IA Summit 09 – Plenary

Written by: Jeff Parks

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The IA Summit was held in Memphis, TN from March 20-22. Boxes and Arrows captured many of the main conference sessions (see schedule).

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The IA Summit Closing Plenary

Jesse James Garrett delivers a passionate closing plenary at the 2009 IA Summit in Memphis, TN.Jesse James Garrett is a noted figure in the IA community, not only for his ground breaking book Elements of User Experience, but for the essay that galvanized the community in 2002, IA Recon.

In this IA Summit Closing Plenary, given without slides while wandering amidst the audience, Jesse examines what he has learned at the conference, he thoughts on the nature of the discipline and the practitioner, and gives bold, perhaps even shocking advice for the future direction of information architecture.

The following is an outline of some of his key points; please download the audio or watch the video for the complete experience.

Looking Back

Jesse revisits the turbulence of the first IA Summit in Boston, lamenting that he does not see this same turbulence in the IA community right now. Warning that “the opposite of turbulence is stagnation,” he looks back at the Great Depression and compares our grandparent’s feelings of scarcity to the community’s continued reliance on categorization in its various guises (e.g. taxonomy, thesauri, etc.) for its identity.

Moving On

Thanking IA leaders and the organizations that have nurtured Information Architecture, he declares that it is time to move on from the past. Leaders in IA, including himself, are notable based upon what they say about their work, not by their actual work and asks, “Do you know good IA when you see it?”

He is surprised that we don’t have schools of thought around IA. We have many ways to talk about our processes, but not about the “product of our work, a language of critique.” Until we can talk about the qualities of IA, we cannot judge the quality of the work.

No Information Architects

One of the desires of the IA community is to command respect. However, the overall value will take time to manifest itself, only reaching critical mass when “someone from this room” ascends to be CEO of an organization and creates a culture that respects the user to decimate the competition.

Jesse then puts forth his declaration that Information Architects and Interaction Designers do not exist. “There are, and only ever have been, User Experience Designers.”

He continues by breaking down UxD, examining how each element implied in the title illuminate his hypothesis – that the ephemeral and insubstantial CAN be designed independent of medium and across media. The web is just clay, he implores, and we can use many materials to create experiences.

Synthesis & Cohesion

Engagement is paramount, within any medium and across mediums. “Designing with human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as a specific goal is unique in human history.”

The varieties of engagement (e.g. the senses, mind, heart, and body) and other elements that influence the experience (e.g. capabilities, context, constraints) create the environment in which we work. UxD produces experiences that cross all of these elements, and mapping these experiences is incredibly challenging. The main goal is to synthesize them and create cohesive experiences that honor them.

Discovery, not Invention

With perception covered by visual designers, sound designers, and industrial designers, cognition and emotion are the manifest destiny of IA. User experience is not about information, rather, it is always about people and how they relate to information.

By structuring the information, User Experience Designers structure the tools that humanity uses. And, as a result, we influence how people think and feel. The final result is that those tools, in turn, shape humanity. We should embrace that responsibility.

Jesse predicts that UxD will take it’s place among fundamental human crafts. He posits that we are discovering the realities of people, their tools, and experiences rather than inventing them. With only ten years under our belts, we’ve only just begun that discovery, and he hopes that there will always be more.

 

Transcript of the closing plenary address delivered March 22, 2009 at ASIS&T IA Summit 2009 in Memphis, TN.

This address was written to be read aloud. I encourage you to listen to audio or watch video of the address if possible.

I recognize that being chosen to deliver the closing plenary is an honor, and I do not intend to repay that kindness by giving you a product demo.

I will not be participating in five-minute madness this year. You may consider this my 45-minute madness.

This is a different kind of talk for me. First of all, I have no slides! I kind of feel like I’m working without a net here. I can’t throw in the occasional visual pun to keep you guys paying attention. Secondly, I have no idea how long this talk is. I just finished it just before this began, so basically when I’m out of things to say, I’ll stop talking. Hopefully that will be sooner than you expected, and not later. Third, I’ve decided not to take questions at the end of this talk. My preference would be that if you have questions, don’t pose them to me. Pose them to each other. Publicly, if you can.

So if I run short, we’ll just go straight into five-minute madness and then we’ll all get to the bar that little bit sooner.

Okay, now: first-timers, please stand up.

[audience applauds]

I don’t think we do enough to recognize the importance of new voices in this community, and at this event. Those of you who were here last year may recall my comments from five-minute madness last year, where it seemed like maybe I was a little bit too hard on the first-timers for not being more active participants. What I was really trying to do was scold the old-timers for not doing more to make the first-timers feel welcome, and so I hope that those of you who are first-timers this year have been made to feel welcome by this community.

Now, before you sit down, I want to apologize to all of you, because there’s a great big chunk of this talk that is not going to mean very much to you — because I’m a ten-timer and I’ve got some things to say to my fellow ten-timers. So I’ll just get that out of the way. I hope you’ve enjoyed the rest of the conference — and now you can sit down.

So yeah, in case you guys haven’t heard, this is the tenth IA Summit. I don’t know if word got around about that. This is my tenth IA Summit. Anyone who was at that first Summit will recount for you the strange energy in that room: academics and practitioners eyeing each other warily, skeptical of what the other had to contribute. There was turbulence. (Hi Peter!) But it was productive turbulence.

I can’t say I’ve seen much turbulence at these events since then. Which ought to make all of us nervous, because the opposite of turbulence is stagnation.

In his opening keynote, Michael Wesch quoted Marshall McLuhan: “We march backward into the future.” When I saw this quote, it reminded me of the old quip that generals are always fighting the last war — which is why I think we’ve been stagnating. What war is the field of information architecture fighting?

The war we still seem to be fighting is the war against information architecture itself as a valid concept, as a meaningful part of design practices.

Almost everything you see about the IA community and IA practices — the mailing lists, the conferences, the professional organizations, the process models, the best practice patterns — they’re all optimized to answer two questions: Is this stuff for real? And is it valuable? And the answer to both questions is always, invariably, an emphatic “yes”.

