IA Summit 09 – Day 2

Written by: Jeff Parks

iasummit_2009_logo.png

IA Summit 2009 Podcasts

The IA Summit was held in Memphis, TN from March 20-22. Boxes and Arrows captured many of the main conference sessions (“see schedule”:http://iasummit.org/2009/program/schedule/).

| “Preview”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/when-life-intervenes | “Keynote”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-09-keynote | “Day 1”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/ia-summit-09-day-1 | Day 2 | “Day 3”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/ia-summit-09-day-3 | “Closing Plenary”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-09-plenary |

iTunes     Del.icio.us     IA Summit theme music created and provided by BumperTunes™

Main Conference Sessions, Day 2 – Saturday, March 21

These sessions were recorded on the second day of the conference. Download them individually here, or get them all with the Boxes and Arrows “iTunes feed”:http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=275459507.

Links to the presentations and “slidecasts”:http://www.slideshare.net/faqs/slidecast will be updated continuously. See the Slideshare “IA Summit 2009”:http://www.slideshare.net/event/ia-summit-2009/slideshows page for up-to-the-minute lists of available presentations.

Thanks to the speakers for their hard work and for sharing their knowledge with the community.

Is Interaction Necessary?Karl Fast

Do we have the conceptual tools necessary for designing with next-generation technologies? Multi-touch surfaces are going mainstream. New technologies for interacting with information are moving from the lab to our homes.

Karl Fast, professor in the Information Architecture & Knowledge Management program at Kent State University, argues that our conceptual tools for interaction design are more limited, and limiting, than we currently believe. The concept of “interaction” as currently understood is based on a host of assumptions, many of which run so deep that we no longer see them as assumptions.

Is interaction necessary? Of course it is. But for what?


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Personas and politics: The Discursive Construction of The “User” in IAAdrienne Massanari

Adrienne Massanari, Instructor of New/Digital Media in the School of Communication at Loyola University – Chicago, assesses the problematic relationship between new media designers and “users” in texts written about user-centered design.

Adrienne examines current texts written about user-centered design, information architecture, and interaction design to understand the ways in which users are discursively “written into” the design process. She suggests that personas and their use is as much motivated by political realities within new media organizations as it is by the need to incorporate user needs within the design process.


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Discovering & Mining The EverydayRichard Ziade & Tim Meaney

In our world today, machines are an indelible part of our everyday lives. We rely on powerful devices to help us find information, organize our lives and make decisions. What if all these machines that help us in our everyday lives actually “listened” to our actions? One of the most challenging aspects of the Semantic Web is introducing its concept and benefits to the everyday population. But do we really have to?

In this talk, Arc90 partners Richard Ziade and Timothy Meaney contrast the way we make discoveries today – by testing theories within controlled environments – to a world where correlations can be discovered by simply peering into and querying data gathered out of our everyday actions.


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Integrating Effective Prototyping into Your Design ProcessFred Beecher

Senior User Experience Consultant Fred Beecher shows his audience how to determine what, for your particular situation, is the most effective way to use prototyping to improve the user experience of your site or software.

He shares the factors that influence how effective various prototyping methodologies will be and how to choose wisely; what level of effort you will need to invest in prototyping in order to get useful feedback; and how to permanently integrate prototyping into your software development process in a way that is effective for your organization.


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UX Design & Deliverable SystemsNathan Curtis

One thing is brutally clear: no teams – in fact, no two individuals – seem to produce deliverables like wireframes the same way. And that’s a shame. Too many designers seem guided by the flawed notion that not just design but documentation too must be ever unique. This leaves readers flustered, confused, and often dismissive. Even worse, not adopting a uniform approach may diminish a team’s influence and credibility, and, possibly, our discipline’s role in the industry.

This session, lead by Nathan Curtis of EightShapes, shares practical techniques that his organization has learned from, taught, and embedded in teams. Just as important, attendees learn to avoid failures Nathan and his team have experienced along the way.


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User Interface Issues with MetasearchDana Douglas

The user interfaces for search are evolving as new features and capabilities are developed.

One emerging capability that raises new design questions is that of federated search or “metasearch,” a search engine that applies the user’s keyword search terms across data bases or collections of content. Many government agencies, professional organizations, and private sector entities maintain multiple collections of related publications or bibliographic content.

Dana Douglas, User Experience Specialist at UserWorks, focuses on the current issues in metasearch interfaces and findings from usability tests, as well as related findings from past testing of other search interfaces.


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Usable, INFLUENTIAL Content: We Can Have It AllColleen Jones

You wrote some web content. You followed the usability guidelines; it’s findable, scannable, relevant, and readable. But it’s dry. It’s cold. It doesn’t win your users over. They’re not buying, not converting, or not taking the action you’d like them to take. Turns out that what’s missing is a big something—influence. Usability qualifies us to be on the playing field. What gives us the winning edge is influence

Collen Jones from threebrick presents a practical guide to influencing through content. Her approach is neither marketing fluff nor manipulation. but critical to a company and its users achieving their respective goals. Colleen offers useful techniques and examples drawn from a decade of experience to help you turn usable content from blah to brilliant.


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Turning HiPPOs Into Allies: How to Connect with Powerful People in Your OrganizationSamantha Starmer

Most of us have experienced the power of a HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) and how it can instantaneously derail a project, kill funding for user research and information architecture work, or approve some marketing feature that will cause a poor user experience.

Samantha Starmer, senior manager at REI.com, says that to find success in moving the practice of IA forward in both our individual companies and in the larger world of business, we must learn how to manage HiPPOs and turn them into allies. She offers her insights and several ideas about how to effectively connect with others including:

* Identifying the HiPPO
* Listening more than you speak. Watching more than you present.
* How to find the HiPPOs breeding ground (it usually isn’t in meetings)
* Laying pipe, or the art of the pre-sell


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Selling IA – Heuristic Evaluation for the Pitch ProcessRuss Unger

Russ Unger, Director of Experience Planning for Draftfcb, lectures on the basics of Heuristic Evaluation and how it can be utilized for your company’s pitch process.

An engaging facilitator, Russ uses the majority of his time in a hands-on group activity that has participants actively engaging in Heuristic Evaluation to create key slides for a sales pitch. Participants were provided with a document template that allowed them to generate leave-behind materials for potential clients.

This “guerilla-style” approach for Heuristic Evaluation will help IAs engage work partners from other disciplines within the organization and to work with them to rapidly in generating useful content for Sales and Account teams.


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Business-Centered DesignChristina Wodtke

We are all big fans of user-centered design, and all of us have tried our hand at CSS or database design. But somewhere along the way, the third leg of the tripod got lost: business.

It’s critical to know what your business model is. Without this information, you have no idea which actions of the user are valuable and which are not. And without knowing that, you are as likely to spend hours working on an aspect of the website that delivers no value as one that does. This is not usually a fatal mistake in a large corporation, but in a start-up it can literally kill the company.

In this talk, Christina Wodtke, founder of Boxes and Arrows and product developer at LinkedIn, walks through the most common business models, the desired user behavior that supports them, and how those business models affect the architecture of the website including features and functionality.


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Time to Spit on the Table: Being Functionally Appropriate Using Culturally Inappropriate TacticsDan Willis

A big man strides into the boardroom. The company’s CEO is introduced, but says nothing. After they all sit down, he loudly spits on the middle of the huge table. “You’ve just seen me do a disgusting thing,” he says. “And you’ll always remember what I just did.” It’s from a 1947 movie, “The Hucksters,” and it shows the power of being culturally inappropriate in order to be functionally appropriate.

Being inappropriate is a scary and powerful tool that user experience professionals should use more often, taking advantage of humor and non-traditional forms of communication. This session, presented Sapient consultant Dan Willis, explores ways of intentionally and skillfully exceeding historically respected boundaries, including:

* Creating culturally inappropriate presentations
* Running culturally inappropriate meetings
* Delivering culturally inappropriate documentation


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IA For the Rest of the WorldMiles Rochford

One of the challenges facing designers today is how to engage with emerging markets and rapidly developing economies. Well over half of the global population lives and works in these countries, and technology is rapidly diffusing into their everyday lives.

Information architects have always played an essential role in providing access to information and services. Emerging markets have an enormous need for this access – but also a range of constraints that make it hard for designers to deliver effective IA.

Miles Rochford, Specialist in the Service and UI Design team with Nokia, helps information architects understand the opportunities presented by emerging markets and the role IA can play in development and growth. It will also discuss tools and techniques for creating globally relevant IA, alongside real-world examples of IA in emerging markets.


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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

IA Summit 09 – Day 1

Written by: Jeff Parks

iasummit_2009_logo.png

IA Summit 2009 Podcasts

The IA Summit was held in Memphis, TN from March 20-22. Boxes and Arrows captured many of the main conference sessions (“see schedule”:http://iasummit.org/2009/program/schedule/).

| “Preview”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/when-life-intervenes | “Keynote”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-09-keynote | Day 1 | “Day 2”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-09-day-2 | “Day 3”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/ia-summit-09-day-3 | “Closing Plenary”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-09-plenary |

iTunes     Del.icio.us     IA Summit theme music created and provided by BumperTunes™

Main Conference Sessions, Day 1 – Friday, March 20

These sessions were recorded on the first day of the conference. Download them individually here, or get them all with the Boxes and Arrows “iTunes feed”:http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=275459507.

Links to the presentations and “slidecasts”:http://www.slideshare.net/faqs/slidecast will be updated continuously. See the Slideshare “IA Summit 2009”:http://www.slideshare.net/event/ia-summit-2009/slideshows page for up-to-the-minute lists of available presentations.

Thanks to the speakers for their hard work and for sharing their knowledge with the community.

You are (Mostly) Here: Digital Space and The Context ProblemAndrew Hinton

Lead Information Architect in Vanguard’s User Experience Group, Andrew Hinton provides engaging examples (including Mr. Spock, a speeding trolley, and a Dada urinal), illustrating how language powerfully affects context, and vice-versa.

Andrew connects this understanding with real-life IA design issues such as Twitter’s syntax or Facebook’s Beacon and challenges us to think more carefully about how we shape context in the digital dimension.


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Transcript of You are (Mostly) Here: Digital Space and The Context Problem – Andrew Hinton. Main Conference Session, Day 1 – Friday, March 20
[music]
Announcer: This podcast brought to you by ASIST, the American Society of Information Science and Technology, the society for information professionals, by the IA Summit, the premier gathering place for information architects and other user experience professionals, by Boxes and Arrows, visit Boxesandarrows.com/about/participate to be a part of your peer written journal. And special thanks to Axsure and Morae for sponsoring Boxes and Arrows, as well as the many other sponsors of the IA Summit.
Lead information architect at Vanguard’s User Experience Group, Andrew Hinton, provides engaging examples including Mr. Spock, a speeding trolley and a data urinal, illustrating how language powerfully affects context and vice versa.
Andrew connects this understanding with real life IA design issues such as twitter syntax and Facebook speak end and challenges us to think more carefully about how we shape context in the digital dimension. I hope everyone enjoys the podcast, cheers.
Andrew Hinton: So thank you for coming, this talk is about context, it’s about how context has been disrupted, about what I’m calling here, digital space. I don’t, we need a word for this stuff, this digital space thing, digital space doesn’t quite seem to do it, cyberspace is sort of old hat, I’ve been toying with metaspace but it’s already being used in some other areas, so anyway, I’m tossing it out there, work on that.
But first I want to tell you about this amazing fake news that’s coming out of Vegas, out of Las Vegas, which has a thematic connection to Elvis’ home town, right? So, OK, yeah. Actually, it has nothing to do with, but as you know, Las Vegas is America’s playground for grownups.
It turns out that Las Vegas has had a dip in tourism and they want to enhance their service model. So some brilliant people from, I won’t name the department, have come up with a way to surprise its visitors with a whole new, fun, sort of social program.
First, they’re going to watch you as you spend money in Vegas. They’re going to watch everything you spend money on in Vegas, by the security cameras that are already in Vegas all over the place. But they’re just adding this new layer of functionality. Wow factor if you will.
And they’ll also be transcribing everything that you spend money on. They’re going to keep a nice, line by line record of everything you do in the city; probably the equipment will be a little bit more updated than what you see here.
The products you buy, the shows that you see, the services that you may acquire; everything that you spend money on, cash, credit, check or money order or barter will be captured and transcribed.
Oh but it gets better, you’re really going to love this. Then what they do is they go into your hotel room and they find your address book, which I’m sure looks exactly like that.
And everybody that’s in it, who are obviously all your friends, your very close friends, right, who are all, everybody in your address book is; they’re going to grab that thing and they’re going to copy all the contact information for everybody you know.
And then what they’re going to do is, they’re going to send a notice to everybody you know any time you buy anything in Vegas. Right? Isn’t that cool? What? Who, tell me, who would love to have that service when they go to Vegas? Nobody?
You guys, God you’re so, no, it’s not, nobody wants that and obviously as I said, the story is not real, but it is, because this is what happened on Facebook.
How many of you have heard of Beacon, the Facebook service? OK, so Beacon was a service Facebook launched with very little warning. Basically everything you bought at a connected partner venue site, store, would show up in your news feed and the news feeds of your friends.
So everything you bought, right, at Amazon, Zappos, I don’t know, what else was on there, but all these other stores. They assumed that this was something that everybody was just going to love. And essentially it was a recommendation engine, right, that was going to give people the idea that, “Well, if my friends bought that, maybe I should buy one too.”
But this was an awfully convenient thing for them to assume, because really, it fit into their whole marketing model.
But unlike Vegas, where it would have taken a major expense, a lot of physical work to create the infrastructure, not to mention a radical overhaul of Nevada privacy laws, right, there would have been news everywhere about this.
Everybody would have seen it coming, it would have cost a lot of money, a lot of time, at Facebook this feature just meant somebody had to write some code and flip the switch, that’s all it took.
And suddenly you were in a very different place than you thought you were in.
So what was the outcome? It caused a giant user revolt, a lot of controversy, why? Because the nice people at Facebook did not comprehend a lot of things about their user base. They made a lot of assumptions about their users’ context.
For one thing, Facebook took great liberties with what the word “friend” means. “Friend,” right?
[laughter]

And people recoiled in horror because this lumbering creature had invaded their privacy; it had connected things that many users did not want connected. If you’ve seen “Frankenstein,” this scene does not end up well.
Now here’s another story and I really love this story. This is a urinal. Does anybody recognize this urinal? OK, this is also, according to most historians and experts, the most influential work of art of the twentieth century.
Influential, not prettiest, right, not most inspiring, most influential, and why is that? Well to be exact, it’s a urinal that Marcel Duchamp submitted to an art show in 1917.
He didn’t just submit it though, he scrawled R. Mutt, 1917, which you can see there and, like an artist’s signature, and he called it “Fountain,” he put it on a pedestal and then he submitted it to the art show.
It was a splendid act of Dada or Dadaism, which Professor Wexler’s talk earlier, showed us a lot, sort of like, twenty first century things in the spirit, like the dancing male members in “Second Life.” So it was, it ended up being more than just a joke.
I mean this was sort of early twentieth century participatory playful culture hacking, right.
This is what Duchamp was doing, he was hacking the culture, he was disrupting people’s expectations about western art and western culture, because, World War I had just happened and the Dadaists were like, screw all your values and all your morals, and all your priorities because they obviously don’t work so we’re here to upend them.
So it was like, what was that site for, I know what it is, anyway, it was like that site but in the nineteen teens. OK, you know what I mean; you know where I’m going. So he labeled it and he put it in a different context, on a pedestal and submitted it to an art show.
Duchamp changed the frame of reference for the object and it was a challenge against everything that had come before, every cultural assumption or taboo. It eventually affected how people thought about high art, low art, culture, everything.
So these histories of language and context can have really history changing effects. Here’s a graphic that was on boingboing.net, not long ago, notice the sort of grainy, satellite photo, the labels say that there’s a decontamination vehicle, a security post and a large chemical munitions bunker.
So immediately I’m thinking, “Well let’s bomb that. Let’s get rid of that thing. I don’t like that. Nobody should have that.” Well, that’s enough to convince anybody that there’s trouble afoot, right?
The real trouble is that what’s afoot is the language because this can just as easily be a delivery truck, an SUV and an IHOP. Now, whether you like IHOP or not, if you think their food is really terrible, it’s not toxic chemical munitions, it’s not that bad. Maybe later it gets that bad, but not in the actual restaurant.
Here’s another fun thing about context. This is the trolley conundrum. And by the way, everything you see here, I basically learned in podcasts, so I’m not an expert on any of this stuff.
Imagine there’s a trolley, and it’s going really fast, but its brakes are out. And it is racing down the tracks.
And you, lucky you, you happen to be standing right by the tracks, and you can see that the trolley is hurdling toward a fork in the track.
And on one side of the fork is someone lying on the track unconscious. And on the other side of the fork there are five people lying on the track unconscious.
OK. Why they are unconscious, we don’t know. Maybe there was a rave there last night by the train yard.
Regardless, not only are you witness to this impending catastrophe, you also happen to be the only person within reach of a lever which you see next to you right there that happens to control which fork the trolley will take.
Right now it’s set to go down the side that’s surely going to kill five innocent adorably passed out ravers. And on the other side, there is only one of them.
So if you pull it, you are going to save a net of four lives. Do you pull the lever?
Well, in experiments where huge samples of people were asked this question, and this is a very common psychology situational ethics question, nine out of 10 people say, yeah, I guess would have to pull the lever. Not like joyfully. But they are like, yeah, guess I would do it.
Well that’s fascinating. But that’s not all. Because if you ask a bunch of other people, a very similar question which is this: There is a similar problem with just a few differences. So here’s the trolley hurling down the track, only there is just one track this time, and the five unconscious people are lying on it.
And this time you are not on the side of the lever. You are standing on an overpass above the track. And there is a huge bodybuilder, like 375, standing on the overpass. He is like Andre the Giant size. And he is teetering over. He’s looking. He’s teetering over.
You just know… You are a tiny wimpy person. If you threw your own life in front of the trolley you would never stop it.
But you know that this guy, if he fell down there, he would definitely stop it.
And if you did this: “Oh, excuse me.” He would fall. And he would stop the trolley and save five people.
Well, would you do that?
Nine out of 10 people say no, I could not push this person to his death. Well that’s strange. It’s the same effect, right?
Only recently are scientists really starting to figure out what’s going on when we are making these sorts of decisions. And it has to do with brains.
Some scientists have been working on why we do this. They think they have some answers. And it turns out when you ask the trolley conundrum of people who are in an FMRI scan… these things are the favorite toy now of science. They are throwing everything in them.
It’s like when you were a kid and you first discovered xerox copiers. And you were like, “Well let’s see what this looks like.”
That’s what they are doing. Oh, let’s put a rat in there! Let’s put somebody in there and make them do a jig.
But they are doing things like this. So they are putting people in there, and they are asking them these sorts of questions.
Each of the sides of the trolley conundrum is affecting the brain differently. Our frontal lobes are the most recently evolved part. They house our more rational, logical processes. This tends to engage the version involving the lever. Because it’s a cost benefit analysis. And we are more physically removed from the results of our action.
Pulling a lever is not a visceral or intimate act like pushing bodily another human being. So let’s say this is sort of the Spock side.
Why yes, I would pull the lever. That sounded totally not like Spock. Did it?
I think I was doing Eddie Izzard doing Sean Connery.
Anyway. Then there is the limbic system which is quite ancient. It’s back in there from back when we use to swim in the ocean. Or eat flies off the ground and stuff. It handles a lot of stuff like breathing, bodily functions, but it also handles instinctive things like fear, revulsion, and pleasure.
Now this is important, an awful lot of our behavior, what we are discovering in brain science, me and all the other fake brain scientists.
You listen to podcasts about this. What we are discovering is that maybe the vast majority of the stuff that we do on a day to day basis is really coming out of these deep sort of roiling, weird, ancient, jungly, recesses in our brains.
And then this little flap, this frontal lobey thing, that we have evolved in a very recent human future, or human history, is catching it and making sense of it for us.
So we’ll say, I am going to drink this water.

[drinks water and swallows]
OK. But I didn’t do a cost benefit analysis just now to do that.
But I can easily explain to you all the reasons what I did while I was thirsty. I picked it up. I was careful. But none of that stuff was actually happening because my frontal lobe was telling me to do it. Anyway.
Just to keep the metaphor clear, let’s say that this is the Captain Kirk side of things. So what these scientists contend is that when we encounter a problem like this we’d like to think that we are very rational. But in fact both of these parts of the brain are heavily engaged. They have to fight it out to see which side is going to win as illustrated here.
Or better yet.

[music plays]

Can you hear that? There you go. This is human morality in action. Of course you have to see Kirk’s nipples at some point in the fight. All right. So let’s move on to something more civilized. That’s just the most awesome clip ever.
So one thing this tells us is that language actually shapes the way we perceive reality in a very deep biological neurological way.
Another study using the same FMRI scans ‑ those are so fun ‑ tested how people would respond to wine. They had subjects take two tastes of wine while being scanned. And they told them that one was this really inexpensive cheapo wine. And the other was a very high priced, fine, expensive wine that won a lot of awards.
Actually, I think all they told them was the price. People not only said that they thought the expensive wine was more delicious, but according to the FMRI scans they’re brains reacted in very different ways. The cheap wine was OK.
Oops. Oh, have to start over now. OK.
The cheap wine was OK. But it didn’t really cause that much activity. You can see if we are saying, “Which apparently was coined sometime in the ’90s. According to professor Wesch. And the expensive wine lit up more of the brain’s pleasure center. Literally. The funny thing is, it’s the same wine. Same wine.
So the next time you think, I am going to spend $50.00 on this bottle. I bet it’s really good. There are two problems with that. One is well, it might be chemically substantially the same as the $6.00 bottle of wine. The problem is, something about it being $50.00, literally in reality does make it taste better even though the physical reality of it is no different.
OK. My word, isn’t that strange? How deeply our experience, and meaning, can change just because a label on something.
Well, you are all information architects. You label stuff for a living. I am simplifying things. So this is important. This is an important thing to think about. These studies are teaching us a lot about the power of context and language. And the fact is that context to some degree is biological for us.
And our brains can respond very differently to just a few changes in context. So, these things that people were hearing for the trolley conundrum, and the things that people were hearing for the wine tasting, were just language. That’s all it was.
You weren’t putting somebody on a train track. You weren’t making them have to pull a lever. You weren’t actually even changing the wine. All you were doing was labeling it with something.
So context and language are highly symbiotic. They affect each other very, very deeply in ways that we don’t really intuitively understand.
This is Boylan Heights, it’s a historic neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina. And on the left is the map snapped from Google Maps. Maps are a very specialized form of language that we use to form our understanding of geographic contexts.
And on the right is the satellite view with the Boylan Heights area highlighted. Now, in a physical world, map and landscape are not the same thing. At least not literally but in every way except literally, the more you look at all this, the more they start to blur.
When you look at this photograph of Boylan Heights and you layer it with these streets, you realize you already had a filter when you were looking at the satellite picture. You are already thinking of it as a map.
When you are looking at satellite pictures, we have been trained culturally to look at these streets and say OK, we view it as a map of streets, basically. Everything else is undifferentiated mass of houses and people and trees and stuff.
Well, there is something special about Boylan Heights. It was a subject of obsession of a writer, artist, and professor of geography named Dennis Wood.
And it was where he lived when he was teaching at North Carolina State University, and some of you may have heard about this on This American Life. They played it a couple of times, it is really good, another podcast.
So, Wood is something of an artist philosopher and for a while he had a project going where he mapped his neighborhood in some really unconventional interesting ways.
There is the map of the overhead lines. So if you were electricity, this is how you would understand Boylan Heights. The street signs, there is an underground map showing sewer and water lines and cisterns if you were water. This is how you would experience Boylan Heights.
There is a street light maps where light divides darkness after sundown. There is a car spaces map.
Now, this is interesting. This is the mentions in the newsletter map that track mentions of certain addresses in a neighborhood newsletter over the years. Interestingly, no matter who lives in the homes, that are being mentioned a lot. It didn’t matter who live there, they were the same homes being mentioned a lot in the newsletter, right?
So does this mean that a certain home just command more attention? Does it mean particular homes attract certain kind of owners?
Interesting question. All the conceptual mapping by the way that we do in our work is trying to get similar kinds of answers, right? Well, this is my favorite. It’s the porches in the neighborhood where you find one or more jack‑o‑lanterns.
And interestingly, it corresponds highly to the mentions in the newsletter map. Interesting. So when you correlate this two things, you realize people who like being participatory, who like to be front and center in the neighborhood, maybe they are attracted to these corner lots, etc., interesting.
Taken together, these maps are really, really enlightening because after all a neighborhood isn’t just streets. A neighborhood is made of neighbors, and the streets are just one very thin slice of what that place means to human beings.
What these maps remind us of is that we often received messages about context without really thinking. And without questioning what other experience or wisdom might be hidden from us because we haven’t looked or we haven’t asked.
It’s not the maps fault. The map is just doing its job. It is doing the work the maker assumes they needed to do. The map can’t do everything, it can’t show you everything because if it did it would be the landscape and it wouldn’t be a map anymore.
So, the territory was there first and the map came later, but the map has a lot of power over how we understand the territory, which is really basically the same thing as saying what Michael Wesch was saying earlier which is the context or the places or the…
Actually I can’t remember exactly what he said, but basically these things that we make shape us and then we shape them. It goes like that.
Dennis once says the map’s effectiveness is the consequence of the selectivity or interest with which it brings the past to bear on the present. Maps written by serving interests. There is always interests behind the creation of them.
So that is not bad. It just makes a map a map. And every time we shape language and context it is serving some interest whether consciously explicitly or not. I suspect that more often than not when we describe context with language, we don’t consider the options because they have not occurred to us.
So, now you may be wondering when we are going to get into the digital part of this talk. Well, online we have a lot of maps that shape how we understand the things that they describe but online, it gets weirder. Sort of MUD, a multi‑user domain or a multi‑user dungeon.
OK good, not alone, OK. I have not logged into one of these things in years and so in my room, I logged into this just so I could get a screen grab.
So basically, these are the great grand daddies of World of Warcraft and Second Life but it’s all text. And you navigate and play by a command line. You type North, South, whatever. It’s all text. I bring them up because they illustrate something very important about digital space to make a modern mush or moo of the various flavors of these things.
You start by making rooms. A room is basically just a space, OK. It’s a particular context. And what you do is you use a command such a dig, dig and then you scraped out all the things about the context, about the room like it is going to have an exit here that is going to go to this, it’s going to link to this, it’s going to look like this and then it’s all just text.
And then when somebody is playing the grid or the place… When they enter it then experience it, right?
MUDs and their kin have their own script language for their creation. And what you create ends up being experienced like a series of connected spaces, contexts, sub‑contexts. All making up the larger context of the MUD.
This is a map of just part of a long time MUD based on the Discworld novels which is still out there. It’s the one where I get the screen gram from.
So even though I am showing you a map here which is just another language artifact. The visual is just meant to evoke the fact that there is a context being created with this language.
But unlike Boylan Heights, there is no physical context with which to compare this map. This map is a map of another map, right? They are just experienced a little differently.
In digital space, map creates the territory literally. So, I know most of you. Actually, more than I realized are familiar with MUDs and [mumble] but the web is not really that different.
So, on the web we make the territories, the context by mapping them and the map becomes its own territory and vice versa. So, at Google there is a site map and the site map represents the space you are in but unlike regular maps, when you click this, when you actually go to the place that you are… That is being described.
So, there are this weird fuzzy boundary that is happening in the digital space between the real and the virtual. So let’s say you are interested in how saddles are made and so you search leather working on Google, and I don’t know if you can see that but what it brings up is leather working and World of War Craft.
Now, you got to wonder what’s up with this. These are all about how to make leather goods in the land of Azeroth. Why?
Well, because there is eight million or more at last count people playing this game and a lot of them frankly want to know how to make a detrimental chest guard. So, remember as Dennis Wood told us earlier. Maps serve map’s world by serving interest. So online, wherever the central gravity of interest is, that’s how the maps are going to behave.
Early on in Wikipedia’s history, there were ten times more pages for a while there on the wars in the Star Trek universe than there were in the Peloponnesian wars just because there are a lot of geeks on there.
So if this makes you a little bit dizzy? It should because there is this vertigo that you get when you realize that we are living in more than one place at the same time. It is less and less exclusively physical this world that we are in.
And just as I was speaking a lot of you may probably have been text messaging, or twittering or chatting or whatever. Increasingly, we are walking around in many contexts at once that are all blurring together and Michael Wesch was talking about this as being context collapse.
For me it is not exactly collapse because it sounds apocalyptic although it is basically a collapse, but it is a readjustment. Radical readjustment of context that we still really don’t have our heads around.
This dimension, this information dimension is really screwing up what we mean when we say the word “here”. Because if you are in Twitter right now and you got friends who are not in this room, they think of you as being here on Twitter.
I am assuming not all of you are on Twitter and recommend you stay away from it, because it will just destroy hours of your day. But even on Twitter you will see people go away and say, “I am leaving for a little while, I am going offline” and will come back to say, “I’m back.”
Back where? Because it is not even like IRC or a chat room where there is one room. It is all these different multi‑variant versions of rooms that people have that they are looking at. We’ll talk about twitter again in a little bit.
We’re in this weird situation where we have this fuzzy human stuff that we’re trying to make into data but the data, these machines that we make screen out a lot of human ambiguities. It loses a lot of meaning along the way. You take something like love and then you go to Facebook and you say, well I’m in a love relationship.
You get six mutually‑exclusive choices here. The computer is saying you have to be one of these. Even though in public we might always describe ourselves as one of these, in reality, we might be some mixture of them, right?
Or we might not really be ready to actually instantiate the fact that I’m engaged just yet like in Facebook. It’ll bring up some conversations you have to have for your partner.

