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!
I don’t know about you, but when i look at my Flickr and Del.icio.us tags and even the categories for my blog, it makes me realise that folksonomies are not so simple.
Particularly my Del.icio.us account is now so completely out of control that I frequently can’t find things that I *know* I saved and tagged… and I’m supposed to know a thing or two about how to label things!
Where are the main problems? Plurals and abbreviations are my biggest foes. Sometimes I pluralise, sometimes I don’t. Generally I use the full word or term, but occasionally I’ll use an abbreviation, or both! If a term has two words to it, the way that I join the words to make a term varies.
It’s a complete mess.
Why did this happen? Because I didn’t make any rules when I first started, and my ‘rules’ have evolved over time as I see different ways that other people use tags, and as I succumb to using ‘suggested tags’ that break my ‘rules’.
Not only that, but usually I tag in haste, often times because I want to come back and look at the page/site at leisure but I don’t want to lose the link. I’m not really thinking too much about whatever my latest tagging rules might be, and there’s nothing to remind me of what rules I’d decided on.
And, most of all. The system doesn’t care how I tag and doesn’t keep me in line!
it drives me crazy. I feel like a plumber with a dripping tap. But will I ever go back and tidy it up? Probably not. I have a whole lot of links there now – it would take a serious investment of time to tidy up now… and what’s to stop it from ending up in the same state of disrepair in six months time?
If I’m having these kinds of troubles with tagging, then surely others are having even more troubles. And the value of the tagging must surely be diminished because other people are getting less rich results due to my haphazard tagging.
I do love the freedom and flexibility of tagging… but more and more I find myself wanting some rules, and some compulsion to stick to the rules or knowingly break them. And I want a smarter system that realises I’m being silly when I randomly choose to make a tag a plural for no good reason at all.
I want some structure to my tagging.
Do you? Or do you think I’m taking all the fun out of folksonomy?
oooh. how did I miss this! This is how Peter Morville, god of Findability, described the quasi-tag cloud on Act Now (one of my favourite projects).
Thanks for the pointer to the Act Now site which is very interesting. Of course, they’re not really tags, but controlled vocabulary terms masquerading as tags in a tag cloud…which is wonderfully devious.
I like wonderfully devious. (Thanks for the link Melissa!). More thinking about tag clouds and controlled vocabulary is in order I think…
Two redesigns went live whilst I was mostly offline that particularly caught my attention, for quite different reasons. They are news.com.au and Technorati. From what I’ve read there’s been mixed opinions (of course)… so I’m interested to hear what you think of them.
Obviously it’s going to help if you’ve seen the previous incarnations of these sites. The News example is a fairly logical progression from the previous design, where as Technorati is quite a significant departure from the previous design.
Both of these redesigns where unexpected when I first saw them, and with both of them I had a very definite ‘gut reaction’. I *really* liked the changes that the guys at News have made to their site. I really *don’t* like the changes that Technorati have made.
I’ve found it interesting in evaluating these two designs that this initial and quite emotional reaction is the one that has stayed with me. Yes, I’ve read all the comments from devestated News.com.au readers who don’t like the change, and particularly from those still using 800×600 who now have the joys of horizontal scrolling introduced to their daily online news experience… (that was a pretty silly oversight or decision). Similarly, I’ve heard people praise the cleaner, simpler, easier to navigate site that is Technorati.
None of these arguments are going to move me one inch, because my reaction is so irrational and emotional. The new News site makes me feel warm, the Technorati site leaves me cold (literally).
I think Australian’s can be pretty proud of the way that our main news sites are designed (the other example to check out is the Sydney Morning Herald… yes, they look quite similar, that’s a recent development). I find both of these sites do what I want news sites to do – let me scan and see if there’s something that interests me, but also present interesting stuff to me in a way that looks interesting and engaging. Hey, lots of the time I don’t know what’s interesting…!
Last year there was a bunch of hype around the redesign of the New York Times. It’s frequently put forward as the benchmark for online news. For me, I’d take SMH or News.com.au anyday. I think the NY Times is a bit of a mess… a visual overload with way too much on the page and way to little by way of hierarchy.
One of the great online disappointments, I think, is The Guardian’s website. This newspaper has the most gorgeous design in hard copy, but a very uninspiring online presence. So much so that I’ve actually just organised to have the paper delivered to my door every morning, and I rarely look online for news. (Although, I do still jump onto SMH and News.com.au every now and then).
Technorati I never really used a lot and there were usually only two reasons for me to visit – to do a search on a tag to see who else was blogging about something I was just about to blog on, and the occasional rankings checking that every blogger is guilty of. The previous design of Technorati was never something you’d get over excited about. You could find your way around, but it wasn’t particularly fun. Or pretty. Say what you will though, it did have it’s own unique character, Technorati looked like Technorati, you knew where you where.
On my first visit to Technorati after the redesign, I was pretty certain I was in the wrong place. Surely this is the site of a web 2.0 project in private beta who haven’t yet got the funding to find anyone who’s really very interested in design. This isn’t a finished version is it? You see… no matter how ‘clean’ Technorati is, it’s also unpolished and bland. I get no pleasure from looking at that site anymore. Not even to check my ranking.
Nope, I’m not going to evaluate these sites from an information architecture perspective or an interaction design perspective or even a usability perspective today. This is a post about gut feel. I feel really proud of the team who designed news.com.au and really disappointed with Technorati. These feelings influence my user experience and impact my usage behaviour. Rationalise it however you like – the gut reaction counts.
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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