Conference Wrap-Up: “IA in Germany – Chances and Perspectives”

Written by: Jim Kalbach
“The German Internet and IT industries have not noticed or otherwise acknowledged IA.”It seems that field of information architecture is picking up again in North America after the dotcom bust. For instance, Lou Rosenfeld wrote in a recent blog entry “…I’m optimistic. The field seems healthier than it was four years ago…” (see Happy Time for IA?, Mar 2005, And Andrew Dillon declared in his closing keynote speech at the Montreal IA Summit (2005) that IA was entering its second phase. IAs are seeing more and more job opportunities as well as more professional recognition, and the field itself seems to be progressing.

Not so in Germany.

Here, IA is barely on the map. The German Internet and IT industries have not noticed or otherwise acknowledged IA. Other northern European countries, such as Holland and Denmark, seem to have far surpassed Germany in establishing IA as a recognized profession. There are some encouraging signs though: The German Digital Business Group (Bundesverband Digitale Wirtschaft: identified IA as an upcoming trend in Germany. Perhaps that will assist the fledgling field. Still, the current situation for those who consider themselves IAs seems bleak on a whole.

In an attempt to bring IAs in Germany together, members of the IA Institute organized a small conference in Frankfurt on Saturday and Sunday, May 28-29, 2005. This was the first such event exclusively for IAs in Germany. The theme was “IA in Germany — Chances and Perspectives.” Nearly fifty participants came from all over the country—from Munich to Berlin to Hamburg—to take in a total of nine talks and discussions. Aside from the planned sessions, IAs networked and spent time meeting new people with common professional aspirations.

Saturday Sessions

We were extremely fortunate to have Eric Reiss, principle of e-reiss consulting ( and author of Practical Information Architecture (, as the keynote speaker. In his speech “The business value of IA” Eric highlighted the fact that there is often a big disconnect between how IAs talk and what business managers really want to hear. In addition to learning how to talk business-talk, we should also be learning how to listen to business managers better.

A panel discussion followed Eric’s presentation. This 90-minute session began with a discussion of definitions of IA in Germany. (No, this topic is not dead yet here and is actually much needed—the parameters within which IA exists in Germany are different than in the US and elsewhere.) The four panelists each gave a perspective on what IA in Germany is and why it hasn’t yet taken a broader hold. The second half of the session evolved into a workshop where the audience gathered to share their possible definitions of IA. This revealed a wide range of varying opinions and perspectives on IA in Germany.

Steffen Schilb, the creator of CardSort (, spoke to a very interested audience. He has been actively talking about this software (a card sorting program developed as part of his thesis work at the University of Bremen) at conferences around Europe. With CardSort, users can sort virtual index cards per drag-and-drop and save the results in a file. In his presentation, Steffen carefully walked through different analysis techniques, including distance matrixes and dendograms.

Next up, Sabine Stössel gave a case study of the IA process during the launch of, one of the largest German TV stations. Attempting to represent a large, fractured concern through a single web interface exposed the many practical difficulties of IA as a process. Sabine shared a wealth of deliverables with the audience, as well as war stories and organizational challenges. Overall, this injected a heavy dose of practical realism into the conference program.

The sessions on Saturday concluded with a brief summary of some of the highlights from the IA Summit in Montreal (2005). Deborah Gover, Piet Kopka and James Kalbach each picked two key themes from the Montreal meeting to relay to the German IA public in Frankfurt. Topics included global IA, enterprise IA, IA as “craft,” folksonomies, and faceted classification.

Sunday Sessions

After an obligatory cup of coffee or two early Sunday morning, Birgit Nussbaum regaled us with a broad overview of IA and its relationship to social classification software. A case study analysis of a client’s intranet revealed the situations in which social classification systems are appropriate and in which situations they are not. A key take-away was that new types of social classification do not necessary replace traditional IA systems, but instead complement them.

Following Birgit’s fascinating talk, Andreas Lechner and Wolf Noeding discussed the advantages of IA as an integral part of the overall development process. Within their own team, they have worked out a detailed, iterative process for IA work. The overall advantage of such a process is an increase in product quality and a decrease in overall work effort. The process is still being refined, but initial feedback from clients and from other team members is positive.

Piet Kopka then discussed a more abstract topic regarding information spaces and how content is bestowed with meaning. Large information spaces are n-dimensional and can’t be easily represented in two or three dimensions. IAs must therefore resist adhering to physical principles of organization. Piet advocates adopting a new personal attitude, one that fosters the development of self-similar principles in information design. Furthermore, he explained that there are fundamental decisions in creating information spaces that can have long lasting effects. This recalls Stewart Brand’s notion of fast and slow changing layers of building architecture.

The Sunday sessions wrapped up with a report about a new IA program just getting started at the University of Potsdam, near Berlin. Professor Danijela Djokic and Professor Boris Müller discussed the challenges and problems of setting up such a program. Overall, they have adopted a more Wurman-like definition of IA, what some might call “information design,” including a great deal of information visualization. Danijela shared a wide range of student projects, demonstrating fascinating new techniques in displaying and visualizing information.

Overall, the meeting was quite successful and far surpassed prior expectations. We exchanged ideas on a technical level, networked with others, and made concrete steps towards a formal organization of IAs in Germany.

A special thanks goes out the financial sponsors of the event: the IA Institute (, Publicform ( and Spirit Link (

Of course, the hours and hours of work that went into planning the event should also be acknowledged. The organizers were Britta Glatten (sinnFormation), Deborah Gover (Siemens VDO), Jochen Fassbender (Indexetera), Piet Kopka (Publicform), Wolf Noeding (spriritlink) and myself, James Kalbach (LexisNexis).

James Kalbach, assistant editor, holds a degree in library science from Rutgers University, as well as a master’s in music theory and composition. He is currently a Human Factors Engineer with LexisNexis.

Crossing Boundaries: 2005 IA Summit Wrapup: Overview and Pre-Sessions

Written by: B&A Staff
“Overall, the goals of many IAs seem to be maturing with the practitioners themselves, from simple classification to reorganizing business, and perhaps society itself.”This year marks the sixth IA Summit; it was also my sixth summit. I was lucky enough to have attended the first one in Boston, and it is almost amusing to consider that at the time, the main question seemed to be “is this IA thing going to hang around, and should it?” Later conferences, we would flagellate ourselves endlessly about what IA was; but at that moment, IA was like a scent of a freshly baked pie floating in the air, and we all wondered if it would still be there by the time we could track down where it was located.

Not so this year in Montreal. While some people might be still wondering how to define it; no one is asking if it will last. The canon is solid, the tools are recognized, the methods enshrined and the goals shared. IAs read the Polar Bear and a few others, they use Visio and a few others, they do personas and card sorts and they all care deeply about retrieval. It’s this platform of agreement that is precious, in my opinion, because it allows for practitioners and researchers to then go beyond the platform. The canon admittedly hasn’t added much new work since the odd bubbling up of books that happened a few years ago, but perhaps that will change soon since everything else is alive and mutating. Tools and methods are steadily growing to include many new approaches and occasionally new software. This year, folksonomies and RIA’s1 both generated lively discussion, creating camps of black and white “yer either fer us or agin us” debate.

5 LessonsThe contentious attitude of many of the boosters and detractors of folksonomies distracted from the fact that a truly new categorization method rose out of engineering communtiy rather than the IA community that spends every waking hour thinking about organization systems. Nevertheless, the IAs named it (natch) and at the moment they look to be the ones who will figure out how to take the best of the world of tagging and world of controlled vocabularies to make an even more powerful system. After an energetic boostering of folksonomies by Thomas Vanderwal, and a razor-sharp dissection of their weakness by Peter Morville, Peter Merholtz—who has been known in the past to take extreme positions with much handwaving—offered up a wonderfully balanced perspective on the nature of the folksonomy that pointed to a best-of-both worlds solution of blending strength. He also waxed poetic as he appreciated moments of beauty in collaborative classification choices, epitomized by the Flickr categories “color” and “me.” I have hopes for the future of folksonomies, with champions like these.

The RIA panel, thankfully, has moved on from warring between the “flash” and “dhtml” camps, to a more inclusive and sensibly contextual perspective on the application of RIA. They have even embraced the newly minted term “ajax” into their vocabulary. I’m pleased to see the IA community grabbing onto technologies and approaches originally seen as being purely the domain of interaction design and adopting them to the benefit of all. Also from the category of “not actually IA, but… ” Karl Fast’s compelling talk on information visualization experiments fueled the fire for those who believe that, as the title of the Summit suggests, boundaries are made to be crossed. Rats and the mazeAs an aside, I would like to say that in my opinion, Karl’s talks are among the most compelling given at this and previous Summits and his research promotes the creative brain to bubble with innovative ideas. I hope more academics will bring their emerging research to practitioner forums such as the Summit and B&A, so that their ideas can manifest themselves into new products for humans.

Beyond technology and technique, this summit revealed the goals of information architecture are evolving beyond the usual ones of retrieval via search and browse. I suppose that a conference that opens with a keynote speech from B.J. Fogg, groundbreaker in the new science of persuasive technology, would throw traditional findability goals into question. In recent Summits, IAs have admitted that the idea of a platonic organization system is a false one; our choices in categorization always reflect our own biases and values; for example, the Dewey decimal’s religion category. But this Summit was the first time where I heard IAs talk of actively shaping world views via taxonomies as opposed to merely passively reflecting user values.

A talk on global IA reveals that the Maori are not offended as much as displaced by Dewey’s organization system, which ignores their traditional ancestor-categories. Another talk spoke of creating environments that would promote organizational rigor or creativity via labeling and hierarchy choices. It doesn’t take much imagination to theorize the future lies in various countries’ websites designed to promote their values, from freedom to collectivism. Sitting next to Norwegian and Japanese IAs, I overheard low murmurs of concern over the “disneyification” of classification via the web, where organizations would be as flat and stereotypical as the small world ride in Anaheim. Could something as innocuous as classification be a form of propaganda?

Additionally, persuasion approaches was reflected on a personal scale in talks such as Dan Willis’s motivating talk on evangelism (which I sadly missed, but experienced via the buzz over “poets” and “pirates” in the hall.), Jess Mcullin’ personal scenario planning, and Thom Haller’s special brand of IA actualization techniques. Its clear IAs are questioning their identity and reaching out to other disciplines to learn, much in the way a tree explores the neighbor’s property with its root system as it looks to feed its growth.

Beyond the hearts-and-minds goals of IA, I also noticed a rising pragmatism, most clearly manifested in the well attended Business Design BOF. Admittedly, the conversation degenerated into the usual “how do I get people to take me seriously”, but a few intriguing ideas also arose, such as contextual value of approaches within different markets, and the opportunity to apply design/IA thinking to business problems (perhaps not a new concept to the growing number of IA’s who carry HBR and Business Week around, but a compelling one)2. Solving a classic business problem was addressed in a terrific presentation by Richard Dalton, in which the popular mental model process3 was transformed to analyze weaknesses and opportunities in business strategy. It worked so well and seemed to be so eminently sensible I felt myself briefly wondering if I had seen it before. It was a glorious duh moment, the kind that makes you change what you do when you get back to the office.

Overall, the goals of many IAs seem to be maturing with the practitioners themselves, from simple classification to reorganizing business, and perhaps society itself. It’s unsurprising then, that the summit itself came under scrutiny by many attendees. Many many talks were so deeply entrenched in the typical “canon” of knowledge, that this was the first Summit where there were fair numbers of folks chatting during the presentations as well as breaks. With four talks being given simultaneously, I think this should be cause for concern by next years’ Summit committee. While 60% of the attendees are new and certainly will love another talk on taxonomies or faceted classification (especially if it is as taut and intriguing as the one given by the Yahoo folks, finally sharing their stockpile of knowledge), the Summit should consider how to serve its earliest audience who are now maturing in their practice. Should it give them up, letting them grow into other conferences and events–such as the IA retreat, the newest forum for conversations of edge topics–or should it look hard at themed tracking, perhaps adding an advanced and/or “weird” experimental track? I can imagine inviting IxD to design a track. or even consider an industrial design track. Of course, the Summit could simply concentrate on serving the new folks who are hungry to learn this now proven discipline, and continue to build out on the proven themes.

So were boundaries crossed, at the Summit, as the theme promised? I would say that the many boundaries of IA were discovered; it will be up to next year’s planning committee to decide if they should build walls on them, or erase the lines and let the next generation continue to move the edges of IA farther and farther out.
Christina Wodtke

1Rich Internet Application: website/pages that use rich technologies such as flash and dhtml and take advantage of late-release browser penetration to recreate desktop functionality online.
2New Business and Design mailing list
3Documented in Re-Architecting PeopleSoft from the Top Down by Janice Fraser

Overview & Pre-sessions | Saturday Sessions | Sunday & Monday Sessions

Pre-Session Summaries

Thursday, March 3

Paper, Scotch Tape, and Post-Its – a Recipe for Paper Prototyping
Todd Warfel

Todd Warfel led a great four-hour workshop on the first day on paper prototyping. The workshop began with a presentation on the advantages and disadvantages of paper prototyping: the advantages being focused on cost and efficiency and the disadvantages on incompleteness of design. Then the presentation moved towards more practicalities such as tools of the trade and the dos and don’ts of paper prototyping. Todd takes a very hands-off practice to usability testing, and encouraged us all to try to be as invisible as possible when moderating any usability testing, let a lone a paper prototyping session. After the presentation the audience of close to 15 had a chance to do the work ourselves. We were given a problem, had to make a quick design, and then create a paper prototype that we would ask another participant not on our design team to try out. Todd’s presentation was quite good. It was fairly organized, and he demonstrated a keen expertise of the subject matter.
David Heller

Oxygen Meetings: How to Get Diverse Teams to Solve Difficult Problems
Daniel Willis

This, by far, was the best of the three pre-conference workshops I went to. Dan presents and teaches an invaluable tool for anyone who has to lead meetings where the goal is not presentation, but rather extraction of information towards a decision. Dan is also a very up-beat and interactive presenter, always articulating his points well, and engaging his audience/students throughout.

An “oxygen meeting” is a meeting where a cross-functional team is brought together to complete an objective. The workshop was meant to teach the students when to use such a meeting and how to lead such a meeting. The objective of an oxygen meeting and more importantly for its leader is to create a common language among the group, extract (not supply) expertise, and then focus on solving a tangible and well-defined problem.

We were separated into pairs, and each dyad had to facilitate a meeting around a supplied problem. All four teams did great, and we had a lot of material to dissect and learn from. Dan demonstrated a keen ability to observe and dissect behavior and thus was really able to give strong and accurate direction to the group.
David Heller

Friday, March 4

Leveraging Business Value: The ROI of UX
Janice Fraser

This workshop was a presentation of the work that Adaptive Path and students from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted and published. The central theme of this research is that the more an organization attempts to measure ROI and bring user experience efforts and outcomes into that measurement, the more of a return user experience professionals can provide to the organization. The primary outcome of the research was a great means of articulating the maturity of an organizations relationship with user experience in the form of a staircase model with criteria, so that you can evaluate your own organization against that model to determine how far you have to go towards really gaining value from your user experience design team.

This work is connected to the issue of speaking the language of stakeholders in order to better make the case for bringing design from merely a tactical service agency in the organization to a true contributor of the strategy development at the executive level. The presentation further went into how we might ourselves do this work of measuring value. First, we find an indicator that shows the behavioral change that is being addressed in the problem statement. Then, we measure for that indicator and compare the value of that change against the investment made to create it.

A key phrase that stuck with me as we were leaving was a discussion on the value of Research & Development. Janice said, “You can’t put an ROI on R&D. ROI process will squash innovation.”
David Heller

Overview & Pre-sessions | Saturday Sessions | Sunday & Monday Sessions

Crossing Boundaries: 2005 IA Summit Wrapup: Saturday

Written by: B&A Staff

Session Summaries and Reviews

Saturday, March 5

Opening Plenary
BJ Fogg

“Did the designer who assigned the CTRL-Z function think of this outcome?”In his opening plenary, BJ Fogg asked us to consider the ramifications of our actions as designers: that we are designing rituals and thereby changing culture. A relatively small group of people, through their designs and products, are changing the the world, and fairly quickly, too. We may also want to change the world, however we may not think about all of the side-affects. For instance, Fogg pointed out that in a serious car crash, he did not see his life flash before his eyes, but he thought “CTRL-Z.” Did the designer who assigned the CTRL-Z function think of this outcome? Well, the ritual was ingrained in Fogg, just as people around the world are changed by the technology around them.

captologydecisiongrid_dr.gifFogg’s primary area of interest is in the overlapping areas of technology and persuasion, which he calls captology. He points out that captology can be both good and bad: allowing people freedom of choice or limiting it. He says the techniques used for persuasions in one-time interactions are different than required for ongoing relationships, and Fogg points out that we may see too many one-time persuasions.

In order to prioritize how we expend our captology energy (designing for impact/persuasion), Fogg suggests we brainstorm a bunch of sticky notes about target outcomes (user behavior), then place the notes on a decision grid that ranks for importance and feasibility. For the best punch, select target outcomes in the high-easy area (important and feasible).

Fogg pointed out that video games are excellent at affecting user behavior since they provide quick feedback on your increasing competency. This type of feedback is especially important for certain groups, such as teen boys. While this is scary in some ways, such as the amount of time players are rehearsing violent behavior, the powerfully persuasive use of technology can be harnessed for other purposes. It’s a good example of Fogg’s observation that you increase your credibility by knowing what your audience responds to most favorably.

In conclusion, Fogg offered up some guiding words to help designers who want to have a positive impact via persuasive technology:

  1. Specialize: Find your niche. The more specialized, the broader the impact you have.
  2. Take risks.
  3. Appreciate (a healthy emotion).
  4. Rebound: We all fail; now get back up and keep going.
  5. Find your “true north. ”

Weston Thompson

For me, an opening plenary needs be inspiring, entertaining, somewhat practical and credible. BJ Fogg’s plenary was all of those, and is easily one of the best plenaries I have heard for a long time.

As we expected, the presentation covered many aspects of persuasion. BJ discussed how the tools we use change us; examined some of the common persuasive (and nagging) techniques that are currently being used, and elaborated on persuasive strategies that have the most powerful impact.

BJ reminded us that we are creating things that are used by people, and that we are in the position where so few of us can change so many others. We need to ensure that the way we affect those people is planned, not unplanned. This, along with the ethics of persuasion and design, are key issues for us to consider further.
Donna Maurer

Sorting Out Social Classification
Peter Merholz, Peter Morville, Thomas Vander Wal, Gene Smith
Conference Description

This was a very well-structured and interesting panel. Gene Smith started the discussion with a good overview of folksonomy/social classification, explaining that a folksonomy/social classification schema is one where the participants in the content creation are also the ones creating the classification.

Gene also showed examples from key sites such as and flickr (these demonstrations need to be shown in real time before people ‘get it,’ but this wasn’t practical in this instance) and walked through the very short history with a series of provocative quotes.

Taking a conservative approach, Peter Morville reminded us that context is important, and that folksonomy doesn’t suit all (or many) contexts. He also noted that, as interesting as the concept of folksonomy is, hierarchies are not going away.

Thomas Vander Wal compared metadata and tagging, highlighting the problems that we have all had with managing metadata. He suggested that, in some circumstances, tagging is easier and can be generated as a by-product of tasks that users are already doing.

Peter Merholz discussed three key problems with current tagging implementations: a lack of synonyms, multiple meanings for a tag and incorrect tagging. He also briefly discussed the idea of discoverability, not findability.

All together, this was a good panel – it introduced the folksonomy concept, explained the current opinions and provided ideas for the future. It will be interesting to see what happens over the coming year.
Donna Maurer

Thinking Navigation (or Navigation on Pt.2)
David Fiorito
Conference Description

At last year’s IA Summit, one of the most popular presentations was “Creating a Consistent Enterprise Web Navigation Solution,” where David Fiorito and Richard Dalton of Vanguard discussed the process for creating consistent navigational patterns across enterprise websites. At the time of the presentation, the new navigation system had not yet been implemented, so this year’s follow-up presentation reviewed the system and discussed the process of applying it to the various websites.

One of the major lessons learned was how to present the design before the rollout. Senior executives and managers benefited from a high-level overview with fewer details, while those implementing the design needed more details and background, both to aid in buy-in as well as to ensure the proper execution.

They created a detailed, web-based documentation site, and conducted several rounds of usability testing on the site to ensure those implementing the navigation system would be able to find the relevant details. There is nothing on the site that explains the system to end users, but the goal was to make the navigation clear to users, and usability testing has shown that the new navigation is effective.
Jeff Lash

The Confidence Game: The Influence of IA on Users’ Confidence
Jared Spool
Conference description

5 Look at this!This was the first “Spool” lecture I’ve ever attended, and it was pretty good. Spool himself is quite a character, with an animated–albeit clownish–persona that kept the audience engaged and the talk moving rapidly. Looking at the issue of “influencing” user behaviors, Spool discussed how content presented at different levels of the information architecture of a website can have an impact on a user’s decision-making process. He discussed the purchase of hi-tech items–such as digital cameras–using sites like Amazon,, and as a reference. It was an interesting study, and it raised intriguing issues about the value of brand and the need to understand users’ goals or “outcomes of use”. (Hmm, calling Alan Cooper?) While not as intellectually rigorous as a CHI or UPA case study, Spool’s presentation raised worthwhile issues for the IA community to debate.
Uday Gajendar

Spool presented findings from a recent UIE study of people who purchased laptop computers and other electronics online. He found that sites should give the purchase confidence, because confidence results in purchasing enthusiasm. (Of course, you must find the threshold point of confidence, and I’m not sure that Spool clearly addressed that point.)

Test subjects were given a stipend, and Spool found that they spent 250% of it at Crutchfield, vs. only 42% of at J&R. Wow! People were confident at Crutchfield–enough so to spend a good deal of their own money in addition to their stipend. Shoppers at J&R, on the other hand, didn’t even spend their entire stipend.

Spool identified three stages in the ecommerce decision-making process:

  1. Winnow
    • Department page: presents collections of likely product candidates.
    • Group items usefully and describe them carefully.
    • Do not present featured products at this stage; it is too early in the process.
    • Are you using facets? Be sure they are the right ones, and that they match the user’s mental model (i.e., “shoots 8×10 photos,” not “4 Megapixel”).
    • Good example: Lands End’s swimsuit page.
  2. Select
    • Gallery page: shows selected details about each product in the department.
    • Display a small logical group: understand the threshold of “too many” (though Spool did not specify what this threshold is).
  3. Validate
    • Product page: deliver the right information so the purchaser can feel confident that it is the right product.
    • Example: Crutchfield employs good descriptions written in the purchaser’s terms.

A related tidbit that Spool shared: “Worried about cluttered pages? Remember that the page is only cluttered if the information is not relevant to you. If it’s relevant, than it’s useful, not cluttered.”
Weston Thompson

What makes users decide to purchase? And conversely, what makes them return empty handed? Jared Spool spoke to a packed room about the benefits of giving users confidence in your site to allow them to make important decisions.

In a recent study, users were given $1,000 dollars to spend on electronics at various shopping sites. The resulting spends as a proportion of the original stipend varied enormously: on, users spent 237% of the stipend, on just over 90%, and in others as little as 50%. Spool examined why test subjects did not have the confidence to spend their stipend on some sites, even though the purchases were free to them. He proposed that a good IA supports the three stages of shopping: winnowing (seeing a large selection of products and picking the correct range), selecting (picking the product to buy), and validating (checking that the selected choice is correct). Department pages (e.g. cameras), gallery pages (e.g. cameras under $150), and content pages (e.g. Kodak EasyShare Model 123) support these respective stages, and Spool gave specific recommendations for designing these pages.

The big surprise is that users don’t use content pages to make decisions: they are made at the selection stage, on gallery pages. Content pages are then used to validate these choices. As a result, the most successful shopping sites are designed to support funneling: users are given enough information at the gallery / selecting stage to have confidence that they are looking at the correct item by the time they view its content page. Less successful sites, on the other hand, are designed for ‘pogosticking’: users go back and forth between content pages and gallery pages. At the end of the presentation, Spool thanked an enthused audience for encouraging his behavior.
— Helen Leech

Evangelism 101
Dan Willis
Conference Description

Dan’s presentation was energetic and interesting. He outlined the key aspects of an evangelist, what they do and how to identify one. He presented his “8 random rules of evangelism,” which included “be shameless,” “be fuzzy,” “be tactile,” and “incite the riot.” He continued with a good explanation of ways that different people evangelize and how to work with evangelists.

Doesn’t sound much like IA? Dan connected evangelism and IA neatly-many of us are involved in selling what we do and what IA is about, and any help doing this is always appreciated.
Donna Maurer

Yet another dynamic, lively, engaging speaker, Dan Willis described the perils and joys of IA evangelism within a company, offering advice and tips. The key takeaway for me was that different kinds of evangelists-pirates and poets-each have certain personality traits and thus need to be nurtured differently in an organization. Timing, patience, and persistence seemed to be the top criteria for any evangelist pursuing positive change.
Uday Gajendar

Content Genres – The Hidden Workhorse of Information Architecture
Peter Merholz
Conference Description

PeterPeter Merholz presented an extended look at a rather simple idea: document genres. He started with the notion that IAs usually look at metadata in terms of author, title, and other descriptive aspects. But he countered that people approaching a task or goal seek custom tools; they need to know the genre of the document. Is it a guidebook, a map, or a weekly independent newspaper? Merholz emphasized that knowing the genre helps set expectations. Genres are often known by visual cues and affordances, but they are harder to convey online.

Merholz pointed out that we can find ways to use the notion of genre to help organize unwieldy content inventories, such as large intranets. Genres serve as trigger words for users, which help them move through these large document sets. Merholz acknowledged that this is similar to the notion of content type, but that content type often connotes format. Additionally, content type is jargon in the header of most markup schemes.

Merholz pointed out an example use of genre on the Trend Micro web site that helps it stand out from its competitor Symantec. Trend uses genre effectively on product pages to tie in Features, System Requirements, and White Papers. These links help users self-select without forcing them to segment out at the start of the information-seeking process. Merholz also showed mockups of how Clusty and Google could use genre to help people understand and filter their result sets. In his mock-up, his search for “information architecture ” on Clusty resulted in a set of genre types such as tutorials, weblogs, books, and essays, instead of what Clusty gives you now: a mixed-up list of related topics, sub-topics, keywords, and proper nouns.

Tying this into the popular world of content management systems, Merholz noted that genre relies on presentation/layout, so the CMS goal of separating those can be counterproductive. As a quick example, he showed a menu: well, we know it’s a menu because it looks like one, even though the actual content is pure gibberish. Likewise, he showed actual menu content set up like an essay, thereby obscuring its actual nature. Merholz stresses that presentation sets expectations of what the content is and what purpose it serves, how to use it. But Merholz found a way to bring the two together: He looked at the content delivery method (i.e., PC vs. PDA) as a genre. Then he analyzed sub-tasks to find which content delivery methods were best suited to the sub-task.

Merholz’s final thoughts were that genre will help us with information architecture, especially in large spaces, and that genre reminds us that IA is really about the content the fact that people are using it.
Weston Thompson

I profess to having an interest in this subject, and attended the session to primarily see what Peter Merholz was up to with thinking about genres and how we can leverage them in our designs.

Peter explained the basics of content genres– that we frequently know which ‘type’ of document or resource to use based on our previous experience with information. For example, when determining where to eat we might use a local free newspaper to find out about restaurants, then a map to get there. The physical content genres we use are not always used in the online world, and there are additional genres there that we do use.

Genres are not the same as templates. Peter discussed situations where a genre will use a particular template to reinforce the genre (and to provide recognizable shape); noting that in other cases many genres will use the same template.

Overall, this was a good summary. I’d be interested in seeing what happens when put to practical use, and whether genre identification really helps people to find and understand information. An IA research project perhaps…
Donna Maurer

The 2005 Information Architecture Slam: The Second Annual “Workshop with a Winner”
Lynn Boyden, Chris Chandler, Matthew Fetchko, Eric Reiss
Conference Description

The IA Slam involves teams of eight people working for 45 minutes to design a solution to an IA problem, with each team having 10 minutes to present the design. This year’s problem was ‘The Merger from Hell’ in which the teams had to design a new floor plan for the recently merged Bal-Mart and Fordstrom while maintaining the individual brand identities.

Not an IA problem? Of course it was. In coming up with this solution, we used many of the same skills we use when working on a website–managing team politics, identifying the problem, thinking about the customer experience, brainstorming and designing solutions, communicating our designs.

The winning team was announced at lunch next day, after a long and tiring evening of judging!

This was easily the highlight of the Summit for me. Thanks to team green for being the ‘most congenial’, and thanks to the organizers (who played their parts amazingly well) for once again running it.
Donna Maurer

Design Patterns in Enterprise UI Architectures
Karl Mochel
Conference description

This was a well-delivered (and much-needed) talk regarding the evolution of enterprise software UI architectures. While I don’t think Mochel spoke of design patterns in the true (Christopher Alexander) sense, he did a nice job distinguishing enterprise systems with specific qualifiers (transactional, frequent data entry, cross-functional dependencies, etc.), thereby presenting to the audience of IAs a different problem space than the one usually seen in CMS or intranets.

The presentation touched on a variety of ways to organize web-based enterprise functionality (persistent tab, tabless, and contextual tab)–each with its own benefits–derived from an understanding of the user’s questions and goals. Mochel also carefully pointed out the advantages of re-organizing functionality to correspond to the user’s goals, even while keeping the same pages in different locations. This concept was nicely demonstrated with a multi-step animation that showed a Marketing application morphing from one type of architecture to another, resulting in a slimmer structure overall. I think the audience found this animation most helpful in grokking the abstract concept of “enterprise architecture.”

Finally, Mochel described his interest in interactive visualizations and their connection to enterprise architectures, thereby enabling ways of “viewing into” complex datasets. As a next step, it would be great to see screenshots or an actual demo of an enterprise UI featuring examples of decision-making scenarios enabled by such interfaces and architectures. The foundation for exploration in this area has certainly been set with this talk.
Uday Gajendar

IA For the Personal Information Cloud
Thomas Vander Wal
Conference Description

The core idea that Thomas presented here is that, just like the Internet itself is a publishing cloud that we enter to find information, there is a personal cloud that is wholly within our purview, or within our perceived purview. What makes the personal information cloud so important to us as designers and architects of information spaces is that we need to be considering (beyond our current target zone) findability and initial-use. Once information is found and consumed, it will invariably need to be re-used, controlled, shared, and otherwise manipulated. What this means is that information will be structured and re-presented outside our control. No one is really thinking about this issue when they create their information spaces today. Issues of intellectual property, privacy, and brand all become huge concerns moving forward for people thinking about such spaces.

