IA Summit 2009
It can be an odd experience attending a conference in a recession, and my trip to the 10th Anniversary IA Summit in Memphis, TN, didn’t disappoint in that regard. The event was smaller, tinged with uncertainty, and chock full of people trying to figure out what the future holds for themselves and for their profession. I left feeling both frustrated with the angst, and brimming with new ideas and a deep desire to return next year. It took me a while longer to get all of these thoughts down than I thought it would, about a month longer in fact, but I’ve enjoyed re-visiting my favorite talks in order to share them with others.
Sketchboards & Prototypes
I spent my first day at the Summit learning about Sketchboards and Prototyping with Leah Buley from Adaptive Path and Todd Zaki Warfel from MessageFirst. Sketchboarding is an analog method for sharing design inspiration, iterating on design concepts, and mapping out user flows. My team worked on designing a document collaboration tool as part of “Facebook for the intranet”. We quickly sketched ideas, put them up on the board, identified common patterns and solutions, then began to identify parts of the flow we hadn’t adequately defined. There wasn’t nearly enough time to tackle the problem, but the exercise gave us a great introduction to the process.
Todd led the afternoon prototyping session, where we talked about principles of prototyping, and got our hands dirty creating some fairly sophisticated interactions with paper, tape, scissors, and transparencies. Our crowning achievement was a “functional” video player for the iPhone (complete with giant paper iPhone). If you’re interested in Todd’s work, you can check out this recap from a workshop he ran here in Durham last year. You can also check out his upcoming book on prototyping from Rosenfeld Media.
The first day of sessions kicked off with an amazing high speed presentation by anthropologist Michael Wesch from Kansas State. The subject of Michael’s talk wasn’t exactly new, that we’re entering into an era of participatory culture mediated by the tools we ourselves are designing, but his presentation was an amazing thing to behold. There’s a podcast online, but it’s too bad there aren’t videos available.
Digital Space & The Context Problem
I’ve heard Andrew Hinton give various talks on the problem of context, but he never fails to help me dive deeper into the problem. Simply put, digital spaces lack physical context, and frequently do a very bad job of substituting a digital context for the physical. This problem might seem a bit abstract, until we realize just how important context is to human cognition. Andrew has a number of great examples of this, but the one that resonates with me is role of context in social cognition. We have relationships with our families, our friends, our peers, our co-workers, and more, and we modulate both how we express our selves and how we process information based on which context we’re in. Digital social spaces tend to collapse these contexts, connecting us with all of our social circles through one channel, allowing us to express ourselves in one way. This gets worse as when we introduce aggregation into the picture, because we not only collapse social context but also “object” context. In some way, we can work around the problem of context by segregating our interactions across tools. Aggregators take away even that modicum of control.
Andrew asked us how we’re going to start to understand the ramifications of this shift in context, and to start thinking about how we’re going to understand the problem. Is this a fundamental behavioral shift? Is it a problem to be solved? Or is it an opportunity to create new kinds of contexts?
Speaking the Language of Business
After having the pleasure of meeting Eric Reiss at dinner, I was curious to hear his views on how to define the strategic and business value of IA. Eric’s core point was that we have to understand and speak the language of business, so we can sell the services we provide in terms the client (or stakeholders) will understand. Spend much time in IA circles and you’re likely to enter into a discussion on “selling IA,” and for many this has come to mean defining the ROI of our work. However, Eric contended that ROI as a measure is inherently backwards looking, and doesn’t do a good job of demonstrating the future value of IA practice. Instead, focus on actions and results, not intangible benefits.
Dan Brown’s talk focused on the idea that designing for the web is moving beyond (or, has already moved beyond) the ability to design for specific pieces of content. Instead, we need to start thinking of designing systems of rules that define how what content will appear, and how that content will behave, in a given context. It didn’t really strike me at the time, but I’ve come to realize that Dan was describing a design methodology very similar to the algorithmic game design methods of the famed Will Wright, creator of Sim City, the Sims, and, most recently, Spore.
In each case we provide the system with guiding rules, and then let go, trusting in the systems of rules we’ve created to craft the experience for the user. There are limits to the utility of this approach, but I think that as sites shift from distributing content to data, and as “content-heavy” sites become increasingly interactive, we’ll find that designing rules is far more powerful than designing content.
I’ve long distinguished “User Experience Design” from “User Interface Design” by saying that UxD aims to build holistic experiences, not just usability interfaces. The problem with that statement is that it’s hard to define a holistic “experience.” It’s one of those “I know it when I see it” kinds of things. Thankfully, this problem is getting some attention, and Cindy Chastain gave a great talk on using experience themes as a tool to conceptually tie together a design. I appreciated that the presentation included a very specific example of a project where these ideas have been into practice.
Is Interaction Necessary?
If there was a talk that blew my mind, this was it. Karl Fast summarized a rather critical shift that’s been happening in terms of cognitive research, away from the classical idea of humans as rational actors to an understanding that context and physicality are critical to cognition. This has some pretty heady implications, particularly as we make steps into more tangible interfaces. He also introduced me to the idea of epistemic action, which recognizes that “errors” can in fact be critical to the way we think. These actions allow us to explore the problem by changing the environment quicker than we can attempt to model these changes mentally.
Strategies for Enabling UX to Play a More Strategic Role
Richard Anderson & Craig Peters walked through a number of different strategies for making UX efforts take on a more strategic importance within your organization. In an interesting twist, they gave over most of the session to let us discuss the pros and cons of these strategies in small groups. This gave us a chance to hear different viewpoints, and to share our own thoughts about how effective these techniques might be in our own organizations.
Revealing Design Treasures from the Amazon
I’ve yet to attend a Jared Spool talk that wasn’t highly entertaining. Here he covered much of the same ground as his recent articles:
Leading With Insight
“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them…” Steve Jobs
“Recognizing the need is the primary condition of design” Charles Eames
I tend to avoid the “What Designers Can Learn From Oddball Thing X!” presentations the IA Summit seems prone to, but Matthew Milan managed to trick me into learning about insight from Columbo, and it wasn’t so bad. Matthew’s basic premise was that as designers, we’re in the business of finding insights into our customer’s behavior that will lead to better products. At least, that’s what we should be doing. This is why we do research, not to validate our assumptions, but to challenge them and look for that moment of clarity where we see how we can make a real improvement in an experience.
Designing Social Interfaces
Erin Malone and Christian Crumlish gave a short but informative introduction to many of the social design patterns that they are covering in their new O’Reilly book of the same name. You can see much of the work they’ve produced on the wiki they setup as a companion to their book: