My IA Summit 2006 Experience: Part 1: The Pre-Conference

April 14, 2006

The seventh annual ASIS&T Information Architecture Summit—IA Summit 2006 for short—was held at the Hyatt® Regency in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, shown in Figure 1, from March 23 through 27, 2006. Its theme was Learning • Doing • Selling. While I attended the IA Summit Redux in San Francisco at Adaptive Path last year, this was my first IA Summit.

Even though I’m not an information architect, I was encouraged to attend by the recommendations of several people who told me the IA Summit is one of the best UX conferences held every year. I was not disappointed. IA Summit 2006 was the best of the conferences I’ve attended recently—in large part because so many of the people who present at and regularly attend the Summit are bright, progressive thinkers who are friendly and fun.

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Figure 1—The view from the Hyatt
View from the Hyatt

The Pre-Conference Seminars

Unfortunately, the pre-conference seminars at IA Summit 2006 were exorbitantly expensive. Compare $575 for an all-day seminar at the Summit with $250 for an all-day tutorial at DUX2005 or $150 for a one-day workshop at CHI2006. That said, there were a wealth of good choices, and I decided to attend full-day seminars on both pre-conference days:

Too bad I don’t have a Time-Turner and could be in only one place at a time. The IA Summit required some tough choices. On Thursday, I would have loved to have attended Jared Spool’s talk on “The Secret Design Strategies for Highly Successful Web Sites” and the Management Innovation Group’s “Enhancing the Strategic Influence of IAs: Understanding and Responding to Complex Business Problems.” See Laurie Lamar’s review of the latter seminar.

On Friday, I missed Kevin Cheng and Jane Jao’s workshop, “Creating Conceptual Comics: Storytelling and Techniques”—by all accounts, a great seminar. Read Andrew Hinton’s review of this popular workshop.

Pre-Conference: Day 1: Thursday: Interaction Design Symposium

Presenters: Kim Goodwin, David Heller, Frank Ramirez, and Luke Wroblewski

The Interaction Design Association (IxDA) presented the IxD Symposium. The slide shown in Figure 2 provides a description of the goals of this young organization.

Figure 2—IxDA

Since IxDA presented the Symposium and I’m on its board of directors, I’ll leave it to others to evaluate the presentations. See Russ Wilson’s review of the Symposium, particularly for details about Dave and Luke’s presentations. However, I will give you a brief overview of the day and a sampling of what people learned at the Symposium.

After a brief introduction to IxDA, David Heller, shown in Figure 3, spoke about “Connecting IxD to IA.” PDF He said, “Most IAs are already doing IxD, but they just don’t call it that … yet!”

Figure 3—Dave Heller presenting at the IxD Symposium
Dave Heller

Getting from Personas to Design

Next, Kim Goodwin, shown in Figure 4, gave a presentation on “Getting from Personas to Design.” Since her presentation isn’t available online, I’ll go into more detail here.

Goal-Directed Design

First, Kim provided an overview of Cooper’s goal-directed design process:

  • “Goals drive a person’s actions. Tasks are things a person does in order to accomplish his goals. Tasks are important, but goals get you to big breakthroughs.”
  • “Information architecture is a specialized subset of interaction design, designing interaction with information.”
  • Cooper’s goal-directed process includes the following phases:
    • research—defining the domain
    • modeling—developing an understanding of the users
    • requirements definition—analyzing the problem to be solved
    • framework definition—defining the solution
    • design—designing and documenting form and behavior
    • development support—seeing that the design gets built
  • The development of personas is a key part of their modeling phase:
    • “Real personas are based on real data.”
    • If user research is not available, use “provisional personas,” which capture a team’s best guess about user needs and characteristics and “are better than nothing.”
    • Personas are narratives that capture information about users’ goals, attitudes, workflows, environments, skills, and frustrations.
Figure 4—Kim Goodwin speaking at the IxD Symposium
Kim Goodwin

Then, Kim delved more deeply into the two phases of Cooper’s process that focus on defining solutions: requirements definition and framework definition.

Requirements Definition

She had this to say about requirements definition:

  • “High-level requirements that allow executives to make trade-off decisions … are based on our data to avoid opinion-based disputes and uncertainty.”
  • Requirements definition comprises four steps:
    • brainstorming
    • describing the personas’ mental model
    • creating context scenarios—which describe how personas might use a product
    • listing requirements—which identify “necessary product characteristics and capabilities”
  • Types of requirements include data needs and functional needs.