[audience laughter]
Andrew: Digital space tends to be very narrow in its definitions and it takes words that have a lot of richness and it truncates their meanings into these logical obsoletes. Again, language shapes context, shapes language but in this world of pure context and pure language, it can get crazy. Digital space is pretty ruthless about interpreting our ambiguities and that can be a problem, because our lives and language are full of ambiguities.
There’s the classic example from the book, “Eat Shoots and Leaves,” all about grammar and syntax. This phrase can be understood in a couple of different ways. There’s the cute panda, eating bamboo shoots and bamboo leaves.
Or if you just add a comma, suddenly you’re dealing with something surreal and violent, right? Now, just one little typo in a letter or email to one of you where I made this typo isn’t really going to confuse you because there’s more context around it, where you’re going to say: “Oh, it’s just a typo.”
The computers don’t understand that context unless we tell them to and that’s extremely hard to do. It’s still very rudimentary even with the advances that we made.
I say “we,” as if I’m one of these scientists doing this and I’m not. “We,” as methodical people.
What I’m getting at here is where something as small as a comma can radically change the meaning of language on a page in digital space. Something that small can radically change the meaning of the space.
For example, on physical space, there’s an obvious difference between a little nook in the corner of the room where I can whisper to someone, a private interchange and compare that to a stage in front of thousands of people where a microphone announces to all of them everything that you’re going to say. There’s a pretty obvious difference there.
It would be really hard to confuse these two places. It would be really, really hard to suddenly change from one to the other, right? You would have to tear down the alcove, build a stadium, invite a bunch of people and then suddenly they’re there. Well, you can’t actually physically do that.
But on Twitter, you have both options. You have the hidden nook, which is the “D” for direct message to someone, or you can just do a reply which everyone going to see. OK? In the physical world, it’s hard to mistake one for the other and do one over the other in haste, but on Twitter, it’s incredibly easy to make this mistake.
It’s just not so obvious. You are literally changing; remember what I said about the wine labels and the brains. Our experience of reality is so bound up with these things, but we’re literally shaping the reality of human beings when we are creating these digitally‑linked, labeled, shaped context.
I just don’t think we’ve been taking it seriously enough, really. We tend to think, “Well it’s just the web. It’s just this medium.” I’m sure everybody here has hit “reply all” at some time so even if you’re not on twitter, you know what I’m talking about, you actually did the “reply all” thing. It can be very disorienting.
Context really tends to shape identity as well. That’s why we get these weird, buzzy feeling in our head when we’re stuck in these confused situations. If you think of the Garden [?] office building, an office typically has a particular architecture. It has specific design choices that afford certain kinds of things.
At a night club, it affords completely different things because the layout is different, the equipment is different, the lighting is different, the bathrooms are situated differently. There’s a bar. All these things, of course if you started up ten years ago, maybe you’re at a bar, but that all went away.
Now when you’re at the office, you’re wearing your office hat, right? You’re playing that role, it’s not fake, you’re not pretending, it’s just the side of you turn on there. If you go to the nightclub or wherever you like to spend your evenings, you might have a completely different side of yourself, right? You go bowling with your friends.
How many of you have had the weird feeling of: I’m in this other place and someone from my workplace is suddenly there in front of me saying, “hi.” It’s as if, “I’m not sure if I recognize this person,” and then you realize, “I work with them,” but you don’t realize them right away because you know them from a different context.
Their identity in your head is very bound up in that context and yours is too. It would be awkward and it gives you this weird sense of vertigo, because these are parts of yourself rubbing up against each other in ways that you’re not used to.
Well, now online we’re offered this plethora of choices for extending and refining the facets of our identity and each has its own architecture that shapes who you are when you’re there. At LinkedIn, you have really different choices than at Chemistry. LinkedIn will ask you about your job history, not about what you like to do on a date. Chemistry is the other way around.
All of these architectures are for certain sorts of identity and facets of ourselves. That brings us a lot of challenges when it comes to cross‑overs of context.
We might not want our office mates to know what nightclubs we frequent or who we’re dating or what we like to do on a date. Unlike an office, or a nightclub or a church, or Vegas, these are not the physical places we’re used to. These can cross over or change in a moment’s notice.
Lots of people who started out using Facebook while they were in school and the strong implication was that nobody is going to be here except your classmates. Even now there are core pieces of the way Facebook functions structurally, architecturally, that still has that legacy assumption.
Now they’re trying to layer on all this other stuff. Almost overnight, Facebook changed into, “Oh, we’re really just an everybody and everything space.” Right? All the people who were students on there, we had people in our office who are members going, “Oh, I’ve got pictures on there that I should really take down, because all my co‑workers now are trying to link to me.”
My thirteen year old daughter was trying to link to me recently. I didn’t have anything embarrassing up there but I did do a double take.

[audience laughter]
What do I have up there? Who am I linked to because I couldn’t tell her, “No honey, I’m not your friend on Facebook.”

[audience laughter]

Andrew: You can’t do that. Again, you get this weird identity vertigo. People I knew from twenty years ago are putting pictures of me as a fourteen year old, because I happened to be standing at group a photo of some kind.
All these people that didn’t give a damn about me twenty years ago are putting pictures of me up and carefully labeling them and linking them to my profile and I’m like, I worked damned hard for twenty years to get separated from the me that was seventeen years old.
I deserve to have that in the past. All those people, all those things, I would have kept up with you if I cared, but I don’t. Yet, here it comes. Again, we get this weird sense of vertigo.
We like to think that our identities are not so dependent on the context we’re in or the people we’re around but as we found out that, with the whole FMRI scanning thing, it’s more complicated than that. The way we perceive reality is very much driven by a lot of fluid things.
Science and philosophy have been telling us, especially the philosophers, have been telling us for a generation or more now that objectively speaking, we’re just not all that solid in terms of identity. We’re constructed from the interactions, memories, and stories around us.
The self is a useful illusion, a reification that we depend upon for getting along in the world, right? We have to think of ourselves as a reified self in order just to get along, but it’s actually multi‑layered, multi‑faceted.
There’s another Marcel Duchamp creation, nude descending the staircase and it also prefigured this weird time space to displace dimension that we’ve created for ourselves where our identities are sliced and frozen in time and spread across space.
Our identities are inextricably bound up in the spaces and systems that we make for ourselves. Because most of the planet now, is living in environments that human beings made, rather than emerged from nature.
Sherry Turkle, a professor and writer in my Tees has been exploring this issue for a long time. Back in 1995, she wrote a book called “Life on the Screen” and she explained how the Internet have brought to a literal combination, of what people like Lacan, Fuko, and Levi Strauss have been saying about us all along.
She described herself, as a multiple distributed system, a de‑centered self that exists in many worlds, and plays many roles at the same time.
A world in which so‑called real life, is just one more window, and the ethnographic research, she did was in multi‑user domains, MUDs the text thing I showed you earlier. It really prefigured so much of this indigenous user content, contextual weirdness that we find ourselves in now.
Our esteemed guest, Professor Wesch, talks about context collapse, and he mentioned it in his presentation today. Basically he says thing about how on the other side of this glassed lens, is almost everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you’ve ever heard of, even ones you’ve never heard of, billions of potential viewers.
The seemingly innocuous and insignificant glass dot is the eyes of the world in the future, and the problem is not lack of context. It is context collapse. Basically, the sort of black hole that sucks everything in, and squishes it all up.
I don’t think that it’s collapsing into nothingness. I think it’s just collapsing into something radically different. But it’s already happened basically, and yet we don’t have the language, we don’t have the brain wiring. We don’t have the cultural structures to deal with it yet. We need to maybe intentionally start working on that.
I’m going to hurry though this. This is an interesting thing to get across, because I think it’s a lesson we all need to learn as designers. Even understanding all of this, even if we got it all just right, if we design context, and connected contexts, so that they’re just exquisitely like they are to be. We still don’t really have much control over it.
On Twitter, it was originally made to go on your phone, on a very narrow aperture experience, a very atomic, one thing at a time, piecemeal experience, write one message at a time.
Let’s prone the web, too, because there’s the web, and they’d be nice people who would love to be able to do some stuff, and do their profile and all that there. But it’s a linear feed, right? But it’s still a fairly narrow aperture.
Once people were there, they started using it differently. They started replying with an ad symbol, because they figured that other people were seeing this, too. It caused this whole way people were using Twitter to emerge. And now there’s this abomination called TweetDeck. How many of you use TweetDeck? OK, stop!
No, I’m not going to tell you to stop using TweetDeck. But TweetDeck causes people to use Twitter in ways that are completely different than the inherent architecture of Twitter.
The inherent architecture of Twitter for example is: If I follow you, then you’re going to be in my feed right? If I follow you, you’re going to show up, whether I skip your message or not, you’re there, and it’s a gentlemen’s bargain if you will, going on with that…
TweetDeck, breaks it, because you can filter people out, you can put them in groups, so only read some people, and sometimes when you read these other people. TweetDeck, turns Twitter into this gaming platform, where people are trying to create trends and do all this other crazy stuff. It completely changes the way that people behave in the space, right?
We’re all in here, and we’re all in the same room. But if one of you started dancing a jig and screaming at the top of your lungs, we’d all look at you like, dude, you really don’t seem to understand the space you’re in.
[audience laughter]
Andrew: Have you ever heard of people say, use your inside voice, right?

[audience laughter]
Andrew: On Twitter. If I’m in TweetDeck it is a space, where I can basically be dancing a jig and being an idiot, right? Because that’s what it’s encouraging me to do so. It’s encouraging me to do all the other kinds of things. Whereas if you’re the unlucky SOB that’s got a phone, where you’re getting that persons messages, right? It’s like [noise], every two seconds, you have to turn it off.
So it’s crazy. Anyway, I don’t totally mean to pick on TweetDeck, use it if you want to.
But I have like this thing about it. So the implications are everywhere, I’ve really focused a lot on identity and privacy here, but that’s mostly not of any interest of time, but I want to be sure to mention that the context problem is a lot bigger than that.
It affects everything we do, it affects the way we earn, the way we spend money, the way we learn things, and read things. The thing about money is that, the mortgage crisis is a great example of this.
But basically, you had a situation in the mortgage crisis where people were no longer doing mortgages, in a way where it was intimate and visceral. It was so disconnected and attenuated across space and time that you basically had people pulling levers very far away from the people that were getting the actual houses, right?
So, it was very easy to completely misunderstand that context when you really are selling your packaged up mortgage things.
So the context problem exists everywhere we, or anything about us can be online, and that’s important to distinction. Because there are millions of people who were not online, on our planet. But the information about them still is.
How many of you saw this thing about Darfur that Google put up? Are you familiar with this? It’s a map that Google partnered with some nonprofits, like the holocaust museum, I think, to show the destruction of villages in Darfur, in basically real time or practically real time.
Well, this is an astonishing powerful example of how radically context has been disrupted for our species. Implicitly, raises the question of what the human limits are to comprehending context. At what point, no matter how much information we receive, is another context only abstraction. If we can’t reach into it, and affect it the way it affects us.
You can look at this, but you can’t do anything about it in this context. There’s no link to click, to get money. There’s no plane ticket to buy to go and help out. There’s nothing there that really tells you what to do about it, and yet it’s putting this thing in your face.
You just want to be able to wet your thumb in some water, and put the fire out right there on it, because it’s not it right? So it’s strange. I understand why they didn’t links to these, because that’s not really it.
So it’s strange. I understand why they didn’t put links to things because apparently it was like, we can’t endorse particular organizations. We can’t endorse particular methods.
But then it’s like, yeah, but, maybe just one? Because imagine all the people that looked at this, and maybe could have done something in the moment. I don’t know.
So as we’ve established, language and context, shape one another, they’re especially online, where everything is made of language, and more and more in physical space, where all that language space, that digital space is getting inter leaved, and intro‑woven, and inter‑twinkled with our physical lives.
So you’ve got a language, which is basically information and the context that was formed from this information, and then you’ve got context, which is basically the architecture, right? What I’m talking about here, is a very big picture of information architecture.
Information architecture is great at find‑ability. But I think even Peter Morville, who coined the term, has been saying for awhile find-ability is just part of the value proposition of information architecture. It’s part of what where we’re about, but it’s not like the whole story.
What I’m getting at, is that, I think that the shape of the act of shaping digital space, with links, and language, is an architectural act. It’s an act of designing context itself. That’s our medium.
When I say our, I mean, people who do information architect. This is not a turf war, right? This is just me trying to expand what the label means enough to see what it’s been doing all along. Like every taxonomy you’ve ever made, every control of vocabulary you’ve ever made, has been basically been a machine for shaping human context.
It’s just that we need to understand, that in a bigger frame, it has a lot more implications than we may have thought of before. We lack a suitable language for all this, this dimension of contextual systems. As a result, we really lack suitable tools, methods, patterns, and heuristics for thinking about it in this way.
Now people are getting started. There’s been some progress. There’s a book that I love is called “Contextual Design.” It doesn’t talk about this in a philosophical way, but it gives some really great tools for designing with context sort of at the forefront of what you’re doing.
There are some diagrams and things that my colleagues and I at Vanguard have been working on. Richard Dalton actually has an updated version of this one on the top right as a poster at the conference today.
There’s some very fine academic work going on that’s dealing with context both in the realm of ubiquitous computing and in the growing academic side of information architecture itself. This is on SlideShare. Luca Rosati and Andrea Resmini worked on this, and they’re working on some great stuff.
So it’s happening, right? But I’m just wanting to shout to the four winds that, “Hey everybody! Let’s all talk about this. Let’s work on this. I know we have lots of stuff to build for our jobs, but let’s also work on this thing.”
I think that as a community it’s a great thing to do. So who’s going to figure this out? And I just think it’s a huge challenge, so it’s going to take all of us and let’s get to work. Thanks. Hopefully, we have a couple minutes for questions.

[applause]
Andrew: Anybody? It’s not a very questiony audience this year, is it? Oh! Yeah, go ahead.
Announcer: Speaking to the issue of context can you address, for instance, this idea of post once, ping many? So all these services are coming out like Ping.fm, where I post something and then it goes on Facebook. And instead of saying my status is “going to dinner,” it says “at so‑and‑so. Be there in a second.” And it’s totally out of context. I wonder if you could address how these services are coming out as found with ads, but really they’re taking away the value of other services because the context is [off‑mike speech].
Andrew: So yeah, yeah. So I think the question is that what about this post‑once‑ping‑many thing where you post something in one place and it ends up going all over the place? But then the things that are going all over the place are ending up in contexts where the original context isn’t there anymore? And it’s like, well, what does that mean? Well, as you were asking the question, I was thinking about the fact that even in newspapers, for a long time you had all kinds of stories and postings and classified ads and things.
Even now in a lot of news weeklies there’s this thing where people can post these things like, “Hey, I was the guy in the blue fedora, and you were the girl in the high heels with the jester hat on. We saw each other across the room, and send me an email here.” Right?

[laughs]
That has nothing to do with me. That had to do with some context that I was not in., but it’s sort of this S. O. S. in a bottle out into the world to say, “Hey, maybe you’re going to see this.”
Well, now on Twitter I see people getting really pissed off at Comcast or Apple or Vanguard where I work or whatever. And they’re like, “Hey, ad [?] or whatever. This really screwed up. I hate you.” It’s similar. I’m not that person. I’m not in their situation. So in some ways it’s some stuff that published media has allowed us to do already. It’s just cranked up to 1, 000.
Personally I think what’s going on is we can’t stop that stuff. It’s just going to happen. It’s a byproduct of all this wonderful friction‑free linking that we can do. We’re all learning a new literacy, though. We’re learning ways to filter some things out for ourselves and to tell right away, “Oh, OK. That doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
And we’re even learning ways to put the little S. O. S. bottles out there with maybe a little bit of metadata on it that says, “OK. This really doesn’t have that much to do with you maybe.” Like even the hash tags people are putting on Summit stuff to some degree are signal not only to look at this if you’re interested in the Summit but, well, skim by it if you’re not.
So I think that we’ll see things emerge because I do think that our attention spans are really limited. Mine’s incredibly limited. So we collectively come up with these ways of handling that stuff. Anybody else? Yes.
Man 1: I was wondering how exactly you felt about it, if you were kind of positive about it. On these Facebook [off‑mike speech] we’re seeing people have pictures put up that they didn’t want people seeing and taken out of context or shown to a different group. All of a sudden it’s awful. Someone [off‑mike speech] Hillary Clinton [off‑mike speech] on something they don’t want people to see. And I think it’s maybe this more realistic society. We’re more honest with each other, saying people make mistakes. People are, I don’t know, messy. We say things we shouldn’t in situations, and that’s OK. Are you optimistic about that as opposed to [off‑mike speech] be too safe?
Andrew: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So the question is ‑ and again I’m saying this so the little recording can get it ‑ that like on Facebook and places like that there’s this tension between the fact that stuff’s getting taken that’s seen out of context. Stuff that maybe should be private or whatever is now anybody can see it. Like an employer might be able to see your drinking pictures from your fraternity days. I wasn’t in a fraternity, so I don’t have any of those. I just have sitting around and arguing over Risk games pictures.

[laughter]
Andrew: … which is not nearly so, I don’t know, [laughs] dangerous. Anyway, but what was the question? No, I’m kidding. What we’re hearing is that in some ways maybe it can make us all more forgiving over time. People get used to the fact that, “Oh, yeah. Well, that happens. Big deal.” But then on the other hand maybe it’s going to make us all more afraid. Maybe we’re going to see that and we’re like, “I’m not going to post anything.” Which is it? And am I positive or negative on it? I think I’m neutral on it. Like I was saying about the context collapsing, I’m not negative on it.
If you take an evolutionary framework perspective, it’s more like things are just changing. And we’re changing reality with these artificial environments. Where am I going with this? I think that in some ways it can be positive, and in some ways it can be negative.
I think for a lot of people it makes them shrink back. It makes me shrink back. It makes me be a lot more careful.
I don’t even go on Facebook, probably because my attention span can’t handle all the inputs of Facebook. Even though I deal with many more inputs on the web, on the web they’re more differentiated for me. There’s [inaudible 50:39] like I do this on Twitter. I do this here, and I do this here. For my head that just works. On Facebook, I’m getting zombies thrown at me, and…

[laughter]
Andrew: … on my website, like on my blog, Inkblurt.com, I can post a post and it can be there. On Facebook I don’t even know really where to do that. So it’s just strange. For a lot of people it’s just perfect for them. So I think that for some people they’re going to start being OK with it. For other people they’re going to be more careful. That too, though, is a new literacy in a way. It’s understanding, “Oh, OK. This thing that I’m seeing didn’t happen in any context that really is affecting me or my relationship with this person.” Right?
It’s like when you’re dating somebody and all of a sudden you find out all the other people they dated. And you get weird out. You’re like, “Well, you dated those people? Well, that guy was a linebacker. I’m not a linebacker.” It’s this other context.
And then after a while you realize, “You know what? That actually doesn’t have anything to do with me” and you have to be cool with it. So I think that’s an adjustment that people will probably have to make. I do think that we’re going to have to come up with a language around privacy boundaries. Well, does this place have that kind of privacy or that kind of privacy?
It’s like Creative Plamins has three or four different permutations of ownership. It would be interesting to see if we could come up with this sort of standardized way of talking about patterns of privacy. Just made that up, but that’d be cool.

[laughter]
Andrew: Anyway. Wrap it up? OK. Going to wrap it up. Thanks, everybody.

Portable Research: Observing Users on the GoNate Bolt

As technology becomes increasingly portable, mobile, and ubiquitous, new challenges to traditional ethnographic user research arise. Bolt|Peters CEO Nate Bolt discusses these challenges and how to use new technologies pragmatically to document, broadcast, and involve stakeholders in mobile research process.

Additionally, Nate identifies the key considerations when designing a mobile ethnographic study, indicating how technological developments in the future might be used to improve upon current methods.