IA is real. And IA is good. And that’s what we all agree on: some IA is better than no IA. But is there such a thing as “bad IA”? I mean, is it possible for an information architecture professional to do a thorough, responsible job, following all the agreed-upon best practices, and still come up with a bad solution?

I don’t think anybody knows the answer to this question. Because we’re still fighting the last war. We’re still trying to defend the answer to that question: is IA good? Is IA valuable?

Now, if you are about my age (and most of you seem to be, which I’ll come back to in a minute), your grandparents grew up in the Depression. And if your grandparents are like mine, this was an experience that shaped their behavior for the rest of their lives. They save everything: any little bit of leftover food, or a loose scrap of fabric, or a button or a screw. They save everything, because the notion of scarcity was deeply imprinted on them when they were young and became such a fundamental part of their worldview that decades later they’re still hoarding all this stuff even though the Depression’s been over… well, it took a break anyway.

Here are some of the most common terms from past IA Summit programs: taxonomy, thesaurus, controlled vocabulary, metadata, faceted classification, navigation, content management — and then there was that one year with all the talks about tagging. Like my grandparents, we cling to these things because they are what saved us. They are the tools by which we proved that yes, IA is real, and it is valuable. But that war is over. We won. And now it’s time to move on, because those comfortable, familiar things represent only part of what information architecture can be.

So it’s time to leave the nest. Thank you, Lou and Peter. Thank you, library science. For getting us off to a great start. For giving us the tools and knowledge to win a place for IA in the world. There will still be a place for library science in IA, but it’s only a part of our larger destiny.

Thank you to ASIST. Thank you to Dick Hill, and Vanessa and Jan and Carlene. This field would not be where it is without your efforts at these events, year after year. But I’m curious — show of hands: who here has ever been to any ASIST event other than an IA summit? [audience raises hands] Who here is an ASIST member? [audience raises hands] A smattering at best. ASIST has been sort of a benevolent host organism for the incubation of IA, but the relationship between ASIST and IA beyond IA Summit hasn’t really gone anywhere.

Okay, I’m debating how to do this… Name the five best-known information architects. [audience calls out various names] Now: name a work of information architecture created by one of these people. [silence] Is that a sign of a mature profession?

The names you know are notable for what they say about their work, not for the work itself. They’re not known for the quality of their work (and I’m including myself in this category).

Moreover, do you know good IA when you see it? And can different people have different ideas about the qualities of a good solution or a bad one, based on their philosophical approach to their work?

One thing I’m really surprised we don’t have yet, that I had expected to see long before now, is the emergence of schools of thought about information architecture.

Will there ever be a controversial work of information architecture? Something we argue about the merits of? A work that has admirers and detractors alike?

We have lots of ways of talking about our processes. In fact, if you look back at these ten years of the IA Summit, the talks are almost all about process. And to the extent that we’ve had controversy, it’s been over questions of process: Is documentation necessary? If so, how much? Which deliverables are the right ones? Personas, absolutely essential, or big waste of time?

What we don’t have are ways of talking about the product of our work. We don’t have a language of critique. Until we have ways to describe the qualities of an information architecture, we won’t be able to tell good IA from bad IA. All we’ll ever be able to do is judge processes.

Another thing that you’ll notice from looking back over ten years of the Summit is that talks are ephemeral. I was at all those summits, and I remember maybe a tenth of what I saw — and I saw less than half of what was on the program. I’m known for being down on academia a lot of the time, but they do have one thing right: you have to publish in order to create a body of knowledge.

I think I’m pretty good at what I do. But you guys are going to have to take my word for it. Because you don’t know my work. You only know what I say about my work.

I think I’m pretty good at what I do. I hope I’m getting better. I hope that my best work is still ahead of me. But I’m not sure. And I’m not sure how I would know. I’ve been coming to the Summit for ten years, and I’ve been doing this work, in some form or another, for close to 15. And as I’ve watched my professional peers settle down, get married, start families, become managers, I’ve found myself wondering about creative peaks.

In the field of mathematics, they say that if you haven’t made a significant contribution by the age of 30, you never will. It’s a young person’s game. 33 is young to be publishing your first novel, but it’s old to be recording your first album.

When do information architects hit their creative peaks? Let’s assume that I’m at about the median age for this group. Just assume most of you are my age, and there are about as many older than me as younger than me.

Now, if I’m at about the median age for an information architect now, when will that change? Will the median age keep going up, as this group of people ages? Presumably, at some point I’ll be one of the oldest guys in the room.

Alternately, what if information architecture is something that you don’t really get good at until you’ve been doing it for 20 years? Then we really have something to look forward to, don’t we?

Here’s another thing I thought we’d be hearing more about by the time of the tenth IA Summit:

You guys heard of this thing called neuromarketing? Man, this stuff is cool. They take people, they hook them up to MRIs — you know, brainwave scanners — and then they show them TV commercials. And they look at what parts of their brains light up when they watch these TV commercials. Then they do a little bit of A/B testing, and they can figure out how to craft a TV commercial that will elicit things like a feeling of safety. Or trust. Or desire.

So yeah, my first reaction when I saw this stuff was: Wow, I gotta get my hands on some of that! We’ve only just scratched the surface of what we can do with eyetracking and the marketers have already moved on to braintracking! But then my second reaction was: Wait a minute. What are we talking about here? A process designed to elicit specific patterns of neural activity in users? Back in the 50s, they called that “mind control”!

Now in a lot of ways, we’re already in the mind control business. Information architecture and interaction design both seek to reward and reinforce certain patterns of thought and behavior. (Just ask anybody who’s tried to wrestle any 37signals app into functioning the way they want to work, instead of the way Jason Fried thinks they ought to be working.)

So there’s always been an ethical dimension to our work. But who’s talking about this stuff? Who’s taking it seriously?

I don’t hear anybody talking about these things. Instead, what everybody wants to talk about is power, authority, respect. “Where’s our seat at the table?” Well, you know, there are people who make the decisions you want to be making. They’re called product managers. You want that authority? Go get that job. Don’t ask them to give that authority to you.