Framework Definition

Kim cautioned us not to jump to solutions too quickly. “If you conflate the need and the solution, the product may not address the user’s real problem.” Finally, Kim described how Cooper conceptually frames solutions:

  • Framework definition starts “with the ability to visualize and think structurally.”
  • You can break down structure into views, or screens, panes, sub-panes, control groups, controls, and data objects and attributes.
  • “Patterns are known structures that you can apply to help you solve certain classes of problems.”
  • To evaluate the structure of a user interface, “use markers to draw eye patterns for tasks on a screen shot.”
  • “We cannot rely on intuitive leaps because they may be wrong, don’t always happen, are difficult for others to follow, and may be difficult to defend.”
  • During framework definition
    • “list functional and data elements based on needs”
    • “group and sketch elements using key path scenarios”—which “describe the persona’s most important or frequent workflows”
    • use validation scenarios to check your design

The Visual Design of Behavior

Luke Wroblewski’s presentation on “The Visual Design of Behavior included much of the same excellent content he presented in his talk on “Visual Communication Principles for Web Application Interface Design” at our IxDA San Francisco Bay Area Face to Face / BayCHI IxD BOF last June. As shown in Figure 5, Luke showed numerous examples that illustrated principles of visual communication and organization, then set a visual design exercise for all participants.

Figure 5—Luke Wroblewski presenting at the IxD Symposium
Luke Wroblewski

The Web Now

During the three part-presentation “The Web Now,” the focus was on Web 2.0, which has the following characteristics:

  • Richer—David Heller spoke about RIAs (Rich Internet Applications). See Dave’s UXmatters article “RIAs: The Technology Is Exciting, but They Really Do Help Users.”
  • Social PDF—After describing how the concept of online community has changed over time, Luke Wroblewski talked about best practices for designing the social aspects of Web 2.0. We learned that online communities comprise creators, synthesizers, and consumers.
  • Open—Frank Ramirez, shown in Figure 6, talked about how the openness of Web 2.0 permits the integration of functionality into various contexts. He looks at Web 2.0 as a virtual operating system “built of lots of interoperable modules.” We learned about Web syndication, mashups, SOAs (service-oriented architectures), and open APIs (application programming interfaces) and their impacts on Web development. Figure 7 shows a slide from Frank’s presentation.
Figure 6—Frank Ramirez giving his talk at the IxD Symposium
Frank Ramirez
Figure 7—An example of best practice for openness
Best practice for openness

Pre-Conference: Night 1: Thursday

In the evening, we learned that it’s hard to get taxis in downtown Vancouver on a night when the Canucks are playing. We needed a string of them to take us across the Granville Bridge to the Rugby Beach Club Grille—a great restaurant on Broadway with an eclectic a la carte menu—where Symposium presenters and attendees, IxDA board members, and a few friends and members of IxDA met for dinner, as shown in Figures 8 and 9.

Figure 8—A happy bunch at the IxD Symposium dinner
IxD Symposium dinner
Figure 9—More IxD Symposium presenters and attendees at dinner
IxD Symposium presenters and attendees at dinner

During dinner, Jared Spool seemed to be marshalling his thoughts for his talk the next day, so we got a bit of a preview. Our conversation also touched on ways of representing the broader user experience—beyond the screen—in prototypes. Jared described the early use of comics for prototyping and B.J. Fogg’s movies of interactive experiences featuring Bongo, a monkey doll. People spoke about Kevin Cheng and Jane Jao’s session on “Communicating Concepts Through Comics on Sunday, which I regrettably missed. Comics can be a very effective way of communicating conceptual models within contexts. Much of the content of our dinner conversation has made its way into Jared’s UIE Sparks blog posting on “A Forgotten Prototype Technique: Comics.” Comics have been rediscovered!

After dinner, Loretta Hui, a Vancouver local who helped me organize this and another, larger IxDA dinner on the following Sunday, packed as many of us as would fit into her Mercedes and took us on a tour of Granville Island, Yaletown, and Gastown.

Pre-Conference: Day 2: Friday: Information Architecture & Findability

Presenter: Peter Morville

Co-author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Peter Morville, shown in Figure 10, presented an engaging, edifying, well-organized (of course!), adeptly delivered seminar that provided an overview of information architecture.

Figure 10—Peter Morville
Peter Morville

In addition to the concepts Russ Wilson has covered in his review, here are some key points I took away from Peter’s presentation:

  • IA is a balance of art and science that draws a lot from usability testing methods, but always includes “an element of judgment, creativity, and risk-taking.”
  • “Ninety-nine percent of IA is done by people who aren’t IAs.”
  • “There are a lot of de facto standards on the Web, …which have emerged through practice.”
  • “IA can fit nicely into … an organization in which marketing is defined properly” and dedicates more Web-page real estate to pull rather than push. “In a lot of situations, I find myself fighting with marketing, who want to push information.”
  • “How links are categorized and structured is very important.”
  • “The way we structure, organize, and label information has a big impact on the brand.”
  • “Part of IA is knowing whether you’ve found what you were looking for.”
  • “The process of searching and navigating is a process of learning.” “Don’t assume all time spent searching is wasted.” There should be a “balance between searching and browsing,” but when “most of our attention is on navigation and taxonomy,” search is left behind. “When we do a search, we should see the results within the context of the taxonomy.”
  • “We are building an information infrastructure.”
  • To communicate the value of IA, “try to make the invisible visible through your deliverables.”
  • “Most usability problems are IA problems.”
  • IAs need to “influence the structuring and writing of content.”

