EuroIA 10 report: day 1

Live report of Europe’s IA summit


EuroIA is the primary European Information Architecture conference. In 2011 it took place in Prague, The Czech Republic.

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For Europe’s sixth IA Summit, an international crowd gathered in Paris for three days of talks, workshops and networking. With a good mix of inspirational and practical talks, the recurring topics of the first day for me were service design,  what IA is all about and the relationships with business, development and marketing.

Keynote – Oliver Reichenstein: iA on IA

Oliver Reichenstein

Building upon ideas discussed over at his blog, Oliver started his keynote by sharing why he chose to be @iA and how his understanding of information architecture evolved. Oliver liked the sound and notion of ‘Information Architect’, but when he first encountered IAs on a project, he was ‘traumatised’ by jargon, dogma and self-importance. It didn’t match what he saw in the term:

  • IA can be related to philosophy – philosophers are mind architects (Nietzsche), IAs are philosophical engineers;
  • IA is about communication;
  • IA is about seeing what works and how it looks, about (re)building until your initial vision has found its shape (this is fun – play Lego);
  • IA is the recipe for cooking good user experience.

But, can information be architected?
Oliver addressed this question by sharing how things are done at iA. An information architecture evolves and refines itself throughout the product development process. It’s the first concrete result of user and client research that the iA strategy team molds into initial wireframes. Information architecture becomes tangible in the design sketches, and Oliver presents wires and information architecture next to each other to his clients.

IA is what programmers at iA do, moving from the flat lands of Fireworks into prototyping. It’s optimised through prototyping, A/B testing, studying user behaviour, fixing mistakes watching and evaluating user behaviour live. Everybody at iA contributes from their perspective – designers, product managers, developers.

Often at conferences, the Q&A at the end of a talk turn into boring comments everybody is forced to listen to. However after Oliver’s keynote, the topics triggered by questions from the audience where almost more interesting than his session:

On creating beautiful things
Beauty in interaction design happens through use, through experiencing. Writer doesn’t look spectacular, but it’s functional and beautifully useful. Die Zeit hired iA not only because they knew the outcome would look good, but because they wanted to make it functional.

On how he was influenced by his studies of philosophy
Philosophy is about understanding the development and organisation of motions. Studying philosophy teaches you to understand different perspectives, hence it’s a good training for understanding how a design is being looked at, and developed from different points of view.

On Japanese web design and business culture
To the western world, Japanese websites look cluttered – but we don’t grasp just how much content they contain, with each Kanji carrying a high density of information. Consider the different reading and information processing behaviour, but also the different notion of beauty. As a designer, it can be challenging to work with clients in a business culture that holds agreement from all parties dear. IA is a science, but to a certain point also art; IAs take directions that not everybody agrees with, and then test if these work. An approach that’s hard to sell to Japanese clients.

If all of this sounds interesting to you, take a look at Jeroen’s interview with Oliver.

Design beyond the ‘glowing rectangle’: user experience design and research implications of the internet of things – Claire Rowland and Chris Browne

(by Franco Papeschi)

Claire and Chris shared their considerations about the impact of connected smart objects on design and user experience. The ‘Internet of things’ is a promise yet to be realised, but there are examples that begin to show the potential, a potential that could bring between 22 and 50 billion of connected objects by 2020. Connected bicycles, umbrellas or prescription bottles, are already there. As part of SmarcoS, a multi-company R&D project, Claire and Chris have identified some key challenges for designers:

  • Services and UI design need to scale and work across devices;
  • Interoperability of data and objects;
  • Privacy management of all the data generated can get complex;
  • New research and prototyping methods to iterate and evaluate the internet of things (eg bodystorming, paratyping, wizard of oz prototyping, drama methods, and ethnography) to understand;
  • New mental models and metaphors.

Examples and solutions for these challenges were one of the most important takeaways, including a story from a connected city in Korea, where one smart card gives you access to public transport, libraries and other services . Claire and Chris promised to publish their talk online soon, and material will also be available on the SmarcoS website. In the meantime, if you want to find out more, we recommend having a look at Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino’s work.

Confusion and Clarity in IA – D. Grant Campbell

Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful.

Information architecture strives to make complex information spaces clear to users by anticipating user needs and selecting or suppressing details. Beck’s map of the London Underground is a pioneering example of information visualisation and IA: it serves a specific purpose, navigating the tube network, extremely well by showing you only what’s related to this purpose.
The web is no longer a place we make excursions to with an objective, but omnipresent. We can no longer rely on designing clarity by focussing on users’ purpose, as information needs are now often temporary moments in a longer process. Problematic information situations, eg when you’re bankrupt, unemployed, or have learned about a chronic illness, can be confusing and perplexing. How can we create oases of clarity?

Grant related this challenge to cities – places of seeming confusion, but when you look carefully the complexity turns into patterns. He argued that IAs need to develop their vocabulary to talk about patterns emerging from chaos. Using Charles Dickens’ Bleak House as an example, Grant discussed how descriptions of cities in literature could inform designing complex information environments.

IA is an oscillation between articulations of perplexity and the creation of coherence, trying to create oases of clarity. To do this, we have to acknowledge the confusion that’s there, and find ways to articulate the resemblance, the relationship between perplexity and coherence.

Sounds complex? 45 mins were too short to explore Grant’s ideas for new metaphors, so I shall read Bleak House and wait for Grant’s next publication on the topic to follow up.

The New, Smart Customers. How they really buy and how we can address this – Carmen Fehrenbach & Axel Roesgen

Carmen and Axel started their talk on designing for retail by reminding us that buying decisions are very individual, depending on the customer’s personality and attitude, the product, the circumstances and the culture. Pulling together research by Forrester, Sapient Nitro and the Consumer Commerce Barometer, the talk focussed not on spontaneous, but considered purchases.

Consider the purchase path:
Idea > Research > Decision > Purchase > after-purchase experience and opinion-building

For considered purchases, the idea is triggered intrinsically – the challenge is to make customers stay, and buy. Understand your users and design for relevance.

How people research depends on the product. While online reviews are a main information source when buying electronics, people like to look at clothes in store. But often research takes place both in the online and offline space. Have you ever taken a print-out of your online research to the shop, to make sure you find the right product and have all information to hand to make a decision? Have you ever looked up online reviews via your smartphone while in a shop? People go as far as taking photos of themselves wearing clothes in the shop, only to take home to get feedback and ponder over their buying decision. Make sure you understand, and address, customers’ information needs for different products.

How we can design for the cross-channel retail experience? While we often only get the chance to design one part of the retail experience, bear your customer’s journey in mind, and look at all the information on buying behaviour that’s out there.

Organisations often underestimate what it takes – it’s hard to align content, taxonomies, backend behaviour and billing processes. Service blueprints, touchpoint matrixes, visualisations of mental models and experience maps are tools to communicate the purchase flow and all of its touchpoints.

Besides the challenge to tackle the system that is the retail experience, it can be difficult to track conversion and get data how customers move between different channels.

Alignment diagrams: strategic ux deliverables – James Kalbach

Other talks touched on UX deliverables that visualise the complexity of a service or system, so it was great that James Kalbach put together a comprehensive overview of the tools to hand.

Referencing Jess McMullin (if you’re interested in UX and business, Jess’ work is a must), James introduced value-centered design, and defined alignment diagrams as diagnostic tools that allow us to identify how we can create value for our users, and for the business. It’s crucial to make value explicit to your design, business and tech teams through visualisation.

  1. Service blueprint
    Check out this example of a service blueprint by Adaptive Path’s Brandon Schauer
  2. Customer journey map
    At the top: phases of interaction a person has with a company, brand, product or service over time
    Each phase has different facets of information (interaction, paint points, ‘moments of truth’).
    The map describes customer experience and the business touchpoints.
    At the bottom: business SWOT analysis for each phase.
  3. Workflow diagrams
    Map what a customer is doing against what business is doing. The diagram can be aoverlaid with painpoints and other information. It’s similar to the journey map, but a different visualisation.
  4. Mental models
    An example from Indie Young’s book groups tasks into goal spaces. The model shows how the business can address these goal spaces, but also how it can benefit from the customers’ goals. Mental models are not about a strict chronology as the flow, diagrams, but visualisation based on hierarchies.
    “A mental model helps you visualise how your business strategy looks compared to the existing user experience.” – Indie Young
  5. Behaviour matrix
    Using an example from his book, an behaviour matrix is a table consisting of: phase / actions / thoughts / feelings / features / business
  6. Isometric map
    Take a look at Paul Kahn’s work

Benefits: Alignment diagrams create common understanding, show the big picture, provide a common language, create value, support continuity in vision (prototyping the end-to-end service design) and facilitate enterprise IA (visualise how needs to talk to whom to make the service happen).

Arguments: If you take these deliverables to non-UX folks, to business people, have good arguments ready. Alignment diagrams visualise business complexity (diagrams can bring an array of clarity), cross-channel experiences and help to find opportunities for differentiation, innovation and growth.

Business literature talks about service design, so there’s vocabulary we can use. Recommended:

  • 1984 article in Harvard business review: G. Lynn Shostack: Design Services that Deliver. Pioneered service blueprints;
  • 1992 Karl Albrech:t The only thing that matters. Value at the core of things;
  • 2007 Ram Charan: What the customer wants you to know. Value chain.

Why is this relevant for IAs?
We can bring our skills to the table: research, analyse abstract concepts, organise information, create visual representations and communicate across teams.

Marketing departments and consultancies are taking over the service mapping space, but there’s opportunities for solving business problems through design.

What do to now?
Check out James’ Customer journey mapping resources on web
Read Indi Young’s book, Harvard Business Review, Ram Charan
Try diagramming 🙂

On why we should NOT focus on user experience – Koen Claes

(by Franco Papeschi)


Starting from Daniel Kanhemann’s consideration that “we actually donʼt choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences.”, Koen suggests designers should change their approach – decisions are made by the ‘remembering self’, rather than the ‘experiencing self’. Koen shared a series of design principles (and examples) for how to make something memorable. His recipe for designing SUCCESS:

  • Simple;
  • Unexpected;
  • Concrete;
  • Credible.
  • Emotional;
  • Stories.

Make sure your experience finishes strong. Endings are the most important part of a journey, as they have the bigges impact on your memory of an experience.

Implementing identity on . Challenges, deliverables and ethics – Martin Belam

The Guardian has 2.1 m unique users daily, 1.2m pieces of content in the database, tagged with 7000+ keywords, displayed in 150+ templates and just one IA.

This sole IA is Martin Belam , who shared an insightful story of a six month project tackling users’ digital identity on the Guardian website with us. While the Guardian knows a lot about content, there’s little knowledge about the site’s users. An identity platform would give people a personality on the site and help understand who is part of the Guardian reader community.

Martin started the project by making ‘an explainer’ – a presentation for pitching internally why the problem of users’ identities needed addressing. While users create public content, such as comments on articles, there’s also a need for a private dashboard, eg for information posted on the job part of the website. Besides recording and distributing his explainer, Martin visualised the problem using wireframes and sketches, carrying a ‘portable IA kit’ and collaborating closely with the design and development team. As he puts it:

Lots of my work isn’t deliverables designing the system, but deliverables to get the system built in the first place.

A key issue Martin addressed was reusing existing digital identities vs creating a new one on yet another website or service. Lanyrd is a clever example of a service built around an existing identity, in this case Twitter. Should the Guardian pull in rich data about their readers from eg Facebook? OAuth raises concerns: what happens if the service your customers used to register closes down? The recent OAuth implementation by Twitter isn’t acceptable, as the Guardian can’t control the information. Due to these considerations, the Guardian decided to get their own registration right, and then see where integration would make sense.

We see many websites integrating 3rd party services – be careful and only integrate social elements that make sense in the context of your site. Consider the Facebook ‘Like’ button next to sad or controversial news. Sharing would be more appropriate, but with ‘liking’ likely to replace sharing, this feature doesn’t fit the context of a news website.

Finally, Martin talked about his guiding principles for designing for privacy. It’s all about trust, and ideally you should tell your users what data you collect and how it’s being used. This can be a challenge to push for, as telling your users what’s going on can scare them, seem like too much information, and conflict with business objectives. Dark Patterns around privacy and sharing are emerging (take a look at Harry Brignull’s worrying collection ) – these patterns lead to mistrust, and won’t be accepted by users in the long run. Services like Webfinger or RapLeaf show were things might be heading.

To get now comments on a Guardian article, you have to write about geeky tech and IA stuff. Comments are often what makes articles most interesting. Martin shared a story about ‘gherkingirl’, who added a real-life story to an article about rape by sharing her own experience as a comment. Taking her anonymity away by connecting her Guardian profile to her identity on a 3rd party service would have made this impossible. Every user has an identity on the Guardian site – we need to allow people to define their identities in the context of each service, and don’t enforce one web identity.

Johanna Kollmann

Johanna Kollmann is a Senior UX consultant at EMC Consulting in London. Her background is in Information Design and Human-Computer Interaction, and one of her main interests is how UX designers collaborate in multi-disciplinary teams. When she's don’t organising or attending barcamps, hackdays or other geeky events, Johanna can be found at gigs or on her mission to find the best espresso in town.

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  2. Johanna Kollmann on

    Resources for Martin Belam’s presentation can be found at his blog:

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