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?

A Space for Collaboration

Yesterday I spent most of the afternoon working with a friend and colleague. We were synthesizing the results of a workshop we co-facilitated earlier in the week. It was fun, but I often felt constrained by the limitations of the space we were in and the technology we had available.

This type of work usually requires reviewing lots of photos from sketches and stickies posted on walls. My friend and I bounced ideas and memories from the workshop off of each other; we spotted patterns in these materials and captured them in a presentation deck. It’s easier to do this sort of work if we can both see the photos and files we’re editing. We took over the living room in my house, where we had access to ample wall space and projector. We projected photos from the workshop on one of the walls in the space, while we sat on the couch discussing their implications.

While this sounds like the ideal setup, soon it became apparent that there were limitations. For example, we were constrained to a single rectangular window of information on the wall. We could show photos and the document we were editing, but only if we split this rectangle, reducing our ability to see what we were doing. This was workable but not ideal.

A bigger issue was that only one of us could control what was being projected. For example, I was examining the photos from my laptop and my friend was editing the presentation deck. If I was sharing the pictures on the wall, we couldn’t see changes to the presentation deck and vice-versa. Yes, there are workarounds to this problem. For example, we could’ve used Google Docs (or something equivalent), which would’ve allowed us to edit the deck jointly. But this wasn’t ideal either. We spent more time than I would’ve liked trying to figure out how to best collaborate in this setup.

What I wanted was for all of the walls in my living room to be “digitally active” — to allow us to arbitrarily distribute our work around the room and jointly control it. Current computer display technologies are based on a one user/one computer/one display paradigm; projectors are treated as a display that is expected to be displaying the information of one computer at a time.

Instead, I’d like to place various photos on the walls around the room — perhaps recreating the space of the workshop. My friend would put his presentation on another wall. Both of us could then annotate and edit these digital objects arbitrarily. We’d be inhabiting a physical space that was also digitally active, a shared computing environment that we could inhabit and manipulate together.

Something like this is already being built at Dynamicland. That project features a space that allows users to manipulate digital information with physical artifacts. The digital information is projected onto the environment, with cameras detecting the positions of objects in physical space. As you manipulate these objects, the information projected on them changes. It’s a fascinating environment, one pregnant with potential. However, Dynamicland’s objective isn’t to extend our current collaboration paradigms but to reinvent them.

What I’m describing here is conceptually different: I want the sort of stuff we’re used to moving around in computer windows in our laptops and desktop computers up on the walls, while transcending the current single-user paradigm. (It’s a much more conservative vision than Dynamicland’s.) Does such a thing exist? (Perhaps using augmented reality instead of projectors?) It seems like it should be feasible.

Two Approaches to Structure

There are at least two approaches to structuring a digital information environment: top-down or bottom-up.

In the top-down approach, a designer (or more likely, a team of designers) researches the context they’re addressing, the content that will be part of the environment, and the people who will be accessing it. Once they understand the domain, they sketch out possible organization schemes, usually in the form of conceptual models. Eventually, this results in sets of categories — distinctions — that manifest in the environment’s global navigation elements.

Top-down is by far the most common approach to structuring information environments. The team “designs the navigation,” which they often express in artifacts such as wireframes and sitemaps. This approach has stood the test of time; it’s what most people think of when they think about information architecture. However, it’s not the only way to go about the challenge of structuring an information environment.

The other possibility is to design the structure from the bottom-up. In this approach, the team also conducts extensive research to understand the domain. However, the designers’ aim here is not to create global navigation elements. Instead, they’re looking to define the rules that will allow users of the environment to create relationships between elements on their own. This approach allows the place’s structures to emerge organically over time.

Consider Wikipedia. Much of the usefulness and power of that environment come from the fact that its users define the place. Articles and the links between them aren’t predefined beforehand; what is predefined are the rules that will allow people to define elements and connections between them. Who will have access to change things? What exactly can they change? How will the environment address rogue actors? Etc.

Bottom-up approaches are called for when dealing with environments that must grow and evolve organically, or when the domain isn’t fully known upfront. (Think Wikipedia.) Top-down approaches are called for when dealing with established fields, where both content and users’ expectations are thoroughly known. (Think your bank’s website.) Most bottom-up systems will also include some top-down structures in their midst. (Even Wikipedia has traditional navigation structures that were defined by its design team.)

So do you choose top-down or bottom-up? It depends on what problem you’re trying to solve. That said, I find bottom-up structures more interesting than top-down structures. For one thing, they accommodate change more elegantly — after all, they’re designed to change. This approach requires that the team think more carefully about governance issues upfront. Bottom-up structures are more challenging to design and implement. Designers need to take several leaps of faith. They and the organization they represent are ceding control over an essential part of the environment.

