My IA Summit 2006 Experience: Part 2: The Conference: Day 1

April 14, 2006

IA Summit 2006 comprised three conference tracks:

  • Learning IA—focusing on IA education and research
  • Doing IA—presenting professional practice, techniques, and process
  • Selling IA—evangelizing the value of IA

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Conference: Day 1: Saturday

The first day of the conference was a day of big ideas.

The Keynote Address: What’s Up With Knowledge?

Presenter: Dr. David Weinberger

Dr. David Weinberger—philosopher, raconteur, author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined, and coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto—gave an amusing and thought-provoking opening keynote address titled “What’s Up With Knowledge? Its content derived from his forthcoming book about knowledge, Everything Is Miscellaneous.

The basic premise behind Everything Is Miscellaneous in this: So far, we’ve been organizing ideas using the same principles we use for organizing things, but “the digitizing of information enables us to invent new principles” that affect the “structure and authority” of knowledge. Figure 1 shows David in full flow. A slide from David’s presentation appears in Figure 2.

Figure 1—David Weinberger giving the keynote address
David Weinberger

David made the following observations about knowledge:

  • There seems to be a continuum that progresses from data to information to knowledge to wisdom.
    • “We strip out content in order to fit information into a database. Information is some type of refinement of data.”
    • “That knowledge comes from information is a strange idea.” Through reason, knowledge derives from our impressions and the relationships that we identify between pieces of information like resemblance, contiguity, and cause. But what about facts and experience and wisdom? “How could we think that knowledge arises from information—unless everything is information. That’s the fallacy of informationalization.”
    • “Wisdom is what allows us to figure out what knowledge to get.”
  • “We don’t usually confuse the map for the landscape, but with information we do.”
  • “There’s only one knowledge, and it’s the same for us all, just as reality is. Most things aren’t knowledge. If something is knowledge, it doesn’t matter who says it. It’s bigger than we are—a transgenerational realm to which we can contribute. Knowledge is an orderly system. It is independent of the knower. It outlasts us.”
Figure 2—A slide from David Weinberger’s presentation
Slide from David Weinberger's presentation

Digitizing Information

In speaking about the shift to digitized information, David said, “Our way of representing knowledge has been limited by paper. Now we’re digitizing everything. What can you do easily digitally that the real world makes really hard?” You can:

  • “File things in as many categories as you’d like.”
  • Overcome messiness, which even becomes a virtue.
  • Let “users own the organization of information” and “contribute to the metadata.”

This paradigm shift has a lot of ramifications:

  • “Authors aren’t the best judges of what their works are about. Taggers are.”
  • “Faceted systems enable users to dynamically construct the trees that suit them.”
  • “Rather than filtering on the way in, it’s better … to include everything and filter on the way out.”

Seven Properties of Knowledge

According to David, these are the seven properties of knowledge:

  • one and the same
  • simple
  • impersonal
  • bigger than we are
  • filtered
  • orderly
  • has a knower

The Big Ideas to Take Away

Point #1: Authority

  • “Users determine the social order.”
  • “The Web is a huge recommendation engine. There is too much to know, so we need shortcuts. Authority is a shortcut.”
  • Beyond utility, authority gives social standing, institutional power, control over conversations, personal virtue, and money, and fulfills human destiny.
  • “Appearing in Wikipedia confers no authority. Yet, it has authority because of the importance of the topic, multiple editors, discussion, and metadata.” It’s “publicly negotiated knowledge.”
  • Will we end up with “separate knowledges, a baseline from which controversy emerges, recalcification, knowledge alliances, fragmentation, or reflection?

Point #2: The new infrastructure

  • “The miscellaneous isn’t a disconnected pile.”
  • Context enables meaning and intelligibility.
  • Meaning is implicit and unspoken. “We can’t make everything explicit. The value is in the implicit. Are we seeing an externalization of meaning? The miscellaneous externalizes meaning.”
  • “The problem is that tags decontextualize.”
  • “Generally, we just need good enough information. We’re making good enough information even better” through hierarchy, the semantic Web, blogging, and tagging. “We’re focusing on meaning.”
  • “The miscellaneous is heavily relational.”

“The inability of folksonomies to handle equivalence, hierarchy, and other semantic relationships causes them to fail miserably at any significant scale.”—Peter Morville

We Are Not Alone: IA’s Role in the Optimal Design Team

Presenter: Jared Spool

Usability guru Jared Spool, shown in Figure 3, gave a compelling talk about building successful UX design teams—“We Are Not Alone: IA’s Role in the Optimal Design Team.” Jared’s lively delivery always makes his presentations fun, and his assessment of what it will take for IAs and other specialists to succeed in UX design was spot on. Here are some highlights.

Jared On UX Design

“Fifty percent of returned products are not defective. People just can’t figure them out.”

The irony of successful UX design is that it is invisible. Jared said, “I work on this stuff you’re not supposed to see.”

  • UX design involves many things—copy writing, information architecture, interaction design, visual design, usability, ethnography, business analysis, domain knowledge, development processes, information design. “UX design is multidisciplinary. It has to be. We need to understand the role of an IA in a multidisciplinary team.”
  • There are three approaches to facilitating UX design:
    • consulting—by internal or external design consultants. This approach works only in small organizations, because design teams can handle only a small number of projects.
    • review and approval—by a team responsible for guidelines and standards. This approach is too slow and characterized by bottlenecks. Reviewers are gatekeepers.
    • education and administration—by experts who provide design input prior to implementation. This is hard work, but is the most successful approach. With this approach, an “entire organization focuses on successful experience design.”
  • Key elements of education:
    • having a clear vision of success
    • quickly disseminating user knowledge and feedback
    • using usability problems as teachable moments
    • building communication paths to all design agents
  • Key elements of administration:
    • making it inexpensive to collect feedback on design ideas
    • sharing learnings across an organization
    • making good design practice the path of least resistance

Jared On Specialists and Generalists

Jared returned to a topic we all discussed at dinner the night before: “Information architecture is a skill set within UX design. It doesn’t have to be done by information architects.”

