Monday, March 1, 2004

Notes from the 2004 IA Summit

Texas can only be seen through breaks in the fluffy white clouds that look, from above, like childish snow sculptures. I'm flying home after spending the last three days in Austin, attending what amounts to eight chockablock classes a day in information architecture, information design, and interaction design. And then spending the rest of the time meeting and talking to people about their jobs, interests, and lives, sometimes finally matching faces with names/email addresses of people I've corresponded with over the years.

I realized this is the first conference I've ever attended that actually has something to do with what I do. (Or at least, used to do and will hopefully do again after school.) It was an interesting mix of case studies, high-level talk, and low-level tactics. I'm not sure its theme "Breaking New Ground" was particularly apt, because I didn't hear anything radically new (although maybe this is because I'm in graduate school and get a lot of newness already), but I did hear some good depth on certain topics, and I'm definitely taking back some things to chew on and think about. Some personal highlights:

  • No-Duh Deliverables. Dan Willis made a compelling case for not showing all your deliverables. Wireframes and site maps and the like are too difficult for most people to easily comprehend. Better are some documents in which the ideal response is, "Yeah, no duh, I get it already." These are documents that make the info we present something that can be easily understood and enjoyed. The goal is to different people to talk about the same thing, ideally using the same words. You know you've succeeded when someone you've never talked to, after seeing the no-duh deliverables, has the same ideas about the project as you do.
  • Personas: The Next Generation. George Olsen presented a method used at Yahoo to create personas not just for generating empathy, but also as a means of guiding strategic decisions, of deciding features and content. These personas are incredibly detailed and must take a really long time to do well. Good idea to use marketing's zip code data to help fill in gaps in personas.
  • New Research on Navigation. Victor Lombardi had some interesting (and controversial, considering the library science crowd) ideas about navigation. He argued that navigation is not just about wayfinding ("findability"), but also about meaning and that some of the meaning is carried in the form of the content. People respond to forms and look for familiar forms. Cognitively, it is easier to view and understand the form of something than it is to analyze the content of it. Victor challenged the idea that navigation needs to be consistent; instead, he claims that changes in navigation that are subtle and not disorienting can actually improve navigation by drawing a user's attention to the navigation slightly. Additionally, research suggests that some transitional/transient pages that only show form (like a list of links) are a good thing. This goes against common wisdom for sure.
  • Rethinking Information Visualization. Karl Fast's thoughts on the purposes of information visualization were pretty interesting, striking as they do at the intersection of information and interaction design. For Karl, the purpose of info visualization isn't necessarily about the communication of ideas, but more the generation, creation, and discovery of new ideas--about insight, in other words. But it isn't the designer who creates the insights of course, it is the user. The designer only creates the visualization tool and lets the user create the connections between the data. This is hard, of course. The designer has to find the right form for representing the data as well as develop meaningful interactions. But when it is done well, it works really well. Visual perception is powerful and fast: "high bandwidth to the brain." It changes the cost structure of a task, making what could be challenging easily understood. Karl emphasized, however, that there are cases where thinking is important. Designers shouldn't always make it easy.
  • Dirty Laundry. Samantha Bailey's brave airing of her experience with how sometimes the user-centered process doesn't work was nice to hear. Sometimes, it doesn't.
  • Trans A.M. Brenda Laurel's keynote speech, half-heard and illegible as it was, was still inspiring. She talked about designing for trans-: transmedia, transpersonal, transmodal, and transformative design, showing examples from her students to illustrate. Damn, her students do nice-looking work. The inspiring part was that she feels we're moving into a new age of consciousness, enabled by computers and the digital world. Designers have to push back against the dullness of the current world and wake people up from their media stupor. By doing so, we change people from passive receivers to participatory citizens. When we change the context in which we do actions, it transforms us. And we are all now in the process of being transformed. At least, this is what I think she said. It was 8:30 on a Saturday morning after an evening of BBQ and bourbon.

I also have some personal memories. They might not mean anything to you, but this conference wouldn't have been complete without

  • Rachel Murray's love for The White Stripes
  • a cover band that can play both "The Pina Colada" song and Coldplay's "Yellow"
  • the rhetorical style of Mr. Clifton Evans
  • swapping dot com war stories with the good people of SBI.Razorfish
  • the most uncomfortable chairs in the world
  • crocheted blankets
  • a Reggae Tribute to Johnny Cash
  • "I want what he's having."
  • Brenda Janish's' "Go Fuck Yourself" needlepoint
  • spotting Eric Stoltz in a random bar
  • Canadians galore!

Posted at 11:34 PM | comments (7) | trackback (0)


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