Download

Transcript of Portable Research: Observing Users on the Go – Nate Bolt. Main Conference Session, Day 1 – Friday, March 20
[music]
Announcer: This podcast brought to you by ASIS&T, the American Society for Information Science and Technology, the society for information professionals; by the IA Summit, the premiere gathering place for information architects and other user experience professionals; by Boxes and Arrows. Visit boxesandarrows.com/about/participate to be a part of our peer written journal. And special thanks to Axure and Murray for sponsoring Boxes and Arrows as well as the many other sponsors out at the IA Summit.
As technology becomes increasingly portable, mobile and ubiquitous, new challenges to traditional ethnographic user research arise. CEO Nate Bolt from Bolt Peters, discusses the challenges and pragmatics of using new technologies and web services to document, broadcast and involve stakeholders in mobile research as it’s ongoing. I hope everyone enjoys the podcast. Cheers.
Nate Bolt: Hi everybody. Thanks for coming out for the 10:30 session. There is no way that I’m standing up on this big ass stage for this. So I’m just going to hang out down here. I was thinking it was a little claustrophobic so I think everybody should move back six rows, just to have, no, I’m just kidding. So the session that we’re in today is called “Portable Research: Observing Users on the Go, and why it Matters.” I really appreciate everybody coming up for the first block, especially those of you on West Coast time, what is it? Seven thirty, so and thanks for coming to IA Summit too, I’m looking forward to hanging out here.
So, okay, we’ll start off with a little bit of background about myself, our company Bolt Peters, and then we’ll jump into the talk. So my background is in the social impact of digital technology, which was one of those make up your own major deals at UC San Diego. It was kind of a mix of cognitive science, social sciences, computing in the arts, and stuff like that. It was really just a way for me to kind of get interested in the social and cultural impact of technology in people’s lives.
I took one class there called the Cognitive Consequences of Technology, which, you know, was my first exposure to the idea that there were people out there that cared about the way technology impacts people’s lives, other than engineers. I didn’t even know that existed, so then I just totally fell in love with the idea and kind of have been working on those kinds of things ever since. Co‑founded Bolt Peters User Experience about seven years ago and I’m, we’re in the middle of writing a book for the Rosenfeld folks on remote research, which is kind of our shtick at Bolt Peters. We do a lot of that kind of research and some other stuff too. I’m also number one on Google for remote robotic dog treats, so that’s something.
So, just about today’s session, I would love it if you guys tweeted your questions, you can use this hash tag. You can also get up to the mike and ask the questions, that’s totally legit and this is going to be completely open discussion so, you know we’ve got a half hour, ask questions any time, all the time, comments, heckling, fruit throwing, all that is totally cool, it’s going to be real casual. If you feel like tweeting, the only benefit is that I can look at the end and see if there’s like more than one of the same kind of stuff, I can address those. If I’m feeling super slick I’ll try to check it while I’m talking but probably not. And if you haven’t used twitter to ask questions before, feel free to ignore me and sign up for an account while I’m talking, so…
So Bolt Peters, we’re located in San Francisco, we do primarily remote research, as I’ve been saying which is just observing people’s screen and talking over the phone. We also do some video game research and automotive stuff, field research and stuff like that. Been around for seven years. Oh, thanks, Peter. Does that sound like an auction?
[laughter]
Thanks, Peter.
Peter Sweeney: It’s the ducks.
Nate Bolt:  It’s the ducks?
Peter Sweeney: They’re announcing the Peabody Ducks.
Nate Bolt:  Oh, God, I thought it was an auction.
Peter Sweeney: Nope.
Nate Bolt:  [laughter] Also we have a magic door, that is sweet. So, awesome, alright, woo hoo. Peter Mels, thank you. So, okay, so, this is the number of user research studies that we’ve done over the last seven years. I’ve kind of been, you know, either indirectly or directly involved in almost every single one of them. That’s the number of one on one qualitative participants that we’ve done, which, I don’t know if that’s depressing or good, but that’s how many. You know for all sorts of folks, all across the map what, you know, different kinds of industries, all that jazz. Okay, this number’s important. So, this is the number of simultaneous projects we have going on right now. This is the single busiest quarter in Bolt Peters’ history, and the only reason I’m saying that is because I’m so sick of sitting in sessions, there were six at Southwest Southwest last week which were “How to Survive Because Things are All Crappy and it’s the Apocalypse and everything’s going to die.” So for the session for today, things are awesome. Can we just choose to do that? Just for today?
So, alright, so I think this might be the first question that you guys have. I think it’s a really good one and so to address it we’ll just, we’ll start off with what it’s not. So for the purpose of this talk, we’re defining portable research as any research that involves mobile or location dependent interfaces. So things like GPS, mobile devices, sidekicks, PDAs, whatever, anything that’s out with you out and about. This was user number seven’s dog, the participants in the case study we’ll be referencing today had a lot of pets and kids and it ended up being a big part of it, but it’s not about the dogs.
So what? Who cares about portable research? Why does it even matter? Well I think anybody doing research on interfaces sort of touches portable research. Like whether or not we like to think of ourselves as working in the mobile space, it seems like just all of a sudden overnight, we all do. Just because people access stuff, you know, all over the place now. And that could be, right now it’s obviously on a mobile device, but it could be from their cars directly, I mean it’s happening so fast.
So how many people here do design research? Awesome, so everybody, pretty much. Killer. And how many people do that in the lab? Okay, a little less than half. And how many people do it out in the field? Oh,okay, a little bit more than half, sweet. Awesome. And can, for the people that are doing not in the lab type research, can you guys shout out like different, what types of stuff you’re doing? Just out of curiosity. If anybody feels like shouting.
Man1:  Homes and offices, store observation.
Nate Bolt: Store observation, home and offices. Okay.
Man1: Hospitals.
Nate Bolt: Hospitals, great.
Man2: Dental offices.
Nate Bolt: Dental offices. Say, that counts. And…?
Man3: Funerals.
Nate Bolt: What’s that?
Man3: Funerals.
Nate Bolt: Funerals. Wow, holy cow. And is it kind of like follow‑alongs, like crazy ethnography? Okay. Okay, okay, awesome. So this, the method that we’re going to be going over today, is pretty similar probably to what you guys are already doing. There’s just a couple of small differences. And one of the reasons why I think it matters is because it’s so easy. The first part of the talk, the sort of case study or how to, is really basic. We’re going to learn in probably like seven minutes the entire breadth of what we did differently in our portable research study. And then I kind of want to talk about why it matters. So we’re going to split it right in half. We’ll start with the how to. OK, so, more raising hands and then we’ll be done with raising hands forever for this talk. So, while you’re driving, have you ever, used an MP3 player? Awesome. Talked on the phone? Sent a text message? Looked up directions? Tweeted? Wow, really? Awesome. Facebooked? This is, I think it’s mostly embarrassing for me because because my hand’s up like the whole time.
Used your laptop?
[laughter]
I’m so glad it’s not just me, last time I was the only one. Used GPS? Typed out GPS voice commands? OK, I get to lower my hand. Oh good. And then made flash cards with the voice commands [laughter] for your wife? OK, no more hands, finally.
What, I mean, so this really isn’t working out. It’s like we all know this implicitly, but this is crazy. I mean the amount of technology we’re dealing with literally while we’re piloting a three thousand pound piece of metal is over the top. You know, and manufacturers are aware of this, you know and so, the major auto manufacturer that we worked with was particularly aware of this and was interested in designing some technology solutions that didn’t just pretend that the only thing you have to look at and do in your car is the dashboard of the car that we all bring multiple devices into the cockpit with us. And they wanted to understand how they could sort of look at that fact and design prototypes and future generations of the in car experience for, you know, ten years out, something like that.
So the idea we had is like you know how do we really study, effectively these crazy new interfaces? And on one level you could say, “Well you just sit in people’s car and watch them use a bunch of different devices and report about it.” But we felt that the big challenge for this study was getting the design team, which was located in one country and engineering team which was located in another country, to both be inspired to get on the same page.
That a car manufacturer had already identified that one of the reasons that we have ended up with the state we have is because the engineers and the designers aren’t necessarily working together. And I think, you know, it doesn’t have to be a car company to see that happen, we probably all see that happen all the time, so. You know the idea we had was, if we’re going to study this crazy stuff, let’s use more technology to actually study it. Which may seem like a really bad idea, but here’s what we did.
So, the basic part, just to start off, we did sit in people’s cars. So we did, we chose fourteen participants in San Francisco and L.A., seven in each. We did about three hour sessions with each person, so nothing crazy, pretty standard. We gave them a two hundred and fifty dollar incentive for their time. We had one researcher and one camera person. Our researcher sat in the back seat and our camera person sat in the front seat. And we also got permission from all these participants to use their images publicly, in case you were wondering, so they, they’re signed off.
And then the only thing we did differently was we decided to broadcast the whole thing live. So we wanted to involve people, everybody live in the field research. So to do that, we just got a 3G card. How many of you guys have some kind of Evdo or, you know, Sprint type of 3G card for your laptop? OK, so a few. It’s like, what is it like 50 bucks with the plan? It wasn’t a big deal and then we also got an additional, an extra webcam. And the webcam clipped on the laptop facing outward so that the researcher was sort of pointing at the subject, and then we just used stick cam to live stream the entire thing.
That’s pretty much it. The only other thing we did was we used IM, the researcher used IM during the whole session to communicate with everybody on the team. So there was, you know, our direct clients, but there are also stakeholders just chiming in telling the researcher, ,em>”Ask them more about what they just did.” You know, in the front seat they’re like, “What happened?” So that, along with spare batteries is really that’s it, that’s the whole how to. I mean that is the whole methodology behind the portable research.
You know I think the main reason why it became important is because we wanted to look at the points in the study where people’s use of the technology involved their environment. And us as researchers, even if we like get good at understanding the study, we don’t know nearly as much as the client, like they’re the experts on this stuff. So having them IM‑ing with us the whole time was totally awesome. And you know, we’re used to doing that stuff with our remote research so we’re used to, you know, kind of IM‑ing and talking with people at the same time which, everybody’s used to that, but in the field it was a totally different experience.
And having this sort of page where people could go, just a URL where people could go to and tune into the, you know during the days of testing, tune into the research and see like, “Oh they’re going down Highway Five right now,” you know, “What are they talking about? What are they doing?” It added a sort of excitement I think inside the organization around the study that was totally different than any other of these kind of studies that we’ve done. You know, people were so happy to tune in live and almost everybody involved with the project, at some point, was sort of watching and listening live and piping in with questions and stuff like that.
So, the other specific goals that we were looking at was, you know, how did they modify devices or use devices in combination during the study, how did their, sort of home and work life get reflected in their use of the devices.
And this user was really interesting. She split her purse up into business and pleasure. [laughter] So, I don’t know which side is which in this photograph, I can’t remember, but her whole life was really, she was self‑employed and it was really important to her that everything be divided that way so her use of the devices also reflected that. So it was just, you know it was the kind of thing, I think when it happened, you know, somebody on the client side said, “Wait, can you ask her about that? You know, like why does she do that?” And we, as researchers, might not have even known to bring that up, but it was just this huge thing.
So I’m going to play you some clips now of what it looks like side by side now of the live streaming and the sort of in person view. What they’re saying and doing isn’t that important in this clip, it’s just to give you an idea of the difference and what it looks like, nothing that exciting happens but here we go.

[Start Audio Segment]
Woman: That’s right. Come on. I’ve got it. Grab her by the legs. Get her little arms in.
Child: Go, go, go.
Man: Now it’s in your… [inaudible]
Woman: Alright, you know that is.
Man: How do you know where to go, it’s just goes with experience?
Woman: There’s usually a guy sitting right there.
Man: Yeah.
Woman: Or somebody sitting right there. They’re not now. What do I do when I want to see Aurora? If I can’t.
Man: Yeah, if you want to keep tabs on her.
Woman: Only if I wonder, I’m on the freeway, I’m wondering if she’s asleep, or I’m like, ‘You’re too quiet back there, what’s going on.’ Yeah.
Man: So it’s… [inaudible]
Woman: She has some pictures.
Man: Okay.
Woman: That I’ve taken down off Flickr.
Man: Okay.
Woman: And they’re two little tabs up there and we stick the pictures underneath the tabs so she can look at them.
Man: Those come with the car or it’s a…
Woman: Yeah, I mean it’s an improvised, improvised thing.
Child: Me.
[End Audio Segment]

Nate Bolt:  So, you kind of get the idea. It’s pretty choppy but, the audio comes through perfectly. So where 3G is as it stands in our country, it’s at least good enough to stream the audio with no problems. The other thing that was really important for us, just kind of mentioning, was having an easy, single URL that people could go to. Stick cam gives you an embed code that you can plop down in any website. It takes roughly twelve seconds. And then you have, you know, the whole thing, there’s no big setup or blog in or conference call to join or any of that hassle, it’s just easy for the observers to get involved. The only other thing that was sort of required for this method, and I don’t know if it’s really regarding the live streaming, is that we just had crazy forms for them to fill out, my favorite of which was the “Please drive carefully” form. Which just says that, “Just because we’re observing you, doesn’t means it’s our fault if you hit something.” So this is kind of, this is the how to, you know, just the mobile broadband, the webcam, stick cam, couple of spare batteries and being able to IM with people live, and you know, a bunch of long legal forms. That’s really the whole, that’s the whole deal.
You know, obviously with any sort of hack of existing technology like this, there’s going to be a bunch of stuff that’s off, one of which is that, you know, it’s not reliable at all. So we never set the expectation with the clients and the designers and engineers that like it was going to be some perfect live streaming event that was like it never went down. Because you know the stream dropped all the time. Go through a tunnel, whatever. So we sort of set up the expectation of like, “Hey, pipe in, listen, if it works out great, if not then just hang out for awhile.”
The way that most people did it, and this was interesting for me, is they just opened it up in a tab in their browser, put a pair of headphones on and all day long they just kind of listened for something that sounded interesting then they would switch over, IM us, if something came up.
Obviously it’s, it’s time consuming, you know you already have a bunch of stuff that you’re doing as a researcher, question?
Woman2: [inaudible]
Nate Bolt: Good question, yeah we also were recording locally. So both, and in two places, the laptop was recording locally and there was a camera person recording. Yeah. And the question was, did we also record locally? It’s super awkward handling the laptop, you know, I think the primary researcher also felt they were kind of like a camera person. So you know, you’re kind of like walking around with a laptop, one handed trying to type even with like a netbook. And it’s kind of awkward. But I feel like we’re at the beginning of this sort of livecasting type of technology and that’s only going to get easier. I’m sure you guys have seen the Ted videos with all the small, little livecasting stuff. So I feel like as a researcher this is sort of a practice that will get easier over time.
And you know, the other downside is that you still have to do all the other crap that a researcher has to does, and you’re like running this livecasting thing. So it’s, like so many of the research studies that we do, kind of stressful or chaotic. Another question?
Woman3: [inaudible]
Nate Bolt:  Really another good question, so how do we recruit? We used a company called Davis Recruiting, that’s in the Bay Area, they’re our favorite recruiting agency. We just, you know, standard, we gave them the screener and they found folks on that one. Actually, we didn’t, this is probably like the only study we didn’t run into any challenges on recruiting. The biggest thing that we did a little bit differently from normal was, we required that people had destinations that were part of their real lives that we could go along with them with. So we kind of had Davis, we gave Davis a set of questions to sort of suss out if they were giving us fake destinations or not. So we ended up with a lot of like, kids’ birthday parties, school events, things that we could verify were like real and people weren’t just making up that they had to go somewhere just because they were excited about participating and getting the money. You know, because we wanted it to be some place real. That was the only challenge in this one.
So, also you know, obviously it’s not feasible to use the laptop while you’re walking around all the time and you know, we tried, oh sweet, nice, wow. That’s, so I just switched to a Mac like three weeks ago. One of the primary reasons that I switched is because I heard they crash less. But apparently. That’s hilarious. Does that happen a lot on the Mac?
Man2: [inaudible]
Nate Bolt: Oh, so I haven’t yet switched fully into keynote, OK, I see. I’m holding on, I’m holding on by a thread. That is hilarious. Any other questions while I’m fiddling?
Man3: When keynote crashes, it crashes gloriously.
Nate Bolt: Oh really? That’s awesome.
Man3: Oh no, it’s brilliant. So Nate, did you do a full day study so it’s like you woke up with them in the morning and followed them throughout the entire course of the day and then signed off and went home?
Nate Bolt: Another good question. So did we do a full day study? We just did three hours per participant, one to two participants per day. So, only three hours. Okay, sweet so who cares? What does it even matter? Use a webcam and a 3G card. Wow. I mean it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. But, I actually think it is important and it is important because I believe after ten years of delivering information to clients that giving information to people is one of the most useless forms of getting anything done.
I feel like inspiring people is way more important than giving them information. So we’ve done research until our ears turn blue on all sorts of different stuff and people were like, “This is great, we’re never going to do any of this stuff.” Because we have this giant list of reasons coming into this research and list of tasks about why we should do what we are going to do anyway. And that doesn’t go away when you give somebody a bunch of detailed information.
So we asked the Bolt Peter’s clients like what does this type of research accomplish? We did a little survey. So, this was one answer. [laughs]
Burn! This was another. And then this kind of stuff happens. Any of us doing research are thinking on incremental improvement. And then, what was interesting for this one is this actual car study resulted in the whole team being super excited.
Now, if you are working on concept car dashboard prototypes I feel like that’s already exciting to begin with. So, I’m not saying because we did proto research it got the team excited. But, in any research study that we’ve ever done, I’ve never seen more people be involved on the client side. I don’t remember how many, but it was a lot. Because, we got emails from people, “The stream is down. I IM’d you and you didn’t respond.” All that stuff.
So, we also looked at the industry to see what are people saying, what is the general consensus. There is of course, the mantra of screw user research. Just build it for yourself. There is also the…
[laughter]
We don’t really believe in research at all. Just ask Steve. But, for our friends that work at Apple they say that this is actually total BS because they do user research. They just do it with the same user over and over and over again. [laughs]
[laughter]
And then, just a few days ago, I don’t know if any of you were there, I at South By Southwest, Kathy Sierra of blogging and other Internet fame, had this whole talk, and the main point of her talk that was twitted a billion times was for incremental changes ask your users, but for the really big stuff, for the breakthroughs, ignore everybody. Be brave.
And I love the ‘be brave’ part, but I feel like it’s kind of looking over the inspiration that can happen, the empathy that can happen in some user research. And I also asked the FACE which is this interface list in San Francisco run by the esteemed Jeff Veen. And people on there said, “Hey, you know what, there’s been tons of bold, transformative, amazing interfaces that have come from research, not from one person, one man, or woman’s vision. Windowing UI’s, the whole foundation for our desktop computers came from research.”
If you expand the notion of this research to include things that are going on in the real world then Flicker and Twitter are great examples of amazing interfaces that evolved from research. And the Palm V, Ivio all about research.
So I guess what I am trying to say is I feel this kind of research, and research in general, can inspire transformative interfaces, and anything that we can do as researchers to make it more exciting or more engaging for our audience. I think it makes a big difference that helps things be successful.
I remember the keynote from two years ago, I think it was Mr. Merholtz that said one thing that unites all of us, IA’s, is that we care. We’re idealists. We work on these things not just to make a buck or be successful. Those might be factors, but ultimately we want to make a hit, we want to make something that’s really cool.
So, I think the question is how does portable research help? I think all it does is inspire, just maybe a little bit more than other forms of research. And what this is that came out specifically because the client viewing live was a photo that one of the moms had stuck in the headliner of her car. And the client really was interested in that. They wanted us to probe deeper. So we said, “Okay.” And it turned out that she used Flickr tags to jot down her daughter’s interests. Not interesting things like calmed her, soothed her, and then she would print out those photos from Flickr that her daughter liked and stuck them on the headliner.
The mom said that this is a huge thing that she did. She had a stack of photos that she rotated in the headliner because for whatever reason her daughter would just stare up and be a little bit more mellow of a passenger with that stuff in the headliner.
Now, it doesn’t take a genius technology leap to figure out that the auto manufacture could think about other ways to incorporate technology in future interfaces that would help parents with that exact situation on the backseat.
So I feel that was one really specific example the way that a little bit more inspiring than other kinds of research. And that said I think it also unites. As you guys have known when you get a ton of people working on a project, one of the biggest challenges is that stakeholders kill ideas. Not intentionally… [laughs]
[laughter]
There is nothing wrong with them. We are all stakeholders too. It is not that stakeholders are bad. Individually, they are wonderful people. But, there is something about large teams, especially at giant organizations that has this process of eliminating risks and stomping ideas into the ground. And I feel like any other inspiration that we can offer helps with that, and also it is exciting. Live streaming. “Really? You are streaming from a car? I am totally going to listen.” So, it gets people engaged.
So, that’s it. Thank you.
[applause]
[music]

Designing For, With, and Around AdvertisingKaren McGrane

User experience designers often express a desire to play more of a strategic role in guiding business decisions. Yet UX designers don’t always seek to understand the advertising business model so they can maximize revenue. Instead, they often treat advertising as “clutter” — to be ignored at best and actively disliked at worst.

Senior partner at Bond Art & Science, and former VP and National Lead for User Experience at Avenue A/Razorfish, Karen McGrane teaches us ways to help advertising-supported sites be more successful. She presents case studies of several publishing sites from her body of work and explores the business decisions behind them.


