Tuesday, 1st May 2007
Information architects do not appear to be big fans of gambling. At my lunch table at the eighth annual gathering of information architects in Las Vegas, one attendee explained, 'It's just not logical. I mean, you know the casino always wins.' The presenters took frequent pot- shots at the town and the keynote speaker was clapped and cheered for his declaration: 'I hate Las Vegas.' In between presentations the attendees rushed to add their condemnation of so-called Sin City.
It was a bit of a mismatch: 500 logical folk who tend to work in greyscale, rattling around in a neon city that survives on wishful thinking. But the location didn't really matter. The information architects still loved being there. The final free-for-all session or '5-minute madness' involved many declarations that the conference was 'my family' or 'my favourite conference in world'. One speaker was so emotional at the support he received that he was reduced to uncontrollable tears.
The conference itself is as much about strengthening the IA community as it is about the topics discussed, but there was still plenty of food for thought. The more than 500 attendees inevitably had different experiences of the conference, with five days, 18 workshops and 50 presentations spread across three competing tracks. Still, I found three themes echoing through the presentations I attended and the conversations I had in the corridors: execute, understand the data, collaborate.
Execute, don't just create
Joshua Prince-Ramus, a 'bricks-and-mortar' architect - not the digital kind - kicked the conference off by exhorting his audience to consider execution not just creation in his presentation 'The Lost Art of Productively Losing Control'. The architect of the Seattle Public Library dismissed architects and designers who aim simply for 'the genius sketch' and championed interest in the process that actually gets your creation built.
I was delighted to hear him discuss constraints as a positive part of the design process. He inspired David Malouf to blog that 'this is something we face all the time as designers of software, but we often just scrape scope instead of learning a keen awareness of the problems we face and then turn those into new advantages' <http://synapticburn.com/comments.php?id=229_0_1_0_C>.
This theme continued with a presentation from Tom Wailes and Kevin Cheng of Yahoo! on 'Finding Innovation in the Five Hundred Pound Gorilla'. They kicked it off with the declaration that 'there is nothing really innovative if it doesn't get built'.
This theme was wrapped up in Rashmi Sinha's closing presentation about her experiences developing her products MindCanvas and Slideshare, 'Fast, Cheap and Somewhat in Control'. She neatly echoed the opening sentiments with the message that once you become an entrepreneur you can't finish with the design. If the product is your baby then you have to see if through execution and into life.
Understand the data to design the future
The second predominant theme at the show was about the role of data in design, both data to inform designs and data as something to be designed.
The conference proper was kicked off by Louis Rosenfeld and Rich Wiggins, and they put analytics upfront and centre with their presentation 'Using Search Analytics to Diagnose What's Ailing your Information Architecture'. They assure us that the book "Search Analytics" will follow shortly. The presentation was followed up by Andrea Wiggins' talk Data Driven Design, in which she recommended using Web analytics iteratively, at the beginning, middle and end of projects and then carrying out an annual follow-up.
In 'Intelligent Inter(RE)action', Marissa Gallagher and Garrick Schmitt of Avenue A Razorfish advocated tapping into larger sources of information about user behaviour than just the undoubtedly valuable usability tests. The data-driven approach should complement, not replace, traditional user research. This reminded me of Jared Folkmann's great presentation 'Customer Experience Framework' at the last Euro IA conference. It is nice to see that the value of metrics is gathering steam in the community.
Stephen Anderson proposed taking this one step further and designing your applications to redesign themselves based on data about the user's behaviour. Just I was beginning to wonder about the ethics of these 'psychic' applications, Stephen reminded us that adaptive interfaces were a lot like dating in that you should aim not to 'freak people out by knowing too much too soon'.
The other set of presentations where data was the word of the moment was about designing sites where data is the backbone of the site, rather than gathering and using data about user behaviour. In these sessions the typical topics were building a web of data, microformats, APIs, hack-able URLs and RSS.
The pre-conference workshop that I gave with Margaret Hanley, John Allsopp and Thomas Vander Wal had the theme of 'Designing with Structured Data', and we covered both designing the data structures and designing applications to consume the data. In the morning the attendees had to design a map-based mash-up for a charity website and a data model for an e-commerce site selling chickens.
In the afternoon John Allsopp picked up the topic of marking up your data structure in microformats. Microformats are simple, open data formats built upon existing standards. John demonstrated how software such as browser plug-ins can extract the information marked up in microformats and transfer it to other applications, such as a calendar.
Margaret reappeared later in the conference to chair the panel on 'Real Information Architecture', which was set up to explore the idea of a web of data and its implications for information architects. The panel of Lisa Chan, Tom Coates and Matt Biddulph proposed that 'real' IAs should be abandoning the macro-organisation of one website for one organisation, in favour of the micro-organisation of information creating a web of data. The audience got to participate in an exercise to suggest data feeds that could improve Margaret's Internet dating profile, which somewhat set the tone for the rest of the session. Check out Tom Coates earlier presentation 'Native to a Web of Data' if you want to find out more about this area <http://digbig.com/4ssxr>.
The message from a number of these sessions was that it is possible to do this now and that we shouldn't wait for the full-blown semantic Web.
This year there was less emphasis on championing the role of user- experience professionals, demanding respect and celebrating the genius of your own profession. The third theme was that there was a more thoughtful, pragmatic note to the presentations on the IA's role in an organisation. We were invited to get to know our art directors, to care for the developers on our teams, to collaborate with academics, to respect our project managers and to treat visual designers as 'the other half of your brain'.
When he began the conference, Joshua Prince Ramus advocated a 'team- based design process' and a move away from the more traditional 'star designer' model often found in architecture. When discussing working with industrial designers Michele Tepper of frog design challenged the audience to 'make space in your own work for your co-workers expertise'. Later Katrina Alcorn declared that if you are a manager it is your job 'to make other people rock stars'.
Jess McMullin discussed 'becoming a business peer' in his presentation 'Project Touchstones: How to Bridge Competing Viewpoints and Build Vision, Consensus and Innovation'. He proposed that business-centred design combined with user-centred design forms something he called value-centred design. For designers immersed in user experience, this means getting in touch with the needs of the business as well as the user.
It seemed that at every turn we were being encouraged to adopt an attitude that was less about 'me' and all about 'we'. Someone noticed the irony that the poster children of social software such as YouTube and MySpace tended to be sites that embrace the singular pronoun in their brand names.
This theme was brought together in the popular presentation 'Architectures of Participation', by Andrew Hinton, in which he considered how you create the right conditions for collective effort. His Communities of Practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. That certainly sounds like something that any information architect would want to be part of.
Your new favourite conference?
If this is a community of practice then it is one that more and more people want to be part of. Something new for me at this year's conference was the number of career changers and students that I met. And it felt like absolutely everyone (except me) was hiring.
(I've tried hard to work out how Chiara Fox's lovely knitted and quilted wireframes <http://www.flickr.com/photos/cfox74/sets/72157600094962227/> fit in to my three themes but I've failed. They simply had me laughing with glee and every community needs some glee. I suppose they prove that we may work in greyscale but we also work in wool.)
So read the slides and listen to the podcasts, and then you can decide if this is likely to be your new favourite conference. If so, then join us in Barcelona for Euro IA, in New York for Idea (the IA Institute's very own conference), or in Miami for the next IA summit. If geography or your carbon footprint gets in your way then you can always head to Info Architecture Island in Second Life instead.
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