“When are we going to get the respect we deserve?” I’ll tell you how it’s going to happen. Somebody in this room, right now, at some point in the future is going to be the CEO of some company other than a design firm. They’ll develop all of those right political and managerial skills to rise to that level of power. And they will institute a culture in their organization that respects user experience. And then they’re just going to start kicking their competitors’ asses. And then gradually it will happen in industry after industry after industry. That’s how it will happen. But it will take time.

I had the thought at one of these summits a few years ago that we would know we had really arrived as a profession when there were people who wanted to sell us stuff. Because, you see, I grew up in the United States, where you don’t exist unless you are a target market.

And here at this event this year we have companies like TechSmith and Axure and Access Innovations and Optimal Workshop. And we thank them for their support. But where’s Microsoft? Where’s Adobe? Where’s Omni?

We aren’t a target market for any but the smallest companies. The big ones still don’t understand who we are. We’re still a small community, struggling to define itself.

In 2002, in the wake of the last bubble burst, I wrote an essay called “ia/recon”. In that essay, I tried to chart what I saw as a way forward for the field out of the endless debate over definitions. In the essay, I drew a distinction between the discipline of information architecture and the role of the information architect, and I argued that one need not be defined by the other.

Seven years later, I can see that I was wrong. The discipline of information architecture and the role of the information architect will always be defined in conjunction with one another. As long as you have information architects, what they do will always be information architecture. Seems pretty obvious, right? Only took me seven years to figure out.

But that’s okay, because what is clear to me now is that there is no such thing as an information architect.

Information architecture does not exist as a profession. As an area of interest and inquiry? Sure. As your favorite part of your job? Absolutely. But it’s not a profession.

Now, you IxDA folks should hold off for a moment before Twittering your victory speeches — because there’s no such thing as an interaction designer either. Not as a profession. Anyone who claims to specialize in one or the other is a fool or a liar. The fools are fooling themselves into thinking that one aspect of their work is somehow paramount. And the liars seek to align themselves with a tribe that will convey upon them status and power.

There are no information architects. There are no interaction designers. There are only, and only ever have been, user experience designers.

I’d like to talk about each of these three words, in reverse order, starting with “design”. Now, this is a word that I have personally had a long and difficult history with. I didn’t like this word being applied to our work for many years. I thought it placed us in a tradition — graphic design, industrial design, interface design — where our work did not belong. I also saw the dogmatism endemic to design education as poisonous and destructive to a field as young as ours. I still find the tendency of “designers” to view all human creative endeavor through the narrow lens of their own training and experience to be contemptible and appallingly short-sighted.

But I’m ready to give up fighting against this word, if only because it’s easily understood by those outside our field. And anything that enables us to be more easily understood is something we desperately need.

Now, let’s talk about that word “experience”. A lot of people have trouble with this word, especially paired with the word “design”. “You can’t call it experience design!” they say. “How can you possibly control someone else’s experience?” they demand.

Well, wait a minute — who said anything about control? Treating design as synonymous with control, and the designer as the all-powerful controller, says something more about the way these designers think of themselves and their relationship to their work than it does about the notion of experience design.

“Experience is too ephemeral,” they say, “too insubstantial to be designed.” You mean insubstantial the way music is insubstantial? Or a dance routine? Or a football play? Yet all of these things are designed.

The entire hypothesis of experience design (and it is a hypothesis at this point) is that the ephemeral and insubstantial can be designed. And that there is a kind of design that can be practiced independent of medium and across media.

Now, this part makes a lot of people uncomfortable because they’re committed to the design tradition of a particular medium. So they dismiss experience design as simply best practices. “What you call experience design,” they say, “is really nothing more than good industrial design.” Or good graphic design. Or good interface design.

This “mediumism” resists the idea that design can be practiced in a medium-independent or cross-media way. Because that implies that there may be something these mediumist design traditions have been missing all along.

If our work simply recapitulates what has been best practice in all these fields all along, why are the experiences they deliver so astonishingly bad? And let’s face it, they are really bad.

One big reason for it has to do with this last word, one which I think has been unfairly maligned: the word “user”. You guys know the joke, right? There are only two industries in the world that refer to their customers as users. One is the technology business and the other is drug dealers. Ha ha, get it? Our work is just as dehumanizing as selling people deadly, addictive chemicals that will destroy their lives and eventually kill them! Get it? It’s funny because it’s true.

No, it’s not. I’m here to reclaim “user”. Because “user” connotes use, and use matters! We don’t make things for those most passive of entities, consumers. We don’t even make things for audiences, which at least connotes some level of appreciation. The things we make get used! They become a part of people’s lives! That’s important work. It touches people in ways most of them could never even identify. But it’s real.

Okay, time for another show of hands: who here has “information architect” or “information architecture” in your title, on your business card? Raise your hand. [audience raises hands] Almost as many as we had ASIST members.

Okay, now let me see those hands again. Keep your hand up if there is also someone in your organization with “interaction design” or “interaction designer” in the title.

[hands go down]

Almost every hand went down. I see one hand, two hands. Three, four… five.

This is what the interaction design community recognizes — and what the leadership of the IxDA recognizes in particular — that the IA community does not.

In the marketplace, this is a zero-sum game. Every job req created for an “interaction designer” is one less job req for an “information architect” and vice versa. And the more “interaction designers” there are, the more status and authority and influence and power accrues to the IxDA and its leadership.

They get this, and you can see it play out in everything they do, including refusing offers of support and cooperation from groups they see as competitors, and throwing temper tantrums about how other groups schedule their conferences. Meanwhile, the IAs are so busy declaring peace that they don’t even realize that they’ve already lost the war.

This territorialism cannot go on, and I hope the IxDA leadership sees an opportunity here for positive change. These organizations should be sponsoring each other’s events, reaching out to each other’s membership, working together to raise the tide for everyone.

There is no us and them. We are not information architects. We are not interaction designers. We are user experience designers. This is the identity we must embrace. Any other will only hold back the progress of the field by marginalizing an important dimension of our work and misleading those outside our field about what is most important and valuable about what we do. Because it’s not information, and it’s not interaction.

We’re in the experience business. User experience. We create things that people use.

To use something is to engage with it. And engagement is what it’s all about.

Our work exists to be engaged with. In some sense, if no one engages with our work it doesn’t exist.

It reminds me of an artist named J.S.G. Boggs. He hand-draws these meticulously detailed near-replicas of U.S. currency. It’s gotten him in trouble with the Secret Service a couple of times. They’re near-replicas — they’re not exact, they’re obviously fake. They’re fascinating and they’re delightful, in and of themselves, as objects.

But here’s the catch: For Boggs, the work isn’t complete until he gets someone to accept the object as currency. The transaction is the artwork, not the object that changes hands. As he sees it, his work is not about creating things that look like currency it’s about using art as currency. It’s the use — the human engagement — that matters.

Designing with human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as an explicit goal is different from the kinds of design that have gone before. It can be practiced in any medium, and across media.

Show of hands: Who here is involved in creating digital experiences? [audience raises hands] Okay, hands down. Now: who’s involved in creating non-digital experiences? [audience raises hands] More hands than I thought.

Now, do we really believe that this is the boundary of our profession? And if we don’t, why are there so many talks about websites at conferences like this one?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the web. I hope to be working with the web in 10 years, in 20 years. But the web is just a canvas. Or perhaps a better metaphor is clay — raw material that we shape into experiences for people.

But there are lots of materials — media — we can use to shape experiences. Saying user experience design is about digital media is rather like saying that sculpture is about the properties of clay.

That’s not to say that an individual sculptor can’t dedicate themselves to really mastering clay. They can, and they do — just like many of you will always be really great at creating user experiences for the web.

But that does not define the boundary of user experience design. Where it really gets interesting is when you start looking at experiences that involve multiple media, multiple channels. Because there’s a whole lot more to orchestrating a multi-channel experience than simply making sure that the carpet matches the drapes.

We’ve always said we were in the multimedia business. Let’s put some weight behind that. Expanding our horizons in this way does not dilute our influence. It strengthens it.

So if we’re all user experience designers, and there are no more information architects, but there is still such a thing as information architecture, what does it look like?

Well, let’s take a closer look at engagement, and think about the ways we can engage people. What are the varieties of human engagement?

We can engage people’s senses. We can stimulate them through visuals, through sound, through touch and smell and taste. This is the domain of the traditional creative arts: painting, music, fashion, cooking.

We can engage their minds, get them thinking, reasoning, analyzing, synthesizing. This is where fields like scholarship and rhetoric have something to teach us.

We can engage their hearts, provoke them in feelings of joy and sadness and wonder and rage. (I’ve seen a lot of rage.) The folks who know about this stuff are the storytellers, the filmmakers, and yes, even the marketers.

And we can engage their bodies. We can compel them to act. This is the closest to what we’ve traditionally done studying and trying to influence human behavior.

And that’s really about it. Or at least, that’s all that I’ve been able to think of: Perception, engaging the senses. Cognition, engaging the mind. Emotion, engaging the heart. And action, engaging the body.

Mapping out the interrelationships between these turns out to be a surprisingly deep problem. Every part influences every other part in unexpected ways. In particular, thinking and feeling are so tangled up together that we practically need a new word for it: “thinkfeel”.

There are a few other factors, sort of orthogonal to these, that influence experience:

There are our capabilities: the properties of our bodies, the acuity of our senses, the sharpness and flexibility of our minds, the size of our hearts. Our capabilities determine what we can do.

Then there are our constraints, which define what we can’t do. The limits on our abilities, whether permanent — someone who’s having a hard time reading because they have dyslexia — or temporary — someone who’s having a hard time reading because they’ve had five bourbons.

Finally, we have context. And I have to admit that I’m cheating a bit on this one because I’m packing a lot of different factors up into this one category. There’s the context of the moment: babies crying, dogs barking, phones ringing. (Calgon, take me away!) Then there’s personal context: the history, associations, beliefs, personality traits of that individual. And there’s the broad context: social, cultural, economic, technological.

But these three — capabilities, constraints, and context — are really just cofactors, shaping and influencing experience in those big four categories: perception, cognition, emotion, and action.

Our role, as user experience designers, is to synthesize and orchestrate elements in all of these areas to create a holistic, cohesive, engaging experience.

So how do we create user experiences that engage across all of these areas? Where can we look to for expertise? Where’s the insight? Where are the areas for further inquiry?

Perception is already pretty well covered. We’ve got visual designers and, sometimes, animators. In some cases we’ve got sound designers. We’ve got industrial designers, working on the tactile aspects of the products we create.

Action, again, is pretty much what we were doing already. I defined action as engagement of the body, which may sound strange to many of you when I say that we’ve really been doing this all along. But if you think about our work, when we talk about behavior, we are always talking about some physical manifestation of a user’s intention — even when that manifestation is as small as a click. (And the interaction designers claim to own behavior anyway so I say let them have it.)

Because the real action is in these last two areas, cognition and emotion. This, to my mind, is the manifest destiny for information architecture. We may not have fully recognized it before because the phrase “information architecture” puts the emphasis on the wrong thing.

It’s never been about information. It’s always been about people: how they relate to that information, how that information makes them think, how it makes them feel, and how the structure of that information influences both things. This is huge, unexplored territory.

We must acknowledge that as user experience designers we have a broader place in the world than simply delivering value to businesses. We must embrace our role as a cultural force.

Here’s Michael Wesch quoting Marshall McLuhan again: “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” Think about that for a second. “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” When McLuhan said “we”, and when he said “us”, he was talking about the entire human race. But not everybody’s a shaper, right? The shapers are the people in this room, the people in this field. We shape those tools and then, the experiences that those tools create shape humanity itself. Think about the responsibility that entails.

I believe that when we embrace that role as a cultural force, and we embrace that responsibility, this work — user experience design — will take its place among the most fundamental and important human crafts, alongside engineering and architecture and all kinds of creative expression and creative problem solving disciplines.