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Transcript for Designing For, With, and Around Advertising – Karen McGrane
[music]
Announcer:User experience designers often express a desire to play more of a strategic role in guiding business decisions. Yet UX designers don’t always seek to understand the advertising business model so they can maximize revenue. Instead they often treat advertising as clutter. To be ignored at best and actively disliked at worst. Senior partner at Bond Art and Science Karen McGrane teaches ways to help advertising supported sites be more successful, presenting case studies of several publishing sites she has worked on and the business decisions behind them. I hope everyone enjoys the podcast. Cheers!
Karen McGrane: Okay. Just a couple of housekeeping notes. I am Karen McGrane on Twitter and also here in real life. And if you don’t get quite enough of this, I’m going to be hosting a lunchtime round‑table today. So please feel free to come to that and ask questions. So, Okay, let’s have true confessions time to get this kicked off here. How many of you by virtue of having a TiVo or a DVR or just a really small bladder, somehow manage to avoid seeing TV commercials? Okay, come on, raise your hand. Okay, pretty much everybody. You know there’s medication for that, right?
How many of you have an ad blocker? Not just a pop‑up blocker, but some kind of ad blocker on your browser that lets you avoid seeing online advertising? OK, all right. I do, too. How many of you find yourself thinking, “You know, I just really hate advertising?” Okay.
So I’m aware that all of you think this. And so over the course of the presentation today I want to do a few things. I want to persuade you to think a little bit differently about online advertising. I’m going to come down here and do this.
I want to persuade you to think a little bit differently about online advertising. I want to open up your mind, maybe make you‑‑explain why you should care more about it. I want to tell you some of the basics that I’ve learned about how online advertising works. There are some things that I’ve learned over the years that you might want to know. And then finally, I want to speculate a little bit about what the future of the revenue model online might be. For those of you who continue to be uncomfortable with advertising, there might be other business models that we can discuss.
This is a huge topic and there are a lot of things that I am not going to be able to cover today. I’m not going to be able to talk about designing creative for actual banner ads themselves or for micro sites. So if you’re an IA and you’re working at an advertising agency and you’re making micro sites and banner ads for Starburst, I’m not actually going to talk about how to make that creative better.
I’m also not going to talk very much about search ads, like the ads that appear next to Google search results. Choosing keywords for that is an entirely different ball of wax and I’m not going to talk about it here. I’m really focused on how you design pages that advertising is going to sit on. Or how you design experiences or structures that advertising will live in.
And finally, I’m not going to get too much into the details of things like targeting and measurement and optimization. That’s a huge subject and it’s probably one that’s really interesting for IAs. But it’s one that I just can’t begin to cover here today.
While I’m at it I saw the delightful Heather Champ of Flickr when I was speaking at a Google conference this fall. And she had a slide like this. And I was like, “Oh my God, I have to steal that for my next presentation!” So she said, “You know when you go to a play sometimes and they put a little warning sign on the door that’s like, ‘a strobe light is going to go off’ or ‘a gun might be fired in this Chekhov play’?” So I just want to warn you right now that it is incredibly likely that I’m going to use bad words during this presentation. And I just feel so much better getting that off of my chest.
So if any of you feel like you want to get up and leave and maybe go see what Andrew Hinton’s talking about in the next room, I’m going to feel better knowing it’s because I’ve offended you and not because I’ve bored you, so.
Okay. With that said, I do want to be a little bit serious here for a minute and talk to you about what my qualifications are. How did I come to be standing here in front of you today talking about advertising? And I want to make it clear. I am not a shill for the advertising industry, Okay?
I am a longtime advocate for information architecture. I spoke at the first one of these conferences. I have hired dozens of IAs over the course of my life. I’m really passionate about IA. And I’m incredibly unlikely to be standing up here saying, “Hey. I think advertising is a really great thing.”
So I just want to talk a little bit about how I came to be here. And in giving you this sort of obligatory about me slide. I thought it would be kind of fun if maybe I mapped it, mapped some of my career highlights against the performance of the S&P 500. So let’s get this started here. I was hired as the first information architect or the first person with any sort of usability or IA background at Razorfish in 1997.
And at that time when the Internet was very new and online advertising didn’t really exist, that was when you got put to work designing banks. And it wasn’t like you got put to work designing a little section of a bank. It was like they said to you, “Hey. We need a bank and we need it right now. So please go design it because we don’t have a bank on the Internet.” So I did that for a couple of years.
After that then I did a couple of projects that I think really taught me a lot about information architecture. But also were kind of my first taste of how the world of IA intersects with the world of the advertising business model. So I did one project for Encyclopedia Britannica, which was‑‑I learned everything I know about taxonomy from that project because they have the largest taxonomy in the English language. I learned a little bit about an advertising supported business model versus a subscription revenue business model. And I learned absolutely nothing about user generated content.
I also did another project for Disney on their ill‑fated portal go.com. And that was a really interesting project in that I learned a lot there about‑‑they were really kind of pushing the envelope in terms of advertising supported content. We did some experiments with ways to target search ads, your target ads against search results, which I think were really interesting. And while they failed for Go, I’m convinced that this model of search ads has legs. And some company is probably going to do really well with it.
So then, as you can see, the market kind of tanks and whenever the market tanks advertising collapses. So advertising is one of the first things that goes whenever the market goes down. So at that point, that’s when you retreat to the safety of working for financial services.
[laughter]
Karen McGrane: So I did a number of projects with the 401 companies. I worked with the Federal Reserve Bank. And right about where the market hits its absolute low point there in 2002 or 2003, that was when Razorfish got sold to a roll up for eight million dollars. So we all kind of huddled together for warmth for a while and eventually got sold to aQuantive. Which some of you may know has an ad serving technology called Atlas. And they had a services arm called Avenue A. And so we all kind of got merged together. And that was a really strange point in my life. Because it was like one day I woke up and I worked for an advertising agency. And up until this point, one of the things I was really lucky about was that the values of the company and my values around user experience were really well aligned.
They had a conference every year and I remember talking to somebody I worked with in the hallway. He came up to me and he said, “Karen, Karen they’re really serious about this whole advertising thing aren’t they,” and I’m like, “I know, it’s crazy!”
As a result I started to feel like, I care about user experience and these people want to put ads all over the pages and it just made me feel bad inside. But based on the strength of those relationships I had the opportunity to do a number of projects in the publishing industry.
I worked for many years with Condé Nast which is the world’s largest magazine publisher. I led a redesign of The New York Times which launched in 2005 and I did a little bit of work right before I left with CNN.
So I kind of got a good sense of mainstream media and what their challenges were, in taking content that they monetize off line and trying to do it on line. But in 2006 or so I left Razorfish for many, many reasons. But in large part it was because I really felt that my values and the values of the company were so divergent and I was having a really hard time reconciling my ethos of user experience to a world in which everything was going to be monetized by ads.
So I left to start a company called Bond Art + Science and I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you about this particular subject today if I had not done that and frankly I probably would be a shill for the advertising industry if I was having that conversation and I still worked for Razorfish.
But over my years with Bond I have worked with literally dozens of publishers. I have worked with publishers that are big, that are small, that are on line only, that are focused on subscription revenue, that are focused on advertising revenue.
Over the time of working with all of these different publishers I have really gained perspective on what it means to try to monetize the site through advertising.
In addition to that Bond also has its own publication called Cool Hunting. many UX organizations have a blog, we have a blog that we actually sell advertising on and so I have the experience not just of being a designer, but now I have the experience of being a publisher. Trying to figure out how do you deliver content, tools and services that users want, but also meet the needs of advertisers.
So that’s why I’m here today to talk about you, as IAs, can design for the ads, design with the ads or design around the ads. But also its a little bit about how I learned to stop worrying about the ads with the politics of Dr. Strangelove.
I want to say, everybody here today, you’re not here because you see yourself as just drawing boxes. You’re an advocate for the user and you want to make sure that user needs get taken into account. But you’re also focused on understanding the business. You want to know what is going to drive revenue and you understand that those two things sometimes have to be a trade‑off.
So imagine that you heard people complaining about the placement of the buy now button on the commerce site. I have heard people say all of these things when talking about advertising on the site. I have said them my self and had my ass handed to me by publishers who were basically saying, “You know? The advertisers are the customers, the advertisers are the people who make all of this possible.”
When I told a friend of mine who works for Huge that I was going to come speak here he said, “You’re talking about advertising. Please, Please tell you’re Information Architects, User Experience Designers or Interaction Designers or whatever the hell you people are calling yourselves these days, please tell them they can’t take the ads off the page.”
So a lot of this for me is coming from a place where I have heard people say this stuff so much and I kind have come around to saying, “Let’s poke at this a little bit and understand how we can make trade‑offs between what makes the user experience good and what makes a good experience for advertisers or what makes advertisers want to pay for things.”
Now, I know how you think about this. One of the things that you think is that users hate ads so therefore ads must be bad and we shouldn’t have them. You can try all kinds of commentary from people online about how much they hate advertising. How they wish it wasn’t there.
I hope to get across this presentation that ads are necessary evil and they’re better than most potential alternatives and that our job is not to hate, is not to say there should be no ads because users don’t like them but rather to try to make a corporate trade‑offs so that the ads are well integrated to be experienced. Some of you probably site well know studies. This is Jakob Nielsen’s Banner Blindness Study and it suggests that this entire business model is a failure. The emperor has no clothes and no one ever actually looks at the advertising at all or sees it. So, there is no point really having it.
And to this I say, if you are saying the emperor has no clothes, everybody already knows that he is naked. You’re not really giving anybody great insights here. The people who work in this kind of online advertising in publishing field have way more data than you would ever believe about what people see, what people click on, how much recognition they get, what people’s behavior is after they see an ad and they go search for something and then they go buy something.
This is not news to anybody and it doesn’t mean‑‑you might look at this and say, “Oh, this is a failure.” But I think for most people in the advertising industry, this does not represent failure. This just represent status quo.
And finally, I think some of you probably still have this lingering, hackerish ethos that says every Internet should be free. And to this I have to say the money from advertising is what pays our salaries. It’s what pays editor salaries. It’s what pays for servers and features and new technology and if you have ever said, “God, I wish I had more money so that I could do more research or spend more time on this.”
The only way we’re going to get that money are into our field is through advertising.
So, let’s talk about how much money that is. U.S. advertising spending, and this is just in the U.S.‑‑let’s go through. Kicking of the field is every IA’s favorite category, the other category at $17.9 billion. This is kind of a hodge podge of things, but the main thing that it includes is movie advertising, so like movie trailers and things you see before movies.
Outdoor comes in at $8.8 billion radio at $15.7, magazines at $26.6 billion a year. Cable TV is $25.4 and broadcast is $35.5. So, another way to look at that is that the television industry as a whole is a $70 billion business a year.
Direct mail or original spam is $14.6 billion. Directories‑this is things like the Yellow Pages or restaurant guides is $17.2 billion. Newspapers $39.7 billion. This was interesting to me because I didn’t actually realize that newspapers were a bigger business than broadcast television, but they are.
And a point that was really interesting to me: You can’t swing a cat right now with reading some story about how the newspaper industry is dying and we killed it.
So, if you look at the newspapers in the industry revenue today at $39.7 billion, it is down from its peak. The peak year in which the newspaper industry made the most money that it ever made in the entire history of advertising at which it made $41.1 billion. So they’ve lost more than a billion dollars which is not nothing, but it hardly to me represents like the complete and total collapse of an industry. And then finally, coming in, at the top is the Internet at $18.5 billion dollars.
So, we bid out others. You can see that the Internet has grown. Certainly, it is made huge uptick since 2003 ‑ 2004. But one thing I would like to point out is that it’s only maybe 78% of $220 billion business. And for everybody who thinks about the Internet as like stealing all these revenue away from traditional media, over the period of time that the Internet has been growing, say over the last five years, the entire industry has grown.
So, it isn’t that the Internet as taken $20 billion away. The entire industry is bigger, and the Internet is just sitting on top of it. Now that is in contrast to the fact that user engagement‑‑the Internet has taken time away from traditional media. People are spending less time watching TV, their spending less time reading newspapers, and they’re spending more time online. So, let’s put these two things together.
This slide should really piss you off. Okay? That’s our money! What this means is that even though people are spending more time online, that time is not being monetized. Another way to look at it is that people’s time spent watching TV is worth comparatively more than their time online. So, when someone is sitting there watching TV, the advertisers are paying more for it. Even though everyone acknowledges that their engagement is less, their interest is less, that all the young kids that advertisers want to reach are now on the Internet.
So, one way to talk about this is a quote from Times CEO Anne Moore, who referred to it as “Print Dollars, Internet Nickels.” What that means is that traditional media has a long‑established business model, and so when they try to transition it online what they used to make dollars for they’re now making nickels for.
One media pundit that I read estimated that online CPM‑‑which is cost per thousand, which is how they measure things‑‑is worth 1/7th to 1/10th of a print CPM. So, what that means, to put it in simple terms, your time when you’re online is worth 1/10th of the time that it’s worth when you’re doing something in traditional media.
And maybe you’re thinking, “Well, who cares about traditional media? You know, that’s old school. Maybe they have problems transforming their antiquated business model to the Internet, but so what?” The most popular and probably the most important revenue model for any Web 2.0 business is also advertising. Everybody’s all excited about new platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and we all talk about them, all the time. But they’re not making any money; they do not have a business model.
And whatever business model they do eventually figure out, I guarantee it will involve advertising. So, it is time for us to stop hiding our heads in the sand. Advertising is not going to go away. Advertising is going to decline during this current period of economic uncertainty.
But when it comes back, it’s going to come back with a vengeance. And I guarantee you that advertising will be a major, if not the most important way that any business makes money on the Internet. And so, for you all, as UX professionals, you have a responsibility to make things not suck. And so, that’s going to start with advertising.
So, here’s some of the things that I’ve learned, that I think you should know about advertising. The first thing, and probably one of the things that is kind of hard to wrap your head around, is just how many people are involved. Historically, advertisers and publishers have gotten together in the service of trying to attract what the advertisers call consumers, and what TV people call viewers, and radio people call listeners, and newspaper people call readers, and what we call users.
And sitting in the middle of them is a set of people called agencies. And they are a vast network of middle men who are all involved in not just creating, making the creative for the ads, but more importantly they’re the people who are responsible for buying the space in the medium, and the people who are responsible for selling it. And these are incredibly high‑touch businesses. One of my clients from Conde Nast said, “You know, for something that’s supposed to be mediated by technology, online advertising sure requires a lot of people.”
And so, to kind of explain who these people are, I want to talk about who a media buyer is. If you’re a publisher, you have a website, someone is coming in to buy that ad space, who is this person?
This person is Brooke. She is in her mid twenties. She was probably in a sorority. She was hired because she is smart and personable. She has a spreadsheet to fill in. Brooke’s job is literally all day long. She sits there and she fills out a spreadsheet and she wants numbers to plug into her spreadsheet. Her job is not to invent the future of the Internet. Her job is not to think strategically about different revenue models online. Her job is to fill in those numbers on the spreadsheet.
So, this is an incredibly simplified model and please don’t check my math, but basically when she comes in and says she has $100,000 and she wants to buy 500 clicks to an ad. And what she does is she looks through and says, “Are the ad positions what I want? Is there an ad above the fold? How many ad positions are there? Does this site meet the demographics that I want? Is it attracting people in the right age range, in the right household, income group?”
And then she does some pretty simple math to say, “How much does it cost for me to get a thousand people to view this ad?” If that is $20 or $50 or $5, she takes that into account. She takes the traffic to that site and she divides it by 0.1%. Everybody just assumes that the click‑through rate is nonexistent, but they measure that. And then she figures out what the price is going to be and how many clicks she is going to get. It is a very simple business that requires an enormous number of people to do it because it is all based on personal relationships.
One of the things that I think IA should be aware of is that media buyers are purchasing the top level of the nav. So, for example, one of the things when we redesigned the New York Times, we had a whole conversation that was like: “Why do you need a Health section? Most of the content that you publish in your Health section basically also sits in the Science section, they sit right next to each other. What is the difference? There is not really any need to have both.”
The truth is there’s a very big need to have both, which is that advertisers want to buy that section. If Brooke is working with a pharma client, Brooke comes in and she says, “I want to know that my ad is going to appear on the home page of the health section.” They are selling those major categories as a way to say where the ad is going to sit.
Similarly, the Huffington Post used to be formatted, structured very much like a blog. When they redesigned, which they did recently, they redesigned with more global nav categories, with the purpose of being able to sell those section fronts. It doesn’t matter to people. It’s not that those section fronts are the primary way for people to navigate. The importance is that an advertiser comes in. And, they’re very simple. They want to say, “Okay, you have a travel section and the ad for my travel company is going to go on the front page, and on the article pages in that section.”
Similarly, we worked on a redesign of the Atlantic. They had previously been organized around content types. The goal there was to give them a separate navigation system, so that the main focus of the architecture would be on topics like politics, or science and technology, which they can sell. You can sell a category called science and technology. You can’t sell a category called blog.
I had a conversation with somebody where he was like, “Karen, I thought everything worked the way Google Ads work. I thought you sold everything based on tiny, little, micro key words, and you try to figure out what those key words are.” The truth is, Google Ads are bottom up, and banner ads are top down.
Google Ads, you can focus on trying to identify very, very small little key words. But, if you are trying to sell display advertising, banner advertising, it is really all about having giant, important words, like business, travel, politics and science.
I want to talk about the IAB. Does anyone know what the IAB is? It is the Interactive Advertising Bureau. It is a cabal. Just to introduce you to the organization, let’s talk for a moment about the IxGA. Everybody knows about the IxGA, right? Here’s what the IxGA does. They intend to improve the human condition by advancing the condition of interactive design. That just sounds nice, doesn’t it? Yeah, that’s a good thing.
Okay, let’s talk about the IAB. The IAB, they have six core objectives. Number one is fend off adverse legislation and regulation. I love that verb fend. It just suggests that we don’t even want to inspire our members to actually obey the law. We want to be there to avoid anybody making laws that might harm people. The second thing they do is coalesce around market making guidelines and creative standards. Now what the hell does that mean? I’ll translate that into language that I know you all would understand, which is the Visio stencil.
So what that means is that you can only make ads of a certain size, you cannot make ads that are any other sizes than these sizes and frankly they don’t even want you to use all of these sizes. They really just want you to use one size and that’s the rectangle ad.
You can have a rectangle ad, you can have a leder board maybe. People don’t really want to even solve the skyscraper anymore. The giant half‑page ad I think is a much better experience for advertisers. But it’s very hard to get sites to integrate it because it’s kind of big. So really what that means is that the IAB has said, “You can use three ad sizes, you can only use those ad sizes and you cannot ever use anything else.”
So what this means is that you have to design your grid around those ads. So if you were working on any project that involves advertising, the absolute first thing that you must do is start designing the grid and figure out where your going to put in the ad.
The rectangle ad has to go above the fold. If you want to have a leder board they really want it to be in the content of the page and not sitting above the header. If you want to have a left nab you can put a skyscraper in there because it’ll fit, otherwise you don’t need the skyscraper.
Somebody commented to me, “God why do all the web pages look the same and can’t you guys come up with something more creative to do, more creative ways to put the ads on.” And I laughed and I said, “I guarantee you I have set of grid explorations that puts that rectangle ad every physically possible place that it could go on the page.”
The reason that all websites look the same are that you can point to websites in lots of different categories and say they all use the same layout. It’s because they all have to put that rectangle ad somewhere above the fold and its not going to really make sense to people unless you put it in the right hand column.
So you are really left doing some grid explorations, trying to get those ads above the fold. My other advice designing your grid series is that you don’t need 17 ad positions on the page. Don’t walk out of here and say, “Oh. She said advertising is great, so I’m going to put more ads on the page.”
Three or four positions is good. When Brooke comes in and she says, “What if I wanna buy this entire page up for my advertiser.” If she’s looking at six positions, then she’s like, “Well that means that means I have to have six different pieces of creative to buy up all those slots.”

So if you have three or four positions and they are the standard ads and she knows what to expect she’s like, “Great!”
Now, I know some of you are thinking, “God, but Karen the ads, they’re so annoying can’t we make them stop being so annoying.” And my answer there is, “A little bit.” Many, many things for a media buyer coming in are gating factors. There has to be an ad above the fold. You have to allow rich media, you can set some specifications, though, for how that might work.
If you look around on‑line you can find media kits for just about every major publisher. They want you to have this information, they are very eager for you to know how you would buy ads on their websites. So you could look around.
I think Business Week does a great job of specifying things like how big can the rich media file size be, how many times can the animation loop around, how does audio get called by the user. These are all thing that you can specify and they will ask you to specify.
It doesn’t mean that you can go in and say, “Oh you can’t have any audio at all.” Or, “You can’t have any rich media at all.” That would mean that they won’t buy ads on your site. But you can set a few requirements for what might make that acceptable. This is what we do for Cool Hunting. We just said, “What do we think is going to be the maximum allowable irritation that will get advertisers to buy our ads but will still not totally piss off our users?”
If you’re interested in this or any more information you can just Google media kit and find lots and lots of specifics about not just what requirements they have, but how much they charge for ads. Keep in mind that whatever they put in their media kit about their rates is really the hotel rack rate. Everything gets negotiated and dealt and there are back room deals.
You can ask to customize the text placement so if you’re running Google ads, or any other ads from any other vendors on the site, all of these ad formats come in the exact same standard banner ad sizes. You can customize the colors and customize the styling of it. I highly recommend that you do so. Do anything you can to try to make those ads feel like they’re more integrated into the site.
If you’re from a bigger site and you actually have a Google ad sales rep or Microsoft ad sales rep you can go to them and ask to let them put the ads, not just in these banner sizes, but let them put the ads in whatever size and shape you want to put them on the site. It’s a better experience for users and it’s a better experience for advertisers.
You should be thinking creatively about your ad placements, which means that you’re going to need to make friends with your ad sales team. There are some interesting examples of things that people are doing to try to bring the ads more integrated into the site.
Pitchfork just launched a redesign and Apple did this whole thing where they showed the iPhone and it actually interacted with the nav and it was like the nav was breaking into the wrapper. I’ve saw a lot of commentary about how annoying it was but I guarantee you every Pitchfork user who had never heard of the iPhone now has seen what the iPhone looks like.
When we did the New York Times one of the things that they had was an internal ad on the left corner and an external ad on the right corner. One day somebody on our team was like, “Hey what if we sold both of those positions to advertisers?”
The ad sales guy was just like, “Oh my God this is the greatest idea,” and was really excited about being able to have this sort of dual position in the header. Being able to have this dual position in the header was what enabled us to negotiate not having the entire rectangle ad above the fold. If we hadn’t done that, the other designs we were working with had the rectangle ad a lot higher cutting into the content real estate above the top.
The Gawker family of blogs was doing some interesting things right now with skinning their entire site, like skinning the look and feel of the site for an advertiser. A site like HP or an advertiser like HP will buy all of the positions‑‑or Entourage here, you can see how this is skinned.
Everything online is measured. Whenever anybody talks about the benefit of online advertising one of the first things out of their mouth is to say, “Well it’s all measurable. Isn’t that great?” There’s a lot of measurement going on. I don’t know exactly how. There’s so much data out there.
I can’t even really get into this in much detail except to say that what I’ve learned is that data’s cheap and insights expensive. You can gather all of the data that you want about how ads are performing, but finding the really smart people who can go in there and do the hard core work, business analytics work, to figure out what that actually means, those people cost a lot of money.
Finally, the last thing I want you to know about online advertising is that you should forget pretty much everything I’ve just said here because the banner is dead. Oh my God, they’re dead. What are we going to do without them?
So I want to speculate a little bit about the future. I do not claim to know what the future of online advertising is. But I do know that there is no shortage of pundits out there just dying to tell you that the banner is dead. The problem is that they’ve been saying that for, like, ten years now.
And I would just say that I think it’s hooey. The advertising industry’s reliance on banner ads is like our country’s dependence on foreign oil: everybody knows it’s a bad idea, but actually fixing this problem is a lot more complicated.
You have to remember, there is enormous amounts of infrastructure built up around these things. Display advertising in general, whether that’s in print, or outdoor, or magazines, or whatever is the cornerstone of the advertising industry. And, frankly, what I would say in response to this is that, rather than expecting banners to go away, you should‑‑when advertising comes back in the next cycle, you should expect bigger, crazier ads.
What that means is that we’re all going to be pushing more money online. And the more money that gets spent online, the more advertisers that are saying, “Okay, we’re going to invest in bigger campaigns online,” it’s going to mean better creative for the ads, so there’s going to be fewer “punch the monkeys” and more well‑designed ads like you see in print. And, hopefully, many of these sites will stay in business because they’re going to be making money off of advertising.
I want talk about sponsorships as concept; a way to make money. In the olden days, media had standards for what was advertising and what was content. And they would get very huffy if you tried to bridge those two. That’s different on the web: people don’t have those same standards.
So, Razorfish, in their commentary about their digital outlook, says, “Package everything as a sponsorship, because advertisers love to convey the idea that they’re bringing your content from their brand.” I would say my experience with this, when working with Cool Hunting, is that sponsorships continue to just be the icing on the cake; the cherry on top.
Brooke comes in, and she’s got a spreadsheet to fill out, and she wants to know your banner placements are. And then, on top of it, what you do is throw in a sponsorship. And you’re like, “And, we’ll also let you sponsor our gift guide.” And she’s like, “Oh, well, that’s a nice little extra bonus, extra credit check in my spreadsheet.”
It’s not what she’s buying, it’s what you’re giving her so that she will buy the banner ads. And that, I think, is actually proven by the data here. You can see, this is how the different formats of online advertising have changed in the last few years.
Sponsorships is the one that’s gone down the most. It’s only like two percent of the media share. People are still buying display banners, they’re still buying rich media and video. Sponsorships are getting tossed in for free.
And I think I would be remiss in not addressing the subject of, “What if people just paid for it? Can’t we just get people to pony over some cash, and get them to buy the content we provide?” And I think this is something you’re going to see a lot of interest in and talk about over the next few years because the advertising industry is going to be in a decline.
Chris Anderson is going to tell us that the future of business is free. And that things like giving content away for free to get advertising, or giving something for free and then getting people to pay for it later is the future. The Economist just published an article yesterday basically saying, “No, no, no. It’s over again. The idea that content is free online is going the way of the dodo.” They said this in 2001, and I think you’re going to see the same thing again.
Publishers are going to experiment with it. I think there are all kinds of things that might happen. My experience, just anecdotally in working with this. I was working with the Times when they did an experimental program called Times Select‑‑which was a way that they were going to charge people to look at some of their content online.
They did away with it after not all that very long. I don’t have any of the data about how that performs, I don’t think they’ve shared that at all. But one of the anecdotal things that they did share was that they gave online subscription access free to anyone who was a home delivery subscriber. And they thought people who subscribed at home would be delighted. They are like, “That’s great it’s something for free.”
In fact, people who are home delivery subscribers hated it even more. They were surprisingly negative about it. The rationale that they got was that home delivery subscribers said, “We want your content to be read by other people. The reason that we support you is because we want other people to read your editorial.”
So for a lot of other brands that are providing content and not functionality. The idea that their ideas are hidden behind a pay wall and not accessible to the blogosphere and not accessible for people to share and link and discuss. The upside they get from the pay wall might be offset by the fact that their brand doesn’t get the exposure that it needs.
I’ve heard people say to be basically, “Karen, can’t we come up with something better than this?” What I would say, quite honestly, is that the Internet is the biggest source, the biggest Petri dish, the biggest source of exploration for different revenue models that we’ve ever seen.
Believe me, if there is a way to charge for something, or monetize something, or experiment with different ways of getting people to pay for things. Whether that’s by eyeballs or whether that’s by actual cash money. The Internet has experimented with it. I think the next few years will be very interesting in that you’ll see people trying and experimenting with a lot more.
But, having done all of this for a while I am left saying that advertising is the worst revenue model for the Internet. Except for all the others. With apologies to Winston Churchill and the concept of democracy.
So, I wanna wrap this up with a couple more thoughts. I went out and interviewed a number of my former clients in preparation for this. One of the guys I talked to was the publisher of, the head of Atlantic Media. He was formerly the publisher of The Week. And I asked him at the end of the interview: Do you have any parting words for the user experience for this community? Anything you really want people to know?
He was like, “Yes.” He said, “Everybody wants to think that user experience is like this paramount good, like it is the enviable truth.” He said, “You know, you think that if you look at ads on the page and think that provides a bad experience, so you want to take them off the page to provide a better experience.”
He said, “If you think that taking the ads off the page and making the page nicer and cleaner and easier to read and less cluttered and less distracting and that user experience in and of itself is going to get more people to come to the web site. That’s going to drive enough revenue to make up for the fact that you don’t have ads there. You are kidding yourself. User experience is not going to drive that much revenue. If you want content, sites, publishers to be successful, you have to give the advertisers what they want.”
Just to conclude this, I really want everybody to think about our future as an industry, our future as professionals. I think if there’s a group of people out there who can find really smart ways to integrate the advertising, to provide value for advertisers, still deliver quality experience, it is you guys. But please think about it in terms of: Let’s get advertisers to spend more money on the Internet. Give them what they want.
So, I just want to say thanks to the many people who helped me out as I was preparing for this presentation and‑‑I forgot to take the build off of those logos. And that’s it. Thank you.
[applause]
[music]

Creating Magic Kingdoms: User Experience Lessons from Disney’s Imagineers Mike Atherton

Ever been in love? We can all recall user experiences we admire. But do we love them?

Emotional engagement is an enormously powerful driver in ensuring product success. One group of UX designers, Disney’s Imagineers, uses this approach to build experiences that people not only engage with, but truly love.

Mike Atherton aims to reconnect us to the passions that brought us to the IA Summit with his lighthearted and inspirational presentation. We love the work we do. Let’s make sure our users love it too.


