IA Summit Recap

A Conference Report of the 2015 IA Summit by Elizabeth McDonald

The sixteenth annual IA Summit was held from April 22-26, 2015 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I attended the summit through the generous support of the IA Institute and Pratt Institute's UX/IA student group. In my scholarship application, I was asked to write a short essay about what information architecture means to me. In this report, I will describe the themes that have fed into my new and improved understanding of IA and its community.

IA filters and frames experience and establishes identity

IA eases user experience through filtering and framing. Filtering ensures that the most important information is highlighted and that information is provided in digestible chunks (also the strategy advocated by more than one speaker for explaining IA to others). Framing ensures that information is presented with appropriate cues that tell users how to interpret the content.

The value of filtering was best expressed in discussions of signage and maps. Jon Hadden (Communication with Flexible Documentation) advocated for simplicity with a photo of a signpost with a terrifying collection of some half dozen ÔNo Parking' signs featuring different days of the week and time periods that could easily have been collapsed into a single sign. Richard Ingram (Mapping the Way Forward: The Importance of Visualization) spoke of the subjective nature of maps, how their makers intend to impose order where none exists, leave out undesirable facets or draw attention to certain other facets. In this way, they make a city, a structure, or a process easier to understand or make an argument for what is important. Ingram's example was a personalized map of Boston drawn for him by his friends, revealing only what he needed to know and eliminating extraneous information.

Filtering should not, however, be equated to presenting as few options as possible, but rather to presenting the number of options that best represents the content. In his discussion of the redesign of REI's website (The Politics of Navigation), Stuart Maxwell made a distinction between aesthetic simplicity and functional simplicity. The outside agency hired for the redesign proposed a small, randomly selected number of navigation items because they thought this would simplify experience (functional simplicity). In practice, a skimpy navigation menu could not hope to represent the wide range of products and services offered by REI; therefore it could only produce aesthetic simplicity. Maxwell argued that the expanded navigation he successfully advocated for is more representative of what REI is, and makes a statement about what is important to REI and its customers.

Framing can make all the difference in the world. When Elizabeth Buchanan (Living in a Time of (Un)Ethical Algorithms) asked her audience who had benefitted from white privilege, far more hands went up than when she asked who among us was racist. People were comfortable identifying as individuals who benefit from racial inequality, but not as individuals who perpetuate such inequality. The latter houses more accusation and challenge to self-identity than the former. In his opening keynote, Jorge Arango also evoked the power of framing to affect interpretation with the example of a painting that will be viewed differently if it is hung in an art gallery rather than in a hotel bathroom. The context given by a framework can change the meaning of information and help to shape identity.

Just as REI's website expresses the company's identity in terms of what they value, IA can also indicate who is valued, and therefore who is welcome. In Designing for Gendered Audiences, Jessica Ivins spoke of the need to offer choices beyond the male/female gender binary for those who do not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth or are gender non-conforming. Elizabeth Buchanan too spoke of the exclusionary power of dropdown menus with only Ômale' and Ôfemale' as choices. Forcing individuals outside this binary to select an option in such a personal category gives them no option at all, and leaves people out in the same way that a lack of alternate text for images leaves out the visually impaired.

The IA community values inquiry more than answers

Though most individuals in the IA field are not scientists, I saw distinct indications of scientific values in what speakers chose to talk about and the way that they behaved. Scientists work toward the next version of a theory, knowing that their own work is only part of a larger process and may be overturned by a future scientist. In an ideal world, they not only accept, but welcome that next stage for the sake of advancing knowledge, rather than resenting the eclipsing of their own work.

This acceptance of change and valuing of the process of inquiry was clear in several talks. Kristina Halvorson and Karl Fast (A Tale of Twin Cities) noted that it is more important to wrestle with design questions as best you can than to debate terminology or try to come up with one conclusive answer. They also advised the audience to avoid becoming attached to any model or definition, but to view them simply as an aid to conversation. Similarly, in the Q&A session following his keynote, Ted Nelson embraced semantic drift as a natural process in relation to a term he coined.

Showing her archaeologist roots, Margaret Alldredge (Archaeology & IA: The Adventures of Information Jones) stressed the importance of documentation during website redesign for communicating with future professionals. This documentation is meant to capture both what was done and why, to inform future efforts. Thus, the IA community does not only welcome, but plans for, obsolescence of current design efforts. Given the world's rapid rate of change, this tendency to value inquiry rather than answers can only be a strength, and encourages information architects to build on one another's work.

IA evokes emotion

IA can be a source of strong emotion for both practitioners and end users. Kristina Halvorson spoke of how the content strategy community was Òborn of shared rage'. Ted Nelson described user experience as being Òabout effects that the user feels'. In his description of wayfinding gone wrong, Dennis Kardys (Wayfinding for the Mobile Web) mentioned the potential for anger which the user will either direct at himself for not being able to figure something out, or at the system for frustrating him. In The (Digital) Place You Love is Gone: Loss in Space, Joe Sokohl talked about the personal attachments people form to some digital environments (such as Facebook), and how angry and confused they can become when those places disappear or are drastically redesigned.

While IA can cause frustration and anger with an information environment itself, it can also compound real world grief, as in the case of the father who was inadvertently reminded of his daughter's death by Facebook's ÒYear in Review' app. Elizabeth Buchanan used the app's output, a photo of a young girl surrounded by dancing cartoon figures, as an example of the emotional fallout that can be caused by ill-considered algorithms. As the image showed up unprompted in the user's feed, the only way he could have avoided this terrible reminder would have been to preemptively avoid Facebook altogether. The ubiquitous nature of computing clearly grants IA great power.

And with great powerÉ great responsibility

IA structures environments so that they can operate without human intervention. A user should be able to fill out an online form without assistance as easily as he figures out whether he must push or pull to open a door. As Elizabeth Buchanan's talk suggested, if we want them to be truly independent, information environments must now be designed not only to do what we want them to, but also to not do anything we wouldn't do, once we set them free.

In the few short days of the summit, IA and its community were called upon not only to make things understandable and findable, but also to improve human life, fix the educational system, and save the world. This may be a tall order, but for a community that advocated for thinking about its work in terms of possibilities rather than challenges in at least two talks, perhaps not an impossible one.

Karaoke and Kudos
In explaining why so many people who never usually do karaoke take part in the IA Summit's karaoke night, Christina Wodtke explained that in the IA community, Òenthusiasm is valued over skill'. I am very grateful to the IA Institute and Pratt UX/IA for the opportunity to spend some time with a community that overflows with both enthusiasm and skill. Thanks also to the wonderful presenters, organizers, and attendees who made this such a fascinating event and warm introduction to the field.

Hope to see you all in Atlanta in 2016!

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