI box.
- Design with less space and think in conversations or scenarios.
- Make it visual.
So, our designs need to be adaptive, and associative learning should aid a user in following a path. This was an enjoyable talk. Technology seems to be at the right stage for a new approach to user interfaces, and the iPhone seems to be the clarion call for them.
John Ferrara concentrated purely on games and took a slightly more analytical approach than Anderson’s purely show-and-tell approach. Anderson said games have the benefit of creating an effortless community, in which you learn by watching and experiencing. They exhibit a fluid system of human computer interaction, and they are easy to customize. Ferrara added that they have a vast popularity that is seemingly untapped. “Games don’t need to be artificial. They can solve real problems.”
Ferrara also looked at patterns in game design, such as the physical presence of the user in an environment, temporal motion, adaptive experiences—visualizing how you play—and the ability to build different user experiences into different contexts—again hinting at the value of associative learning to the user.
Both Ferrara and Anderson talked about the importance of the user interface and how its design and user interactions can dictate how we display content and how users can interact with that content in the future.
I think we are nearer to a convergence of information architecture and interaction design, because the technology of touch-screen computing is forcing us to look at our disciplines in new ways. If you could present users with different information, because the computer has learned from their behavior, imagine the possibilities? If you can make a user experience addictive and fun—as Buley stated in her presentation—you really will have a successful site, with entertained users.
Content Page Design
Presenter: Luke Wroblewski
Wroblewski, shown in Figure 10, has an enviable knack of being incredibly relaxed and lucid while delivering solid gold nuggets of insightful observations and recommendations. This presentation was probably the most useful in terms of being able to apply learning in my workplace.
Figure 10—Luke Wroblewski
Photo by Bart Vermeersch
It was the research that was the most eye opening. For instance, out of 650,000 URLs, page views for 25% were for less than four seconds. This affirmation of our users’ scatterbrained tendencies makes it clear we need to employ good page-layout design and visual hierarchies when displaying information.
Wroblewski walked through various elements that address the need to focus on content and deliver on the promise of content that users find through search results pages.
I found this session informative, and it really helped me think about the context in which we deliver content to our users. When displaying information users seek, we need to ensure the relevance of our content to avoid high bounce rates and low referrals. We also need to display clear calls to action that our analytics teams measure.
The Information Architect and the Fighter Pilot
Presenter: Matthew Milan
This was a really interesting look at how we can apply the strategies of John Boyd, military strategist, to the design domain. Milan looked at Boyd’s OODA model (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) and proposed it as a method we can use in our design practices.
Milan presented his ”discourse to make people think,” and it certainly did that. One member of the audience questioned Milan about whether he thought information architecture was worth saving? He, at the time, replied yes, but has since questioned this on his own blog. (I won’t go into explicit detail here, because it is quite theoretical, and I am not entirely convinced of how legitimate it is to draw parallels between a domain that destroys and one that creates, but I can see his point in some areas.)
As a design discipline, we do need to deconstruct problems and solutions more readily. Milan stated, “We are good at structure and yet bad at unstructure.” I guess unstructured approaches do tend to upset IAs, and this is why the folksonomic tagging and emergent taxonomies cause so much discussion and division.
I suppose what Milan really wants is to generate a new way of looking at what we do and break from the confines of what we now accept as information architecture. As we neared the end of the conference, it appeared that what we are and what we thought we were are entirely different things.
Day 5: Closing Plenary: Linksosophy
Presenter: Andrew Hinton
After five days at the conference, Andrew Hinton’s presentation, shown in Figure 11, was a refreshing take on the state of the IA nation. He effectively illustrated the confusion around our discipline, the different schools of thought in the community, and how arguments about what IA is have created divisions between different groups and personalities.
Figure 11—An animated Andrew Hinton during his closing plenary speech
Photo by Javier Valasco
“Findability is only useful in service of context and connection. IA defines the relationships and connections between contexts. Interaction design is the interactive function within a given context. This overlap is seen in navigation.”—Andrew Hinton
Hinton stated that the practice of information architecture is both a shared history of learning and a community of practice. We are an emergent group. There are many new factors emerging within the context of the discipline, which is still defining what it is.