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Transcript of Creating Magic Kingdoms: User Experience Lessons from Disney’s Imagineers – Mike Atherton. Main Conference Session, Day 1 – Friday, March 20
[music]
Announcer: Ever been in love? We can all recall user experiences we admire, but do we truly love them? Emotional engagement is an enormously powerful driver in insuring product success. One group of user experience designers, Disney’s Imagineers, knows this, and understands how to build user experiences that people not only engage with but truly love.
Mike Atherton presents a lighthearted and inspirational presentation aiming to reconnect us with the passions that brought us here. We love the work we do. Let’s just make sure our users love it, too. I hope everyone enjoys the podcast. Cheers.
Mike Atherton:  So hi, I’m Mike Atherton and I’m from London. And let’s give this a whirl, shall we? Love, exciting and new.
[laughter]
Mike Atherton: It’s a many splendored thing. It’s a battlefield and a losing game. But what is love anyway? Perhaps you’re more Ben and Jerry’s than Haagen‑Dazs. Maybe you’d gladly mortgage your children for an iPod Touch but wouldn’t be seen dead with a Zune. How would you make Sophie’s Choice should I rob you of your Twitter or your Facebook? When we talk about the love we have for the Apples, and Nintendos and even the WordPresses of the world, we’re talking about [zing sound] emotional engagement. Now I make user experiences for what some have called a living, most recently with the BBC. I’m fascinated in finding out what separates mere respect from true love. And what’s love got to do with it? Well for one thing, designing a product for emotional engagement could be the difference between launching a Smart Car and a Volvo, a Netflix and a Blockbuster, a Firefox and a, well, nobody every tattooed themselves with the other guy’s logo.
Emotional engagement is an instant bond with our audience so they feel our product or service is as much theirs. And I believe that emotional engagement aids the design process itself.
But before we get to all that I hope you’ll let me indulge in a spot of hero worship because it strikes me as I zip through my mental Rolodex of fetishes that there a group of architects and designers and engineers building user experiences that enjoy that high emotional engagement that’s almost like being in love.
Maybe if we take a walk through their work, there are lessons to learn about putting a little heart into our own.
Now they may not have the transient cool of today’s Technorati but they’ve been working tirelessly their brand of magic for over 50 years. And like the kind of experiences we all architect today, it all started with a mouse. I’m speaking of course of Disney’s Imagineers. Now I should stress that I am not now nor have I ever been one of them. I’m merely a fan and an evangelist, a Mouseketeer.
Around 1950, Walt Disney was in Griffith Park. He was sitting on a bench and eating peanuts. He’d taken his daughters to the merry‑go‑round. And as he sat watching them play, he thought, Wouldn’t it be ‑ I can’t do the accent ‑ [with American accent] Wouldn’t it be great if…
[laughter]
Mike Atherton: I’m just going to abandon the whole accent thing ‑ if there was a place that the whole family could enjoy themselves at the same time. Well, in that single thought lay the genesis of Disneyland and what would be the discipline of Imagineering. Now Walt’s studio was alive with animators, and model makers, and scenery painters, and special effects technicians, and writers, and composers and lyricists. And it was from these ranks that the Imagineers came. These men and women worked tirelessly to design and build some of the best loved user experiences anywhere, things like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, the Jungle Cruise, Spaceship Earth, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain and yes, the one with that damn song.
[laughter]
Mike Atherton: Guided by Walt’s vision and a culture of idea sharing, experimentation and all out guts, they took their film making magic into unchartered territory, actually used their lack of experience to their advantage. As Marty Sklar puts it, “Our greatest asset was ignorance. We didn’t know we could fail.” Now at this point in the presentation I’d like to introduce you to my co‑host. So let’s just unclip this little guy.
[Recording starts]

Walt Disney:  … how Disneyland evolved from a dream to a reality. Now it was about 1954 that we came up with this, what you might call the climax to the [Inaudible 5:50].

[Recording ends]

Mike Atherton: Yeah.
[Recording starts]

Walt Disney: “This was the concept that we hoped Disneyland would eventually be. Now we’ve made a lot of changes through the years but this still remains the basic plan.”

[Recording ends]

Mike Atherton: In fact, Disneyland was a hard sell. This wasn’t just a case of an animator going into the them park business. There was no theme park business. Disneyland was a world first. And what separates a theme park from the Coney Island fairgrounds that came before it, well we would call that user experience. Walt wanted visitors to step out of their own reality and into a movie. But this dream needed cold, hard cash. And then bean counters saw nothing but problems. Disney’s folly, they called it. How would he operate it year round? Were the tiny details a needless extravagance? Customers won’t care. Stick to what you know. If you build it, they won’t come.
Well, one weekend Walt collared a storyboard artist, this guy Herb Ryman. “Herbie,” he said, won’t do the accent again, “I need to show these bankers exactly what we mean. We need to get them excited.” Well with Walt on his shoulder all weekend, Herb’s renderings captured the essence of Disneyland. And they’re not based on the blueprints, no wire frames to work from here, just the swirl of ideas in Walt Disney’s head.
Those drawings that Herb Ryman worked on that day started a visual culture that still leads Imagineering even today. We all know that it doesn’t really matter how nice you make your functional spec documents or even your wire frames. The client always gets excited over the pretty pictures.
Now in my own work I’ll often visualize early project discussions. These are not carefully thought through IA masterpieces. Indeed many of them would fall apart completely if you look at them funny. But really that’s the point, having some visual meat to rip into like cynical raptors, it focuses debate and clarifies whether we all have the same broad vision in our heads. That instant connection to artwork isn’t just about understanding. It’s about getting fired up. It’s emotional engagement.
So when Imagineering comes and builds a new attraction, they don’t start with blueprints or project plans. No one ever falls in love with a Hobson spigot or a Gangly wrench. This isn’t yet about the structural. It’s about the dream. Now of course I’m not suggesting that we dump the wire frames, and use cases, and functional specs, we will still need detail after all. I just think they are not what opens purse strings or even heart strings.
Since Disney married Pixar in 2006, John Lasseter, this guy, has helped Imagineering maintain their creative culture. Both Pixar and Imagineering, have strong principles for creative management. Creative people have control over every stage of an idea’s development.
Now, I don’t just mean visual designers here. Products ideas may move between disciplines, be it story development or architectural engineering. The trick is to create cross discipline teams, who will bring different insights and work well together, refining good ideas into great ones.
Daily show and tells, no matter how rough, help people get over any embarrassment when showing incomplete work, and promote healthy competition. Everyone has the freedom to talk to everyone else, regardless of departments or rank. There are no proper channels to go through. Managers aren’t always the first to know, and sometimes it is nice to walk into a meeting and be surprised.
Training courses and learning lunches help teams from different disciplines to interact, and appreciate one another’s skills. How many times have we sunk hundreds of hours into a project, only to move on and try to forget it the moment it is out the door? Well, instead list the top five things you would do again, and the top five things you wouldn’t‑‑the roses, and the thorns.
In the 1960’s, Bill Bernbach of the advertising agency DDB, transformed the industry when he invented the creative team. Specifically, the teaming of a copywriter and an art director to work on an ad simultaneously. At the interactive agency, Sapient‑‑you know them? They have adapted this practice, and our pairing information architects with visual designers. The complement of skills ensures balance between structure and esthetic at the BBC.
Anyone with a dream can workup their idea, and present it to a panel of experts, who might throw the odd brick back at them, but only so they can go back to the drawing board and refine their idea. It is a great way of funneling the creative juices from fertile minds‑‑which sounded a little better when I wrote it.
So, by developing user experience in small cross‑discipline groups, organizations like this, and like Pixar, and Imagineering, they learn and succeed by dreaming and doing.
Walt wanted every inch of Disneyland to feel like part of a story, to have a strong narrative, driving the layout and architecture, and design and service. Things that happen in view of the guest are on stage. Park operations are backstage. Staff are cast members, and they wear costumes, not uniforms. Two‑faced facades inspired by movie back lots set the scene, be it a broken‑ down Hollywood hotel, or a Wild West railroad, or Ana Paula Base Camp, or even an 18 story geodesic sphere. They call it ‘architectural’ story telling.
The Hollywood Tower Hotel has directed every inch to be an 1930’s grand hotel, now rather down on its luck. The Base Camp at Expedition Everest tells of a Yeti Hunt through news clippings, and documentary photographs, and artifacts. At the Kidani Village in Animal Kingdom, you will still find the outlines of the old city walls around the Portuguese fortress that once stood there. Engravings commemorate the political events that shook the village in 1961, and yet none of it is real.
There was no fortress, no events of 1961. It is just part of the story on story layering that gives each experience its rich tapestry.
Now, over at the BBC, we’re revolutionizing the way that we tell stories online. The BBC, as you probably know, makes thousands of hours of television and radio programming, widely regarded as some of the best programming in the world‑‑oh, and I think so.
Yet our online efforts have met with mixed success, static websites dot the landscape like silos, disconnected from the wider BBC universe. For example, you might like this man, Stephen Fry, and some of you may even know that he was in this show, Black Adder, and he had a comedy partnership with this other guy, who you may know from this show.
He also did something about the Gutenberg Press for the BBC. He suffers from bipolar disorder, which he made a program about. Most recently, he made another series, where he took a trip around these United States. In that series he visited Kentucky, and Hawaii, and Nevada, where he visited one of these brothel, as did this guy, Louis Theroux in another BBC series. Which tells us if nothing else, that our documentary filmmakers are getting one over on us.
Well, for the longest time there was no way to make those connections or follow those journeys. We only retold on air the same stories that were first told online. Now, thanks to minds immeasurably superior to mine, we are seeing those rich relationships exposed, so we may follow our own narrative paths.
If you want to see how Michael Palin became a comedy god as part of Monty Python, and then transitioned into a travel correspondent, visiting the Sahara, which was repeatedly created by climate change, which is an issue that this guy wasn’t so big on, but this guy says he will be, well then go on. Follow that camel, because you don’t need us to explicitly tell you that story.
There is a combination of approaches here. The BBC’s Topics Project is a way of bringing together all our stories on a particular theme, lifting them out of their silos, and making aboutness a form of navigation.
Then there are the more detailed domain modeling efforts, which explicitly define the relationships between our programs, and people, and events, and topics, and even our recipes. These are our voyages into the semantic web, and it is a lot like love. It is rather straight forward in theory, but somewhat messy in practice.
So, non‑linear dynamic narratives aren’t exactly like theme park attractions, but like with the imaginers, our designs should be led by the stories we want to tell. Disneyland was designed to be an unbroken user experience‑‑over to my co‑host for a moment.
Walt Disney:  At the foot of Main Street, about where you are sitting is the Plaza. The Plaza, or the hub, is the heart of Disneyland. Shooting out from here, like the four cardinal points to the compass, Disneyland is divided into four cardinal realms: Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland.
Mike Atherton: The hub and spoke mode created different distinct lands, that didn’t visually compete. It allowed for very controlled traffic flow, which paved the way for some very filmic spectacle. When you first entered Disneyland, you do so by a railway station, giving you a sense of arrival at this happy place. At this point, you still can’t see into the Park, until you enter under a stoned underpass, and emerging from the darkness you find yourself staring straight down 19th Century, Main Street, USA, with a fairytale Sleeping Beauty Castle ahead in the distance.
It is a deliberate piece of staged management, transporting you from the real world into Disneyland. Now the castle itself serves the same purpose as the hat in the Hollywood studios, or the golf ball at Epcot, or the Tree of Life in the Animal Kingdom. These huge and iconic structures serve as a navigation anchor, signaling the hub from which visitors can spoke out into different directions. They call these proud directions “weenies”, I kid you not.
[laughter]
Mike Atherton: Like us, the Imagineers understood that user journey should avoid distraction, so they worked to prevent visual intrusion, which would break the illusion of each distinctly themed land. Still led by the movie making metaphor, Imagineers designed smooth cross‑dissolves from one land into the next. In Florida the journey from Main Street to Adventureland gradually blends themed foliage, color, sound, music and architecture. The Crystal Palace restaurant fuses the American colonial with the British colonial style of India and Asia, providing an ideal transition between the two lands. The Big Thunder Mountain in Florida is modeled after the red rock of Monument Valley, but in Disneyland it’s based on the striped hoodoos of Utah’s Bryce Canyon. And why?
Well, because in the smaller footprint of Disneyland the cartoon‑like Candy Mountain is better suited to peer over storybook Fantasyland. This attention to detail is everywhere, adapting the filmmaking convention of the long, medium and close‑up shots into the park design.
Long shots are done through false perspective, a trick where the buildings are built progressively smaller as they recede into the distance in order to appear larger than they are. It allows for a grand view within a very small space. The medium shots are the building facades, with theming that turns an ordinary ride queue into a bustling space port or an automotive test center.
And then the close‑ups provide the subliminal detail. In keeping with the “lived in” look, the Imagineers designed signs, doorknobs, light fixtures, trash cans, menus, concession stands and wallpaper, all supporting the attraction’s backstory.
Walt and his brother Roy took their first major creative and financial risk back in 1928 when they released their first cartoon with synchronized sound. They did it again with Snow White in 1937, the first time that the critics had used the term “Disney’s folly,” claiming that there was no market for a full length animated feature and it would never make back its 1.5 million dollar budget.
So despite the success of Snow White, by the time Disneyland opened in 1955, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. The park was their biggest gamble yet for much higher financial stakes.
[Recording starts]

Walt Disney: Oh, it goes back so… I had different cost estimates. One time it was $3,500,000 and I kept fooling around with it. It got up to $7,500,000 and I kept fooling around a little more. Pretty soon it was 12‑and‑a‑half, and I think when we opened Disneyland it was $17,000,000.

[Recording ends]
Mike Atherton: But Walt wasn’t afraid to take risks. He made a career focus out of an investment in new technology from those early sound cartoons to surround sound, like Fantasia, to the first monorail in America, to a new kind of animation that would bring three dimensional life to the stories he wanted to tell.
[Recording starts]

Walt Disney: We created a new type of animation. So new that we had to invent a new name for it.
Announcer: Audio‑Animatronics?
Walt Disney: Right, Audio‑Animatronics.

[Recording ends]
Mike Atherton: This cunning businessman avoided paying for advertising by using his TV show as an extended commercial for the park. He was quick to capitalize on merchandising, and having just lost money on Pinocchio and Fantasia, it’s no accident that Sleeping Beauty Castle took its cue from the next film on the drawing board. Despite this expanding media empire, he was driven not by money but by the pursuit of quality. In fact, Walt didn’t like the idea of corporations very much, recognizing how much harder it is to maintain clarity of vision and get things done within a large organization. So he repeatedly looked to carve small, creative niches out of his larger structure, the most notable of which was WED Enterprises, known today as Walt Disney Imagineering. These days, entrepreneur risk taking is second nature in our business.
Our medium of choice has matured to a point where the building blocks of innovation &8211; APIs and web services and open source‑‑are readily and cheaply available. Even the teams to help us assemble them are never far away. One evening chef Niall Harbison was lying in bed and came up with an idea for a Twitter‑based recipe application. The next morning he sent out the following tweet.
[Imitating Irish accent] Need a smart developer who… he’s Irish, by the way… who thinks that they could build a simple… that’s probably racist, isn’t it… a simple app in one day. Cash or profit share pay depending on preference. Big idea.
Well, 17 replies and just $300 later, would you believe, twecipe.com launched, offering recipe suggestion for things that you have in your fridge. The product launch came exactly five days after Niall had first thought of the idea. More sophisticated services are still relatively cheap to develop. We’re fortunate to live in a time and work in an industry where product development cycles can be measured in days and costs are in the low thousands, not the umpteenth millions.
Yet we’re also in a worldwide scramble to build the next big thing. With everyone borrowing from the same toolbox, we can afford to take risks and to innovate. We just can’t afford not to.
In 1969, Marty Sklar, the guy we heard from earlier, had been asked to pitch an attraction concept to RCA. At the time making strides into personal computers, Marty and John Hench, another Imagineer, came up with a ride through a computer thinking that might RCA’s buttons. The pitch went well among the lower ranks of RCA’s staff, but then the client hit them with an uber‑client that hadn’t been involved in any of the discussions to date. [sarcastically] I don’t know if that sounds familiar to you.
The pitch to RCA’s head honcho was a bit of a disaster. He didn’t see what was so exciting about touring the guts of a computer, so the Disney boys went back to the drawing board and decided to revive an idea that had fired their own passions years earlier. RCA could buy into it if they wanted to, and they did, putting $10,000,000 into an attraction called Space Mountain, today one of the principal icons of Walt Disney World and Disneyland.
It was a valuable lesson in trusting their instincts. Of course they needed to design something that guests would enjoy, but this is, after all, what they do for a living‑‑what they’ve done now for 50 years. They really should be able to do it and make it user‑centered without having to stop and solicit opinion from guinea pigs every five minutes or being held hostage to the whims of clients or focus groupies. They are the recognized experts. They have the experience to know what their customers want, and so they build it, then they test it in the field.
Now in our own industry, whether we’re talking about the YouTubes and Twitters and Diggs and even Googles of our generation, or the Apples and Microsofts of eons ago, we can see that true originality, true change, comes from a clarity of vision and a confidence of purpose.
I’ll go out on a limb here and claim that none of the websites that have set the world on fire over the past 10 years were made by an agency working for a client, or even by a particularly large project team. When you look at the poster children of Web 2.0, you see the same story coming up again and again: two or three guys working in their basement to develop an idea that was useful to them personally, and putting a lot of love into their new baby, but somehow transferred to their first flush of users, who loved and nurtured the product just as much.
I propose that those products, and the love users have for them, could only come from that working environment; free of corporate politics, free of clients appeasement, free of iterative compromise and watering down, the death of a thousand cuts. The projects developed in larger organizations seem destined to suffer.
Now, it might appear somewhat unorthodox of me to contrast the working practices of a couple of teenagers in their parents Palo Alto basement with a multi‑billionaire juggernaut like Disney. But Walt Disney Imagineering, the small niche carved out of that larger studio by Walt himself, was designed to be just that think tank of talented enthusiasts, free to dream their dreams.
Sometimes the first idea isn’t always the best. In the past, Disney’s biggest change from concept to execution was Epcot, or to give it its proper name, the ‘sciencey one with the big golf ball,’ but who knows what ‘Epcot’ stands for? Wait‑‑I’ll let Walt tell you the best part of his plans for Florida.
[Recording starts]

Walt Disney: The most exciting, by far the most important part of our Florida project, in fact, the heart of everything we’ll be doing, Disney World will be our experimental prototype city of tomorrow. We call it “Epcot,” spelt “E-P-C-O-T,” Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Here it is on a larger scale.
[music]
Walt Disney: Epcot will take its queue from the new ideas, the new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing, and testing, and demonstrating new materials, and new systems. At Epcot, we will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise. I don’t believe there is a challenge anywhere in the world that is more important to people everywhere, then finding solutions to the problems of our cities.
Man 1:  So, where do we begin? How do we start answering this great challenge? Well, we are convinced, we must start with the public need, and the need is not just for curing the old ills, the old cities. We think the need is for starting from scratch on virgin land, and building a special kind of new community. First, the area of business and commerce. Next the high density apartment housing. Then the broad green belt and recreation lands, and finally the low density neighborhood residential streets. In other parts of the country, a community the size of this prototype could become part of an entire city complex, composed of many such communities, planned and built a few miles apart.
In Disney World, about 20,000 people will actually live in Epcot. Their homes will be built in ways that permit ease of change, so that new products may continuously be demonstrated. Their schools will welcome new ideas, so that everyone who grows up in Epcot, will have skills in pace with today’s world.
Walt Disney:  That is the starting point for our Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. And now, where do we go from these preliminary plans and sketches? Well, a project like this is so vast and scoped, that no one company alone can make it a reality, but if we can bring together the technical know‑how of American industry and the creative imagination of the Disney Organization, I am confident we can create right here in Disney World, a showcase to the world, of the American free enterprise system. I believe we can build a community that more people will talk about and come to look at than any other area in the world. And with your cooperation, I am sure this experimental prototype community of tomorrow can influence the future of city living for generations to come. It is an exciting challenge. A once in a lifetime opportunity for everyone who participates, speaking for myself and the entire Disney Organization, we are ready to go right now.

[Recording ends]
Mike Atherton: Before we sliced it, Walt Disney was dead. Now, if you have ever been to Epcot, you will know that it is not a city of the future. After Walt died, much of the company’s imaginative risk taking died with him. Still, the public wouldn’t let Epcot lie, and Disney knew it would have to do something. The result was a theme park, focused on science and innovation and corporate sponsorship, representing the spirit of the original vision. In 1982, the Epcot Center opened, located at what would have been the heart of Walt’s progress city.
After the story about corporate, it reminds me of the one about husband and wife team, Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield, struggling to develop their massively multiplayer online game back in 2002. They were running out of money, and fearing that the end was nigh. They made a difficult decision to ditch the game, and focus instead on its best feature, sharing photos with other players.
Well, that feature morphed into a site called Flickr. What makes this story interesting is that Fake says, “Had we sat down,” I won’t even try it, and said, “Let’s start a photo application, we would have failed. We were stupid and naive, which turned out to be a wonderful thing.” Like the early Imagineers, ignorance was their greatest asset. They didn’t know they could fail.
Disneyland was propelled by Walt’s frustration with movie making. Once a film was made, it was fixed, unchanging forever, but Disneyland he said would never be completed. It would always be evolving and revolving, giving people new reasons to come back.
He had an apartment built above the fire station. On weekends, he would come down and stay in the Park, chatting to guests and finding out just how they would make Disneyland better. Walt called it “Plussing,” a never ending cycle of iterative improvement.
Over the years, the Park’s have seen different attractions come and go. In fact, the list of the past attractions is easily as long as those still present, gone, but not forgotten, by the fans who still speak of them fondly.
Our Imagineering Legends have consistently acted as creative leaders. When it comes to testing, they are like the drunk with the lamppost, looking more for support then illumination. Wow! Controversial perhaps, to say that product design should be led by the shared vision of the project team. Only involve the opinions of users where necessary, and really then only when you have already gone ahead and built what you wanted to build anyway.
BBC iPlayer is a service that lets you watch or listen to BBC TV and radio shows online, provided you live in the UK. The project first kicked off around 2004, and was mired in political trials, and dog murk, and rights negotiation, and changes in technology platform. It was costing millions in public money, and hadn’t so much as a beater site.
And then this guy, Anthony Rose came along, and brought the touch of Silicon Valley to the mahogany corridors of the BBC. That is not straightly accurate, but it makes for a better story.
Audience: [laughter]
Mike Atherton: As creator of the online media group, he fast tracked the development of iPlayer, and instigated a bullish release cycle. In Rose’s view, real artist ship fortnightly, every two weeks. The idea is that if something goes out and it’s a bit rubbish, it’s not the end of the world because in two weeks it will be better. Again, we see the Imagineering practice of a small, self‑contained, creative team carved from a large organization and intent on getting things done. As Walt said, “You don’t design for yourself, you design for what you know people want.” Yet the way we as an industry build products has brought a shift in the way that we can engage users in product development. We can let change happen in the wild. We can let the audience do our plussing [sic]. By being transparent about the product architectures, by making it as much about the APLA as the UA, the things we make can evolve as users build new services on top using our building blocks to weave new stories. Not that you can weave with building blocks.
To date, Walt Disney Imagineering has built eleven Disney Theme Parks, a town, two cruise ships, dozens of resort hotels, water parks, shopping centers, sports complexes, and entertainment venues worldwide. They have over 28 patents registered. Their names adorn the windows of Main Street, and the legacy they’ve created in Disney Land and its spiritual sons will outlive them in the way that legacies do. People have loved their work so much that they bought the t‑shirt.
If only the work we did had such staying power, such permanency, not just on stage but in the hearts and minds of our audience. We spend months of our lives pouring our blood, sweat, tears, and other bodily fluid into the things that we build, and we think ourselves lucky if they see their second birthday. It’s time and efforts and brain juice we could have spent writing a novel or building a school or bringing enlightenment to the culturally impoverished.
So why do we do what we do? I mean information architecture seems rather a specific area of study, scarcely the thing that people just fall into as they might with management consultancy or petty crime, to name but one.
[laughter]
I think we have touched on the answer. I hope I’m preaching to the converted. I believe that we, all of us, want to make user experiences that are beautiful; lovable in their structure, in their execution, in the stories they tell.
Walt Disney said that Imagineering is not a specific discipline but more a state of mind. We can learn from these creative philosophies passed down through the years to expand our horizons by collaborating cross culture, sticking the spoon of user experience into every layer of the Web application trifle before scrambling it into an eaten mess, to understand the stories we want to tell and to have the sense of purpose, the courage to cut the ties and let our babies breathe and grow in the open air and not in the incubator.
A carousel of progress keeps turning as we sally forth into that great big beautiful tomorrow of the Web’s evolution. One where a free and open sharing of information will be underpinned by things we can point at and by relationships we can define succinctly and unambiguously. This cannot simply be an academic exercise in classification and order but a means of weaving new stories through a common language.
As the journalist Sydney Harris once wrote, “The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers.” Or as the Imagineers understand it, it’s not the size of your slide rule that’s important, but how it’s used. Our stock and trade is the functional specification, but shouldn’t we also consider the emotional specification? How do we want our users to feel? How do we want them to think of us? Do we want to be the Firefox or the Internet Explorer, the Mustang or the Camry, the Diana or the Camilla?
We must be bold and imaginative; to dream, to believe, to dare, and to do, to think outside the boxes and the arrows, to be passionate yet infectious, but in the good way. To create experiences that people fall in love with, to consider the whole of the web as our own Disneyland, stitching in quality, consistency and excitement, from the long‑shots to the close‑ups, an unbroken user journey moving seamlessly from one adventure to the next. “It’s a small world, after all.” Thank you.
Audience:  [applause]

[Music “It’s a Small World.”]
Mike Atherton: A couple of minutes for questions, if anybody has any, or there is lunch.
Audience Question: [inaudible 39:48]
Mike Atherton: Exactly. So, I shall repeat the question for the tape. “How do we convince our project sponsors and our clients to let us work in a collaborative cross‑cultural way that follows the Imagineering trend,” I guess. To me, I think you only need to really look at the things that are truly successful. When I worked in agencies for 10 years building micro sites for vodka brands, and what have you, and just destroying little pieces of my soul every time. I mean, what is the point? These things take so much time and effort, and it is disproportionate to their value in a lot of cases.
Yet on the flipside of that, you have something like a Twitter or a YouTube, or something, which is developed in a very kind of free and open way. It is developed to be something that is quite single purpose that is not watered down in that way, and because of that, it is phenomenally successful.
So, I guess in answer to your question, I mean you only need to look at the things which those clients often aspire to be, that they often want to piggyback on, or bottle feed from. If they actually want to be the change agents in the industry, then this is the environment to do it.
Yes?
Audience Question: [inaudible 41:09]
Mike Atherton: Chris, right? My hero.
[laughs]
Mike Atherton: I want your job. Yeah. That is right. I mean, Epcot was a bit of an apology really, from what was a strange dream for an animator to have, until it starts getting to the specific planning game. It is interesting to see the legacy that the Park has become. There is some tenants of that. Not only that, but if you take a trip to the town of‑‑not Stratford, but Celebration in Florida. You can see a vision, a reality, of what the Epcot vision might have been, which is a genuine town, but looks like you are living in Disneyland to a certain extent.
Thanks.
[applause]
[music]

A Fundamental Disruption: Moving Information Architecture into the Hands of Individual Consumers Peter Sweeney & Robert Barlow-Busch

A fundamental assumption in information architecture is that producers need to organize their content before consumers can access it effectively.

