Thoughts on the First IA Conference

I just returned from Orlando, where I had the opportunity to attend the first ever Information Architecture Conference. That’s somewhat disingenuous: “IA Conference” is only a new name for the conference formerly known as the IA Summit. The name was changed this year due to a transition in stewardship: the event is no longer organized by ASIS&T but by the Information Architecture Institute. In any case, I’ve been attending this gathering since 2005, missing only one year since. So even though technically this was my first “IA Conference,” it was actually my fourteenth event.

Given the change in name and management, I expected this year’s conference to have fewer attendants than in previous years. That proved to be the case. I don’t have the numbers, but this felt like the smallest version of this conference I’ve attended. Perhaps my perception was influenced by the setting, the cavernous Renaissance Orlando at Seaworld. This hotel features a very large atrium that served as the setting for many of the conference’s meals and informal gatherings. It’s a place designed to accommodate large groups, and it made our small gathering feel smaller. (Where a smaller venue would’ve made the gathering feel more intimate.)

The weather was relatively warm, which allowed us to enjoy a few outdoor activities. The conference’s opening reception was held in one of the hotel’s “lawns” (actually covered in AstroTurf.) This lawn was also the setting for the first of two Polar Bear Yoga sessions that I hosted (and that were graciously sponsored by Rosenfeld Media.) This was my third year hosting yoga sessions at the conference, but the first in a setting that allowed us to practice outdoors. It made a big difference: we had the opportunity to do sun salutations as the sun was rising, and got to lie in Shavasana to a soundtrack of birdsong and (artificial) waterfalls. (Alas, the following day’s Polar Bear Yoga session had to be moved to a conference room due to changes in the weather; it got cooler and wetter.)

Besides hosting Polar Bear Yoga, I also led my Information Architecture Essentials workshop at the conference. This workshop is designed to serve as an introduction to the discipline of IA through a high-level overview of the material in the polar bear book. As a result, the workshop attracts folks who are new to the discipline (and to the IA Conference community as a whole.) It’s always a pleasure for me to meet enthusiastic newcomers to our discipline. I still remember the thrill I felt when I discovered early on in my career that there was a community of practice that did what I did. Interacting with folks who are discovering the discipline energizes me and fills me with a sense of responsibility towards our community.

This year I felt that sense of responsibility more strongly than in past years. As I’ve already mentioned, this was a smaller conference than previous ones. Again, I don’t have the numbers, but my perception was that there were relatively less first-time attendees than in previous years. (Again, predictable given the name change; people already “in the know” were more likely to come than people who were looking for something called “IA Summit.”) So I’ve been mulling questions about the conference’s future. What do these changes entail for my “home” community of practice? With newcomers outnumbered by old-timers, do we run the risk of coming across as insular? How do we engage more newcomers? There are people in the world doing this sort of work and not knowing what it’s called. How will they find our community and its yearly gathering? More to the point, does this smaller gathering signal the beginning of a downward spiral in attendance/interest or will it usher a time of reinvention and renewal?

I wasn’t planning to address these issues publicly. However, a last minute speaker cancellation led to my being invited to an impromptu panel about the past, present, and future of the IA Conference (alongside IA luminaries Jesse James Garrett, Lou Rosenfeld, Stacy Surla, and Noreen Whysel, and moderated by one of the conference chairs, Amy Marquez.) The discussion in this panel prompted more thoughts about what this gathering is about and how we can get more people to know about it.

This is where I landed: I went to my first IA Summit because I wanted to meet the people behind the blog posts, books, and online forums I was already immersed in. In so doing, I discovered my community of practice. More than any other conference I’ve participated in, the IA Conference is a gathering of a tribe. (The metaphor of a family also came up during the panel, but I think “tribe” is more apt.) The Conference thus serves two purposes: it’s a way to advance the discipline of information architecture and a yearly gathering of this community.

The IA Conference community gives a lot of thought to increasing the diversity of people who join this tribe. This manifests in various activities and facilities designed to make newcomers feel welcome and safe, such as first-timers dinners, mentoring tracks, a robust code of conduct, bingo cards to spark conversations, etc. That said, while we try to make newcomers feel at home, we don’t make it easy for people who don’t already self-identify with the discipline to discover the community or the quality conversations we have every year at this event. Once they come, they feel like they belong — as evidenced by this tweet from one of the first-time participants in my workshop:

I remember that feeling: “Wow, these folks are working on the same things I am! And they’re into the same sort of stuff I’m into! Is this my professional tribe? OMG this is my professional tribe!” There’s huge value to this discovery, but somehow you must be drawn to the conversation before you realize its value. The key question is: How do we reach out to the people who will find value in participating in this community but don’t know to look for it?

As I said during the panel, I’ve made lifelong friendships at the IA Summit, and now the IA Conference. Joining this community of practice has had an enormous influence on my career. I know it can do the same for others. This year was a moment of transition for this community, if not for the discipline it represents. I left Orlando wondering: What are we transitioning towards? How can this discipline and the community that has formed around it become more sustainable in the long term? How can we open up more so that more folks can discover and participate in both?