The portable nature of information brings up both concerns and challenges about the personal information cloud. Having information be contextualized to location, task, relationships, etc. means that we need to have a much better handle on how our information can be used way beyond how it will be found.
David Heller

Interface Design for Database-Intensive Web Applications
Jessica Jackson & Rick Omanson
Conference description

This presentation examined the fundamentals of interface design when applied to large, database-driven sites such as catalogs and libraries. Scalability and transactionality were offered as the driving influences that can impact the interface design in these sites, and Jackson cited various examples, including CDW and the Library of Congress, with its millions of items. Some key issues included the familiar problems of orientation, navigation, and operations within a large-scale site. The typical questions of “how to organize the content” and “how to help the user find an item” were also examined, along with a summation of some options, including multilevel navigation and breadcrumbs. Predictably, a lively discussion ensued over the value of breadcrumbs: should they show history or architecture, their location and usage, etc.

I think what emerged from this talk was a set of basic heuristics and issues–not completely novel or profound–for designers of large inventory sites to consider. It would have been more compelling to examine the challenges of emerging technologies (Flash, wikis/blogs) and the increasing need for search/find/remember functionality within large sites: What are their interactions and how should the architectures respond to them, given the live database connection? There may also have been a missed opportunity to deeply explore what “live-ness” means to interfaces and the supporting IA, and how it can make them very dynamic and configurable.
Uday Gajendar

Overview & Pre-sessions | Saturday Sessions | Sunday & Monday Sessions

Crossing Boundaries: 2005 IA Summit Wrapup: Sunday, Monday

Written by: B&A Staff

Session Summaries and Reviews

Sunday March 6

The Information Architecture of Things – Part I: What If a Button Really Is a Button?
Bill DeRouchey
Conference Description

In the first of two IA of Things sessions, Bill DeRouchey looked at the need for IA in physical product design, a growing area as products begin to incorporate more complex information spaces. The IA principles we are used to from web projects still apply to physical objects, but the details of deliverables and documentation don’t always carry over. DeRouchey notes that a basic starting point is changed in product design. On the web, the action is (almost) always “screen1–click–screen2,” allowing designers to assume that action in most documentation and planning. For physical objects, designers have to specify the action, meaning there must be more physical detail.

In his experience, DeRouchey has found that the sitemap morphs into a functional map, inventorying all possible flows and detailing the sequence of events in a user interaction. The functional map starts at the top with the “at rest” state, then branches out into the sequences of actions and events, finally returning to the “at rest” state. Similarly, the wireframe is replaced by wireflows. In combination with scenarios, wireflows show the sequence of events screen by screen.

interactionmatrix.gifDeRouchey shared one of his most important lessons: due to the continuous rapid prototyping of the object, the physical layout of the controls is too fluid to document and the actions are also in flux throughout the design cycle. Interestingly, the fact that the object hasa physicality that must be accounted for in the functional maps and wireflows, means that designers also need more abstraction in the documentation. Instead of specifying the exact controls and actions in the documents, DeRouchey calls for the use of an interaction matrix that lists all functions and relates them to actions (i.e., use of controls). The interaction matrix also helps ensure that designers account for all possible states/action. By abstracting to this level, designers need only update the interaction matrix–not all other documents–as the physical object changes.

For the prototyping stage, DeRouchey suggested using Flash, since it lends itself to showing the actions.
Weston Thompson

This presentation is a great example of the mislabeling of “information architecture,” when what is really meant is either “user experience” or in this case “interaction design.” The presentation that Bill gave was excellent and of tremendous value to anyone who is working on information systems that have a physical device component. The content of the presentation excellently presented the differences in solution and in methods used to derive a designed solution when moving from a purely virtual (Bill focused on the web side of virtual solutions) to solutions that are a hybrid of virtual and physical interactions. The most important two components of these differences are 1) the level of complex modality that exists within most physical devices; and 2) because the behaviors within these solutions are so transitional in nature, using our conventional methods of storyboarding/wireframing are inefficient or ineffective.

My one complaint here, which I feel I must present, is that much if not all of what Bill presented could be equally attributed to most software products. If we think beyond the web into more rich software solutions such as games, productivity software, even collaboration tools, we will find much more rich modality between the software and the existing physical I/O devices that make up the PC. Again, this presentation really discusses the importance of understanding interaction design in order for us to be better at creating interfaces for any information system that is beyond the simple web.
David Heller

The Information Architecture of Things – Part 2: Twenty Years of Lessons Learned
James Leftwich
Conference Description

This was an amazing retrospective of the influences, work, methods, and artifacts of a designer who has been working with and exploring spaces where virtual and physical meet for over 20 years. During this time, he discovered a path that took him through the creation and use of information spaces. He was an early convert to the use of metadata to help with the management and particularly the visualization of information. He had two dyads worth exploring. The first was metaverse versus myverse, where a “metaverse” is a singular structure meant to be visited and consumed and a “myverse” where the structure is dynamic dependent on use, context, and relationships. The other was the use of the term “cyberspace”-that this space is visited and there is a sense of a “downtown” where more things seem to happen. He broke down the myth that there is too much information by acknowledging that the entire universe is nothing but information, and claims that through using better visual tools we can succeed at taming it.
David Heller

A Foray across Boundaries: Applying IA to Business Strategy and Planning
Richard Dalton, Rob Weening
Conference Description

During this practical case study Richard and Rob explained how they had applied the skills they developed as IAs to two different business problems. The first was to discover the features and interest in a potential new service; the second was to identify “broken things” in an existing service.

During these projects, they used many of the techniques we use in IA projects: data collection, analysis, organizing and labeling. They used an analysis method similar to Adaptive Path’s mental model technique to analyze client and staff comments and to identify capabilities that matched both. They thought hard about different ways to communicate with management and stakeholders-all skills that we use frequently.
Donna Maurer

This presentation was a case study of information architects becoming involved in the strategic planning process. Vanguard’s IAs had three goals for their involvement: to make better use of client/user research; to make better use of data to drive decision-making; to create visual analysis tools for business decision makers. One project undertaken focused on discovering new business opportunities, while the other focused on identifying broken business processes and recommending improvements.

For the “discover new” project, IAs worked with members of the user research group who conducted interviews with internal and external users and stakeholders. Relevant quotes from the interviews were extracted and grouped like a combination of affinity diagrams and card sorting exercises. The final deliverable was a large poster that presented a visualization of the expressed (and often unmet) needs of users. This poster was pored over by business stakeholders and influenced the strategy and budgetary spending for 2005.

For the “identify broken” project, the initial process was much the same, starting with interviews and continuing with the extraction of relevant details. A spreadsheet was created to list the high-level tasks, and associated “points of pain,” with ratings being added by SMEs to indicate severity. Graphs attempted to tie efficiency problems to quality issues, but it was a challenge to determine how to present the graphs to business stakeholders. Ultimately, the scope of the project changed, making the project less successful for reasons outside the control of the IA group.

This foray into business planning was successful but challenging. The Vanguard team recommends patience when introducing organizational and process change, and notes you will likely encounter skepticism (from groups who wonder why “web design” people are involved in strategic planning). Working as a group allowed the project to gain perspectives from multiple IAs, which was especially beneficial as the process and deliverables were “invented” along the way.
Jeff Lash

Change, Influence and IA at the BBC
Margaret Hanley
Conference Description
I was pleased to see a number of presentations at the IA Summit that addressed the issue of internal politics. Margaret’s presentation was one of these.