But what if content didn’t have to be organized in advance of its access, or even organized by producers at all? What if each consumer’s individual perspective could direct the organization of content, independent of the actions of other consumers?

Primal Fusion’s Peter Sweeney, Founder and CTO, and Robert Barlow-Busch, Director of Product Design, demonstrate existing technologies that are already moving the Web towards more consumer-directed forms of information architecture.


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Transcript of A Fundamental Disruption: Moving Information Architecture into the Hands of Individual Consumers Peter Sweeney and Robert Barlow‑Busch. Main Conference Session, Day 1 – Friday, March 20
[music]
There’s a fundamental assumption in information architecture that producers need to organize their content before consumers can access it effectively. But what if content didn’t have to organized in advance of its access or organized by producers at all? What if each consumer’s individual perspective could direct the organization of content independent of the actions of other consumers? Primal Fusion’s Robert Barlow Busch and Peter Sweeney provide demonstrations of existing technologies that are already moving the web towards more consumer directed forms or information architecture. I hope everyone enjoys the podcast.
Cheers.
Robert Barlow-Busch: So I want to start here by asking who here owns a digital camera? Wow, just about everybody, that’s no surprise. Digital cameras have basically taken over the photography business at this point. Now, if you think back to the first digital cameras that came up, how would you describe their quality and performance?
Audience: Slow.
Robert Barlow-Busch: Slow? Generally kind of lousy. They took awful pictures, right? You could only look at the photos on your computer, you know, existing processes for printing photos really weren’t compatible with that. You know the whole idea is that they were lousy to start off with, and professionals completely wrote them off. Why would anyone use that? And yet, today most professional photographers are using digital photography, digital cameras. Now this is a classic characteristic of disruptive technologies. Disruptive technologies start off really under performing, they’re just not good enough to actually use or to use for any serious purpose.
However, they do get better. And they eventually get better not just to serve the low end of the market, you know, the people for whom it’s just good enough, but they continue on a trajectory until eventually they get good enough to serve the high end of the market as well. And this is sort of the central idea behind disruptive technologies. And if you want to learn more be sure to check out Clayton Christensen’s book ,”The Innovator’s Dilemma”. That’s really where this model has come from.
So, today we want to propose that semantic technology is on this curve. Semantic technology needs to be on our radar as information architects. And take a look at really what semantic technology is about. It’s about automating the creation of concept models is a very concise way of saying it. It’s about allowing computers to recognize ideas and concepts and topics and what they mean and how they’re related to each other and then enable new computing algorithms to do interesting things with that data.
Now let’s compare that to IA. There is a real overlap between the objectives and goals of these two areas. IA is also about concept models. If you go to the crowd mine site right now actually, you know how they asked us the question about what’s your favorite UX tool or IA tool, concept models is I think the second biggest tag in that tag cloud right now. So, it’s something that IA has developed a lot of, you know, methods and practices and tools to help with, and semantic technology is coming like a freight train here. It’s right in IA’s backyard, so we need to be aware of these things.
In a nutshell, the disruption that we suspect is going to occur because we’re seeing to start to happen now, is that no longer will you need one group of people to organize data in advance for another group of people. These technologies allow information to be self organizing. And in so doing, it means that consumers will actually be able at the time that they want information to say here’s what I want, here’s how I’m thinking about this particular subject. And these technologies can respond by in real time, right at that moment, organizing it the way that it should in response to that request from the consumer. So that’s the proposal in a nutshell there. So I think I’m going to toss it over to Pete here to tell us a little more about this technology, and why we need to keep our eye on this.
Peter Sweeney: We’ve heard this sort of thing for a long time, haven’t we? There’s some people nodding in the audience. The notion of a semantic web of semantic technologies emerging in the mainstream has been something we’ve expected for many many years. And it’s been slow in coming, frankly. So, the question becomes, “When? When might this happen?” Well, what we wanted to do today is actually show you some technologies that are actually up and running today to make it very much in the present, but the other thing I wanted to, if we can go to the next slide, is talk about why the pace of the semantic technology and the semantic innovation is accelerating, because it’s important to understand not only where we are on the curve right now, but how quickly we’re rising up that curve. What is really interesting about Web 2.0 is something that is not in the semantic technology crowd, but it more than anything else, I think, is really accelerating the emergence of these semantic technologies into the mainstream. And the reason is that semantic technologies love data. They love big data. And Web 2.0 has created this abundance of semi‑structured data into the ecosystem. Wikipedia, for example, that poster child of Web 2.0, is the most important source for semantic technologies now. Now, you have a number of these very niche and specialized semantic technologies that have been baking over decades, frankly, but once they have this data, this proliferation of semi‑structured data to work with, they become far more performant, for more quickly than in the past.
The other thing that’s happening is this notion of the semantic web. How many people have heard about the semantic web? Just a quick pull. Oh, fantastic. So, the semantic web is a group of initiatives. A whole bunch of stuff is going on, in order to essentially provide semantic technologists with a way, a common framework to cooperate and to inter‑operate. So basically what’s happening is that companies like Primal Fusion and many many others are creating this type of specialized semantic data and pushing it out into this ecosystem that we call the semantic web. And because of that, each of these technologies can begin to cooperate in ways that they couldn’t before. So we have this spirit of cooperation, all using this common framework, and again that’s accelerating the emergence of this structured data. So, again, we’re going to keep it real, we’re going to show you some.. Are we going to show…
[laughs]
Robert Barlow-Busch: Looks like we’re not going to show functioning demos.
Peter Sweeney: We’re going to do puppet shows to show you what this stuff could look like, but the undercurrent of all of this is as these technologies begin playing together, you’re going to see an accelerating emergence of a truly semantic web over the next coming years. Okay.

Robert Barlow-Busch: Alright, so, if anybody has burning questions as we go, feel free to shout them out. We’ll absolutely, we’ll have some time for discussing some of these big ideas at the end. So, yeah, I apologize folks, while Pete was talking, I was trying to get the network running. The Peabody network does not reach here. Do we have more good news?
Audience: [inaudible]

Robert Barlow-Busch: Yeah, well, I’m going to proceed.

Audience: If you have a laptop, you can tether it.
Robert Barlow-Busch: We’ll probably wind up running out of time. So the good news is having the functional demos is not absolutely essential for this. We’re going to go to Plan B.

Okay, so the first product that we want to talk about is Freebase. Anybody familiar with Freebase? Freebase is an interesting example. Let me just get this over to the screen here. So here we have a screenshot of Freebase. And I’m going to turn backwards to see what I’m clicking now. What Freebase is is it’s almost like Wikipedia, but for the relationships between ideas and concepts. It’s open to anyone to go in and edit and add just like Wikipedia is. So what we’re looking at right now is a page for The Peabody Hotel. And what’s interesting is that you see it understands what The Peabody Hotel is. There’s this idea of types. I’m going to mirror my display, one sec. Okay, you guys see that still? Cool. Now I can see it too. So if we go, we can see that the Peabody Hotel has certain characteristics, like a location. It has a type of building. It is a type of structure. Now what I was going to demo here, if we go into say, “Building,” and we say, “Show me the schema for building,” what we would see is that building as an idea has all kinds of structure around it.
You would see that buildings have architects, they have architectural styles. They even have information about projects related to buildings. There’s this enormous wealth of information about what objects are and what fundamental components they’re made up of. So it’s a fantastic resource.
Peter Sweeney: Now what’s underpinning Freebies and many other semantic services is a subset of the semantic web called Linked Open Data. Now linked open data is, essentially it’s like a great, big distributed database. Presently it has about four point five billion records of information within it. And what’s so cool about this resource and the semantic web is that anybody can use it. And anybody can use it like a database. So it’s not just retrieving four point five billion records, it’s how can each of those different facts be joined together to create more information, and to create new insights into information. Again, all of it is already available.
Robert Barlow-Busch: So this is an example of one product that we could have in our toolbox for getting data. Another one we want to talk about now is Zephyra, and a product called Remix. This is just an example of a general class of tools that are provided for folks, such as ourselves, to use to actually work with data and build new applications from. So, Zephyra, Remix was used to build this example of, it came out of MIT originally, the Simile Project, and this particular product is called Exhibit. And what we would see, if we could click on this, is that this is a really interesting RIA that allows you to learn information about U.S. Presidents. It, essentially it’s created a sort of a faceted navigation experience for you to see. It’s mashed up data about Presidents with Google maps and with a timeline on the top and with facets down the left where you can say, “Show me, you know Presidents by religion, or by political affiliation,” and it’s a neat little tool to sort of play with data.
Peter Sweeney: So another part of the semantic web, but this time it’s on the Tool Set side, so not just providing the data but also providing tools to do interesting stuff with it. Really important point about this is that these tools are designed not for professionals. They’re not designed necessarily for classificationists, or librarians or architects, but consumers. Anyone who wants to build a type of complex website like this has the tools available right now to go out and do that.
Robert Barlow-Busch: Alright, moving on to another demo, here. This is an interesting one. Has anyone had a chance to play with Callay, open Callay and through it? You’ll want to check this out. So this is brought to us by Thompson Reuters, the news agency. They’re using semantic technology very heavily right now. And they’re making some of their tools available to anyone. So in this example, let me pull this screen up for everyone. What I would be able to demo, I can show you the results of this only, is, you can provide a URL to this service and it will go to that URL and it will read the documents. And in this case we actually pointed it to that seminal interview back in I think, 2000 of Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld by O’Reilly. So the results here, if I could scroll them, you would see that Callay has identified a whole bunch of core ideas in that paper. It’s identified people, it’s identified places, it’s identified disciplines. All kinds of rich information that is now available to us to use in many other purposes.
Peter Sweeney: This is a classic technology called, I’m sorry, yeah?
Woman1: [inaudible]
Robert Barlow-Busch: The URL? We’ll share these, we’ll post these up on SlideShare by the way so you’ll be able to see that.
Man3: Semanticproxy.opencallay.com.
Peter Sweeney: So information extraction is what this is about and the notion is you have this unstructured information, a document, and from it you can pull structure data, data that computers can read. The other thing that’s really cool about this type of initiative is that they’re providing the description of what these things are, they’re called entities, in a way that other companies would understand. So they’re using a vocabulary that other companies can share and use to inter‑operate. So if you combine a technology such as this with a resource such as the linked data web, you can use this to provide, for example, a structured entity like the name of a person, you can take that key, which is in computer‑speak and talk to the data web in order to pull out all of the information that might be joined to that particular person. So you can see how these technologies are cumulative.
It’s not just a one hit wonder. I mean, in of itself, the idea of extracting a structured entity from an unstructured document doesn’t seem very interesting, but when you piece it together into this larger ecosystem of activity, some really, really cool stuff begins to happen.
Robert Barlow-Busch: Alright, so breezing through some more of these. And we really are breezing since they’re not working. Clusty. Anybody played with Clusty? OK, quite a few hands here. So Clusty is a useful tool. It’s basically a search engine but a little step beyond that. Let me just zoom in here so you can see a Clusty screen shot up close. There we go. So when you do a search with Clusty, it is presenting you with the normal search results we’d expect to see, but then it’s clustering ideas contained within those search results. Basically providing a way to filter through the vast number of results you have. Now for any of these we could click them and expand to see more ideas, to dig down into it again, feeling very much like the familiar faceted navigation experience that we have. And all of this, fully automated. So Pete, you had some thoughts.
Peter Sweeney: Yeah, so clustering is a fantastic tool that you’ve got if you’ve got large corpra to manage. What it’s able to do is, looking at a very large set of documents it can extract the key themes of the different concepts that are embedded across those different documents. So that’s something that takes an awful lot of work for people to do. The other thing that’s cool about it is that because these topics exist across documents, it can actually infer relationships between different ideas. So for example, if I have document A and document B and both of them share a particular idea then perhaps they share different ideas across those documents as well. So those types of inferences are possible with semantic technology as well.
So what we have is not just pulling out themes and ideas, but also pulling out connections and relationships across those ideas as well.
Robert Barlow-Busch: So we’re starting to see some examples of how this technology is enabling, you know, useful consumer applications. So another example of that is Cosmix. Anyone familiar with Cosmix? A couple of hands. Another one that I encourage you to check out. So with Cosmix, let me go through the little dance here again, pull it up so you can see. Cosmix is a site where you visit it and say, “Here’s a topic I’m interested in.” So in this case we are looking at climate change. And it basically creates a website for you about this topic. Now if we were to explore this website, we’d see that it’s pulled together, snippets of information from Wikipedia, from search results, from blogs, from news stories, there’s audio, there’s video, and all of this is augmented, again as you can see over on the right with related ideas to climate change so you can then explore some more. So it’s another way to experience information about this topic on the web.
Peter Sweeney: So this is obviously hitting close to home, or at least it should be. You have a site here that’s actually building websites. And it’s building a website every time somebody types something into the query box. So what it’s doing behind the scenes, at least as far as I can guess is that it’s taking a query, whatever you type into that search box, and it’s situating it within a very large concept model that Cosmix has running underneath the surface. So the notion of using taxonomies or ontologies behind the scenes is a very important part of semantic technologies in general. Once they get the intent from the user, they can take that and situate it as best as they can within that existing concept model, and then they can do some really cool things, and really fast things. When they find out, for example, that this particular topic belongs in this particular spot within this knowledge structure, they can judiciously decide which other sources on the web might be relevant to this particular topic, and then in real time, they can take that query and federate it across all of those different sources. So, it’s unfortunate that we can’t scroll down here, because it’s really quite impressive the amount of content that they can aggregate together. Different photos, different blogs, q and a, a whole host of different media, all within the context that the person has established.
Audience member:  I wish to ask you a question about this example. You started… [inaudible]
Peter Sweeney: Oh, this particular one is human rights now, but I’m sure your question will hold either topic.
[laughs]
Audience member: I was wondering about how you guys got from there to there.
Robert Barlow-Busch: Oh, okay. We didn’t. [laughs] We didn’t get from there to here.
Different screen shots at different times. Okay, let’s take a look at our final example right now. I should mention that, just to reinforce a point that Pete’s made, about how there’s a real spirit of collaboration and cooperation in this industry, so a lot of these products that we’re seeing make their data available to you to use in various ways. And so, the final example is the product that we’re currently working on at Primal Fusion, same thing holds true. This data will be available to folks to use in few ways. So, let’s zoom in a little bit so you can see this more clearly. Here we are. So, this is a product that’s in a very early alpha stage right now, but let me sort of example to you through a scenario what you could accomplish with this. What we’re attempting to do is to take these ideas and the power of semantics and bring it to a far more personal level right now. So let’s imagine that, you know, I’m a student and I have to write a paper on the relationship of climate change to economics. What we’ve built here is a product that will allow you to have a conversation with Primal Fusion to say here’s what I’m thinking about, you know, the end goal is for you to say this is the idea in my mind, this is how I’m thinking about that idea, and for the underlying data to be available to software agents to help you go act on your thoughts in various different ways.
So in this scenario, I would come and say, I’m thinking about climate change. Down below, in the lower panel, we go out to Wikipedia in this example, and we read everything on Wikipedia that has anything to do with climate change, and come back with some of the salient ideas about climate change. At that point, I make some selections, and say OK, climate change is a big subject, let me tell you a little bit about how I’m thinking about it. So, you pick off some of these subjects, and you say remember those thoughts.
Really what you’re doing in a nutshell is you’re building a tag cloud up in this top panel that represents your take on this subject. So, what I’m looking at right now is really just ideas about climate change, but my paper is about climate change in economics. So I need to bring some other ideas that the system currently doesn’t think of as being related, and I would do that by going down to the bottom and exploring economics now. I’m still keeping my context on climate change. So, we do the same thing: we read Wikipedia all about economics, give you lots of ideas about economics, pick off the ones that are relevant to how you’re thinking, and remember those. And so, the tag cloud you would have up top would really reflect this combination of ideas from these two distinct disciplines. Underneath that is a lot of semantic data that’s connecting these things. Primal Fusion is automatically creating new taxonomies and ontologies about these topics.
And then at this point, there are a lot of different things in the future that you’ll be able to do for today in our alpha. You can create a website. Let me just quickly show you what those websites look like. I will make no claims to saying that they’re pretty at the moment. But the idea is that you can create this resource that didn’t exist before about this intersection of topics that, you know, other semantics technologies might not normally think of as being related. So, that’s in a nutshell what’s going on with this particular product at this stage in its development. Pete, you had some further thoughts.
Peter Sweeney: Yeah, so, most of the technologies in the semantic world are of analysis. They’re about trying to extract these structured representations of knowledge from existing sources. So you have a bunch of documents, and you want to be able to pull out all of the different ideas and thoughts within those documents. Primal Fusion, by comparison, is a synthetic technology, so it’s not about extracting ideas, as much as helping people create new ideas. So the artifact that we’ve introduced here is what we call a thought network, and the thought network is really just a specialized type of semantic graph of machine readable data. And what the technology is doing by having this conversation with the consumer is it’s actually creating, dynamically, the semantic graph that didn’t exist before. And why that’s so important is that once a computer has this machine readable data, it can do some amazing things with it, and we’ve seen a lot of those, well we’ve told you a lot about [laughing] some of those amazing things already. But things like creating a website is a cakewalk, once you give a computer, you know, a list of the ideas, the connections, and the content that’s collated within it. You can create documents, you can tell it automate searches on the Internet, you can tell it to find like minded individuals. You have this incredible breadth of new capabilities that are enabled with the semantic data.
So, what we’re trying to show here in a nutshell is this idea of all of this tack is quite specialized, it’s quite deep, but it’s all very purposeful in within specific niches. But once you have a distributed web and once you have a semantic web, you have an ability to piece together solutions that use each of these specialties and cooperate to create some really powerful solutions. So just a quick survey of some of the things that we’ve looked at. Just as a quick caveat, I’m not an information architect. So what we’re hoping to do in the q and a is surface some of the ideas that we have about these subjects, and get from you your impressions on a, whether the stuff really is disruptive to what you do, and if so, how is it disruptive.
But just as a quick survey of some of the things that we’ve looked at, we’ve looked at concept extraction, extracting the structural concept models from unstructured information or even just the idea of information. We’ve looked at connecting information together in a myriad of different ways. We’ve looked at taking content inventories and collating content to a conceptual model that you’ve created. We’ve looked a number of examples of website building, you know, technologies that are able to synthesize documents and to synthesize websites. And in Primal Fusion, we’ve looked at synthesizing the actual semantic data itself, giving people an ability to create semantic representations of the way that they were thinking about the world so that computers can actually help automate their lives.
So, for us, again as people are coming, you know, from without the information architecture world, that seems to be stepping on some toes. You know, and just to return to, and I should also say that obviously information architecture is much much broader than the activities that I’ve just enumerated there, but I think it’s also important to note that the semantic technology is coming fast, it’s becoming quite good at the very specialized tasks that it provides, and also I think it provides a tremendous extension to an IA’s tool kit in order to enable consumers to really provide more malleable and more personal information.
Robert Barlow-Busch: So, flag us down, come up, grab these cards, be happy to give them out. Thanks for coming today, folks.
[applause]

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These podcasts are sponsored by:

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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.

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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

IA Summit 09 – Keynote

Written by: Jeff Parks

iTunes     Download    Del.icio.us     IA Summit theme music created and provided by BumperTunes™

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IA Summit 2009 Podcasts

The IA Summit was held in Memphis, TN from March 20-22. Boxes and Arrows captured many of the main conference sessions (“see schedule”:http://iasummit.org/2009/program/schedule/).

| “Preview”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/when-life-intervenes | Keynote | “Day 1”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-09-day-1 | “Day 2”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-09-day-2 | “Day 3”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/ia-summit-09-day-3 | “Closing Plenary”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-09-plenary |

The IA Summit Opening Keynote

Michael Wesch opened the IA Summit this year with an inspired keynote that provides a fresh and ambitious direction for all designers.

He points out that our “audiences” aren’t audiences at all, but rather creators, and our job is not to lecture but to enable. With this new approach comes not only design challenges but the joy of reconnecting people to each other, which he illustrated with a series of extraordinary video clips.

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

Contrast Reveals Mediation

Wesch tells several stories about his study of cultural anthropology and how those illustrate how Western culture, and in particular US culture, has become completely mediated.

Inspiration Trumps

He then illustrates the process of how his video “The Machine Is Us/ing Us”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLlGopyXT_g&eurl=http%3A%2F%2Fboxesandarrows.com%2Fview%2Fia-summit-09-keynote&feature=player_embedded becomes an internet phenomenon and how its rise represents an alternative to the mass media machine that has developed in the US over the last several decades.

Varieties of Media Bias

Content bias (e.g. liberal or conservative bent) is only one of many types of media bias, and that all of them add up to “metaphysical bias.” The effects of this have not changed much over time, that comments made about the printing press can help us reflect on what is happening in the current environment. Wesch wants us, as the creators of the tools, to think about what environment we want to create and work towards it.

Checking Out

Using his classroom as a crucible, Wesch delves into how US culture arrived in its current state, using the assembly line as the starting place, moving through MTV, and onto American Idol. As a part of this journey, he traces the history of “whatever” and comments on the current cultural impotence.

Burgeoning Transformation

Wesch then assembles a multi-faceted picture that there is hope for our culture through the interaction of digital artifacts. He spends a significant portion of the talk showing various example of these conversations. YouTube acts as a meme-spreader and remix environment, and Twitter allows you to see yourself clearly.

4chan, the disputably infamous “imageboard,” morphs into Anonymous and plays tricks on over 9000 celebrities and groups that take themselves too seriously. Wesch makes the point that we’re in the midst of a “context collapse,” examines what that means, and shows what people are trying to do with the tools that are currently available.

Architectures of Participation

In the end, “Architectures of Participation are becoming the architecture of our daily life.” Designers will be shaping the tools that shape the culture and hopes that our community of practice can help humanity “do whatever it takes by whatever means necessary.”

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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.

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Transcript of the opening keynote address delivered March 20, 2009 at ASIS&T IA Summit 2009 in Memphis, TN.