At last year’s five-minute madness, I said that the experts who give talks at events like this one were making it up as they went along. But, I said, that’s okay, because we all are.

I take that back. We aren’t making it up as we go along. This is not a process of invention. This is a process of discovery.

What we are uncovering about people, about tools and their use, about experiences — it’s always been there. We just didn’t know how to see it.

This discovery phase is far from over. Ten years isn’t nearly enough time. There’s more that we can’t see than is apparent to us right now.

For my part, and for you as well, I hope there’s always more for us to discover together.

Thank you all very much.


Video by Chris Pallé and “The UX Workshop”:http://theuxworkshop.tv/
photo by “Jorge Arango”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/jarango/3382137521/
Thanks to Chris and Jorge.

These podcasts are sponsored by:

ASIS&T logo
The “American Society of Information Science & Technology”:http://asist.org/: Since 1937, ASIS&T has been THE society for information professionals leading the search for new and better theories, techniques, and technologies to improve access to information.

IA Summit 2009 logo
The “IA Summit”:http://www.iasummit.org: the premier gathering place for information architects and other user experience professionals.

The theme of the event this year, Expanding Our Horizons, inspired peers and industry experts to come together to speak about a wide range of topics. This included information as wide ranging as practical techniques & tools to evolving practices to create better user experiences.

The design behind the design
“Boxes & Arrows”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com: Since 2001, Boxes & Arrows has been a peer-written journal promoting contributors who want to provoke thinking, push limits, and teach a few things along the way.

Contribute as an editor or author, and get your ideas out there. “boxesandarrows.com/about/participate”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/about/participate

Bringing Holistic Awareness to Your Design

Written by: Joseph Selbie

Gone, thankfully, are the days when the user experience and the user interface were an afterthought in the website design process, to be added on when programming was nearing completion. As our profession has increasingly gained importance, it also become increasingly specialized: information design, user experience design, interaction design, user research, persona development, ethnographic user research, usability testing—the list goes on and on. Increased specialization, however, doesn’t always translate to increased user satisfaction.

My company conducted a best practice study to examine the development practices of in-house teams designing web applications—across multiple industries, in companies large and small. Some teams were large and highly specialized, while others were small and required a single team member to perform multiple roles. We identified and validated best practices by measuring user satisfaction levels for the applications each team had designed; the higher the user satisfaction scores for the application, the more value we attributed to the practices of the team that designed it.

We did not find any correlation with user satisfaction and those teams with the most specialized team members, one way or the other: some teams with the most specialization did well, and some teams did poorly. What we did consistently observe among teams that had high user satisfaction scores, was one characteristic that stood out above all the others—what we began to call shared, holistic understanding. Those teams that achieved the highest degree of shared, holistic understanding consistently designed the best web applications. The more each team member understood the business goals, the user needs, and the capabilities and limitations of the IT environment—a holistic view—the more successful the project. In contrast, the more each team member was “siloed” into knowing just their piece of the whole, the less successful the project.

All of the members of the best teams could tell us, with relative ease, the top five business goals of their application, the top five user types the application was to serve, and the top five platform capabilities and limitations they had to work within. And, when questioned more deeply, each team member revealed an appreciation and understanding of the challenges and goals of their teammates almost as well as their own.

The members of the teams that performed less well not only tended not to understand the application as a whole, they saw no need to understand it as a whole: programmers did not care to know about users, user researchers did not care to know about programming limitations, and stakeholders were uninvolved and were considered “clueless” by the rest of the development team. These are blunt assessments of unfortunate team member attitudes, but we were surprised how often we found them to be present.

We also observed that the best teams fell into similar organizational patterns—even though there was a blizzard of differing titles—in order to explore and understand the information derived from business, users and IT. We summarized the organization pattern in the diagram below. We chose generic/descriptive titles to simplify the picture of what we observed. In many cases there were several people composing a small team such as the “UI Developer(s)” or the “User Representative(s)” often with differing titles. Also fairly common were very small teams where the same person performed multiple roles.

Holistic Awareness Fig 1

Fig. 1 — Teams tend to organize in similar patterns in response to the information domains they need to explore and understand

Even this simplified view of the development team reveals the inherent complexity of the development process. The best team leaders managed to not only encourage and manage the flow of good information from each information domain, but they also facilitated thorough communication of quality information across all the team members regardless of their domain. Here’s how they did it.

Five Key Ways to Promote Shared, Holistic Understanding

1. All team members—all—conduct at least some user research

Jared Spool once wrote that having someone conduct user research for you is like having someone take a vacation for you—it doesn’t have the desired effect! On the best teams, everyone, from programmers to stakeholders, participate to some degree in user research. A specialist on the team often organizes and schedules the process, provides scenario scripts or other aids to the process, but everyone on the team participates in the research process and thus has direct contact with actual users. There is no substitute for direct contact with users. Interviewing living breathing users, ideally in their own home or work place, makes a deeper impression than any amount of documentation can duplicate.

2. Team members participate in work and task flow workshops

Designing applications to support the preferred work and task flow of the users—providing the right information, in the right features, at the right time—is one of the hallmarks of applications that get high user satisfaction scores. The best teams devote enough whiteboard-style collaborative workshop time to explore work and task flow (including in the sessions actual users when possible), until all team members truly understand all the steps, loops and potential failure paths of their users.

3. Team members share and discuss information as a team

A simple practice, but one which is often overlooked, is taking the time to share and discuss findings and decisions with the entire team. Too often teams communicate information of significant importance to the project through documentation alone or through hurried summaries. Even if it is not possible for the team to participate in all user research or in mapping out all work and task flow on a whiteboard together, at a minimum, the team should go through the results of these processes in sufficient detail and with sufficient time to discuss and understand what has been learned.

Direct participation is the most effective way to learn and understand. Full and relaxed discussion with team members is the second best. Reading documentation only is the least effective way for team members to retain and understand project information.

4. Team members prioritize information as a team

Not only is it important that all team members be familiar with information from all three domains (business goals, user needs, and IT capabilities), but it is especially significant that they understand the relative importance of the information—its priority.

