IA Summit 2009 report: day 1

A day-by-day report of this year’s IA Summit. Starting with day 1.

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Friday 20th March marked the opening day of the 10th IA Summit. Held in Memphis (USA), at the Peabody Hotel (famous for its ducks) the 2009 conference revolved around the theme “Expanding our horizons”. 350 people from around the world converged on Memphis for the three day event, and after two days of pre-conference workshops; 2nd breakfasts, elevenses, lunch, afternoon drinks, dinner, after-dinner drinks, and nightcaps; and the occasional trip to Gracelands, BB King’s Blue Restaurant, and – of course – the March of the Ducks at the Peabody, the conference got under way.

Keynote – Michael Wesch: Mediated Culture

Wesch‘s background in anthropology was well in evidence during this engaging, wide-ranging, and fast-paced exploration of the role of media in shaping our culture.

The keynote started in remote villages in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and ended with the role of information architectures as architectures of human participation.

Michael Wesch’s work in Papua New Guinea in the late 90′s provided an opportunity to study a culture in which relationships are entirely unmediated. The lack of telephones, newspapers, letters – let alone email, IM, twitter, or facebook – necessitate direct interaction between individuals. In the absence of any written laws or legal code, disputes were settled with a group discussion wherein parties put forward their issues.

The physical layout of the villages were another reflection of this lack of mediation. Huts were positioned and oriented based on one family’s relationship to, and friendship with their neighbours.

The introduction of a Government census created a cascading set of changes to village life. The census required each individual to have a name by which they could be recorded, however people tend to have several names. Wesch likened this to our own multiplicity of identities online and off, but used examples such as “brother”, “father”, “husband” etc for the villagers. This new unique name – “Census name” – became the way in which individuals identified themselves officially.

The flow on effects were severe. Villages were rebuilt in linear arrangement, hiding the relational character of previous layouts. This linearity was to enable hut numbering – an address – to be given to each individual. A documented legal code introduced the notion of mediated disputes – the individual now presented their ‘case’ to an official – someone who understands and could interpret the specific issues being presented.

The essential point here was that media are not just tools; they shape our relationships.

Wesch then embarked on a rapid foray into Web properties such as Youtube to show examples of how media shapes our relationships today. Looking at topics such as ‘bias’ in media – intellectual, emotional, spatial, temporal, sensory, political, social, metaphysical and epistemological – Wesch showed how media has a real impact on the ways in which we interact and think.

Lastly, Wesch tied these topics into the role of information architecture in creating architectures of human participation. Looking at such ideas as media’s role in both distancing up – through mediation – and connecting us, Wesch set up the rest of the conference to look at issues of context, language, and architecture.

Andrew Hinton – “You are (mostly) here. Digital space and the context problem”

My first presentation of the day was Andrew Hinton‘s talk on context. Melding ideas from cognitive psychology and information design, with examples from such sites as Facebook, Andrew discussed the role of context in experience design.

One of the more interesting examples from this session was the different visualizations of a particular suburban location and the different information conveyed by each. But the point was made that, regardless of which map was being used, it was our understanding of the territory that was being shaped – not the territory itself.

In digital spaces, however, the map creates the territory; and language & context shape each other.

Dan Brown: Designing Rules – The Engine of User Experience

I really enjoyed Dan’s presentation. It was a good coverage of ground I’ve been operating on for a number of years -  how to specify the rules by which content, navigation, and interactions behave in a dynamic interface. By ‘rules’, Dan is referring to the algorithms which drive changes to the presentation and behaviour of the interface.

The presentation covered three broad areas:

  • Content: rules that drive content selection and presentation;
  • Navigation: rules-driven changes to the make-up of sub-navigation; and
  • Business rules: inventory-driven presentation rules as well as rules for determining process flow;
  • What makes a ‘good’ rule; and
  • Some guidelines for documenting them.

These rules are not necessarily patterns, although patterns may suggest the use of certain rules. Nor are they components, although components may use rules to drive behaviour.

In short, Dan’s presentation covered the ways in which we can define, document and communicate the behaviour of a site or application.

Cindy Chastain: Experience Themes: An Element of Story Applied to Design.

Cindy Chastain presenting at IA Summit 2009. Photo courtesy of Jonell Gades

Cindy Chastain presenting at IA Summit 2009. Photo courtesy of Jonell Gades

This was one of my favourite presentations of the conference. Cindy took a fresh look at the pointy end of experience design projects, presenting ideas from the art and craft of storytelling.

Using the notion of themes from fiction and film – the subject matter, topic or idea on which a work of art or literature is based – Cindy put forward a case for their use in experience design projects as a means of unifying teams, assisting in the work of defining strategy, and helping to design for pleasure, emotion and meaning.

The presentation looked at the tangible and intangible elements of a user experience. The content, pages, flow and visual design being the tangible; emotion, pleasure and meaning being the intangible elements.

Cindy went on to put forward the idea that writers and filmmakers design for emotion, pleasure and meaning all the time. For these pursuits, the theme represents the coordinating force – something that is often missing from Web projects.

The notion of a theme as a unifying concept for UX projects is a new one (at least to me) and contrasts well with the (rather jaded) Vision statement. I’m looking forward to seeing more on this from Cindy in the future.

Evolve or Die: Panel session

This panel session, comprising material from Gene Smith, Russ Unger, Joshua Porter and Christina Wodtke was perhaps the most contentious of any of the first day’s sessions. Part message of doom; part call to action, the four presenters addressed the question of how practitioners of information architecture (as opposed to the practice) can remain central to the work of designing effective and efficient Web sites and applications.

The perspective of the presenters seemed to reflect a reality that was different to the one with which I’m familiar; one in which information architects fulfil fairly narrowly defined tasks within a broader project. Coming from an agency and consultancy background in which information architecture, interface and interaction design are merged in the one job role, the central tenets of the presentation were foreign. However, theirs is a reality that is all too common in large US corporations.

Notebook, sharpie and conference notes. Photo courtesy of Jonell Gades

Notebook, sharpie and conference notes. Photo courtesy of Jonell Gades

The advice for information architects in these narrow functions was solid: expand your toolset; focus on the end product, not the deliverable; you are not your title; go deep, if information is your thing – design rules for systems, social spaces, design algorithms, recommendation engines.

For those working in these narrow roles the advice surely caused some angst, but I don’t think most people saw anything terribly unconventional in the notion that we need to remain relevant to the business and provide value beyond cranking out wireframes and sitemaps thoughtlessly.

And so ended the formal part of Day 1.

Title photo courtesy of Joe Sokohl

Steve Baty

Steve Baty, principal at Meld Studios, has over 14 years experience as a design and strategy practitioner. Steve is well-known in the area of experience strategy and design, contributing to public discourse on these topics through articles and conferences. Steve serves as Vice President of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA); is a regular contributor to UXMatters.com; serves as an editor and contributor to Johnny Holland (johnnyholland.org), and is the founder of UX Book Club – a world-wide initiative bringing together user experience practitioners in over 80 locations to read, connect and discuss books on user experience design. Steve is co-Chair of UX Australia – Australia’s leading conference for User Experience practitioners; and Chair of Interaction 12 – the annual conference of the IxDA for 2012.

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