[music]
Announcer: This podcast brought to you by ASIST, the American Society for Information Science & Technology, the society for information professionals; by the IA Summit, the premier gathering place for information architects and other user experience professionals; by Boxes and Arrows, visit boxesandarrows.com/about/participate to be a part of your peer‑written journal. And special thanks to Axure and Morae for sponsoring Boxes and Arrows as well as the many other sponsors of the IA Summit.
[music]
Announcer: Michael Wesch delivered a powerful keynote presentation at the 10th annual Information Architecture Summit in Memphis, Tennessee. Michael has been dubbed “the explainer” by “Wired Magazine, ” a cultural anthropologist exploring the impact of new media on society and culture.
After two years studying the impact of writing on a remote, indigenous culture in the rain forest of Papua New Guinea, he has turned his attention to the effects of social media and digital technology on global society.
His videos on technology, education and information have been viewed by millions, translated in over 10 languages and are frequently featured at international film festivals and major academic conferences worldwide.
I hope everyone enjoys the podcast. Cheers.
Michael Wesch: I actually got my start looking at mediated culture in the most bizarre places in Papua New Guinea. So I’m going to tell you a quick little story about Papua New Guinea and how I got started there in order to frame everything I’m going to talk about. I’m going to end up talking about YouTube, 4chan, and Twitter and things like that, but we have to start in New Guinea in order to give us some context for that.
So I first went to New Guinea, this is 1999. I’ve went there off and on for the past 10 years, and ultimately have spent about two full years there in the past 10 years. And so to get to the villages where I work you have to fly into a little airstrip, like this little grass airstrip, and it takes you about two weeks to get that far because you’re usually waiting on little Cessnas and things like that. And ultimately you get here and then you walk a couple days and you end up in villages like this.
So you’re talking about places that have really nothing that we would call media in our terms. There’s no electricity, there’s no Internet and so on. Usually there’s not even working radios. Very isolated. And there’s not even money to speak of so these people are mostly subsistence horticulturists. And here you can see a garden. They grow lots of sweet potatoes and taro, they raise pigs. So this is a major feast that they would have.
They also eat anything that the forest provides them such as spiders. So after a big storm the rainwater will just wash these spiders down to the canopy and then they’ll harvest these and they’ll eat these spiders. They’ll also eat snakes whenever they get a chance. They’ll even eat what’s inside the snake. So here you can see they’ve taken out an animal that was recently eaten by the snake, and they then eat that.
And I show you this because this is where my journey really begins. This photo was taken about a week after I arrived, and it’s about 100 feet from where I was staying, which is right here. And I barely speak the language at this time. And I’ll just take you inside the hut here just to show you what it looks like.
This is what it looks like. These are actually my legs up here and this is my little sleeping bag. This little sleeping bag, I used to call it my little America because at night I would just try to wrap myself up in this thing and hide myself from the world because there were bugs everywhere and rats and all kinds of stuff.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: But of course this is the tropics, it’s the equator, so in the middle of the night I’d get really hot and the sleeping bag would be off of me and there I would be exposed.
And that night after we ate the snake, I was looking around and I noticed that there’s all these little holes in the floor, holes in the walls, holes everywhere. And I thought, gosh, a snake could just crawl right in here at any time.
And sure enough that night I’m wrapped up in my little America, it gets too hot, the sleeping bag is off of me. And I wake up in the middle of the night with this thing, I can feel this thing across me. It’s this big around and it’s right across my chest here.
So I freak out, and I manage to get it with my left hand and I throw it off of me. But as I throw it, I roll with it. So now I manage to get it pinned down with my left hand. I have it pinned down on the ground like this and I try to get my right arm free so I can pin it down with my right arm, but I can’t move my right arm. And this is when I realize I’ve actually pinned down my own right arm.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: What had happened was my arm had fallen asleep and it was across me like this.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: So there actually was no snake. And at this time ‑ speaking of media ‑ the only thing that I could understand from anybody, I could barely understand the language, the only word I understood was the word they used for me. And the word they used for me was an English word that they had borrowed, which was “white man.” And so they would just say, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, white man,” and then I would hear just laughter roaring.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: And this was my primary encouragement to learn the language very quickly and so on.
What I realized was that they had no idea who I was. I was just the white man that they could laugh at and so on. But then I started to realize that that was basically true for everybody in these villages. This is a situation in which your entire identity is made in your face‑to‑face relationships with other people. And we have become such a mediated society that we’ve completely lost sight of what that even means.
So you come to a conference like this and you are instantly displaying to people in numerous ways who you are by the nametag you’re wearing, the institution you’re associated with, all of that based on a print technology that wouldn’t be possible without those little symbols on your nametag.
Not to mention your identity cards and all that type of stuff that declare you a US citizen or whatever it might be. Even your clothes are sending a certain message. So even when you walk through the airport people will be able to identify certain things about you just by the clothes you’re wearing.
You go to a village like this and you lose all of that. And locally, the people themselves also are primarily negotiating their own identities in these face‑to‑face relationships. I’ll give you a few examples of this, which has really brought home to me in the following 10 years since after that first event, in a sequence of events that the locals now refer to as “number talk.”
What happened about 10 years ago was, just after I arrived, the government got serious about running this very remote series of villages, using bureaucratic paper‑based government. And so they went in and they actually charted every single village in the area with GPS. They actually carried around a GPS unit, marked down each of the villages.
And then they began taking a census in which every house was numbered, every person in the house got their own number as well, and they were able to count the units. And this allowed them to determine how much funding the village would get. So there was a whole formula for how much funding each village gets.
The impact of this was really tremendous in the next 10 years. The first thing that happened was they actually started eliminating their old villages, which looked like this, and are actually based on relationships. If you were really close to somebody you would face your door towards them, and if not, you would face it away from them. And instead you can see they arranged their houses almost by the book, in a linear format. And each of these houses is actually numbered just like the census book.
And if you go there today and you ask them, “Why did you build your village like this?” they’ll give you a one word answer: “Census.” And then you can see how it maps onto the census here.
And then during the census exercise itself a really interesting thing happened. They were having a really hard time getting people to say their names. They would go around and they would say, “What’s your name?” And people would be all confused. They didn’t know what their name was.
Now that sounds crazy. How could that be? But if you think about all the names that you have, you probably are referred to by at least 10 names, if not more. Imagine if somebody then came to you, and you had no idea which one was your real name, and said, “What’s your real name?”
They actually would go to some of the people there and they’d say, “What’s your name?” and they would say the word for mother, or father, or brother, because that’s what people called them in the village. And then suddenly they were like, “No, no, what’s your name?” And they’d just get totally confused by that whole idea.
So they ended up adopting another English phrase called “census name.” And now if you go there and you ask people what your name is, they’ll say, “You mean my census name?” So that’s where that comes from.
Meanwhile, people refer to this as “number talk” because their idea is that it’s numbers that talk to the state. And this becomes a certain kind of mediated reality, and they try to cook the numbers in a way. But this goes on to even more levels in terms of how print and the book were actually mediating their society.
This is what a dispute looked like prior to the incoming of this government bureaucracy. You can see what happens is when there is a dispute, everybody meets in an open area, everybody talks about it, everybody has a chance to talk and so on. But in the new era of print, they have an actual law book in which there’s a series of laws. And when people have a conflict, they’re taken into the courthouse and they’re measured against this static group of laws.
And this turns everything quite dramatically. Suddenly the focus is on the individual and the relation to a piece of paper. And their relation to the letter of the law, as opposed to their relationship with the people that are actually in conflict with.
The whole point of this is to say that media are not just tools. They are just means of communication but in fact they mediate relationships. When media changed, relationships changed. That makes today an especially interesting time. So Marshall McLuhan might say we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.
So today you look around and you see a Flickr here and a Twitter there and you have to recognize that this is a new way of relating emerging. So I’ll just give you a quick little tail from the new mediascape and then I’ll go into some more stuff about YouTube in particular and then 4chan.
So here’s a little story from the new mediascape. This is like the million‑dollar story. OK, so the reason why it’s a million dollar story is a million dollars is what it costs to make a 30 second commercial spot for the Super Bowl, which is a big event obviously. And so Doritos had an idea of how they could leverage the new mediascape to make it a lot cheaper.
So they just created a contest they allowed people to upload videos of their own little 30‑second spot and this ended up being the winning commercial. When they interviewed these guys about how they made it and what was involved, they found out that it cost them $12.79 to create their commercial, which is roughly the cost of three bags of Doritos that they had to break during the filming of it.
It was very successful. It was rated fourth by USA Today on their ad meter. So in terms of affecting the audience it was fourth. It did very well, despite it’s low price. But it turns out it’s $2.7 million to air the commercial, which brings the total cost to…
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: So the interesting thing about this though is that they asked these advertisers why do you spend so much money on this 30‑second spot and they say basically it’s water cooler talk. We want to be the thing that people are talking about the next day after Super Bowl. Well, the next day after the Super Bowl, if you check the blogosphere, the number one video in blogosphere actually costs zero dollars to produce.
I know that because that was the video that I made that was mentioned here in the interim. Those of you who haven’t seen it, this is just… I’ll just show you a quick 30‑seconds of it here. It’s this one where it’s sort of a history… Thanks. It’s like a history of digital text. Starting with written texts and what it look like in terms of written text. And then the changes that are brought about as digital text comes onto the scene.
I’m just speeding up here. You don’t have to watch the film but the basic idea here is that there’s some things I’ll cover a little bit later in this talk. We’re talking about blogs, YouTube, tagging, Wikipedia, and so on. All changing things in such a way that the Web is no longer linking information but it’s about linking people.
[music]
Michael Wesch: That means that we’re going to have to rethink a whole lot of things in our culture. This is all actually inspired by my work in New Guinea, which I think surprises people but that’s what this is really all about. That’s why I thought that you’d have to re‑think things, no just like governance and privacy and commerce, I think everybody thinks of, but also love, family and ourselves.
[Indistinct voice]
Michael Wesch: We’ll get to that later.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: So the interesting story behind this so is not just this sort of move the video itself but what happens afterwards. So the interesting thing about this is it was made in the basement of this house in the middle of Kansas. So here you have a video that competed with $2.6 million massive productions and it was created in the basement of this house in Kansas.
It was done in collaboration with a guy in Cote d’Ivore ‑‑ in the Ivory Coast ‑‑ because he had uploaded the music that you heard there with creative commons license. We’re collaborating across time and space. And this was then taken on Friday. I uploaded it on a Wednesday and you see by Friday I had 253 views and the reason why there’s a screen shot of this is because I was just blown away that more than 200 people had seen this.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: And in anthropology that’s a really big deal when more than 200 read your work.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: So, I sent this to my department head and she was thrilled. We had a party that night and she was telling everybody. She was like you won’t believe…
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: Then this is by the next day. This is Saturday and you can see we had over a 1,000 views. We normally think about user‑generated content and that’s what this is. But what’s really interesting is what happened next. This showed me that there was a lot more going on here.
And that was, the reason why it was growing exponentially was that it had been “dugg” ‑ you know, Digg is a site where people can give it a thumbs up or thumbs down ‑ the good stuff kind of rises to the top. It literally gets dugg up to the top. And here you can see it was rising right to the front page of Digg. Digg is just one example of what you might call user‑generated filtering.
So there you can see it on the front page. The list is of course… It was also floating around Del.ici.ous and you can see the top two links there for the most popular Web 2.0 links that day were from Del.ici.ous. So this is a situation where people are just going to the video, tagging it with Web 2.0, anthropology, whatever it might be and organizing the Web as they do it.
So this is what you might call user‑generated organization for what’s great about this. I mean, that’s nifty in itself but what’s interesting about that is that Tazz is being tagged, a lot of you in this room are probably following tags yourself on the Del.ici.ous. You might be following the tag Web 2.0, like a lot of people are and then that will instantly come to your home page the instant that somebody tags it.
So this then you might call user‑generated distribution. So what we see emerging here is basically an alternative to the massive, mass media machine that we have existed with for decades here in the US. It now has like a valid competitor, valid alternative in the user‑generated landscape here.
So then it goes through out the blogosphere and this is where humans and machines are interacting without knowing it because every time somebody links it in the blogosphere it’s getting counted by Technorati.
That’s what creates the top 20 lists that you see on viralvideochart.com as well as on Technorati. Here you can see it was, this was number four and this is Super Bowl Sunday morning. I woke up and it was number four and I was just blown away by that.
My wife and I just sat down and we started hitting refresh, refresh, refresh.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: We were really worried about the viral videos from the Super Bowl coming in that night. So we thought, if we can only get the number one before the Super Bowl and here you can see this is about noon that day it was number one.
This is then the next day after the Super Bowl and you can see not only was it number one, but it was well about the others. In fact, two through 20 almost entirely are Super Bowl commercials. So this is what you might call user‑generated ratings and this also works with Google, of course. Because every time you make a link on Google, it’s just sort of accidental collaboration with machines that’s going on all around us right now.
And this is what’s driving something that can be made in a basement in Kansas to have millions of views because commented on thousands of times and creating then this alternative mediascape.
So the question then is: do you look at this interconnected mediascape that creates all this collaboration in multiple ways. So this is just like a month after it was created. You can see it was translated into 12 languages. That spread it worldwide.
The interesting thing about this is that at the center of this user‑generated landscape is us, which means that this is not just a technological revolution. This is a cultural revolution. So that’s why I say that we had to rethink all the things.
Now, there’s a certain thought bias to media. People talk about media bias in terms of Fox News and that kind of stuff, but I’m not talking about content, I’m talking about the medium itself. There’s a long history of studies of this now going back four and five decades of very serious study. But even going back much further than that we’ve come to realize that the biases are things like this.
So there’s an intellectual bias to different media. So for example just for a real basic example take the example of like communicating with smoke signals versus communicating with a book. Obviously, there’s going to be an intellectual bias. You can’t recount Plato using smoke signals. Right?
So that’s a very basic bias of media. There’s emotional biases. You can’t convey the same emotions in different media. That’s why when you have something really important to tell somebody you’ll often think very carefully about what medium you’re going to use. There’s special and temporal biases.
We saw that in New Guinea, just in a sense of face to face communication is spatially biased towards how far your voice can reach, and temporally biased towards the now, because it doesn’t last, other than how people remember it and carry it on. Whereas print has a long temporal bias, because it stays static over a long time, and spatially, it can travel over long distances.
These create certain biases of the media. Then, there’s sensory biases. Some media are visual. Others are auditory, and so on. There’s political biases, in the sense that some media are accessible to some, and not accessible to others. There’s social biases, in that every medium creates a social scene around it, in terms of how you engage it, how you receive it, how you create it.
Ultimately, this is where it gets interesting. When you add all that up, there’s actually metaphysical biases to media. They actually make you think about space, and time, and the world differently, especially as they start to seep into our institutions. That then leads to different understandings of what information is, what knowledge is, and so on. These are epistemological biases.
Here’s a nice summary of this: Lee Rainie was talking about the effects of new media, and this is the basic summary of what he had to say. He said, just for example, you have the role of experts challenged by new voices, enabled by more open platforms for the dissemination of ideas. You have new institutions emerge to deal with the social, cultural, and political changes. There’s a struggle to revise social and legal norms, especially around the changing environment of intellectual property.
We all have seen this happening. It’s happening all around us. Concepts of identity and community multiply and transform. New forms of language arise. We’ve seen all of this recently, but, of course, he was actually talking about the printing press. This is just one example, going back 500 years, and here we are in this situation.
The question is, what are the biases of this media environment? How is it changing us? And the great question for you guys, because you guys right on the front lines of actually creating this environment is how can we create an environment that creates the types of community that we want to create, and the types of people we want to create, and so on.
And so, I started studying this new media environment here, by just watching my own students. I had this great sort of research lab, and it’s just in my classroom. You sort of get off this sideways. You can’t just come directly at them and start asking them questions about how they use media and all that stuff. That’s interesting stuff, but it doesn’t get at the real changes that are happening, and the bigger picture stuff. If any of you do ethnography, you know how you have to go at it sideways.
Here’s a series of questions that was very revealing to me, that aren’t going at it directly, but are still very interesting. Here’s question one: How many of you do not actually like school? Over half of them raised their hands to that question.
Then I say, how many do not like learning, and of course you get no hands. So then, we have this problem, because we’ve created this institution that’s actually designed for learning, and yet the people who like learning don’t like the institution. It’s actually true with professors, as well.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: Then there’s other problems, right? The students are Facebooking through their classes. They bring their laptop to class. They’re not working on class stuff. This is actually a spur of the moment thing. Just as we were taking this picture, her IM popped up, so obviously this is a common practice for her. They buy $100 textbooks they never open. They pay for class, but often don’t show up.
We did a survey, and found that they complete about 49% of the readings assigned to them, and they find that only 26% are relevant to their lives. So, there’s this huge disconnect in our schools, and the question is, what is this all about?
Here’s the interesting thing: You look at this room here, everybody’s tuned out, and dazed, and so on. The same group of people that we might say are having this problem of significance show up in this context like this.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: We have a camera on them, and there’s the contrast.
I was looking for an answer as to why this would be, and I found a perfect quote for this, and here it is: “What we are encountering is a panicky, and almost hysterical attempt to escape from the deadly anonymity of modern life. The prime cause is not vanity, but the craving of people that feel their personality sinking lower and lower into the world, indistinguishable atoms to be lost in the mass of civilization.”
I don’t know if anybody recognizes that. That’s actually from 1926. There’s a long history of this sort of disconnect, this feeling of insignificance in the world. He was actually talking about city life. Adding to that, you might say that there’s sort of… We can do a history of insignificance here. It’s not just about city life, but the assembly line, in which people started to feel like automatons, sort of anonymous functionaries in this big machine.
This allowed us to expand and build these massive suburbia areas here, and we’re so disconnected, we’re only connected by roads, and of course TVs and radios. And then, the TV actually becomes the home of our culture. All significant conversations about our culture occur right here, on the TV. And so, therefore, it’s not just the conversations of the culture, but conversations of significance that happen here, and it’s a one‑way conversation.
You have to be on TV to have a voice. You have to be on TV to be significant. And so, obviously, you’re ready. You’re like, “Just let me on TV. Remind me that I’m real.”