“Information architects are specialists within UX design. Specialists dive into a specific discipline.” Generalists work across disciplines. “Both gain experience and skills through repetition and study,” and both are necessary to UX design.

“Specialization is not compartmentalization. Specialists have breadth of skills across their entire discipline,” with the greatest experience in their specialty and sufficient experience with other skills to understand and interact with people in those areas.”

“Specialists can exist only if there is high enough demand” for them in a regional marketplace. “In very high-demand economies, only specialists can survive. Generalists serve lower-demand economies.” Demand “oscillates over time,” so “practitioners must be flexible as economic demands change.” Because “few design teams have enough demand to afford specialists, …IA’s must be versed in other UX disciplines. The IA community must support both IA as a skill set for UX generalists” and “IA as a specialty.”

Returning to his earlier theme, Jared told us that, in order to fulfill their role in the optimal UX design team, “IA’s must migrate to an educate and administrate model.” Transitioning to an ideal UX team “requires a cultural shift throughout an entire organization; across all people who influence UX.”

“Outsourcing must be to the right people. Choose partners carefully. Choose the right communications channels. Adopt partners as team members across product releases. The key thing is talking to each other. Make talking fun.”

“UX design is now a boardroom conversation.”

Figure 3—Jared Spool at the IxD Symposium dinner
Jared Spool

(I wanted to include a photo of Jared giving his talk, but it’s hard to catch a moving target! Every shot I took resembled nothing so much as a wizard picture at Hogwarts that had been vacated by its subject.)

The biggest mistake the conference organizers made was putting Jared Spool’s session in a small room. I’m sure there were a lot of people who wanted to hear his talk, but weren’t able to get in the room. I was one of the lucky ones who did.

Sessions on Selling IA

IA: Not Just for the Web Anymore

Panelists: Dan Brown, Seth Earley, James Melzer, James Robertson, and Lou Rosenfeld

I caught just the end of the panel “IA: Not Just for the Web Anymore,” which focused on enterprise IA. I’m glad I got there in time to hear this nugget from Lou Rosenfeld: “Don’t ever, ever try to get consensus, because you’ll go down in flames.” How true. Panelist Seth Earley advised tailoring a message to its audience and over-communicating the benefits—how a project will help a company meet its goals.

Game Changing: How You Can Transform Client Mindsets Through Play

Presenter: Jess McMullen

In the afternoon, I continued along the business-oriented Selling IA track. In another standing-room-only session, “Game Changing: How You Can Transform Client Mindsets Through Play,”PDF Jess McMullen showed us how to transform our clients’ mindsets through game-playing.

His focus was on building buy-in from business decision makers: “The real solution—think of business people as your users. We have great skills in understanding other people’s hopes, dreams, needs, and desires. Turn those skills toward communicating with business decision makers. …IAs and designers need to develop business fluency”—fluency in the concepts and, especially, the culture of business.

“We need better shared references, and the most powerful shared references are ones that we experience together.” His “Mary Poppins moment”: Use design games to create those shared references. There are three ways to approach design games: modifying existing activities by introducing play, playing existing games, and creating new games. Selling games means reframing them as work.

Selling IA: Getting Execs to say Yes

Presenter: Samantha Starmer

In “Selling IA: Getting Execs to Say Yes,” Samantha Starmer used role-playing to demonstrate how to sell IAs to executives. Her top five recommendations for selling IA:

  1. “Show the problem. Executives just want to hear clear, compelling reasons why they need to solve a problem and your proposed solution.
  2. Benefit the bottom line. Communicate the business benefits of solving the problem.
  3. Manage the politics. Figure out the political dynamics in your organization and learn to use them.
  4. Don’t promise a silver bullet. Set realistic, achievable goals.
  5. Pay attention to style. Speak your audience’s language. Ninety-three percent of communication is nonverbal.”

Business Design BOF

Jeff Lash led a Business Design BOF that engendered lively discussion and demonstrated how important considerations of business strategy have become to designers.

Conference: Night 1: Saturday

On Saturday night, AOL hosted a reception at which posters were on display. My favorite posters:

  • Yahoo!® Network DiagramPDF—A massive, beautifully rendered isometric projection BranchLogic created for Yahoo!, shown in Figure 4. According to Erin Malone, Yahoo! wanted the diagram to document and analyze its network architecture and site properties, or sections, in order to establish rules for consistently branding properties on the Yahoo! Web site.
  • Methods for Improving IA Deliverables: Less Explaining, More Doing—Todd Warfel created a poster, shown in Figure 5, that depicted the modular system of deliverables he creates for clients, which includes a library of design patterns, master pages and a grid system for wireframe layouts, storyboards of transitions, a version history, and a document index. His approach to creating wireframes is one of the most comprehensive and best I’ve seen.
Figure 4—Yahoo! Network Diagram
Yahoo! Network Diagram
Figure 5—Todd Warfel describing his poster
Todd Warfel

Those who attended the Adaptive Path Beer Bust at the Library Square Public House were immersed in the full Canadian hockey fan’s sports-bar experience. With a Canucks game in progress, the roar of the crowd precluded much conversation, so many left, seeking quieter settings that were more conducive to meaningful human interaction. 

Photos by Pabini Gabriel-Petit and Andrew Hinton

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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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