Euro IA Summit Wrap-Up

“Since IAs are crafting and shaping the experience of millions, we have a huge responsibility. We should not forget that there is more to a profession than a title and a fee.”
(Andrew Dillon)
The first European IA Summit took place on October 15-16, 2005 in Brussels, Belgium. The theme of the conference was “Building Our Community.” Over 100 people from 18 countries attended, with a few coming from as far away as Saudi Arabia and Asia. The program consisted of a mix of papers and panels, as well as a poster session. Of course there was also plenty of time to network with people from the field.

All of the presentations deserve mentioning. In order to avoid glossing over each with a mere sentence or two, I have elected to present only a few program highlights. For more program information see the conference website:

Keynote Speech – Andrew Dillon (Dean, School of Information, University of Texas)
Always thought provoking, unwavering in his viewpoints, and ultimately inspiring, Andrew Dillon questioned whether or not IA can have a future by examining its past and present.

There were many insightful warnings. One regarded the insular and polar behavior currently existing in the field. Boundaries are being drawn and barriers erected. For example, the need by some in User Experience to define themselves by what they are not was categorically dismissed as a “nonsense argument.” Andrew made his opinion clear that “we don”t have a definition for IA and we don’t need one.”

Another interesting warning came from the academic perspective. Because fields shift, he foresees the possible demise of computer science as a discipline. This presents IAs with a “very real and present danger” once the sleeping bear of shifting fields has awakened and starts taking up IA work.

He also reminded us that five of the six billion people on this planet don’t have internet access, and the ever-expanding explosion of information is yet to come. One specific future challenge we will be facing is curation: information is being produced but not properly stored. This tied in strongly with his call for more education and research in IA, expressing it as “absolutely vital.” “There is no profession without education, and IAs must be able to say that there is a body of knowledge behind them. Not just everyone should be able to say that,” he stated.

Andrew also tackled our use of the word ‘user’: “It’s is a bad term because it’s based on some notion that people are passive recipients of technology. ‘Human’ is a better term, he challenged, noting that the idea of the participant being a part of the process from “task performer” to “task creator” is one we should consider.

He views the IA as a crafter, but recognizes that there are inherent problems in that process. There is no guarantee of consistent reproduction, for example, and crafters often can’t articulate their recipe for success well. For example, it wouldn’t matter what Picasso would say about his process: we still wouldn’t be able to paint a Picasso painting. Indeed, crafting is not about the execution of sterile, calculated steps, but rather “an intuitive response to a problem.”

Rounding out the speech, Andrew brought our attention to the topic of ethics. Every credible field questions what it does and reflects. “Since IAs are crafting and shaping the experience of millions, we have a huge responsibility. We should not forget that there is more to a profession than a title and a fee,” he said. He challenged us to take the opportunity to augment life, stating that we should be changing the world for the better.

“Putting User Experience Design at the Heart of the World’s Largest IT Project” – Kit Lewis (Oyster, UK)
The world’s largest IT project (measured in cost) is the United Kingdom’s National Health Service system. The scale of this project is beyond everyday comprehension.

This presentation really shined in the illustrative identification of ethical considerations this critical project is facing. Some examples: the tsunami of paper records, the insane storage and security problems, the hidden health risks caused by the physical presence of IT in health care settings, the overwhelmed healthcare providers having to constantly learn new user interfaces, and the distancing barrier that IT often physically creates in relation to the patient. It’s staggering.

Now for some good news: Kit showed us his user experience approach to these issues. An important part was identifying high-level design goals, defining them as needing to deliver the “best” user experience and rejecting the acceptance of “merely good enough.” The common user interaction deliverables “must be better than anything currently out there or in development.” Iterative, user-centered design was the anchor for achieving these goals involving many different components in the process.

The presentation ended with a relieving positive snapshot of what the National Healthcare Service is achieving and its scale of influence. He cited its leadership in the world of joined-up healthcare and predicted its influence on product development, especially in the areas of infection-resistant hardware, the A5 tablet PC, and in the design of next generation mobile devices.

“Shared References” – Eric Reiss (e-reiss aps)
Do you know what a szendvics is? Clue: See picture.


Eric delivered a thought provoking, highly energized, and participatory presentation on the idea that when we design we should be asking the same kinds of questions as when we converse. The next time you’re having a conversation, engage in this simple, silent observation: how many times did you or your conversant say “uh-huh” or “yeah, that’s like…” These are moments when we are sharing a frame of reference.