Something like that.
By the 1990s, we were just bombarded with imagery like this. 1980s, actually. This is the MTV world, right? Every one of these images is posted from MTV, the barrage of logos. This is actually my journal from when I was 17, in 1992. You can see, I was very much part of the MTV generation.
If you guys remember, everybody was talking about the MTV generation back then. It was things like, they have short attention spans, because they can’t last through a four‑minute video. They’re very materialistic, and we were. We spent so much money as an age group. We’re narcissistic, and one of the theories about why we’re narcissistic is because all that stuff that was being thrown at us from the TV was designed for us. That’s a very flattering thing. When you’re bombarded with million dollar images.
It costs $3.6 million to produce 30 seconds of TV, and it’s all for me? It’s very flattering, and so this kind of narcissism emerges.
But on the other hand, we’re also not easily impressed, because we’re just bombarded with all of this stuff all of the time. There’s this great line about this. “In the midst of a fabulous array of historically unprecedented and utterly mind‑boggling stimuli, whatever.”
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: That’s from Thomas de Zengotita. That’s a really great book called “Mediated.” I highly recommend it to anybody.
In the midst of trying to figure out where we’re going, I decided to do a brief history of “Whatever.” So I started mining the literature, doing Google searches to find out when the word whatever was used, and how it’s changed over time, and things like that. Basically what I found is that pre‑1960, whatever is generally ‑‑ it just generally means, “That’s what I meant.”
It’s sort of like you say something, and then somebody repeats it back to you, but in different words, and you just say, “Whatever. That’s what I meant.” That’s all it meant.
By the late ’60s, though, it started to become the “Whatever, man,” sequence. It’s like, “I don’t care. Whatever,” and an indifference started to emerge. Of course, this is at the beginning of TV, and especially the beginnings of color TV.
By the 1990s, though, this total bombardment of imagery, and you end up with this MTV generation, and you have not only whatever, but also the indifferent “meh” emerges. This is where The “Simpsons” clips come in. This is 1992. Some people claim this is the first use of the word “meh.”
[clips begins]
Bart Simpson: Nothing you say can upset us. We’re the MTV generation!
Lisa Simpson: We feel neither highs nor lows.
Homer Simpson: Really? What’s it like?
Lisa Simpson: Eh.
[clip ends]
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: You can tell it wasn’t quite a meh, right? It was more like, “Eh.”
This is 2001. They really spell it out.
[clip plays]
Homer Simpson: [excited] Would you like to go to Block‑o‑land?!! Bart and…
Lisa Simpson: Meh.
Homer Simpson: You leave me the impression that…
Bart Simpson: We said meh.
Lisa Simpson: M‑E‑H. Meh.
[clip ends]
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: It’s after that that on forums all over the Internet meh starts to appear. It started to appear in 1992, 1993, but it really started going in 2001. In fact, Harper Collins, just last year, admitted meh into their dictionary, so it’s now official.
1992, back to the MTV generation, this was the real anthem of the day. Kurt Cobain, “And I find it hard, it’s hard to find, oh well, whatever, nevermind.” It’s the perfect anthem of our generation.
Neil Postman in ’84 said something really appropriate here. He said, “The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.”
And, again, from Kurt Cobain: “I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us.” And, a lot of faculty actually repeat this line when they see this. They get a sense like ‑‑ they think what the students are waiting for.
So I mentioned earlier that this barrage of imagery is actually very flattering, right, and it creates a sense of narcissism. And so even as we’re sort of bombarded into passivity ‑ there’s no way to act on the images that are being thrown at us ‑ we’re definitely ready to get out there.
So in 1992, the real world starts to emerge and reality TV starts to take off, and that’s the ground for what you see in the “American Idol” frenzy today: People just desperate and ready to get on screen, to have some sort of significance.
And they really think that they deserve to be there. And so, by the late ’90s to the present, there’s a new transition in “whatever,” and it’s become much more sort of self focused and, “I am the most important person on the planet. Whatever! You don’t matter, I matter,” kind of thing. And you see that, not in the “Simpsons,” but on “South Park.” So here’s like a famous one.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: So you might have missed it. He said, “Whatever, I will be what I want.” And then this was, I think, a song that’s really gotten popular on YouTube lately, but actually started on MTV.
[song plays]
Michael Wesch: You see the self‑righteousness, right? There’s a new self‑righteousness there. All right. So you get the added narcissism to it all.
And then, Jean Twenge recently published a book called, “Generation Me,” which sort of tried to capture all of this. You can see the title up there: “Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable Than Ever Before.” Because as they have rushed on the stage, they think that they deserve to be there, and then when there are not, they’re all like shocked ‑ you know, like, “Are you serious?”
Do you guys watch “American Idol?” It’s crazy. Like just all these people who think they totally deserve to be in a spotlight, and then they’re shocked when they’re not, and they’re in tears, and so on.
Now, this is actually very serious, though. Here’s a whole series of questions that will really bring it home. It’s not just about sort of the play on “American Idol” and so on ‑ but ask yourself these questions. Imagine asking yourself these questions now versus in the mid‑’80s. What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East, or the rate of inflation, crime or unemployment? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, etcetera?
And, this is from Neil Postman. He says, “I shall take the liberty of answering for you. You plan to do nothing.” And so we live in a world in which we’re sort of impotent. We want to be engaged and we’re sort of following the news with all this rigor, and yet, ultimately, we’re impotent in our actions. We have nothing to do.
Meanwhile, there’s something in the air that maybe is transforming what you’re seeing. And that something in the air is actually the digital artifacts of roughly of 1.4 billion people communicating. It’s literally in the air. It’s floating in the air all around you, for instance. At least you can sort of grab it with your cell phone or your laptop or whatever.
And when you add it all up, there are big numbers I can throw at you: 70 exabytes will be produced this year. That’s 70 billion gigabytes. It’s more than the entire collection of Library of Congress. A lot more. In fact, it’s 518,000 libraries worth.
Meanwhile, we’re testing our students like this when there’s all this information floating around. It’s the equivalent of 12,000 gigabytes per person. It’s equivalent to a stack of books 350 feet total. And, yet, less than 0.01% of it will be on paper.
So that was just all a metaphor, when I’m talking about how many books it would be. And it’s important to recognize it as a metaphor, because digital information is different. You guys are all trying to come to terms with that, and what it means, and what you can create out of these differences.
So, Marshall McLuhan once said: “We look at the present through a rear‑view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” There’s lots of great examples we can bring up with this, and one of them is just this idea that here we are in the information superhighway. We have to use metaphor constantly to understand what’s going on, because it’s a new thing.
So here we are in the information superhighway, looking into the rear‑view mirror, and we translate all the data that’s coming in through our screens into something we call a desktop, which is a metaphor. We put folders on that desktop ‑ again, a metaphor. We put documents inside the folders and so on.
And it’s only recently that we’ve realized that folder even was a metaphor. I think most people didn’t really get it, but it was a metaphor until they saw tagging. And then, they thought, “Oh, you can do this differently.”
And it’s not that we are going give up folders, because folders are actually a great technology. They’re actually an invention, too. They are not that old themselves, even in the physical space. But, when we get sorted of blinded by the rear‑view mirror, we don’t see the new possibilities.
In terms of the Web, of course, there was the Web pages era. So, in the early days of the Web ‑‑I think probably most of the people in this room remember a certain frustration with the creation of Web pages, or even like working for somebody who wanted you to create a web page and like really had the image of a page, a paper, and you were to create something like that.
The response to this was to create more things that were more dynamic. Does anybody remember the DHTML days? Yeah, when it was like really big deal. I will just zoom in a little bit here. Now, look at the new metaphor that was being brought in. It was said with the advent of DHTML, Web pages are one step closer to its cousin, TV, in terms of special effects.
So the new metaphor was like “let’s copy TV.” First, it was, “Let’s copy print, now let’s copy TV.” And you can see down here at the bottom. These things would make your images fly, light up, turn static, slow down loading time.
So this is what people were after. But the problem with this code, it was really complex and it often went into one document. It wasn’t like separate into multiple documents. And so form and content became inseparable, and it was basically almost impossible to upload content without knowing a whole lot. And, just even updating the content was really difficult, because you have to go into the code to actually update anything.
So Tim Berners Lee was really upset by this. And, by the late ’90s, he had a series of talks, not just one. The first one was December ’97. He said, “Look, it’s not supposed to be a glorified television channel,” because he had actually set it up so that people could share information and this kind of thing. He thought that people had really missed it.
If you click on one of these, you could really get a sense of the problems, because here ‑ I’ll just go into special document effects. And you can see it has like “IE” on the sides. What that means is that it only works with IE. And then you had to put this other script in there that would actually tell it, like, “If it’s not IE, then do this.” You’re basically building like two and something even three different websites all in one document ‑ really complex.
So these browser wars ultimately led to a new dedication in standards. And the reason I use the Firefox emblem is because towards the end of the nineties, Netscape and IE were like in this race basically to adapt themselves to DHTML, to have more effects and all this type of stuff, at the expense of all standards. So CSS wasn’t even really adopted. Even though it was created many years earlier, it wasn’t truly adopted, because there were racing to accept more and more DHTML.
So Netscape actually scrapped everything, rebuilt from scratch, and that become the base of what is now Firefox. And what happened then is that with form separated from content, you no longer needed to know complicated code to create content for the Web.
In that, once the standards were in place, CSS was alive; XML was able to grow at that point, and suddenly you had this very simple form. And this from Blogger, of course. Anybody can fill out this form and hit the publish button.
And, I’ve timed this before, it takes like 19 seconds to set up a blog these days. It’s just that easy to create your own website now. So, of course, it’s no surprise that there’s 184 million blogs today, and that’s almost 184 million more than there were in 2003 ‑ we are keeping track. And, I suppose it’s because we’re ready. We are just like desperate to come on and participate in the culture that we are a part of.
So, here we are in this new mediascape. I want to make a big point here. And that is that the medium shapes the message. So as we look back at this, each one of these is a different type of community with different ways of relating to each other and so on.
The reason why I’ve put this in the blogger format, is because blogger itself, was a big aha moment on the Web. It had just a signal box. The early blogs… first off you had to know HTML, if you were doing really early blogging.
And then there was a few platforms that emerged. Those early platforms, usually had a title space and then a link space, and then a comment space. The early blogs, were actually commenting on material that was already out on the Web. Because you’re sort of required to put this little link in the link space.
But Blogger did something different, they just said, “We’re just going to give you an empty box.” So you can do whatever you want with it. That led to the proliferation of all these different types of communications on blogs.
So the medium shapes the message, it shapes the conversation, it shapes the possibilities then, for community, for identity construction, and ultimately for self‑awareness, so that the medium, the media that you guys create, those sort of platforms, that you guys create for people to connect on, are actually shaping really profound things in people’s lives.
So this is where things will get interesting. We’re going to jump in here, and just look around in this new mediascape to see how different media shape the way we connect with each other today.
So first we’ll jump in to YouTube. Some of you may have seen some of these clips before. First off, we’ll start off…
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: This is just a quick tour of what’s on YouTube. So first off, it’s not just young people right? Here’s 92‑year‑old, Erving Fields, signing about YouTube.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: But the most common videos on YouTube, are actually home videos. About 33% of video’s are just people uploading stuff from their family and just sharing these videos.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: So this is where it gets fun right? People start remixing this stuff.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: What’s really interesting, sounds sophisticated. It’s actually a bit more sophisticated, so this is obviously like a hip‑hop remix of the thing. These are done by amateurs because it’s that easy to do.
Even a better example, this is a free demo version of this Fuity Loop loop software that you can get online. And this is De Andre Cortez Way, April 2007, creates this little riff along with this dance stand. You guys may have heard this before. Post this to YouTube under MySpace, and within months, everybody around the country is doing this dance same.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: These are prisoners in the Philippines. This is an MIT Professor and some graduate students, who studied for his historical theory. These are high school teachers, and then there’s all these remixes too. This is the “Harry Potter” version. This is the “Lion King” version. Vincent, Winnie the Pooh, Spongebob, and this goes on and on.
So obviously, the major sort of record labels are on to this, and they decide to buy “Soldier Boy” and make this video.
In the video, you sort of mocks their own kind of cluelessness, in the new mediascape right? You’ll see the imagery here, showing how the video spreads, and ultimately, finally found its way to these record executives.
You’ll see the use of cell phones and so on. But what really gets me excited about YouTube, is another aspect of it, and that’s that about 10,000 video’s a day are actually addressed to the YouTube community.
These are people that are getting on the webcam and talking to each other. It’s a unique form of community. Me and about 15 students have been getting involved in the YouTube community. There’s Rebecca Roth, from 2007. She immediately started coming up with insights into the YouTube community. Here’s what Rebecca was displaying and this is really cool.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: We started really thinking carefully about what it means to create a community through a webcam, and then through a screen. Everything is literally screened in this community, right? We started thinking about what that means and came up with a series of insights about what it means for identity and self‑awareness, and so on.
Here’s one.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: This is Marshal McLuhan, talking about recognition, and it applies well to YouTube, even though he’s not talking about YouTube.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: So you can see new types of self‑awareness emerging. I’ll talk a little more about that in a second. There’s also, not just while you’re creating the videos, then there’s this other side where you’re watching the videos, and there’s a certain anonymity in watching because the people you’re watching can’t see you, and this leads to some interesting effects.
First off, Lev Grossman once said that, “Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity, just for the spelling alone. Never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred.”
I’ll show you an example of this. It’s just a random example here. The comment comes like: “Douchebags, you suck.” This is responded by Wingman8788, “You guys are so gay, it sucks.” Qwertyu121 says: “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Frickyougirl114 says, “YouTube comments make me angry. Grr.” Then Qwertyu121 responds: “Then don’t comment on YouTube.” It’s interesting.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: So there’s this anonymity and physical distance, and the rare and ephemeral femoral dialogue. It creates hatred as a public performance, but it also creates a space, where people have the freedom to experience humanity, their co‑humanity without fear, or anxiety, as you’ll see here.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: So it’s almost like this state of aesthetic arrest where you really connect with people and you know in our society we kind of have this cultural inversion or cultural tension, you might say.
On the one hand, we really have a lot of individualism, independence and commercialization all around us, and yet we seek then the opposites, right, so we’re just saturated with individualism and independence and commercialization.
Therefore we want community, relationships and authenticity. And this becomes a certain tension and in reality it turns out we want sort of both of these or some balance of these. And these are constantly in tension.
Now, what you see in new media a lot is that people want to find connections, bridging their isolated lives, but they also see these connections as constraints on their individualism, on their independence. So, ultimately, they want connection without constraint. That’s like the ultimate. YouTube actually offers this possibility, as you’ll see here.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: All right, so that’s like a little brief version of how the medium of YouTube effects our self‑awareness, our ways that we negotiate identity and community and so on. And then you think about something like Twitter, just as a counter‑example, and think about what you’re doing in those 140 characters.
So one version of what you’re doing is life casting, and the nice thing about Twitter is it’s always with you. You can text to it from your cell phone, and that means it’s very different than what we see in YouTube. It’s very different than a lot of other media that we are familiar with throughout our lives. So you can actually sort of lifecast your life out there.
Jay Rosen likes to think of it instead as mindcasting. Actually, he hates lifecasting in which you tell people about brushing your teeth. Instead, suggests that we actually sort of have quality content out there. That’s what he calls mindcasting.
Lisa Reichelt has this great idea that in fact what we’re doing is creating ambient intimacy, that these little details of our lives are sort of connecting us. So even while you’re sitting here, you might get buzzed with a little Twitter update and you can check it and it’ll say, “Just woke the kids up,” or something like that. You’re kind of ambiently connected with your family, even while you’re sitting here in this room.
But what’s really interesting is when all of these updates start to line up. Laura Fitten has this great quote about this. She says, “In an age of awareness, perhaps the person you see most clearly is yourself,” because you end up having this record.
If you just go to your own Twitter page, you have your own little record, all written in little 140 character little blips, about your life and you see yourself back to yourself, as you present yourself to other people because this is a very public space.
So it’s a very interesting mode of self‑awareness. And there’s one other idea floating around out there from Theresa Sindt that you’re actually becoming a microcelebrity. You’re managing your microcelebrity‑ness, whatever you might want to say.
And this is actually true for everybody. This isn’t just people who have thousands of followers and follow very few people. This is really true for everybody in that most people who are on Twitter end up having several people following them. Maybe it’s only five, maybe it’s 10, whatever.
But you’ll have people following you who you don’t know, or you just barely know. And in a sense then, when you use Twitter, you’re sort of releasing press releases of yourself out to these people. Everybody in a sense is famous, has that weird relationship with others where they know you and you don’t know them. So that’s kind of what Twitter can do.
Now here’s where things get really interesting is in this world called 4chan. How many people go to 4chan? Ok, there’s a couple. So this is a really great, interesting place. We’re actually going to zoom here on a random board.
What 4chan is is just an image‑based bulletin board, or image board. And the field where you upload your image looks like this. And you can see there’s name, email, subject, comment and then you upload a file. And it ends up looking like this. Now, one interesting thing about this is on the “/b/” Forum, this is where the medium becomes interesting.
They actually have basically no rules for posting, including you don’t have to use a name at all. You don’t have to use your name. You can change your name each time you post. You don’t stay signed in and registered. So this is a very different type of thing than on Twitter, where you have a fixed identity. It’s also very different than on YouTube where your identity is basically designated by your face and so on.
So here you have the basic comment field. You end up with a little dancer like this. So the forum is called “/b/.” So here somebody has shown up and they say “Is this /b/?” and then somebody responds, “No, this is Patrick.” “Wait, is this /b/?” It says, “No, this is Patrick.” And it keeps going and going. This is actually from Spongebob. And it keeps going. It just keeps going and going and going.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: This is the type of banter you get. And so /b/ and 4chan itself sort of becomes this interesting world where everybody is anonymous. And so they actually become sort of a collective known as Anonymous. And also, each individual is also known as Anonymous. And this becomes like the primordial ooze from which so much of Internet culture is born, because it’s this very creative space.
Think about when you’re at your most creative is usually when you sort of let go of your identity, right? Usually you’re drunk. And you sort of like forget it. You know to forget who you are and then this enormous creativity comes out, great jokes, funny stuff. 4chan is almost always like that.
And so they started posting pictures of cats with funny sayings on them. And this would tend to happen on Saturdays, so they started calling this Caturday, and Caturdays were born. And a lot of you have probably heard of this because they’re the LOLcats that you see all over the place . There’s now a whole website dedicated to them at icanhascheezburger.com.
But here, it’s Caturday. They have a whole series. I tried to select ones that kind of represent the type of humor that you would see on this site. Now think about this, this is really interesting. I’m glad you guys all know what that is. I didn’t want to show it. But if you don’t know what it is, just look it up. Or not. Or not.
[laughter]
What’s interesting is this is totally anonymous. When people post, you don’t even know who they are. And so they have this whole language that’s emerged to determine in‑group and out‑group. And it looks a little bit like this. And when it gets really deep, it looks like this. And it’s the same thing that I just put up.
So there’s all these new languages emerging. I think this would d be a good time to show this. They have all these shared memes and things that go around. So one of them is they have this great book from Dragonball Z, which you guys may have heard before. You get a sense of who’s visiting the forum by the memes that they write.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: Ok. Now, what’s interesting about that then is whenever people ask them like who are you and how many people are in anonymous, they always say “over 9,000.” Again whenever anybody asks for a quantity of anything they say over 9,000.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: And then they go out to another people’s forums and other people’s blogs and they troll there, right, so they call it trolling. Where they go out and they basically say these obscure little things, or really outrageous things, to basically get a rise out of people. So in one of the most famous examples recently, they went to a forum on child predators on Oprah and they left a comment there and Oprah responded here.
[clip plays]
Oprah: Let me read you something, which was posted on our message boards from someone who claims to be a member of a known pedophile network. It said this, “It doesn’t forgive, it does not forget. His group has over 9000 penises and they are all raping children.”
[clip ends]
Michael Wesch: She is like very serious about this. Right?
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: And of course, the people at 4chan, they call themselves /b/tards because the place is called /b/. They call themselves /b/tards. They just go crazy.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: And this goes on and on. There’s hundreds of those online if you want to look at those. So they come up with these great lines. You know they are actually in that sort of primordial ooze. There’s all sorts of insights there about the nature of Internet culture itself.
So here they say, “We are anonymous, we cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances, we deliver your mail, we are everyone, we are no one.” And then they go on, “United as one, divided by zero, we are legion. We do not forgive, we do not forget.”
But there is a certain sort of insight there about, in a way we are all anonymous online. It’s a really weird experience in the sense that these digital artifacts from 1.4 billion people are sort of floating in through our screens and stuff.
We connect with them generally not knowing where they came from. So we are all connecting anonymously in many ways, and not always, but often. So it’s an interesting insight there and you know leads to that.
Now, maybe they might be most famous for the past year for their protest of Scientology and there’s this great, great image that you see floating around about this. “Oh! Fuck, the Internet is here.”
[laughs]
And you can see there actually all their sort of playfulness comes out in real life as well when we have these real life meetings. So here is actually a LOLcat spelled out on a banner. And Fox News picked up on this recently and just to the great amusement of 4chan‑ers said that they were hackers on steroids. But they are not really, I mean they are great hackers and in fact if you are thinking about visiting 4chan, do it on somebody else’s computer.
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: The first time I went there, I just went onto 4chan and within two seconds all of my windows just collapsed, my computer turned off and then restarted and informed me that I had a virus and that I should download Microsoft Antivirus 2009, which actually doesn’t exist. That was the virus itself. So it basically shut down my computer and then scared me into thinking I have a virus, so I would download it. So they do all sort of interesting things like that.
[laughs]
But, what’s really interesting is they clearly like this really interesting culture but ultimately they are not a they because everybody is anonymous. So you can’t really identify who is part of it and who is not.
Chris Landers did a story on them. He found out they are only a group in the sense that a flock of birds is a group, that are traveling in the same direction. At any given moment more birds can join, leave, peel off in another direction entirely. Again think of the way that sort of reveals so much about the Internet everywhere, right?
I mean most internet groups are actually like this in the sense that they are very rare that there are like these fixed groups that you really belong to and in the sense of that sort of tight community and instead we are almost like flocking to different things throughout the web.
What’s really interesting is where they’re going with this. They say, “We will stop at nothing until we have achieved our goal: permanent destruction of the identification role.” Meaning that they’ve actually grabbed on to this idea of anonymity as a virtue.
It goes all the way back to the 1920s poets like T.S. Eliot, who were also into anonymity as an aesthetic ideal. They felt like we were becoming too much of a cult of celebrity, and even T.S. Eliot felt like too much of a celebrity. People would flock to him and read his work only because it’s T.S. Eliot, not to actually see the work. T.S. Eliot hated this, and actually wanted to be more anonymous.
Here we see, 80 years later, the same thing. People battling against this cult of celebrity. They do this in a number of ways. One of the most famous, or visually interesting ones is what they do on Second Life. They have a whole group of people that attack Second Life at various times.
For example, this is an event for Anshe Chung, who was the millionaire Second Lifer. She’s sort of a real estate mogul inside Second Life. CNET set up this very official looking press conference to talk to her about this, and some people on 4chan got together and decided to attack with flying penises. This totally disrupted the whole thing, of course.
[laughter]
[“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” plays]
Michael Wesch: Now, there’s also a famous attack on John Edwards. I don’t know if you guys remember this. John Edwards had a Second Life presence, and they attacked that. You can see, down at the bottom, they have a little conversation going on. They said, “Vegeta, what does the scouter say about his power level?” and he says, “It’s over 9000!” They just keep doing this kind of thing.
Now, here’s the interesting thing. You don’t have to read this whole thing, but just note the impetus behind this. The reason why they’re doing it. This was posted to the John Edwards blog after they had blogged about this.
It says, “As the Internet has grown in popularity, a disturbing phenomena has occurred. Everyone thinks they are special. We have news for you: You aren’t special. You aren’t unique. You are a mindless horde, traversing the universe on a small ball of dirt.”
It goes on to say, “We are here to remind you of this.” Down here at the bottom, it says, “Wherever someone takes themselves too seriously, we will be there. Wherever someone has an inflated ego, we will be there. We will do it through madness. We will remove you from the high place you have built for yourself.” So again, this sort of attacking, the Internet sort of celebrity narcissism that appears there.
One of the most famous examples here is Tay Zonday. I don’t know if you guys have seen this. I’ll just play a brief thing to remind you guys.
[“Chocolate Rain” plays]
Michael Wesch: I don’t know if you guys would think that this could be a video that could get 33 million views, and up, and make him a millionaire, but in fact, it’s happened. The reason why is because 4chan, the people on /b/, sort of make a mockery of our cult of celebrity. They will sometimes actually pick somebody out and launch them to stardom. This is one of those examples.
Here you can see, it got so popular that YouTube had Tay Zonday Day, in which the whole front page was nothing but Tay Zonday, and if you look it up now… I forget what it is. I think it’s in the thousands of remixes of this, the Tay Zonday thing.
I think what 4chan is most famous for in the last year, though, is this thing here. Wherever someone takes themselves too seriously, they will place a link, and this has become a very common thing to do. You click on that link thinking that it’s going to be part of this serious discussion, and you get what is called “Duck Rolled.” This has transitioned into the “Rick Roll.” You guys might remember this.
[“Never Gonna Give You Up” plays]
Michael Wesch: You can imagine why they would choose this, based on their sense of humor, but here’s where it gets interesting. There’s all these remixes of it, right? This is Hugh Atkins.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: This points to something even bigger and more important, in the way that this was created. He was actually using a search system on Google that actually indexes every word in every video ever stated by any politician, which allowed him to put this thing together.
This means that the capacity for making videos has now gone up tremendously. He’s John McCain with a blue screen behind him, and of course, this is just too good to pass up.
[clip plays]
[laughter]
Michael Wesch: All right. I like to think of this as a seriously playful participatory media culture. It’s not just like that people are playing around. It’s not just like what you see on 4chan, where it looks like it’s just all a bunch of play. There’s also a serious element to this. There’s a constant commentary on our culture appearing there. It’s like finally people have a way to talk back, and they’re using it.
It’s not just in terms of how easy it is to make video, and create these things that they’re doing, but also in the ubiquity of video, so for example, here’s John McCain not knowing that he’s on camera.
[clip plays]
John McCain: …an old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran? Bomb, bomb, bomb… Anyway…
Michael Wesch: This is then three days later on YouTube. This gets picked up and made into several remixes.
[clip plays]
Newscaster: No apologies, though, for a musical parody that many around the world took as a true sign of his thinking.
John McCain: When veterans get together, veterans joke. I was with veterans, and we were joking.
[clip ends]
Michael Wesch: This is what you might call a context collapse, which is happening all over in our environment, now, in a sense that you never know where you are, who you’re talking to, and where you really are, because it can be picked up at any time.
Here’s another example from the advertising world. This is from GM. You’ll see here, in a second. GM thought they could leverage this participatory media environment by allowing people to make their own commercials for the GM Tahoe. It’s real easy. Steps one, two, three, four, and then there you are. This is what was made. Stuff like this.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: Just to show you how sophisticated this can get, this is a remix, obviously using a lot of Hollywood films and repurposing them. It’s set to Regina Spektor music. You listen to the lyrics, it’s a very powerful message. Talking about slightly used parts.
There she says, “We’re living in a den of thieves, rummaging for answers.” The reason why she’s discussing this is because, in fact, the things that she has done should not be illegal, but they are, in the sense that if she ripped the DVD, it’s illegal. There are these sort of constraints on our participation, even today.
Here’s Lawrence Lessig talking about this.
[clip plays]
Lawrence Lessig: We need to recognize you can’t kill the instinct that technology produces. We can only criminalize it. We can’t stop our kids from using it, we can only drive it underground. We can’t make our kids passive again, we can only make them quote “pirates.” And, is that good?
We live in this weird time, and age of prohibitions, when many areas of our life, we live life constantly against the law. Ordinary people live life against the law. That’s what they are doing to our kids. They live life knowing they live it against the law. That realization is extraordinary to us, extraordinarily corruptive, and in a democracy, we ought to be able to do better.
[clip ends]
Michael Wesch: One of my favorite things about this is actually not the video itself, which is amazing, and very artistic, and a beautiful work, but at the end, you’ll see that there’s some people’s comments. There’s all these comments on YouTube. If you read the comments under there, it says, “My God, are you doing that for a living? I’ve never seen anything like this. You’re an artist.”
To which she responds, “No, I’m a housewife.”
That’s the beauty of YouTube today, sort of the environment we have today, is that so many people are able to create for a broader public, create these beautiful things.
There’s also the possibility of creating together. We see it on Wikipedia, but we also see it, even in the video space. Here you see somebody donning the anonymous mask, Matt V. here. He actually invites people to collaborate with him.
I think by being anonymous, he actually becomes sort of a platform for this collaboration. All he asks is that people put a message on their hand, and then upload the video. Well over 2, 000 people did this, and then he was able to take all of these videos and create this final little bit.
This is kind of an interesting moment here, to think about what people will reach out to their webcams with, right? You have one message to put on your hand, and you reach up to the webcam.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: You’ll see, generally in this age, people are thrilled that they can finally connect with each other across these great distances, right? At some level, that’s just amazing in itself. And then, of course, there’s the self‑reflection that you saw earlier. Sort of love yourself, and that kind of thing.
Also, I think whenever you see messages like this, people deliver messages like this because they don’t feel like they have truly come to fruition. These aren’t just saying, “This is the way things are.” They’re saying, “This is the way things should be. This is what we should strive for, and so on.” We’re not there yet. These are not messages of celebration, as much as, “Let’s do this.”
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: So in that context then, look at where you guys come in. So, here we are in this landscape. We have this possibility for a seriously playful participatory culture, but it’s enabled by very specific architectures of participation. Every single architecture actually elicits a different type of participation, and you guys are the ones who are creating these things.
I only want to spend two minutes on the future. Make it 20 seconds. I’ll do this really fast. Instead of telling you details, where things are going, I’ll just point out the futurists all agree on one trend, toward ubiquitous networks, ubiquitous computing, ubiquitous information, and unlimited speed. Everything, everywhere, from anywhere, on all kinds of devices.
Nobody disagrees with that. I think everybody in here would agree that that’s the general trend that we’re headed for. That means that these architectures of participation are increasingly becoming the architectures of our everyday life. It’s like information architecture is blending with the architecture of the real world, and in fact blending with the architecture of society itself.
And so, when you think about information architect, it’s not just an architect of information, but an architect of human relations. That means that you then have this capacity to build architectures for a new future of whatever.
If we go back to where we started here, in the ’60s, it was, “I don’t care, whatever you think.” In the ’90s, it became, “Whatever. I don’t care what you think.” In the future, we can hope that we can create architectures of participation that will allow people to feel a sense caring, and they’ll be able to say, “I care. Let’s do whatever it takes, by whatever means necessary.”
Thanks.
[applause]
[music]
Announcer: To hear even more presentations from the 2009 IA Summit, point your browser to boxesandarrows.com, and click on the podcast link. There you’ll find access to the iTunes feed, and more information about each presentation.
Our heartfelt thanks to the organizers and sponsors of the 10th annual IA Summit, the presenters, and of course to the global community. We look forward to feedback about future episodes that will be of greatest value to you, our listeners.
[music]

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

When Life Intervenes

Written by: Chris Baum

iTunes     Download    Del.icio.us     IA Summit theme music created and provided by BumperTunes™

2009 IA Summit logo

IA Summit 2009 Podcasts

The IA Summit was held in Memphis, TN from March 20-22. Boxes and Arrows captured many of the main conference sessions (“see schedule”:http://iasummit.org/2009/program/schedule/).

| Preview | “Keynote”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-09-keynote | “Day 1”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-09-day-1 | “Day 2”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/ia-summit-09-day-2 | “Day 3”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/ia-summit-09-day-3 | “Closing Plenary”:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-09-plenary |

When Life Intervenes

Mom and babySamantha Bailey missed the 2008 IA Summit in Miami due to an illness. Still, she could look forward to 2009 as the Summit’s Chairperson. A few months later, she was excited to find out she would be having a baby, due several weeks after the Summit. With Fate relishing its spoiler role, Niles arrived six weeks early – ensuring that Samantha would miss the ’09 Summit, her Summit.

I spoke with Samantha the week before this year’s Summit about how she approached creating this year’s IA Summit program, the how the Summit community has morphed over time, and what it means to be a part of this community of practice.

This is a first in a series of IA Summit podcast posts.

Creating the Program

Samantha talks about how she started forming the 10th Summit by creating a big committee around her, then looking both backward and forward to ensure that the program reflected at the same time it set a new course. She points out that patterns are forming around the choosing of the opening keynote and closing plenary speakers.

The keynote speaker shapes the theme, how people perceive event. At the Summit, this tends to be someone that’s not an “insider.” When Peter Merholz suggested Michael Wesch, Kansas State Professor and producer of the powerful “The Machine is Us/ing Us.”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gmP4nk0EOE YouTube video, Samantha and her team knew it was right because their reaction was, “How did we not think of that before?”
(Download Michael Wesch’s Opening Keynote later this week.)

For the closing plenary, organizers look for an insider, someone who is a highly respected, deep thinker. Jesse James Garrett has, for several years, participated in 5-minute Madness, always offering wisdom in that narrow slice of time, making him a perfect choice to sunset the ’09 Summit.
(Download Jesse James Garrett’s Closing Plenary later this week.)

Summit History and the Communities of Practice

We talk about the 20th anniv of the World Wide Web, and how we continue to use some of the same tools for a completely different Web.Happy family

Further, Samantha goes into detail about how summit has changed in respect to different communities and their involvement in the Summit. She describes how, from 2001 to 2003, the discussion was around whether IA as a practice would survive the Tech bubble bursting. In recent years, the practice has started to broaden its horizons and interact with other practices more openly.

Boxes and Arrows welcomes Niles. Congratulations, Samantha and Karl! Thanks to Samantha for taking the time to speak with us.

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