My company developed what we call a “Features and Activity Matrix”, based on our own experience designing applications, and from the practices we observed in our study. The features and activity matrix accomplishes two things:

  1. It forces teams to translate business goals, user input and IT capabilities into specific proposed features or activities that a user would actually see and use at the interface level. We have found that if an identified user need (for example, the need to know currency conversion values) isn’t proposed as a specific feature (say, a pop-up javascript-enabled converter, tied to a 3rd party database) then a potentially important user need either gets lost, or is too vague to design into the application.
  2. The features and activities matrix allows team members to prioritize the proposed features and activities from the perspective of their own domain through a process of numeric ranking. Business ranks according to the importance to the business, IT ranks according to “doability” (measuring budget, resources and schedule against each proposed feature and activity), and the user representatives rank according to their assessment of what will make users most satisfied.

The numeric ranking for each feature or activity, from each domain, is then averaged to arrive at a consensus prioritization of every feature and activity proposed for the application. If, as is usually the case, the team is already aware that they cannot do everything that has been requested or proposed, this is a very effective way to determine which features and activities are not going to make the cut and which ones have the highest importance.

Holistic Awareness Fig 2

Fig.2 — Features and Activities Matrix. Note that we used a ranking scale of 1-5, 5 being the most important.

5. Team members design together in collaborative workshops

Once information from all three domains is gathered, analyzed, shared and prioritized, the remaining—and most powerful—practice to promote a shared, holistic understanding is to conduct wireframe-level, whiteboard-style, collaborative design sessions. Your session participants should include a solid representation of users, business and IT but not exceed roughly 12 people. In these workshops teams can work out together the basic layout, features and activities for most of the core screens needed for a project. These sessions can, and should, require multiple days. We have found that between 10 and 20 core screens can be considered, discussed, iterated and designed in 4-5 days of workshops.

Make sure everyone is fully engaged: business cannot be half committed, and IT cannot say that they will determine later if the screen can be built. All team members should be prepared to make real-time decisions in the collaborative design session. Inevitably there will be a few things that simply cannot be decided during the session, but the greater the shared, holistic understanding that already exists, the fewer things that will require processing and final decisions outside the session.

A well prepared collaborative design session both promotes and leverages the team’s shared, holistic understanding of the project. Even though they are time consuming, collaborative workshops eventually save time because the team ends up needing less iterations to refine and finish the design. Collaborative workshops also insure higher quality; there are fewer missteps and errors down the line because of the shared understanding of the design. Finally, collaborative workshops create great buy-in from business and IT. It is far less likely that some—or all—of the project will undergo unexpected or last minute changes if the goals and priority of features is clearly established during the design process.

Whatever the size and structure of your team, and no matter how many or how few specialists it has, your outcomes will be better if everyone shares a holistic understanding of the work at hand. Taking the extra time as a team to develop a shared holistic understanding pays off in greater efficiency in the long run—and most importantly—in greater user satisfaction and overall success!

IDEA 2008

Written by: Jeff Parks

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The “IDEA Conference”:http://ideaconference.org/index.html took place in Chicago on October 7-9 at the Harold Washington Library Center.

The speakers pushed the boundaries of what it means to design complex information spaces of all kinds. We can all expand our practice by absorbing their experiences and ideas. In cooperation with the “IA Institute”:http://www.iainstitute.org/, we’re happy to bring you recordings of most conference talks. We hope you enjoy listening to nearly the entire conference via these recordings.

This conference addressed issues of design for an always-on, always-connected world. Where “cyberspace” is a meaningless term because the online and offline worlds cannot be made distinct. Where physical spaces are so complex that detailed wayfinding is necessary to navigate them. Where work processes have become so involved, and so digitized, that we need new processes to manage those processes. — from the “IDEA Vision Statement”:http://ideaconference.org/index.html

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iTunes     Del.icio.us     IDEA Conference theme music generously provided by Sonic Blue

Micro-Interactions in a 2.0 WorldDavid Armano
We live in a world where the little things really do matter. Each encounter no matter how brief is a micro-interaction that makes a deposit or withdrawal from our rational and emotional subconscious. The sum of these interactions and encounters adds up to how we feel about a particular product, brand, or service. Little things. Feelings. They influence our everyday behaviors more than we realize.

Vice-President of Interaction Design at Critical Mass, David Armano shares what organizations are doing this and how we’ll all need to re-think how brands are built and sustained in an ever-changing 2.0 world.


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Micro-Interactions in a 2.0 World (v2)

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: web 2.0)

CmapTools: From Meaningful Learning to a Network of Knowledge BuildersAlberto Cañas
Based on theories of meaningful learning and education, Co-Founder and Associate Director at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), Alberto Canas presents a software tool that allows users to collaborate in the construction of shared knowledge models based on concept maps, which are used worldwide by users of all disciplines and ages, from elementary school students to NASA scientists.


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Linguistic User InterfacesChris Crawford
Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of digging through nested menus buried inside subpanes of dialogs, we could just talk to our computers in plain language? Sure it would, but computer scientists have long since proven that such “natural language processing” can’t be done.

Storyton Author and Inventor Chris Crawford describes a Linguistic User Interface, outlining how it’s impossible to create a LUI seperately from the digtial reality it reflects: the language and reality must be built up in a parallel process.

Chris illustrates this with Deikto, the LUI system he created for his interactive storytelling technology.


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The Language of InteractionBill DeRouchey
We are interacting with technology in an exploding number of forms. “Traditional” computers, cell phones, pocket PDAs, game systems, gesture-based input, store kiosks and checkouts, and much more. How do people learn new technology? By subconsciously learning the language of interaction and applying that language when learning something new.

Bill DeRouchey, Sr. Interaction Designer at Ziba Design surveys everyday objects out there now to spot patterns and trends in what people are learning from devices and products.


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The Language of Interaction

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: ixd ixda)

Getting RealJason Fried
Jason Fried is the co-founder and President of 37signals, a privately-held Chicago-based company committed to building the best web-based tools possible with the least number of features necessary. 37signals’ products include Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack, Campfire, Ta-da List, and Writeboard.