To this end, you could say that information architecture is emerging and converging at the same time. The overlaps are evident and real. The boundary between where information architecture ends and interaction design begins is hard to define. In the same vein, where does a taxonomist end and an information architect begin? There is no clear answer, because each role—regardless of whether person is called an information architect—is subject to a specific context and culture. These factors will always influence what explicitly an information architect does.
The closing plenary provided a fitting end to a great set of speakers. The field of information architecture is very much alive. It is evolving and still very much in its infancy.
Proceedings and Themes
The theme of this conference was “Experiencing Information,” and certainly, the interaction element of user experience was well-represented here—perhaps more so than at previous conferences. Throughout the week, I met several interaction designers, and they considered themselves to be a part of this community. It is a good thing this is not an exclusive community, but it is also one without defined borders and has overlapping disciplines.
There was a lot to see and do at the conference, and it is a little overwhelming. It seems like you should be in all of the sessions all of the time, but of course, you need to be selective and go to those sessions that are most relevant to you.
I felt it would have been good to repeat a few more sessions. Looking around a room, you would most likely see speakers from other sessions. Everybody needs inspiration, and there were many informative sessions.
There were plenty of social events, and Richard Dalton, Conference Chair, and Priyanka Kakar, Chair of the Social Committee, both shown in Figure 12, deserve a special mention for being pleasant and cheerful during the entire five-day stretch.
Figure 12—Richard Dalton and Priyanka Kakar
Both work as UX professionals and have been involved in the organization of the previous IA Summits, and their experience definitely showed. I know they had some tricky issues to deal with, but their enthusiasm helped make the conference a great one for me.
The IA community is unique. Perhaps it is because everybody has a genuine interest in their colleagues and peers. Or that we all share the experience of nobody else in our company really knowing what we do.
The wall of deliverables, shown in Figure 13, was a hit! The posters were entertaining. I heard the IA slam was a lot of fun. All of these events help to make a memorable event, unlike any other I have been to.
Figure 13—The wall of deliverables
The sense of community provides a lovely atmosphere. The conference is exhausting, and your head spins with all the new ideas you have just heard. You have just 15 minutes to have a coffee, check out the career room, or swap some trading cards, shown in Figure 14. (Yes! They did them again this year!)
Figure 14—The ever popular trading cards
Photo by Kristen Johansen
The people at the conference are ready to listen and offer advice and support if you need it in your work. The Information Architecture Institute (IAI) are also very visible, enabling you to join the community in an official capacity.
It is clear that the discipline of information architecture is undergoing change. I was amazed at the range of job titles I encountered. Very few people actually had the title information architect. This must be a sign that the rapid development of the Web and the technological advances that are occurring are just moving so fast what we do is very hard to define. It is just a label, and we shouldn’t become too hung up on it, but I think the IAI need to be aware and wise to the developments that are going on in other disciplines such as IxD and UX in general.
I was surprised that there were no specific mentions of persuasion architecture, because I think it’s something that would help the discipline’s cause in the boardroom as it shows discernable ROI on what we do. For the same reason, I would also have been interested in analytics for measuring the engagement of users with a Web site.
The message from many speakers was not to be rigid—to be adaptive, use a versatile approach to the work we do, and embrace change. Ethnography is the best tool for user understanding, and yet, it isn’t used as much as it should be. The context of what we present to users needs to be clear and relevant. The calls to action need to be obvious and direct.
The business culture we operate in will affect our work, and for that reason, we must be prepared to take on change-management tasks and build bridges between domains to ensure a collaborative environment.
Information architecture will evolve, and our titles may change. What we do will be as important as ever as disciplines converge and ever more complex interfaces and interactions emerge in different media. Technology will have a say in the direction of the discipline. Excellent conferences like the IA Summit, which are informative and inspirational, will be even more important to the communities of practitioners they serve.
Photos contributed by Erin Malone, Kristen Johansen, Bart Vermeersch, and Javier Valasco.