In contrast, when the frame of reference fails to exist, comprehension stops, confusion and/or annoyance sets in, and our audiences leave. The message here is that we have to be really careful with descriptions, even when it is something we all know.

Having a size reference – especially when displaying items for sale on the web – can also make the difference in our comprehension and purchases. If we can see the handheld device in an actual human hand, we have a much better sense of its size and perhaps more. Pictures and detail build confidence and trust, and this is what Eric says ecommerce needs.

Eric also touched on the issue of culture and how it can kill individual elements. Not all cultures understand the mailbox icon or the sound icon, for instance. Conventions used by one country can often derail users in others. Examples include varied date formatting, acronyms, and names of people whose surname is indistinguishable from their first name.

Eric ended a great presentation with the reminder that if the metaphor is good, people will get the picture.

“IA in Norway: Getting Media and Market Attention” – Are Gjertin (WM-data)
Are Gjertin, whose background is in journalism and communications, gave us a look at how IA is being practiced and promoted in Norway. He pointed out that there are about twenty IAs in Norway in comparison to approximately 80-90 User Experience professionals. IA doesn’t have a clearly defined role in the Norwegian community and IA deliverables are seen as an expensive add-on. This seems to be a roadblock for IAs struggling to get recognized as a profession within companies who feel that their IT departments already have it covered. He bolstered this argument with a maxim from Jante’s law: “you shall not think you’re anything more than us.”

In five years of trying to get the message out, Are had three main lessons for promoting IA:
1) Keep it simple
2) Documentation and quantification are powerful tools
3) Speak up! Have a clear voice but also look to others (such as the US) for

Another interesting angle on getting the message out was that information and findings must be “tabloid.” Are shared his “baits and hooks” that can be used to get media and market attention. He also strongly urged the IA community to publicize and participate in related arenas (e.g. World Usability Day). Finally, he made a call to blog and write in our native languages: “When you write in your own language, you support your own community.”

“Using Community Tools to Capture Knowledge in the Organization” – A Panel Discussion
Filip Borloo, Managing Director of icogs NV, moderated a riveting panel discussion with Paul Magis, Webmaster at NATO, and Euan Semple, Head of Knowledge Management at the BBC.

On the issue of how we capture knowledge, Euan pointed out that it was a strange and debatable concept. For example, he reminded us that in the Dewey Decimal Classification system the Christian religion had 150 sub-classifications, as opposed to four for the Muslim religion. He maintains that at the BBC, which has 25,000 employees, the chances are good that someone knows the answer to your questions. Bulletin boards, blogs, and wikis have been instrumental in linking questions to the right answers. He also believes that if a company supports blogging, then it has to give its employees time to blog.

Paul debated that the information explosion has produced two parts of the world: experts and newbies; and there are a lot of newbies. He joked that NATO should stand for ‘Not Able To Organize’. Paul gave a revealing example: A NATO photographer delivered pictures without any keywords. This created a three-week problem because no one knew what the pictures were or what they were for. He believes that many people are creating information, but are not caring about how it’s being used. He provoked the audience with a philosophical question: “Are you really producing information if there is no metadata?”

Euan brought up the point that managers can’t increasingly control the internet. For example, the BBC has blogging enthusiasts and activists. So when people use their own voice and patterns emerge, sometimes management takes these things into consideration. He pointed out that there is safety in numbers when expressing an opinion. The problem, Euan says, is that often people don’t get the opportunity to express their opinion.

Paul countered by questioning what companies should do when people start using time at work to produce information that isn’t producing revenue. At the end of the day, Paul argues that it’s “people making the difference, along with context.” Computers just can’t do this kind of organization, he believes. This is why, Paul points out, the important conversations and decisions take place in the corridors and the cafeteria as opposed to in the meeting rooms, wikis, and blogs.

The entire discussion eventually led us into the area of ethics. Paul relayed a story about the daily transcripts that were being produced by NATO during the Bosnian war in Sarajevo. When the transcripts stopped for three days, a father called and said he felt that something had happened to his daughter, who was serving there. The US press had stopped writing about the war. Paul reactivated it, pointing out that we are living in a global village and that translates into responsibility.

“Mobile Internet Campaigns” – Reinoud Bosman (MediaCatalyst)
This case study gave a great inside look into the complexities of IA design for the mobile environment, an area Europe is strong in. The challenge the team faced was to translate the Women’s Tennis Association Tour website (or a part of it) to a mobile service.