37signals also developed and open-sourced the Ruby on Rails programming framework. 37signals’ products do less than the competition — intentionally. Jason believes there’s real value and beauty in the basics. Elegance, respect for people’s desire to simply get stuff done, and honest ease of use are the hallmarks of 37signals products.


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Aurora: Envisioning the Future of the WebJesse James Garrett
Co-founder and President of Adaptive Path Jesse James Garrett provides an inside look at the process of creating Aurora, a concept video depicting one possible future user experience for the Web.

Jesse talks about the technology trends that will shape the future Web, outlines the challenges of designing a future product, and takes the audience for a behind the scenes look at the creation of the Aurora concept video.


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Aurora (Part 1) from Adaptive Path on Vimeo


Aurora (Part 2) from Adaptive Path on Vimeo.


Aurora (Part 3) from Adaptive Path on Vimeo.


Aurora (Part 4) from Adaptive Path on Vimeo.

Emerging trends | Design thinking | Service innovationAradhana Goel
When we look through the lenses of society (how we connect), mobility (how to move) and sustainability (how we consume), we realize that the world has changed dramatically in the last couple of years. Aradhana Goel, the Service Design Strategist at IDEO, discusses connections between these emerging trends, design thinking, and service innovation.
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Books and BrowsersDave Gray
The book as a form factor has been around for about 2,000 years, since Julius Caesar first decided to fold up a scroll, accordion-style, and mark the pages for later reference. In 1455, Aldus Manutius was the first to publish the portable paperback, and it has remained relatively unchanged since.

In an interactive format, XPLANE Founder and Chairman Dave Gray explores several questions about the future of the book and the web browser.


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You are (Mostly) Here: Digital Space and the Context ProblemAndrew Hinton
Context. It’s everywhere. No, really, you can’t move without bumping into the stuff. But it used to be that we at least had a grasp of what context we were in at any given time. We were either here, or there. But technology has radically changed what it means to be “here” or “there,” and has brought some challenging design problems along with it.

Andrew Hinton, Lead Information Architect at Vanguard, discusses What does architecture even mean, when the walls are made of vapor? How do we map places that don’t behave like places anymore? And if you don’t know whether you’re here or there, then how do you know which version of yourself to be?
Download Andrew’s presentation


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Digital Context CluesJason Kunesh
Experience design is evolving in both discipline and practice as more people communicate and engage with media. In this presentation Independent Design Professional Jason Kunesh examines working with patterns, diagramming and prototyping tools, code frameworks like Rails and Drupal and usability testing 8 year olds.

Jason also looks at the lessons learned and where he draws the boundaries between a firm’s design principles and the tenets of a particular.


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Jdkunesh Idea2008

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: idea2008 ia)

Information in SpaceElliott Malkin
Artists and Information Architect Elliott Malkin discusses his new media projects installed in public space.

He covers several projects in this presentation including Eruv, a symbolic boundary erected around Jewish neighborhoods as part of the observation of the Sabbath completed in Lower Manhattan and New York city.

Elliott also talks about the research into the life of his great-grandfather, which led to his concept for Cemetery 2.0, an electronic device that connects gravestones to online genealogical databases.

Elliot also shares his most recent work, Graffiti for Butterflies, a technique for using ultraviolet light and street art to direct Monarch butterflies to food sources in urban areas.

Many thanks to Elliott for adding the audio from his presentation to the videos below. You can find the original source of these videos along with greater detail about each of these projects, on his web site.


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The Eruv Projects, IDEA Talk, Part I from Elliott on Vimeo.


Cemetery 2.0, IDEA Talk, Part II from Elliott on Vimeo.


Graffiti for Butterflies, IDEA Talk, Part III from Elliott on Vimeo.

Mixing MessagesEdwina von Gal
The design of a park around a museum of biodiversity in Panama (designed by Frank Gehry) has inspired a number of collaborations and connections throughout Panama and, now the United States. The Park will be a living extension of the museum’s exhibits and the first step in an educational trail that will encourage visitors to explore Panama’s rich natural resources.

In this presentation, author and landscape designer, Edwina von Gal, discusses how this project has inspired her to become involved in other educational and applied projects in Panama, working with scientists, students, and local populations to explore sustainable alternatives in agriculture, architecture, and tourism.


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IDEA 2008: An Interview with Andrew Hinton

Written by: Russ Unger

As IDEA 2008 draws closer, the IA Institute is conducting a series of interviews with the speakers for the conference. As Event Coordinator for IDEA, I fill a variety of roles, including the Interviewer of IDEA Presenters (which I proudly share with Liz Danzico).

This is the second interview in the series, and this time I pulled the name of Andrew Hinton, Lead Information Architect at Vanguard, from the virtual hat. You may recognize Andrew as the presenter of the closing plenary for the IA Summit in Miami this year. Andrew’s blog is Inkblurt and don’t be surprised if you end up engrossed in it and feel as if you are getting a free education!

RU: How did you get your start in Interaction/Information Design?

AH: As far as technology-based work, I did some very rudimentary interface work when I was learning a bit of Apple BASIC & Pascal back in high school. But I’d say my first real challenge was when I had a job at a small medical office as their office manager, and all they had was a typewriter and a telephone. I talked them into getting a computer (a Mac Plus), and buying a database package (something called Double Helix), and letting me build a client accounts system for them.
Trouble was, I had to design it so that my exceedingly tech-phobic co- workers could use it, which forced me to think hard about interface design.
Of course, that was just a part-time job when I was in graduate school. My academic background (Philosophy, Literature & Creative Writing) taught me a lot about making difficult ideas understandable with language — and I think that’s at the core of any information- design challenge. That background continues to be a help for me.

RU: How did you get your start as a presenter?

AH: I’ve been doing stuff in front of crowds since I was a kid. Everything from playing music in a bluegrass band when I was about ten to oratory and debate in high school. Plus drama & choir and the band I had in college. Then there’s the teaching I did while in grad school, and I won’t even go into the preaching I did as a teenager in a big suburban Southern Baptist church.
As far as speaking at conferences, I started sending in proposals to the IA Summit and got one accepted, and sort of got on a roll.

