Last weekend in Berlin I attended the 2nd EuroIA Conference themed ‘Building Our Practice’. In retrospect, it was a valuable experience, although there are a lot of opportunities for this conference to improve.
Around 200 people attended, most of whom practiced Information Architecture as a part of their work. Attendees were from all over Europe, and a significant proportion had languages other than English as their native tongue.
Despite that, there was little or no concession made for the multilingual nature of the event. The conference was conducted in English – which was just as well for me (there’s nothing like being in Europe to make you feel like a neanderthal for speaking only one language) – and understandable as English was the common tongue. Yet I couldn’t help but think that it seemed kind of strange that the proceedings were, well… so English.
Now, nobody tries to pretend that Information Architects are the cool kids of technology, but the absence of schwag kind of set the tone. (Perhaps I had high expectations after BarCamp London and the multiple free t-shirts?) Add to that the fact that the conference was held on a weekend, and you get the kind of utilitarian feel that was present throughout the conference.
This was heighted by the format of the presentations which were almost entirely ‘speaker on stage with powerpoint slides preaching to the crowd below’. There was, of course, the odd panel and the poster session. This made the relatively unconventional presentation by the FramFab/LBi boys (I never did quite figure out what was going on with those two brands) on Wicked Workshops particularly refreshing (it had a double act presentation, included music AND everyone in the room standing up and breaking into groups for a short brainstorming exercise). Hoorah!
And a great topic too – making workshops more effective and more fun. Hoorah to that – if only they had more time so we could have learned more about the actual techniques that they used, rather than their ‘framework’ (lots of people at this conference had a ‘framework’ to share with us… apparently Frameworks are the new black).
Unfortunately, the ‘high level’ factor was a problem throughout the conference. I found many of the presentations somewhat frustrating as they tended only to skim the surface of their topic, rather than getting down and dirty with the actual application of the ideas. Too few people gave *actual* examples of their work, or talked specifically about how we can apply their ideas in practice. And very few people took a strong position on any kind of potentially controversial topic.
This made me nod and smile quite a bit when I read Adam Greenfield’s rejection of the Information Architecture community.
Many of the talks given could easily have been presented to an audience with just a cursory understanding of Information Architecture. I’m sure I’m not the only one in the audience who didn’t need to be told that content was important, or that calls to action made people click where we want them to. I wanted more specifics – what is good content and what sucks. Just *how* do you design an effective call to action. (These are just a couple of simple examples that spring to mind, don’t focus on these). I wanted DETAIL people, detail! Instead, I often felt as though I was given IA platitudes.
(I know, if I have a problem, I should submit a proposal and get up there myself. If I knew I was going to be in Europe at the time of the conference, perhaps I would have. I have hopped up at conferences and spoken and I have submitted proposals – I know how hard it can be, and I do appreciate the bravery and the effort made by the speakers. I’m hoping this comes across as constructive criticism).
Peter Morville opened proceedings with the keynote speech. I’ve been following Peter’s work with interest for a while now (I mean, who hasn’t read the Polar Bear Book). This meant that most of what Peter had to say seemed pretty familar to me.
A few ideas he spoke of resonated with me, including:
the idea that information search is a path of learning, that it is one of the most important ways we learn today. This was presented in relation to Marcia Bate’s idea of Berry Picking (which I love) which talks about how we refine our search as we get crude results and learn more about our topic of interest which in turn allows us to refine our search.
IA’s need to know more about Interaction Design – the boundaries are blurring (I think for me they’ve always been blurred, but I’m glad to hear that is happening for more and more IAs)
it was great to hear Peter talk through the User Experience Honeycomb – in particular, the relationship between each of the cells.
findability and credibility are closely aligned
“Architects of digital spaces need one foot in the past and one in the future” (I have this in my notes and can’t remember if that was a Peter quote or if he quoted someone else… I really like it though). We’re designing for the future, but we need to be aware of long term trends.
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. What is this information abundance doing to the way that we learn? And to our decision making. Is it better or worse?
How will findability work once we start to really incorporate location awareness. The technology is already with us. Are we thinking about it enough? (Um… nope).
We are dramatically increasing the amount of ‘stuff’ that is searchable (location/’physical space’, audio, video, and more).
Processes that we can build that examine folksonomies/tags as patterns that can evolve into taxonomy
The future of findability? A search box (and a good search that works)
Peter also made an intriguing note about wikis and IAs (there is a popular idea that wikis mean that everyone is an information architect these days). Peter implied that the fixed navigation of the ‘inverted L’ of Wikipedia (which has been formally ‘architected’) is the reason that Wikipedia projects a sense of authority.
I thought that was kind of odd, because for me the interesting thing about Wikipedia and IA is that the information design and architecture in the content section of the pages is remarkably good, considering that it’s been designed by community. Someone should right a paper on that! (yeah, yeah, I know. I’m really busy right now).
Don’t worry. I didn’t take that many notes on all the speakers… I’m not sure why I did with Peter.
Next up – Eric Reiss. Eric opened by threatening a striptease. Of course, in typical IA fashion, it ended up just being taking of a collared shirt to reveal a t-shirt. (Which I think said something funny in German, but I missed that).
Eric was, however, one of the daring speakers who did actually take a position and defend it as he identified Seven Trends in IA.
Possibly one of the most contentious/interesting assertions of the conference was the idea that strategic or ‘big’ IAs are drifting away from actually practicing or ‘little’ IA and that this is potentially problematic. Partly because it means that ‘little IAs’ end up being unimportant ‘grunt’ workers (my terms, not Eric’s), and big IA’s get much more important but have less clue about what it actually means to *do* Information Architecture, so are less likely to be doing a good job as Big IAs.
I hear what he’s saying, and I find that I have to make more and more effort to ensure that actually practicing IA remains a part of my role – I hope that it is always a part of my role, even though I do really enjoy the strategic aspects of the role.
I wonder – does anyone see themselves as purely a ‘little IA’ in the long term? Or is it more like an apprenticeship and we all gradually progress as far into ‘big IA’ territory as we choose to?
The subject of strategy in the larger business sense was a key theme of this conference (not by design, I assume). There was lots of talk of IA’s being a logical choice to guide/contribute to strategy greater than just information architect (because we have a useful set of skills and access to lots of parts of the business). I had to laugh as the talked of IA’s muscling in (well, as much of 200 people who, we later discovered, don’t go to the gym, can muscle!) in on all kinds of other roles, only to yelp at the idea of those pesky planners in advertising agencies muscling in on strategy. How dare they! :)
Olly Wright spoke well on the topic of Strategic IA, but my favourite concept from his talk was quite simple. Olly advocated making nicely designed diagrams to communicate your IA strategy – even using graphic design resources if, like me, you’re not good at pretty. Olly says – if you can’t draw your IA strategy, then your strategy isn’t clear. Hear hear.
OK. Now I’m getting as bored of this post as you probably are, so I’m going to wrap it up for now.
I am, however, really looking forward to sharing some thoughts with you on the closing keynote from Steven Pemberton, who I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of before he hopped up to speak. Lots of juicy stuff and lots that I knew nothing of before… oooh! I just wish I wasn’t too exhausted to tell you about it now!
photo: thanks to Marg for the illustration. She did drawings of everyone who spoke… unfortunately the cleaner took her first day of notes/drawings so only a few remain!
Yay! I just found out I’m going to Euro IA this weekend! The line up looks great, and I’ve not been to Berlin before, so there is much excitement at the moment. (It will help me come to terms with missing the OZ IA Retreat, at any rate). Hoorah!
Now, who else is going to be there that I need to keep an eye out for?
I’ve been really interested to see the way that conversations around conferences are being collated online. The recent D.Construct conference had a BackNetwork that I thought was really great – even though I wasn’t able to attend the conference. The upcoming Web Directions conference in Sydney has a similar Web Connections site set up. Even though these aren’t designed for those of us unable to attend – it’s a really valuable resource for those of us unable to attend.
The idea of the PodCastJam for Office 2.0 is to expand the conversation to people who aren’t invited to speak, or who aren’t able to attend, but who are still really interested in this topic. Anyone can contribute a short podcast, and then around the time of the conference, the podcasts are shared, and chats and blog posts and otherways of having this conversation allows all kinds of people who wouldn’t usually be engaged in this conversation to have a voice, and to engage with other people who are also interested – hopefully both those who can attend the conference and those who can’t.
From my perspective, this is a great opportunity for three groups who are usually chronically under-represented at these conferences to have a voice: women (which is where it started), people not from the US (as an Australian, I know how hard it is to get to these cool conferences!), and people who are interested in usable and accessible design.
So – getting to the point of this post. If you are in any one of the three groups I’ve just mentioned. Or, if you’ve got something to say about Office 2.0 but haven’t been invited or able to attend the conference. Get involved!
Contribute a short podcast, or put PodCastJam in your diary and come get involved in the conversation.
As you’d expect, women were significantly under-represented at BarCamp. On the upside, the girls that were there seemed were mighty smart and interesting, and they all got up and did their bit (as you do at BarCamp). Also, there was never a queue for the loo :)
And here’s where I feel as though I might be potentially letting the team down…
… perhaps women just didn’t want to come to BarCamp, and perhaps they don’t want to get up and speak?
Perhaps they have better things going on in their lives… or things that they’d rather do? Perhaps they have different ways of communicating with each other? (a la Anne’s PodCast idea?)
I know lots of women who work in technology, but I know *very* few who would be willing to give up their weekend to come to something like BarCamp.
It’s not that they don’t love their work, or that they don’t care about what people are talking about at BarCamp, or that they’re not bright and vibrant and passionate people. It’s just that they’re not willing to give up their free time like that.
These are the same women friends of mine who aren’t blogging. They’re too busy doing their work and then getting out the door and having a life. And it’s not because they don’t *know* about blogging, or they don’t have access or technical ability. Lots of them have had a go at blogging and just aren’t that into it.
And. Fair enough.
These women are different to me. I spend way too much time online, reading all your blogs, writing my own, going to BarCamp. I’m willing to scare myself crazy with fear and hop up and speak so that I get to meet more people, share my ideas with them and learn from them. But lately, I really feel as though I’m a minority (amongst the people that I know in the *real* world… the blogging world, obviously, is skewed).
I’m just thinking, perhaps we’re fighting a battle for a tribe who aren’t really interested in the war?
Which leads me to the other point… I know that in lots of cases, people who are organising conferences just don’t think to invite women. (I’m thinking, if they don’t *know* any women, isn’t this a *great* opportunity to meet some?!).
In lots of other cases, though – you ask the organisers if they’ll let you speak.
At this very moment, you could be writing up a proposal to get up in front of the UPA Conference and the IA Conference next year. I wonder how many women are writing up their proposals, or how many (like me!) are thinking that they don’t really have anything interesting or important to say.
If you’re a woman, and you know a thing or two about Information Architecture or Usability/User Experience – have you thought about putting together a proposal?
(And yes, I know there are a few women who hop up every year and do a fantastic job. I hope they keep doing that. But I’d love to see more.)
So, here’s what I’m thinking. Yes, there should be more women at conferences – both attending and speaking, but there’s more to it than that. Lots of conferences just aren’t so interesting. And lots of women don’t think they have to say that other people would find important or interesting.
Perhaps if we focus on those kinds of issues, the problem might go away?
Update: Just going through my RSS feeds – of course Robert Scoble couldn’t stay out of the debate…. but here’s the thing – he virtually offers an invitation to women to put their hand up to be on his new show – lots of heated debate later, there are only two women who have done anything like say ‘pick me’. I’m sure a lot more men than women read Scoble… but surely lots of the women who do would fit the geek profile he’s after? or not.
My name is Leisa Reichelt. I am the Head of User Research at the Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office.
I lead a team of great researchers who work in agile, multidisciplinary digital teams to help continuously connect the people who design products with the people who will use them and support experimentation and ongoing learning in product design.
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