This case study outlined how Margaret had managed to implement a project involving detailed IA and metadata, selling it to staff and management with different backgrounds and priorities. She noted that there were significant changes needed to systems, people and content; and that incremental change, connecting with people and using networks were the key success factors in this project.
Donna Maurer

Rich Internet Applications (panel)
Dennis Schleicher, Jennifer King, Tara Diachenko, Pat Callow, Gene Smith, Livia Labate, Todd Warfel

The panel was started with an introduction to some basic concepts as best understood by this panel about RIAs: that there is a change in focus from the page to transitions and flows. This is a change from single scene or screen focus to one where solutions now have more of a sense of story with a narrative, plot, climax, and even character development. Current uses for RIAs are in the areas of guided selling and banking.

Dennis then outlined how users experience RIAs differently from more conventional frameworks. Transitions are modally specific, you rest less between change states, and change is more gradual. Then Jennifer and Tara demonstrated two examples of RIAs (one for White Castle and one for Ford Vehicles). Both were good explanations of why the RIA added value to the experience of the user. The White Castle example in particular demonstrated this well by showing competitive solutions that didn’t meet the full user expectation due to the limitations of either the framework being used in the presentation of the solution, or the way that the design did not free itself from convention (of the page metaphor) even though it was using an RIA framework.

What was missing from both of these examples was the clear demonstration of who preparing the metadata for the content objects was a core contributor to why these RIAs were able to exist and create the behaviors they had. Gene then tried to explore the problem that RIAs is trying to solve and what remaining problems it has to still overcome. He also broke down where RIAs might be more useful in the immediate need. Livia brought out the issue of behavior tracking and metrics and that metrics are more than possible in an RIA, but we need to design metrics into the equation intentionally. Todd closed by breaking down the different platform options for: Flash, Java, AJ+X (ajax), others. Then touched on why current deliverables from the IA are not good enough. Like Bill DeRouchey’s presentation, which had a similar look at the failing of “wireframes,” I have to say that I was disappointed that people didn’t look beyond the IA community for these answers.

This has a very lively question and answer period. People challenged the user-benefit of RIAs and whether or not we really are moving away from “the page” metaphor, or whether or not we are ready to even make this leap if it is one at all. My contribution to this discussion was one of encouraging us to take risks, fail admirably and succeed deliciously. We have been stagnant for far too long and we are starting to see the effects of that stagnation on our space.
David Heller

Practical Global IA
Peter Van Dijck, Jorge Arango, Livia Labate>
Conference Description

Peter Van Dijck, Jorge Arango, and Livia Labate led an informal session on the practical aspects of global IA. They briefly presented some starting points and then opened the floor for discussion. To begin discussions they pointed out that there is a lot of globalization (i.e., in business and marketing), but very little shared or documented about IA in the global setting. They also noted that headquarters (or clients) may assume that you can build something in the US and then roll it out worldwide with no heed given to differences in how different cultures approach the information. The panelists suggested that some content is more suited to this type of approach, such as factual, static, non-marketing content, but that branding and marketing might not fare as well.

Some of the more interesting observations from the audience:

  • You can count on some things carrying over and others not, so isolate those that don’t. It will be easier to alter the taxonomy to accommodate the changes if you start that way.
  • For internal resources it is more acceptable to make the IA the same across countries. Even so, it is best to test, since people may be making workarounds to cope with differences that they don’t consider problems or that you don’t recognize.
  • Company culture may override local culture.
  • Domain knowledge/culture may override local culture. Examples were academics, physicists, and physicians.
  • People may say “we’re different ” than other people (based on geographical or political differences, but tests may reveal that they are not different.
  • Cultural myths: we need data to understand the reality, not the myths.
  • Geert Hofstede’s “Cultural Dimensions ” can be good for what it is, but can be abused/misused. Use it as a recognition framework not a development framework.
  • Research techniques do not always work across cultures due to basic differences (i.e., norms of deference and ability to speak honestly about product).
  • Important to have cross-cultural, bilingual person for testing.
  • Each person belongs to many cultures. Internet culture is an important one.

Weston Thompson

Implementing a Pattern Library in the Real World: A Yahoo! Case Study
Erin Malone, Matt Leacock, Chanel Wheeler
Conference Description

This was one of the most practical sessions I attended. The Yahoo team identified a need for increased consistency and stronger brand in their websites (haven’t we all) and a need to leverage collective knowledge about design strategies. A pattern library seemed to be just the answer.

The project involved the selection of a content management system, the development of the library and substantial change and communications.

The messages I took away include:

  • Don’t let technology decide process
  • Patterns don’t need to be exhaustive
  • Consider the way the content needs to be used – design it to be read in a hurry, and provide deeper background information
  • The content must be credible

The case study has been written up as a paper, which is much more useful than this review. You can find it at
Donna Maurer

Leading a team of IAs: The Manager’s Perspective
Victor Lombardi, Liz Danzico, Neil Wehrle, Karen McGrane
Conference Description

This panel provided more information on how to manage one’s own career than to manage other IAs, but the tips and insight provided were pertinent and useful to beginner / intermediate IAs and those looking to get into the field.

Neil Wehrle covered “Getting Hired,” with attention paid to how to develop a portfolio, have a successful interview, and handle the offer negotiation process.

Victor Lombardi discussed “Developing Your Skill Set,” providing details for IAs on “what you won’t learn in school or books.” Research, experimentation, collaboration, and invention were noted as the main areas to focus on, along with applying IA skills to other areas.

Karen McGrane focused on “Managing Your Performance,” described as how information architects form a relationship with their manager and employer. The presentation covered goal setting, annual reviews, salary reviews, and performance problems, areas that are not specific to IA, but presented as general HR information with an IA slant.

Liz Danzico talked about “Next Steps,” offering tips on how to grow in your career within the IA discipline, or across disciplines. Building task forces, attending in-house training, pursuing continuing education, crossing discipline boundaries, networking internally and externally, moving locations, and entering management were all discussed.
Jeff Lash

The Practice of Enterprise IA: 10 Giant Mistakes I Made This Year
Lorelei Brown
Conference Description

Lorelei presented a refreshingly honest look at a project that involved selecting and implementing a CMS, mapping the site, creating new navigation, labeling & visual design, migrating all content, and tagging with metadata–all in 18 months.

I won’t list out the mistakes, as the lessons learned are more useful than the actual mistakes. Lorelei encouraged the audience to remember that other people don’t want to know how everything works, they just want the outcome; that it is incredibly important not to oversell the project; and that you should be willing to take risks.
Donna Maurer

Information Architecture and Alzheimer’s Disease: Using IA to Improve the Lives of Those with Impaired Cognition
D. Grant Campbell
Conference Description

For me, this was the most interesting session of the conference, and I’m pleased that I didn’t miss it (I had planned to go to a different session as I didn’t read my schedule right).

Grant Campbell has spent a lot of time since last year’s summit examining literature from a number of fields, learning about what happens to people’s ability to categorize during early stage Alzheimer’s disease.

For a complex topic, he presented it in a very approachable manner. He explained the different memory types and what happens to memory in early Alzheimer’s–semantic memory degenerates which affects the way people categorize. The literature indicates that people extend names to familiar items, lose the detailed levels of categorization and retain the superordinate categories. He provided some implications for the way we might categorize information for people with early Alzheimer’s disease, but indicated that much research would need to be done before we could be confident in supplying solutions.
Donna Maurer

StUX: Integrating IA Deliverables in a Web Application Development Methodology
Peter Boersma
Conference Description

In this session, Peter Boersma presented a look at how his company approached user-centered design methodology. The company had adopted IBM’s Rational Unified Process (RUP) as its software development methodology and tool. A fine tool, said Boersma, except that it does not model the user-centered design aspects. To be most effective, his team developed a complete model that fits onto the RUP. They call it Standards for User Experience or StUX.