RU: What should the audience take away from your talk?

AH: Well, I suppose details are still emerging. The topic is context, and what technology is doing to upset our deeply ingrained assumptions about context — socially and otherwise. But in general, I’d say I’m more interested in asking questions than answering them. That is, I hope it gets people talking.

RU: Who do you look to for inspiration?

AH: That’s tough. I’d have to say my major inspiration is my kid. She’s the future I’m designing for, in more ways than one.
In terms of people I read or look up to, for me it’s all over the place. I grab inspiration from wherever I can find it. Lately I’ve been really into watching presentations from the Long Now Foundation, for instance. The one by Will Wright & Brian Eno is especially amazing. But I also find my imagination-head needs input from things like movies, fiction, biographies, documentaries about almost anything.

RU: You’ve mentioned your daughter before–both in presentations and at least a couple of times in some of the post-IA Summit Y! Live sessions that we were both in. She seems like a really great kid, and as a daughter-daddy myself, I think it’s great when I hear others in our community really getting in to “the future as our children”. As crazy as our worlds can be with work and other obligations, the IA / IxD / UX world seems to be ripe with really great parents.
What’s your favorite way to communicate with people who aren’t in the same room with you?

AH: I like a lot of different methods — and one thing I love about this age we live in is the great variety we now have for communicating. There seems to be a whole new species of communication cropping up every few years, and they all seem to emerge from the nuanced needs we have for how we connect. So, really it’s very contextual for me. I like whatever tool feels most suited for the kind of communicating I’m trying to do at the moment.
It’s easier to say my least favorite — that’s the garden-variety conference call. So little context, so little sense of physical reaction. Plus the awful noise-reduction circuitry on most speaker phones makes it even harder to pick up on subtle verbal cues. I always come out of conference calls feeling anxious & exhausted.

RU: And now, a 2-parter. A lot of people know your name, have heard you speak in the past, quote your blog, and you’re thought highly of (this interviewer is included in that group). How has being a presenter and conference-attendee helped you improve upon your career?

AH: Presenting has been a big help, mainly in my own head. By that I mean … First, the pressure of presenting on a topic forces me to grapple with it in a rigorous way I’m too lazy to do otherwise, which results in having my ideas sorted out in my work a lot better as well.
Second, it’s a decent confidence boost that helps me stick up for the user with more authority than I might otherwise be able to in the daily grind.
Even just going to conferences has been very helpful though. The User Experience Design world is so distributed and virtual — we’re all in each other’s heads, mediated through electronics and words.

Periodically being able to look each other in the eye is incredibly important to keeping all that grounded.
And I don’t know how this “thought highly of” business got going, obviously you’ve never seen me after a conference call!

RU: Part 2. What would you recommend to people who are just getting started in the field and who are interested in becoming more active in the industry—or who just want to follow in your footsteps.

AH: It means a lot to get involved in your community of practice. You don’t realize what an impact it makes on people around you, but it’s huge. Find some problem that needs solving that tickles your fancy, some skill or service that the community could benefit from that you get a kick out of working on, and dive in. Lurking is fine at times, but if you want to be “active in the industry” you have to engage. You can engage the conversation at any level, as long as you have a sense
of humor & perspective about it. And read all kinds of stuff — don’t just read “design” crap all the time. We all breathe each other’s air way too much, and it’s important to get ideas from outside the UX bubble.
As for my footsteps, I don’t recommend them — mainly because I don’t know that I could’ve walked those steps on purpose if I’d tried. Which is to say, follow what obsesses and excites you, whatever crazy path that might take you down, and there’s probably somebody somewhere willing to pay you for doing it well.

RU: I’ve said to many people that a lot of us have not come by our current roles honestly. That is, almost everything that you stated above. I’m trying to say that I think your footsteps are fairly common for the more “seasoned” folks in the industry. Do you have an opinion on where the User Experience Designer of tomorrow will evolve from?

AH:There are already formal curricula out there that are bringing older practitioner skills and learning into the User Experience space, and from what I can tell they’re doing a great job. If I hadn’t burned out on graduate education long ago, I’d consider going to a program myself. That said, I think UX is inherently a hands-on practice, and has to be done to be understood. Doing the work is the only way to get better at it. So whether newer folks get a head start on that from internships or studio work in school, it’ll be necessary eventually anyway. The other thing is that, this field is evolving so quickly, I wouldn’t be surprised if we continue to see people from many other fields coming into the fold and showing us new, amazing things they know how to do that we hadn’t thought of. For example, I keep running across news items from the neuroscience world (which is exploding lately with amazing new knowledge) and finding it incredibly applicable to UX work. UX design will always need cross-disciplinary input, and practitioners who adapt and evolve with the work itself.

 

About Andrew Hinton

Since 1990, Andrew Hinton has worked as a designer, instructor, writer and consultant of various stripes in the healthcare, financial, consumer and manufacturing industries. Clients have been small and large, including Fortune 500s such as American Express, Shaw, Wachovia and Kimberly-Clark. Andrew is now a Lead Information Architect in mutual-fund giant Vanguard’s User Experience Group.

From his pre-Web education, Andrew holds a BA in Philosophy, an MA in Literature and an MFA in Writing. He’s a regular speaker at conferences like the IA Summit, and sometimes writes for publications like Boxes & Arrows. His current obsessions include Communities of Practice, social design factors, what games teach us about design, and the meaning of context in digital spaces.

A co-founder of the IA Institute, he serves on its Board of Advisors. He also keeps a home on the web at inkblurt.com.

 

About IDEA (Information Design Experience Access)

This conference addresses issues of design for an always-on, always-connected world. Where “cyberspace” is a meaningless term because the online and offline worlds cannot be made distinct. Where physical spaces are so complex that detailed wayfinding is necessary to navigate them. Where work processes have become so involved, and so digitized, that we need new processes to manage those processes.

This conference brings together people who are addressing these challenges head on. Speakers from a variety of backgrounds will discuss designing complex information spaces in the physical and virtual worlds.