Most information environments today are designed to use top-down structures. Some have a mix of the two: predefined primary nav systems and secondary systems that are more bottom-up. (Think tagging schemes.) I expect more systems to employ more bottom-up approaches over time. Tapping the distributed knowledge of the users of a system is a powerful approach that can generate structures that better serve their evolving needs.

Designing the Frame

Information architecture is a systemic design discipline. The bulk of the work consists of establishing distinctions. These distinctions are in service to creating particular contexts that allow individuals to “find their own paths to knowledge.” As a result, the nature of the IA challenge is holistic; we’re fixing a whole so the brain gets in.

A system, you’ll recall, is a set of elements that interact with each other in particular ways that allow the whole to achieve a purpose. This calls for a “big picture” perspective: understanding the system’s purpose and how the interactions between its parts lead towards desired outcomes.

Consider an e-commerce website. A high conversion rate could be one desired outcome for such a system. Perhaps its current semantic structures aren’t doing a good enough job of supporting customers as they go through the purchasing process. The information architect will carefully consider labels and groupings that improve the customer experience. These labels and groupings establish distinctions in the customer’s mind. But the point is not the labels or groupings (or even the distinctions they create) per se; it’s how they work together as a whole to create a good experience.

Systems are important to information architecture on two levels. On one level, the thing we’re working on — what we’re enabling with our sets of distinctions — is a system. Like any other enterprise, an e-commerce website is a system. The business has inputs, outputs, and processes that transform the former into the latter. Information architecture defines the context in which these transformations happen, in much the same way that (building) architecture creates the context in which a “brick and mortar” store operates. Architects are frame-makers; they define the environments systems operate within.

On another level, the design of this frame is also a systemic undertaking; the information architecture itself is also the result of a system. The design of the context doesn’t stop when the website is put in production. Instead, the context is continuously re-created as conditions change. Perhaps customers are buying more of one type of product than another or the relationship with a supplier has ended or a new competitive threat has emerged. Whatever the case, the business is not a static entity. If the business is to serve its purposes — achieve desired outcomes — its architecture must evolve along with it.

This is an ongoing, dynamic, emergent process that requires design at a higher level of abstraction. Information architects are called to define the structure of the place, but they’re also called to define the (ongoing) processes that generate the structure of the place. Increasingly, we design not just the frame around the work, but also the systems that allow that frame to continue serving its purposes as conditions change.

The Opposite of Ideology

Different design disciplines are characterized by particular gestures that distinguish them from other design disciplines. For example, the core of graphic design is a visual gesture. This could be something rudimentary such as marks made on a wall with a piece of charcoal, or a more complex expression such as a computer-rendered artifact mechanically reproduced at scale. Whatever the case, absent a (relatively) permanent visual expression you don’t get graphic design at all; you’re dealing with a different discipline.

Different design disciplines also aspire to particular outcomes. A graphic designer wants her posters to be engaging and memorable; an architect wants his buildings to be useful and to fit with their contexts; information architects want information to be findable and understandable. In all these cases, this is achieved by establishing particular configurations of things — visual marks, forms and spaces, labels in a navigation system — that make this work different from any other.

This calls for making choices. The possibilities open to a graphic designer or an information architect are almost limitless. Designing is in some ways about narrowing down the options: selecting (from among the myriad possibilities) a set of relevant items and establishing (from among the myriad possibilities) particular relationships between these items. In other words, design is a process for establishing order in a small part of the universe, towards desired outcomes.

Consciously or not, designers bring to the process rules and techniques that help them make decisions about what to leave out and what to include. Some of these rules are dictated by physiological constraints (e.g., door openings must have a particular width if they are to allow most humans to pass), some are part of the canon for the discipline (e.g., some configurations of spaces have emerged over time as being more practical than others), others represent cultural assumptions that inform the designer’s worldview (e.g., what constitutes a traditional house varies around the world), and still others may reflect popular tastes that change over time.

These rules and techniques represent possible responses to design problems. You can think of them as the toolset that designers bring to the shepherding of chaos towards useful order. If all you have in your toolset is a hammer, all problems look like nails — and you’ll have a hell of a time (and possibly do lots of damage) trying to hammer a screw into place. It behooves you to avail yourself of — and learn to use — a screwdriver. A designer with a wide variety of possible responses will be more effective than one with a smaller set.

