Learning, Doing, Selling: 2006 IA Summit Wrapup: Overview and Pre-conference sessions

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“Yes CSS is nifty, yes we like blogs, yes sitemaps are hard. But where can you go to understand an epistemology for practice, or that tags can be used to create self-organizing learning communities?”

Because Boxes and Arrows was launched at an IA Summit some years ago, we have always had a soft spot in our hearts for this conference. Because each year it grows smarter and more sophisticated, we continue to follow it. The following are impressions, reviews and reports of the 7th IA Summit. Enjoy!

Conference overview

Reviewed by: Christina Wodtke

After seven Summits, what struck me was that for many of us, the Summit is like a high school reunion—if you liked everyone in high school. Only once a year you see these people, yet they are somehow close friends. Perhaps in the past, there have been Summits where there were “in” cliques sneaking off without the “out” cliques, but each time I went to dinner, I was able to both renew an old friendship and start up a new one.


Photo credit: Erin Malone

I think the presence of children also marked a change in our profession—we’re growing up. My daughter Amelie was the only baby dedicated to attending presentations (and disrupting them, perhaps), but I saw other babies and children around the edges of the Summit, and I hope this trend continues. I think the community is a bit special. Not the party-hearty types (although IAs can hold their drink, and do it like Irishmen); IAs adore long conversations about ideas. Perhaps that’s why the Summit continues to be one of the most intellectually challenging of the practitioners’ conferences.

Sitting in one session, I found myself hard pressed to keep up with what I was hearing, while realizing the ramifications and possible applications. I kept having to stop jotting down ideas in order to keep up with the complex concepts the speaker was sharing. The Summit is like that; you don’t dare snooze, yet you can’t help join hallway conversations, can’t help writing down how a speaker’s talk will affect your work, and you don’t dare sleep for fear of missing the concept that will shape your year.

I think the days of beginners-only conferences are numbered … and I’m glad. Yes CSS is nifty, yes we like blogs, yes sitemaps are hard. But where can you go to understand an epistemology for practice, or that tags can be used to create self-organizing learning communities? Where else can you chat with Dave Weinberger in the lobby and discover that he was afraid of the intelligence of his audience?

Hooray for Dorkstock!

Conference overview, continued

Reviewed by: Liz Danzico

“Without learning about the context of our business leaders, how are we going to reveal to them the insights we come across every day?”

The annual IA Summit turned seven this year in Vancouver, and for me personally, it marked my fifth year attending. Playing the role of a practitioner, but at times feeling more like an anthropologist, I’ve been fascinated to observe the evolution of the profession—an evolution neatly punctuated by this annual event.

Early conferences were tirelessly (and necessarily) dedicated to defining the thing, while later conferences focused on tools and methods. And while some people are still wondering about definitions, they are no longer asking the questions. Conversations such as these have moved to the hallways (and often, bars), while the presentation rooms are dominated by new interests. This year, in a word: tagging.


Photo credit: Jorge Arango

Indeed there were seven panels on Monday alone that had “tag” in the title (thanks Peterme for pointing that out). This presence, however, may be less about concepts of tagging, and more indicative of a larger consideration of context that is unfolding. Whether that context is about the state of our content (as stated by David Weinberger), the state of our users (as suggested by the Web 2.0 and tagging panels), or the state of our process (as demonstrated by the wireframes and scientific scenario sessions), one thing is clear: we are being pushed to consider the fuzzy edges. New contexts are shaping the way we conduct our professional IA selves with our teams and with our audiences.

This year, as with any other, much of the learning took place both inside and outside the presentation rooms. Here were some of the key themes this year:

From designing interfaces to designing frameworks
Web 2.0 was 2006’s Rich Internet Application (RIA), giving way to rich discussions of new ways of working. For me, what was most interesting is an emerging shift from helping users understand applications to helping designers and developers understand users.

Game on
Between Jess McMullin’s standing-room-only discussion on incorporating game playing into the client work to Yahoo’s Communicating Concepts on Comics session on using comics in the design process, play was certainly a theme this year.

The IA is in
Not since the Baltimore chicken has there been such a present addition to the hallways of the conference. The IA Institute’s “The IA Is In” mentoring booth served as a place to get and give advice. So was it missed that Dan Brown set up a virtual booth on the IAI’s mailing list after the conference. We did, no doubt, witness the birth of a tradition.


Photo credit: Erin Malone

A marked difference this year, importantly, is how many other people are deftly covering the IA Summit. The team at Boxes and Arrows is thrilled to see this since it allowed us to take a different approach to our typical journalist-like approach. In this year’s summaries, you should see a bit less play-by-play coverage, and a bit more commentary and opinion. Other excellent coverage is listed below. Thanks to the 30 volunteers that helped us cover the conference through writing and photos!

I look forward to continuing to watch the evolution as the Summit moves to Las Vegas next year!

Enhancing Your Strategic Influence: Understanding and Responding to Complex Business Problems (Or, O Strategy, Where Art Thou?)
Victor Lombardi, John Zapolski, Scott Hirsch, Harry Max, Mark McCormick
Conference description

Reviewed by: Chris Baum

Where was this session when we started our careers in technology? How many times were you told, “That’s a great idea, but we’ll never be able to sell it. The CEO really wants…” We could have saved untold teeth-gnashing had Management Innovation Group (MIG) existed back in The Bubble. Alas, all that pain was necessary to lead us to this point.

Most user experience professionals are still focused on outputs and practice rather than helping their organizations use our insights to transform the way they operate, grow, and change. Articles and conference programs titled “Selling User Experience” and “ROI of Usability” try to help these poor souls justify their existence and extend their influence. While well meaning, such exercises merely ossify our position as tactical participants in the business cycle.


