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

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“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

One comment

  1. Just a quick note about “disneyfication” of taxonomies: I believe the reference was made to how Disney usually lifts a local fairy tale (like the hunchback or pochahontas) and cleans away all the “dangerous” cultural connotations to fit it to a global market without offending anyone. A similar case can be made against a taxonomy crafted to fit in to any cultural context; we might loose something vital on the way there. But the main point I was trying to make was not necessarily about american cultural “propaganda”, but one about what we might loose on the way from a locally rooted taxonomy (or fairy tale) to a global one-size-fits-all taxonomy (or the Disney-version of that fairy tale).

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