In this sense, design is the opposite of ideology. Ideology is an attempt to reduce chaos — to narrow choices — through a predefined, abstract, rigid view of how to best achieve particular outcomes. Design, on the other hand, is about reducing chaos through an emergent, responsive, tangible view of how to achieve particular outcomes; a feedback loop that takes real-world conditions as its baseline. To effectively lead this process, designers are called to be open-minded; to learn from everything and everyone without ideological entanglements; to expand their variety of responses as much as possible.

Three Lessons From the Work of Charles & Ray Eames

Last weekend I had the opportunity to take my kids to see an exhibit of the work of Charles and Ray Eames at the Oakland Museum of California. The Eameses are among the most famous designers ever, so little of the work on display was unfamiliar to me. Still, seeing so much of it together in one place was inspiring and enlightening.

The Eameses had a compelling mix of rigor and joie de vivre that has universal appeal. The show captures the playfulness of the resulting work. (My kids were a bit apprehensive about going to see a museum exhibit but got into it once they realized some of the items on display were toys they could play with.)

Three ideas stood out to me in this visit that I thought worth sharing. They apply to design in all domains.

Framing is a creative act

Careful composition and selection — determining what to leave out of a problem domain — opens up new ways of understanding and approaching familiar problems. As Brian Eno has written, “A frame is a way of creating a little world round something… Is there anything in a work that is not frame, actually?”

So much of the Eames’s​’​s work was about creative framing of ordinary things. In their myriad photographs, framing was the central (and literal) creative gesture; Powers of 10 moves the frame up and down levels of granularity to change our understanding of our place in the universe; the Case Study Houses re-frame the materials, construction techniques, and aesthetic of housing.

Accommodate a range of experiences

In the part of the show that presented the Eameses’s Mathematica exhibit, a quote from Charles Eames stood out to me; it reflected their aspirations for the exhibit. He said, “[Mathematica] should be of interest to a bright student and not embarrass the most knowledgeable.”

A physical model of a mobius strip, part of the Eameses's Mathematica exhibit. Image by Ryan Somma CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A physical model of a mobius strip, part of the Eameses’s Mathematica exhibit. Image by Ryan Somma CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The idea of accommodating a range of experiences is very important, and in some cases, challenging. Sometimes we must design for users that have very different perspectives and degrees of experience. This calls for 1) a solid understanding of the problem domain, 2) maintaining a beginners mind, and 3) testing and iterating.

It’s structure all the way down

I’ve always been inspired by the breadth of the Eames Office’s output. They excelled in film, graphic design, industrial design, architecture, exhibit design, and more. Beyond the obvious joy the Eameses got from experimenting with media, materials, techniques, and craft, the unifying conceptual drive behind all of this work was an acknowledgment that it was all underpinned by structure.

Photo by Cliff Hutson on Flickr
Photo by Cliff Hutson on Flickr

A building has structure. House of Cards — a delightful toy that consists of playing cards with carefully placed slits that allow them to be interconnected with each other — has structure. So does a chair, and a film. Even given the wide scope of their work — and the fact that most people saw them as “designers” — Charles Eames saw himself as an architect. “I can’t help but look at the problems around us as problems of structure,” he said, “and structure is architecture.”

The World of Charles and Ray Eames runs in the Oakland Museum of California until February 18, 2019.

Anyone an Information Architect

There’s been much chatter over the past day about Slack’s corporate identity redesign. Among all the commentary and reporting, this post at The Verge stood out for me. There’s two reasons for this. The first is this sentence:

The company is mounting a new marketing campaign describing the app as “where work happens.”

I think I’ve seen Slack market itself as a digital place where work happens before. However, this seems like confirmation that they’re going to push in this direction in a big way. I’m glad, because it acknowledges the fact that Slack is more than a tool, product, or service; it’s an environment. (I see this marketing direction as validation of Living in Information’s thesis.)

The second aspect of the post that stood out for me is this observation by its author, Casey Newton:

I’ve been feeling down on Slack ever since my colleagues at The Verge, which runs on Slack, created a channel called verge-internet for discussing the internet. We already had a channel to discuss tech (verge-tech), and a channel for longer tech discussions (verge-tech-discuss), and a channel for discussing culture (verge-culture). Wasn’t our whole website about the internet? Why did our internet website need an internet discussion forum separate from the many other forums in which we discuss the internet?

Many of us who’ve used a greenfield Slack account to coordinate activities with a group larger than a couple of people have experienced this. The environment’s design makes it easy to spin up new channels. Without an agreed-upon ontology, the result is duplication and confusion. Eventually, someone in the team either self-selects or is assigned the role of Slack channel curator. Not quite a bottom-up structuring of the environment; rather, a bottom-up nomination for the top-down role.