Boersma said that his team brainstormed to document their process and deliverables, including how they relate to those of other units in the company. Then they structured the results in a diagram that mapped deliverables to phases in the process. The diagram showed RUP streams on one axis (input, inception, elaboration, construction) and UX streams on the other (system analysis, IA and Interaction Design, Usability and Accessibility Testing, Content Design, Visual Design and Information Design). The diagram led to recognition of overlap in artifacts (deliverables and documentation), so they reviewed those and described them in structured templates. Over several months, the team refined the workflow and the deliverables. As possible, they used standard IT terminology for the UX aspects.

Boersma said that using StUX led to consistent terminology and practices within the UX team. That, in turn, led to other teams understanding the UX parts better, expecting certain things, recognizing things, and calling them by right name. He stressed importance of developing your own methodology that matches your company, your team, and your needs. Boersma said that simply importing somebody else’s methodology misses most of the benefits.

Boersma likened StUX to having a cupboard full of all possible ingredients that you use in your kitchen: you don’t use all each time you cook, but you have some consistency and great familiarity with how they all work and come together. He said you may call it a framework, if that helps you see it as not limiting or too daunting. In closing, Boersma emphasized that even if you cannot follow your methodology as closely as desired, it helps to have a document to hand over to other teams to explain what you do, how it fits into the big picture, and that you are serious.
Weston Thompson

A Context for Interaction Design
David Heller
Conference Description

David Heller’s session presented his look at the relationship between IA, interaction design (IxD), and user experience (UX). Heller said that the Web has had a big role in bringing UX out as a domain, since it brought together disparate groups that didn’t mix much in the past (software engineering, library science, gaming, graphic design, marketing). For his talk, Heller focused on digital product design, not the biggest picture of experience design (that would encompasses call centers and such).

Heller looked at existing models for explaining and relating the UX areas: Shedroff (All the Skills), Morville (All the Goals), Garrett (Tasks for a Project), Hodge (All the Disciplines), and Knemeyer. Then he took on the task himself. His goal was to represent the relationships while minimizing jargon and clarifying big versus little. Interestingly, Heller started with the solution and broke down what leads to it, starting with the concept, then the form, until he reached the “disciplines ” that make up the aspects of the solution. Heller said that there are many disciplines in our toolkit (i.e., IA, I design, interaction design, etc.,) and that in our work we are crossing boundaries, regardless of our title. He then mapped of those disciplines to the various aspects of the solution (i.e., validation is Usability Engineering; structure is IA; behavior is IxD).

In the second part of his talk, Heller focused on interaction design and its relationship to IA–a couple made in heaven. He sees IA covering findability and metadata, while IxD covers search/browse and wayfinding. In closing, Heller asked us to remember that our questions may have answers in other disciplines.
Weston Thompson

Overview & Pre-sessions | Saturday Sessions | Sunday & Monday Sessions

Monday March 7

Inspire Designers, Persuade Stakeholders: The Twin Goals of Customer Research
Rashmi Sinha
Conference Description

Rashmi Sinha started her session with these words: Art of War. Before fully explaining the war, she graded IAs in two categories:

  • Inspiring Design: A
  • Impacting business: D

As Don Norman said, “the action is with the people who decide what product to build in the first place. ” Sinha proposes that we use strategic customer research to help define business strategy.

First, Sinha said we must understand marketing, since marketing has a big place at the corporate table. It’s important for us to understand the definition of market research and its goals: establishing what product, what place, what price, and what promotion. Marketing uses the term segmentation scheme, or simply segmentation, for how they define the customers that are central to their organization or product. They will judge our personas based on that segmentation scheme. For more information, see the Handbook of Marketing (2000). In her research, Sinha found a 1993 quote on card sorts in the marketing literature. She asks why IAs don’t know or recognize this background in our work.

Then Sinha brought back her Art of War analogy, saying that we need to practice the three aspects of the art: co-opt, pre-empt, and combat. She focused on co-opting marketing. Sinha provided a personal example of how she did joint research with a marketing department. It went well, and she won their acceptance on other findings and recommendations.

In closing, Sinha offered a series of tips, including:

  • Be flexible about methods. Be willing to use marketing’s methods and terminology.
  • Use two different sets of deliverables: one for marketing/business, and one for design/development.
  • Don’t lose your core IA strengths along the way.

Weston Thompson

Making the Most of Controlled Vocabularies in Search Interfaces
Chris Farnum
Conference Session

Chris Farnum started with the point that if you put time into indexing content, you should make sure to leverage it in the search interface. An important aspect is training people to go beyond the “Google-style approach” — that is, just typing in a keyword or two and hoping for the best. Instead, we should encourage our users to browse the controlled vocabulary and we should place opportunities to use and learn about metadata in the users’s path, without requiring its usage.

For real-world examples, Farnum looked at a typical ProQuest article that has metadata galore. ProQuest leverages metadata in their search interface in five ways:

  1. More Like This or Berry-picking. Find one hit that’s good and then find others like it (i.e., based on the subject). Farnum showed how to do this by letting the user see the metadata with sideways links like Google’s “similar pages.” He also pointed out that this is a good way to support bottom-up searching.
  2. Browsing. Have the user browse the controlled vocabulary instead of searching. Epicurious uses editorially-controlled taxonomy for browsing, based on their thesaurus, offering a way for novices to explore easily. Farnum suggested trying to make this approach data-driven.
  3. Field Indexes. Let your interface help users select terms for each search field from your controlled vocabularies. Farnum stressed that this should be simple and optional.
  4. Thesaurus. If you have a thesaurus, show it off! Farnum said that is especially for useful for expert searchers.
  5. Search Term Suggestions. Farnum pointed out that users take more time on a results page than on the search page, so it is a golden opportunity to help them refine with their search. This is where you should suggest topics, searches, narrowing filters, and other approaches.

In closing, Farnum stressed that these are models for inspiration, not templates, and that you should (of course), choose and adapt based on your audience. The point is to take full advantage of the controlled vocabularies you invest in.
Weston Thompson

Talking the Talk: Helping IAs Speak the Language of Business
Scott Hirsch, Jim Leftwich, Harry Max, Jess McMullin, Dave Robertson

Jess McMullin moderated this panel, which focused on “how IAs can talk with business leaders to have greater impact and influence with their clients or organizations.” The key is in understanding the language of business, rather than in expecting business leaders to learn our language, and being able to “speak to the needs of business in the terms that they would use if they were talking about it themselves.”

Scott Hirsch, who comes from a business background, discussed the seducible moment, which is the optimal time to influence a decision. For management, three points of pain can be brought up to create a seducible moment: technology being broken; the company missing an opportunity to make money or reduce costs; or, some combination of the first two. By defining the problem in language they can understand and describing value in terms of pain, you can then describe why the design or research work being proposed will help alleviate that problem.

Jim Leftwich described his organic process where he learned more and more over the course of his design career. Instead of talking about usability and interfaces, he talks about opportunities in the marketplace, the competitive landscape, and creating advantages through patent protection. He noted that the biggest devaluer of design could be the designers themselves, and that charging lower rates than other professional services (e.g., legal) implies that design services aren’t as valuable.

Dave Robertson noted how, in addition to talking in different language to different internal stakeholders, each business has its own language, and the basic circular UCD process of research/plan/test can be used to understand businesses.

Harry Max said that the basic idea of user-centered design is flawed, because we are focusing on the user rather than the value we can bring to an organization. In speaking with different stakeholders in an organization, that value needs to be presented differently. For example, an executive should focus on the current situation, articulate the vision, the quantifiable impact of the solution, and then, if time is left, talk about the plan. However, with a manager or individual contributor, the order is the exact opposite, starting with the plan, then the solution, the impact, the vision, etc.
Jeff Lash

Beyond the Page
Gene Smith
Conference Description

Gene Smith started his session by looking back at some conversations from the AIfIA retreat of October 2004. He heard participants questioning the continued relevancy of certain traditional IA tools and conceits. Those discussions inspired him to looked at the page metaphor and how it is breaking:

From To
Page is basic presentation unit Screens, panels, containers
Page is basic organization unit Multiple, arbitrary units, (e.g. posts)
Web is consumed as pages Web is a platform
Stuff is assembled into pages Stuff is delivered outside the browser

Smith pointed out how it extends to our notation systems like flow diagrams (the Visual Vocabulary), site maps, and wire frames, which need to be supplanted with a new generation of documents and deliverables. Smith says this change comes about from disruptive trends like RIAs, RSS/Atom/XML content, and the blurring boundaries between desktop and web. He felt that RIAs played the biggest role in this change, especially due to the transparent transitions that are not page-based. Smith suggested that documenting those transitions might be accomplished with a flows–from a Start State Wireframe to an End State Wireframe–with callouts that explain specific page items. As the page paradigm gives way, Smith said we will see a move toward interaction design, a move from content to software, and a bigger focus on metrics.

