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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.