When work — along with other important social interactions — happens in information environments, information architecture stops being the purview of a select few. These days, anyone can be called on to be an information architect.

Slack’s new logo trades a hashtag for a pinwheel

The Role of Structure in Digital Design

Andy Fitzgerald, in A List Apart:

design efforts that focus on creating visually effective pages are no longer sufficient to ensure the integrity or accuracy of content published on the web. Rather, by focusing on providing access to information in a structured, systematic way that is legible to both humans and machines, content publishers can ensure that their content is both accessible and accurate in these new contexts, whether or not they’re producing chatbots or tapping into AI directly.

Digital designers have long considered user interfaces to be the primary artifacts of their work. For many, the structures that inform these interfaces have been relegated to a secondary role — that is, if they’ve been considered at all.

Thanks to the revolution sparked by the iPhone, today we experience information environments through a variety of device form factors. Thus far, these interactions have mostly happened in screen-based devices, but that’s changing too. And to top things off, digital experiences are becoming ever more central to our social fabric.

Designing an information environment in 2019 without considering its underlying structures — and how they evolve — is a form of malpractice.

Conversations with Robots: Voice, Smart Agents & the Case for Structured Content

Making a List

Do you celebrate Christmas? If so, Merry Christmas to you and yours! My family and I celebrate. Like many other people, we open presents on Christmas morning. My kids have just finished opening theirs, and have now moved on to Netflix. So I have a bit of time to reflect.

On my mind this morning? Lists.

Lists are central to the practice of information architecture, and one of the unique aspects of Christmas, as many people celebrate it today, is that it prominently features lists. Several weeks (or in some cases, months) ahead of Christmas Day, children start thinking of gifts they’d like to receive. They make a list. They write it down so they can share it with siblings, friends, parents, etc. and — if the household encourages that sort of thing — with the Fulfiller of Wishes: Santa Claus.

For the child, assembling this list is an exercise in structured fantasizing. “What would I be like if I had this  particular thing in my life? And what about this other thing?” For better or worse, the child starts identifying with the list. Not the things in the list, but the collection itself. One child’s list will be different from another’s; a reflection of their unique personalities through material objects. (I have three kids, and they each make their own lists. When making them, they negotiate to avoid requesting exactly the same things.)

While we are fortunate enough to afford presents, my wife and I don’t like this overly materialistic aspect of the holiday. We do get the children gifts at this time of year (their expectations set by the culture we live in), but we try to keep it simple and minimal. So when our children making their lists, we encourage them to prioritize. “If you had to choose, would you rather have x or y?” The list is a perfect structural construct for this. (Perhaps this is a good way to introduce them to the concept of bubble sorting?)

When Christmas Day comes, the children compare the gifts they’ve received to the lists they made. If there’s too much variance, they may feel slighted — even if the presents they receive are objectively better than the ones they had on the list. The list is a sort of token for their individuality; a structured manifestation of their desires; a reflection of their personality. The child put this highly personal statement into the universe as a concrete artifact that can be verified. Does the universe care? Will it pay heed to who he or she is as a person?

For a child, this list is a big deal.

But that’s not the only prominent Christmas list. There’s another list-maker in this interaction: Santa Claus himself. I’m referring, of course, to the following verse from the classic song Santa Claus is Coming to Town:

He’s making a list
He’s checking it twice
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

Here we have the Fulfiller of Wishes wielding a taxonomy: Serving as both judge and jury, he’ll determine who will benefit from his largesse. The terms aren’t made clear. What exactly constitutes a transgression? What behavior would risk you landing on the dreaded “naughty” category? Beyond indirect references to the state of your consciousness (“He knows if you are sleeping / He knows if you’re awake”), you don’t know. At least you have some comfort in knowing there’s a process for assuring the quality of the data: Santa is checking the list twice.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town was written in the 1930s, when the U.S. was in the grip of the Great Depression. The song featured a few verses that have since been dropped:

The season is near
For happiness time
Gotta bring cheer with every last dime
Santa Claus is coming to town

We’ve gotta dig deep
And cover the list
Gotta see that nobody is missed
Santa Claus is coming to town

Let’s keep the home-fires burning
Let’s give without a pause
Let’s prove to those less fortunate
That there is a Santa Claus

In these verses, the onus of generosity shifts from the Fulfiller of Wishes onto all of us: It is we who must “dig deep” to ensure everybody in the list is taken care of. A beautiful thought — one more fitting with the spirit of the season.