Smith then looked at RSS/XML. RSS’s flexible content model allows the user to choose how to consume and display content. Smith pointed out that this may lead to things like algorithmic IA, personal interface (architecture) definitions, and device-dependent architecture.

Smith found that the blurring boundaries between web/desktop are another factor in this beyond the page trend, such as Web 2.0 and its Internet-enabled desktop applications. But, simultaneously, he described a divergence due to multiple synchable, sharable devices. Thus, we need an abstraction of IA – making it less tied to the physical device. Smith said soon we may have more emphasis on content re-use and content modeling, less emphasis on taxonomy or structure.

After a quick tour through some sample deliverables and artifacts, Smith concluded that the page is not dead: it is still valuable, but the metaphor is aging. During the Q&A period, Jesse James Garrett commented that he had used the Visual Vocabulary on an Ajax project recently, and that it had worked well, except it started to break down in representing transitions via wireframes.
Weston Thompson

Machines of Loving Grace: User experience for ubiquitous computing environments
Mike Kuniavsky
Conference Description

In this presentation, Mike first outlined the fundamentals and history of ubiquitous computing. He then provided a number of examples of recent ubiquitous devices and discussed the implications for user interface design (e.g. that we might not be designing a display and input methods are entirely different). He also discussed the different ways that we use ubiquitous computing–rather than a computer in an office–ubiquitous devices can become very intimate items that are highly embedded in our personal spaces.

He wrapped up with some discussion about ethics and how easy it is to create technologies that have a bad impact on our society, referencing Adam Greenfield’s article All watched over by machines of loving grace: Some ethical guidelines for user experience in ubiquitous-computing settings for more information on this aspect.
Donna Maurer

Why Amazon is Not Enough
Brett Lider
Conference Description

Brett Lider presented an intriguing look at what Amazon is not doing in its CRM efforts and opportunities that he sees for expanding this arena in the age of Web 2.0. Lider started out by saying he was only picking on Amazon because they are an industry leader, and that they need a challenge now and then.

Lider quickly explained that Amazon is doing a lot with social networks, good algorithms, and providing APIs for external services to reach in—but they are doing precious little to go out after data sources that could help them serve customers better. He described this situation as common one in an age of e-commerce bound by “siloed technical platforms”).

So how can Amazon move beyond this? Lider sees the answer in Web 2.0. He presented the Wikipedia definition of Web 2.0, but found it focused only on the technical aspects. Lider provided his own sense of what Web 2.0 really means: social networks, desktop information, browser history, tastes and preferences, and analog information. But it is the bringing together of these areas that Lider sees as the exciting potential of Web 2.0.

Lider presented some examples of low-hanging fruit ready for the taking: Evite could partner with LinkedIn so that users don’t have to recreate social networks for Evite; the iTunes store could use a person’s iTunes player history file from the desktop to personalize the store front. From here, Lider launched into a look at a suite of Web 2.0 tools used for C2B (customer to business) relationships.

Lider noted that the Harvard Business Review had just run an article on customer-managed interactions (CMI) that matches his notion of C2B, and he sees the coming C2B as a place for proactive IAs to have a serious impact.
Weston Thompson

Overview & Pre-sessions | Saturday Sessions | Sunday & Monday Sessions

Redesigning Boxes and Arrows

Written by: Christina Wodtke

“If the devil is in the details, it was very clear that angels live there also.”

For a while we at B&A have been feeling unsatisfied with our software and website. It was perfect when we were young turks, but now that we have a larger body of articles, increasingly richer material, and a growing audience, we realized we need something different, something that will tell the world we are a magazine on the rise. We could have redesigned ourselves, but we felt our community is one of our biggest assets, so we turned to them to help us envision our next generation of the website.

We got many entrants, often fascinating, sometimes surprising, sometimes strange, all intriguing. Some folks ignored our request to not design in the blog mode. We can only assume that this design is so prevalent that it has embedded itself in people’s minds. Others think of us as a blog, because we are on Movable Type’s excellent software. But we are not a blog: we embrace multiple points of view from multiple authors, we are edited, and topical. All we share with blogs, other than software, is chronological organization. And that has led us to the desire to really stand tall with other magazines who put the same editorial love into their bodies of content as we do. And by re-designing we wanted to strongly message “we are a magazine.”

One thing we were deeply surprised by, was how often a design might be overall excellent (or sometimes mediocre), and then would have a tiny corner of extraordinariness. Sometimes it was something as small as the treatment of the swag, or an approach to a navigation scheme, or the text resizing tools. If the devil is in the details, it was very clear that angels live there also. Often we found ourselves wishing we could Chinese menu across multiple designers, because there were so many different lovely moments.

Our judges lent a fascinating insight into the designs as well—an expert on usability would opine on the IA, or an IA remark on beauty. We may specialize, but the gestalt of a design is what we all respond to. We also asked our staff to add their two cents, because the folks who use their precious spare time to make this magazine great, could not be ignored.

So what’s next, now that we’ve got our winners?

Well, none of the designs are perfect in the first shot for our needs. This can’t be surprising to anyone; a great design always comes from conversations between the client and the designer. So we’ll move forward, and ask our winner to work with us to get to the right instantiation of the design, as we continue to evaluate our content management system and publishing engine.

Don’t expect this slow caterpillar to be a butterfly overnight, but do expect a new look in 2005…

So here they are, our winners!

The Winning Entry

The winner! And champion of battle Boxes and Arrows!
by Alex Chang and Matt Titchener from

| |

The judges said “This is a clean, light design that works well. Color and type are used to reinforce visual hierarchy in a meaningful way. Screen real estate is allocated in a way to support hierarchy as well.”

“This one uses the structure of the grid and palette to its advantage. It is not very efficient with its use of space. I like the effort at leaving some breathing room on the page”

The first prize winner will receive a set of professional books from the fine publishers at PeachPit Press and software from Adobe!


We’ll be contacting the winner to begin work on refining the design to give you a new and exciting Boxes and Arrows!

Runners Up

The silver goes to Sarah Doody

| |

Judges say “The colors are nice and unique. It’s very differentiable and, at the same time, feels very professional without feeling too academic.”

And finally, the bronze goes to the design team at Behavior Design

| |

This winner was not in the original final running, because of its blog-based design. However, it was so lovely and well executed, it caught the judges eye and pulled ahead to grab the bronze medal!

And special mentions go to Brandon Satanek
Not only did he submit two entries, but they both were in our top 5 favorites.

| |

| |

A final honorary “best alternative to lorem ipsum” which had us giggling everytime we reviewed the comps, goes to William Lamson.

| | |

We give this design a special mention because of the clever titles and lead-ins used in the layouts. We felt the judges would enjoy them as much as we did.

Overall Thanks

Most of all we want to thank all the folks who took the time to design a new look for Boxes and Arrows, and who waited patiently while we made our decisions. This was an extremely difficult task. I think we were all surprised at how hard it would be to make a final call.

All were wonderful—check the full set of entries out for yourself!

We especially want to give a special thanks to our judges, who took time out of their busy schedules to help us choose our winner.

Thanks all!