Photo credit: Erin Malone

In the last year or so, an interest has started to solidify around business practice and how the “design-thinking” can lead to new insights and create change within organizations. Still, many user experience professionals simply do not understand how to assert themselves in an effective manner, nor do they have empathy and familiarity for the senior executives and the challenges they face.

The session description sounds more like a semester course and sets an impossible goal for one day, but the MIG partners and their colleagues focused on a few key concepts an a detailed case study:

Reset our personal context (Scott Hirsch)
Stop thinking like practitioners that are rationalizing or begging for attention. Start creating change. Look at Accenture’s top 50 business gurus, only four are CEOs.

Understand the underlying principles of strategy (John Zapolski)
Strategy is about making choices, saying NO. Companies choose their strategy by making a series of prototypes. Think about the IA special skills; big part of value creation is being conscious where you are today and what levers you can pull to get to where you want to go.

Keep the numbers in mind (Victor Lombardi)
Instead of attempting to force correlation of design activity to business metrics (ROI, etc.), we should recognize that number projections are prototypes–and finance people are the designers. Connect the business way of thinking that drives the certainty to the profits and capital analysis–it’s no more concrete than a design idea.

Show an example in practice (Mark McCormack)
Wells Fargo has created a detailed (and unfortunately proprietary) methodology allows them to treat design decisions as business choices. Anyone who has been involved with the larger organizational resource allocation processes can recognize how a model like this one could integrate design into the process–where it is desperately needed.

Focus your energy to recognize opportunities (Harry Max)
We are trained to be hyper-aware of how a user experiences our interfaces, but at times are less aware of how our organizations work or how we are perceived. Ignore the organizational chart or the stated strategy on our way to finding the right places and people to effect real change.


Photo credit: Erin Malone

Taking the temperature of the room after the presentation, I understand why some people were able to see the impact of the resetting the context and recognizing opportunities, but had trouble with the implications for the middle three ideas. As a product manager, I have participated in these business currents for some time now, and I found great value in these discussions.

Most companies are still doing their strategies and resource allocations with vague descriptions of product directions and some numbers “prototypes.” IAs can provide more depth with our abilities to research, ideate, and prototype solutions.

Without learning about the context of our business leaders, how are we going to reveal to them the insights we come across every day? We need to translate them, not expect them to learn our language. It will be interesting to see these ideas permeate the IA community.

“We all used to draw. I just forgot to stop.”

Creating Conceptual Comics: Storytelling and Techniques
Kevin Cheng, Jane Jao, Mark Wehner
Conference description

Reviewed by: Christian Crumlish

I just spent all day in a seminar led by Kevin Cheng and Jane Jao, both currently at Yahoo! Local, on the subject of Creating Conceptual Comics: Storytelling and Techniques and I came away from it with some great ideas about how to communicate web interface and functionality ideas at the early, prototype stage of a project using comics.


Photo credit: Javier Valasco

They started the workshop by going around the room and asking everyone to say who we were, what we felt passionate about, and why we were there that day. Afterward, Kevin said that either we were lying or that we were the only workshop participants he’d every encountered in which most everyone claimed to be passionate about their work.

Kevin asked if any of us had read Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, a book about creativity in corporate structure which he recommended highly. He also asked us all how many of us considered ourselves artists (about half did, which is a higher fraction than he usually encounters). He said that in first grade most children consider themselves artists. Then with each passing year about half stop doing so. When people ask him how he got started drawing, he says “We all used to draw. I just forgot to stop.”

Jane took over the presentation for a while to discuss various tools they’ve used at Yahoo (they both currently work at Yahoo! Local) to develop site functionality, including requirements documents, personas, user scenarios, and storyboards. They found that requirements were rarely read and personas were interpreted differently by different people.

The solution offered was to use comics as a relatively cheap and easy method intermediate between video and static sketches, and avoiding the problems of traditional storyboards which, by “detailing screen by screen progressions created a focus on the interface, rather than the concept.”

They taught us some principals of communicating with comics, and some key elements of an intuitive visual vocabulary. Kevin’s slides and handouts included examples of facial expressions and body language adapted from classic comic-art texts for the context of interface development.


Photo credit: Erin Malone

They asked us to draw each other and then they had us make smiley faces. They showed us how more abstract, less detailed faces allow the viewer’s imagination to project ideas onto the drawings. They also showed us some paneling tricks to suggest motion and the passage of time.

The next phase of the workshop was a hand’s on exercise. We were broken into groups of two or three people each and given a small assignment that would be plausible in the context of Yahoo! Local. We were told to brainstorm some solutions (with pictures), think big, and write down our assumptions. In the case of my group, we were asked to come up with ideas that would enable a person to plan a trip to Europe.

We came up with a high-level scenario in the form of a list of actions and then narrowed it down to something manageable. Then we collaborated on a script and mapped out a sequence of comic panels. Finally we drew, inked, and lettered our comics.

After lunch we paired up with other teams and acted like user focus-groups, giving feedback on the scenarios and suggesting what we found useful, confusing, etc.

The workshop inspired all kinds of thoughts about how I could employ these techniques in the early, strategic stages of an IA project. The techniques we learned could help communicate and get buy-in for hypothetical user-interfaces, both within our multidisciplinary teams at my agency and with our clients.

Reviews of other conference sessions are available by day:

Summaries elsewhere
Functioning Form, Luke Wroblewski
Glacial Erratics
graphpaper, Chris Fahey
Looks Good Works Well, Bill Scott
UX Matters