The issues were many: lack of browser standardization, the huge variety in screen sizes, the inability to test every page with every device, rapidly changing technology, and latency (when nothing is happening when you click on a server and the request bounces back and forth), to name a few.

The team chose a specific phone as a baseline model because of its standardized browser and big screen. The latter was perhaps a less than optimal choice, Reinoud explained, because it was “too good” for the mobile internet. Wireframes offered a quick view of what could fit on the screen as well as allowing for iterations. They also proved to be deceptive because on the mobile viewing the whole screen sometimes involves extensive scrolling. Iterations were also difficult to keep track of and created communication problems.

Accessing the mobile site was also a critical issue given that it had to be available in eight languages. To solve the language selection problem, the user is offered an educated guess for location. The user’s choices and login info were also remembered and stored in cookies.

One lesson learned concerns the lack of primary or secondary navigation, causing dead-ends to lurk everywhere. The symptom for dead-end mobile IA is the “back button frenzy.” Forms are also a pain because there is no copy and paste, no keyboard, and no “smart remembering” of drop downs. Reinoud’s advice: leave them out.

Mobile users always need to be offered the possibility of a new choice or task. This provides the user with shortcuts and saves a lot of clicks. On the other hand, he also recommended leaving out what you don’t need. Every click for the mobile user is expensive and the pain is immediate. It’s therefore advisable to hide links that have nothing behind them.

For the future, Reinoud sees new phones that will support copy and paste, custom dictionaries, and richer interfaces with such technologies as Flash. This would eliminate latency and would allow for a more fluid user experience. Also, because mobile companies have been losing money, if you are designing IA mobile work you are developing standards by de facto.

We should be intensely interested in documenting these summits… Does IA really want to deliver a wheelbarrow of PowerPoint slides in ten years as the body of its work? A call for papers?
Thank you to all of those who submitted actual, full-length papers. There were three: Alan Gilchrist and Barry Mahon’s excellent paper on IA as a Means of Assessing and Creating Organizational Information Coherence , Peter Bogaards’ IA in a European Dimension: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, and Simone Fuchs and Luca Rosati’s The Italian and the English Model of Information Retrieval in the Governmental Websites. Being able read these papers after the presentation not only provided a great review, but offered augmentation to the finely presented information.

If we have a call for papers and no one writes them, we aren’t documenting our work. One has to then question what historical significance these excellent summits will have. Wouldn’t it be extremely advantageous to be able to look back at the papers for all the summits, especially as time marches on and the field continues to (hopefully) develop? Wouldn’t it be a valuable teaching tool and reference for those institutions with IA programs? Wouldn’t it also be a valuable reference for companies and their IA teams? A collection of papers from past summits could also be a important tool for spreading the value and knowledge that IA has to offer.

We should be intensely interested in documenting these summits. Presenters should likewise be intensely interested in documenting what they have to say. It’s really not about making IA too stuffy, too academic, or even about who has better writing skills. It is about sharing in a dialogue, widening IA’s influence as a discipline, standing up for what we are presenting, and leaving a legacy. Does IA really want to deliver a wheelbarrow of PowerPoint slides in ten years as the body of its work?

It’s understandable that imposing a strict paper requirement might have the negative effect of a reduction in submissions. So if we aren’t going to write papers, can we offer other solutions? CNN provides transcripts of its shows on a regular basis, for instance. It’s not perfect, but it works because you can read it. Just think of the benefit this would be at the North American summit, where it is physically impossible to attend all presentations. Pod casts? There are solutions and options to this problem. Let’s get wrestling.

Final Remarks
This was an excellently organized and successful first European IA summit. It gave Europe a platform to show its unique accomplishments, raised awareness of how much IA is going on in Europe, and ultimately put European IA on the IA map without being a subset of the North America summit.

There was no mention of gurus, yet there was a definite need to recognize the European identity framed by what Europe can potentially do better than, say, the U.S., such as with mobile technology or with multilingual and multicultural issues. This awareness of a divide was perhaps the single negative aspect one could attribute to the summit, and it was also one of the most revealing. Europe needn’t live in the shadow of North American summits, but will Europeans harness their unique competencies?

Lastly, keeping with the North American Summit tradition there was also a 5-minute Madness, which was captured with a transcript-on-the-fly.

Euro IA 2005 website: