The Shortcomings of Online Events

Benedict Evans, writing in his blog:

A physical event is a bundle of different kinds of interaction, but it’s also a bundle of people at a certain place at a certain date – as soon as you take these things online, that bundle has no meaning.

As Mr. Evans points out, there are still no good substitutes for physical gatherings. A conference or industry event isn’t just about the formal presentations. Much of the value in these events comes from information exchanged in hallways, relationships built over shared drinks, serendipitous encounters, etc.

Then there’s the value of switching contexts for a short while; of moving your body temporarily from the places where it’s beholden to its daily routines to a new place where a different set of rules apply. You think differently in different places, and traveling to physical events gives you the opportunity to think about new information in new ways.

Online events — at least the ones I’ve attended during the quarantine — just aren’t the same. While the transmission of information via structured presentations is a central part of these online conferences (in some ways, they’re more effective than their “real-world” counterparts), the other key aspects of physical gatherings are missing.

Solving online events — Benedict Evans

Living In Information With the UX Bookclub Los Angeles

Meetup announcement

Since Living in Information came out, I’ve spoken (mostly virtually) with several UX book clubs about the book. Invariably, these conversations have been insightful and fun. (At least for me, YMMV.) Tomorrow (Mar 25, 2020), I’ll be addressing the UX Bookclub Los Angeles on the topic. (This conversation was always meant to be virtual, so I think it’ll be feasible for folks outside LA to join.)

When I wrote the book, I assumed moving our key interactions to information environments was a process we’d undertake gradually and deliberately. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated it and made it mandatory. As a result, many of us are having to adjust to radically new ways of interacting with each other and remaining productive in information environments. (And it’s not just work!)

I’d love to find out how you are managing. What has/hasn’t worked for you and your team? What could be better? What tools and techniques have proven their worth? How are you keeping your body engaged now that you spend so much more time interacting with your colleagues and friends over screens? How has your current situation changed the way you think about physical and online spaces?

These are some of the questions I’m hoping we’ll discuss tomorrow. I hope you can join us.

Please Support World IA Day

Eight years ago, a group of committed folks — led by Abby Covert — addressed a need in the world. The discipline of information architecture had an annual conference — The IA Summit (now renamed IA Conference) — that served as a “gathering of the tribe.” Those of us committed to the discipline (and the tribe) made the yearly pilgrimage to the Summit. Doing so invariably has required traveling to somewhere in the U.S. or Canada. But what about the rest of the world? How might IA communities grow everywhere in a more distributed, bottom-up way?

The response to this need was World IA Day, an annual celebration that happens on the same(ish) day in dozens of cities around the world. The first WIAD, held in 2012, featured events in 14 cities across the globe. This year’s edition — which will take place on February 22 — will feature around 60. (The call for locations is still open.) Which is to say, the event has grown over the past years.

I served as global Thematic Chair of that first WIAD and organized the local event in Panama City, Panama, where I was living at the time. I also produced one of three video keynotes to be shown in local events around the world. Since then, I’ve also delivered keynotes, presentations, and workshops at events in San Francisco, Tampa, and Zurich, and attended several others. I’ve found WIAD events to be enriching and insightful. They’re a fantastic way to meet like-minded colleagues and to help grow your local community of practice.

Organizing and executing such a wide-ranging initiative takes time and resources. Volunteers do most of the work, but there are still bills to pay. Financing for previous WIADs came from the IA Institute. Alas, that organization dissolved last year. A new 501(c)(3) public charity, World IA Day, Inc., has been formed to carry WIAD’s mission forward. (More on this from Peter Morville.) This organization needs funds to achieve stability. If you’ve enjoyed WIAD, or are considering doing so, please join me in donating to World IA Day, Inc. today. Thanks!

Adaptive Path 2001-2019

For a particular generation of designers, the name Adaptive Path holds special meaning. No matter where in the world you were practicing, if you were doing what we now call “user experience” design, you were likely to be paying attention to this most prominent of UX consultancies. Its founders included luminaries of the field, many of whom were (are) vocal in sharing what they learned both through blogs and in the conference circuit. Over the years, AP contributed much to our understanding of what it means to practice good UX design.

I’m using the past tense because now that name is no more. In a short Medium post published yesterday, the AP brand bade us farewell; it is henceforth to be fully integrated into Capital One, the financial services company that acquired Adaptive Path in 2014.

AP stopped taking on external clients at that time. For those of us who were consulting elsewhere, this meant they were effectively out of the playing field. With one exception: even after the acquisition, Adaptive Path kept putting on some of the best yearly design conferences in the world. I was fortunate to speak and/or lead workshops at the most prominent of these: UX Week.

I was confused by the way the Medium post described the future of AP’s events:

it’s bittersweet to say goodbye to our beloved Adaptive Path brand, and to all our events like UX Week, LX: Leading Experience, The Service Experience Conference, and design intensives.

Does this mean these events won’t happen anymore? Or merely that they won’t happen under those brands? In the ensuing discussion on Twitter, we got confirmation that the events are done, at least in the form we knew them:

As cliched as this sounds, this marks the end of an era. A small design consultancy has a very different character than a large financial services company; the types of events and “thought leadership” that come out of either will be (by necessity) very different. Even in its post-acquisition state, AP continued serving an important role in the UX design community through its events. Their withdrawal from the market leaves a large vacuum.

Thanks for everything, Adaptive Path. I learned a lot from you all over the years. It was a privilege to be associated with you, even if only in minor and tangential ways. To my former AP friends at Capital One: I wish you the best and look forward to seeing what you come up with next.

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?

The Mother of All Demos at 50

On December 9, 1968, Doug Englebart put a ding in the universe. Over 90 minutes, he and his colleagues at Stanford Research Institute demonstrated an innovative collaborative computing environment to an audience at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. This visionary system pioneered many of the critical conceptual models and interaction mechanisms we take for granted in today’s personal computers: interactive manipulation of onscreen text, sharing files remotely, hypermedia, the mouse, windows, and more. It blew everybody’s mind.

Apple’s Macintosh — introduced in 1984 — was the first computing system to bring the innovations pioneered by Mr. Englbart and his team to the masses. Macs were initially dismissed as “toys” — everybody who was a serious computer user knew that terminal commands were the way to go. Until they weren’t, and windows-based UIs became the norm. It took about a decade after the Mac’s introduction for the paradigm to take over. Roughly a quarter of a century after The Demo, it’d become clear that’s how computers were to be used.

We’re now in the midst another paradigm shift in how we interact with computers. Most computer users today don’t work in WIMP environments. Instead of the indirect mouse-pointer interaction mechanism, people now interact with information directly through touchscreens. Instead of tethered devices propped atop tables, most computers today are small glass rectangles we use in all sorts of contexts.

Still, fifty years on The Demo resonates. The underlying idea of computing as something that creates a collaborative information environment (instead of happening as a transactional user-machine interaction) is still very much at the core of today’s paradigm. Every time you meet with a friend over FaceTime or write a Google Doc with a colleague, you’re experiencing this incredibly powerful vision that was first tangibly articulated half a century ago.

A website — The Demo @ 50 — is celebrating Mr. Englebart’s pioneering work in this milestone anniversary. The site is highlighting events in Silicon Valley and Japan to commemorate The Mother of all Demos. If you aren’t in either location, there are several online activities you can participate in at your leisure. If you join online, you’ll be able to commemorate The Demo in a most meta way: by doing so in the type of interactive information environments presaged by The Demo itself.

Teaching IA in Chicago

I’ll be in Chicago over the next few days for the 18th annual Information Architecture Summit. This year I’ll be leading a few sessions:

  • Tomorrow (3/21) I’ll be teaching a full-day workshop on the essentials you need to know to get started with information architecture. This workshop has a lot of content, but also includes hands-on exercises to give participants a taste of what it’s like to do this stuff.
  • On Thursday (3/22) I’ll be repeating the IA essentials material as a half-day workshop for the first cohort of IA Summit Scholars. I’m excited about this program and looking forward to meeting the students!
  • On Saturday (3/24) morning I’ll be hosting the first of two (yes two — by popular demand!) Polar Bear Yoga sessions. (Later that evening I’ll be embarrassing myself — as I do every year — at karaoke night. That is if my voice holds up; I’m currently getting over a cold.)
  • On Sunday (2/25) I’ll be hosting the second Polar Bear Yoga session.

I hope to see you there. This will be my ​12th Summit; it’s hard to believe I’ve been going to this conference for over a decade. The Summit is my favorite conference every year, and this year promises to be a good one! If you haven’t signed up already, I encourage you to register now.

Event Report: WIAD Tampa 2018

Yesterday we celebrated the sixth World IA Day around the world. This one-day event was organized by the Information Architecture Institute and executed by local teams in fifty-six locations in five continents. I was honored to be asked to participate in the local event in Tampa, Florida.

I’d visited the Tampa/St. Petersburg metroplex before, but most of these visits had centered on Busch Gardens’s (amazing) roller coasters. This was my first time downtown, and I was delighted by it. While Tampa is an automobile-centric city, downtown is pedestrian-friendly: it features large sidewalks, good crossing signals, and lots of public spaces with shade. Buildings are a mix of new offices and structures of historical importance, mostly from the 1920s-1960s. Many meet the street with human-scaled open spaces that encourage strolling and lounging.

Minarets of the University of Tampa, seen from Kiley Gardens.
Minarets of the University of Tampa, seen from Kiley Gardens.

Tampanians are (rightly) proud of their city and its history, which (as with so many other cities in the Southern U.S.) revolves around the struggle for civil rights. I know all this because part of the event’s program included a two-hour walking tour of downtown led by Beth Galambos and Carlisle Stoup. The tour was documented in an extraordinary book produced by the WIAD Tampa Bay team that presents historical highlights of some of Tampa’s most important buildings (both present and gone.)

St. Paul A.M.E. Church, a locus of the civil rights movement in Tampa.
St. Paul A.M.E. Church, a locus of the civil rights movement in Tampa.

One of these buildings was the venue for the event itself, the auditorium at the John F. Germany Public Library. The auditorium is an endearing 1960s egg-shaped structure nestled on a terrace between the two blocks of the library’s main buildings.

The auditorium at the John F. Germany Public Library.
The auditorium at the John F. Germany Public Library.

My friend Dan Klyn and I had the privilege of delivering opening and closing keynotes respectively. We also shared the stage with one of the auditorium’s designers, the architect Gus Paras, for a short lunchtime panel about people’s relationship with our environments, natural and artificial. That conversation and the keynotes balanced out the program.

But the focus was on Tampa itself as a built environment, and how that environment has changed over time. Some buildings have been chosen for preservation, while the fate of others has been left to market forces. Few serve their original purposes. (Even some that are barely fifty years old.) All are evolving in various ways.

Site of a former Woolworth's store where lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s ushered a new era of race relations in Tampa. The building is currently being renovated.
Site of a former Woolworth’s store where lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s ushered a new era of race relations in Tampa. The building is currently being renovated.

The library itself is one of these changing environments: a condominium is set to replace the annex, one of the two blocks that nestles the auditorium. A library director explained that a growing percentage of their collection is becoming digital, so they’re re-considering how they use their physical environment. This was a good reminder that as we de-materialize — move key social interactions from physical environments to information environments — we must be mindful of the impact of that move on both types of environments.

Lobby sculpture at the Tampa Museum of Art.
Lobby sculpture at the Tampa Museum of Art.

The global theme for WIAD this year was “IA for Good.” The Tampa team’s focus on their city’s physical environment was a brilliant way of engaging a broad range of people in the conversation; I had the opportunity to meet not just designers, researchers, and implementers, but also interested citizens. What more “good” than that? Kudos to the Tampa Bay team and especially to organizer Amy Espinosa who did a fantastic job of bringing everyone together around a singular vision, and then executing it.


I’m traveling back from Lyon, where I had the opportunity to participate in Interaction 18. It was an inspiring conference, with many presentations devoted to exploring how designers can help make the world better by being more conscious of the systems they participate in and create. I summarized my impressions in a tweet:

The key word here is agency.

Design is central to envisioning future directions; it’s how the possible is made tangible so it can be tested and refined. As such, designers can make real contributions towards shaping the way things work, even if we don’t have direct control over things like project budgets.

Designers don’t need absolute power to make a difference — but we do need a principled approach. Interaction 18 showcased the words and works of designers who are making a difference through their principled approaches. I leave the conference with renewed hope for the future.