IA Systems

Peter explored the major IA systems—including organization structures and schemes like that shown in Figure 11, labeling, navigation, and search—showing many examples.

Figure 11—Organization structures
Organization structures

Important ideas regarding IA systems include the following:

  • In an “information ecology, …you can’t think about navigation without thinking about searching.”
  • “We’ll always have hierarchy. Hierarchy helps people form a mental model of a site and its content.”
  • The Yahoo! model of categories with sample subcategories “is one of the most effective ways of developing scent of information. Definitions or scope notes are not as effective.”
  • In labels, “strive for balance between length and clarity.”
  • When people come into a Web site from a search engine, or “parachute” into site, they need an indication of where they are within the site. “They must be able to navigate from and to all pages.”
  • Breadcrumbs is a misnomer, because they show “where you are, not where you’ve been. … Advanced users use breadcrumbs more than novices. … With breadcrumbs, people are better at finding the same content again.” If users don’t click breadcrumbs, that doesn’t mean they didn’t read them.
  • “Search is a system,” as shown in Figure 12. “It’s really difficult, but really important. We need to get better at defining search systems.”
  • After the home page, the search results page is typically the most used page on a Web site.
  • Filters allow people to “move between browsing and search. Searching and browsing are not mutually exclusive.”
Figure 12—Search system
Search system

IA Process and Approach

Next, Peter spoke about process and approach—from research to deliverables—showing many examples of IA deliverables. Figure 13 shows a progression from abstract ideas to concrete deliverables.

Figure 13—Invisible IA
Invisible IA

Key points on IA process included the following:

  • “IA needs to fit within the broader development process.”
  • “IAs need to be involved in defining and observing test tasks.”
  • “The qualitative side of observation is most important.”
  • “Blueprints prevent your locking in too quickly on a solution.”
  • “Show the taxonomy within the context of your wireframes.”
  • Your audience and their needs should determine what deliverables you provide.

Broadening the scope of his talk to user experience design, Peter touched on content management, information modeling, knowledge management, and Web credibility. “Within one second, people unconsciously make an assessment of your site. If your site looks professionally designed, people assume you know what you’re talking about. … Findability can influence credibility.”

Faceted Classification

Peter also described and showed many examples of faceted classification. He said, “Faceted classification is a reaction to the dominant paradigm of a single taxonomy. … Each object can be described by many facets and fields. … Endeca is building search on top of faceted classification.” He provided this list of common facets for intranets:

  • topics
  • organizations
  • locations
  • products
  • content formats
  • roles
  • languages

Ambient Findability

Peter drew the content for his final topic of the day from his latest book, Ambient Findability, shown in Figure 14.

Figure 14—Ambient findability
Ambient findability

Here are some ideas relating to ambient findability, which is “the ability to find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime.”

  • “There are a lot of scary privacy issues we’re already starting to run into.”
  • “In the information age, we’re creating absurd amounts of information every year.”
  • “From a practical perspective, … at a time when we are drowning in information, shouldn’t we make it easier for our customers to find information? Even if we know what information people want, we don’t know when they want it.”
  • There is a “migration away from the desktop” to “alternate interfaces to digital information.” For alternate interfaces, the “bandwidth problem will reduce rather quickly, but screen-size issues won’t.”

Each participant in the seminar received an autographed copy of Ambient Findability.

Pre-Conference: Night 2: Friday

Friday evening, a welcome reception took place on the top floor of the Hyatt. The reception wasn’t very findable, because the organizers left it out of the program, but it gave those of us who found our way there an opportunity to renew old friendships and begin forming new ones.

About 15 UXnet Executive Council members and Local Ambassadors left the reception early and walked to Enthuze, a funky little downtown restaurant with good fusion cuisine. It was great getting to know Local Ambassadors who came from near and far—some from places as far away as Australia and South Africa. I feel privileged to be part of such a vibrant community of wonderful people who are so passionate about UX. Unfortunately, I was so completely absorbed in interesting conversation that I forgot to take any pictures.

Photos by Pabini Gabriel-Petit, Kyle Pero, and Luke Wroblewski  

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Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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