Notes from Oz-IA


Musings from the IAI Ambassador

by Judith MerryweatherNotes from the OZ-IA Conference September 29 and October 1, 2006

As a new IAI member, I was fortunate and privileged to be selected as the IA Ambassador for the inaugural OZ-IA2006 conference. But what did this mean I wondered? Who was Eric Sheid? How many other members of IAI were here in Australia? How strong was the IA community in Australia & NZ? How many delegates were members of the IAI? How many already volunteered and contributed to the IAI?

With great anticipation I attended the conference, held in Sydney 29th September and 1st October, to find over 100 delegates registered. I was greeted warmly by Eric Sheid, the conference organiser, who introduced me to the audience during the Opening Remarks and provided me with the perfect reason to meet as many of the delegates as I could over the 2 days.

The mood of the conference and of the attendees was one of enthusiasm, passion and real excitement while the content of the presentations ranged from the informative to the provocative, and from the philosophical to the somewhat more practical. While some delegates have already posted views and insights into the conference on their blogs,I am pleased to provide my followup thoughts and impressions on this IA experience.

Day 1 of "Sharing our Practice"

While enjoying Mark Bernstein's False Intentions and the Fallacy of Finding art tour as the first session of the conference, I found my thinking about IA challenged. And just what do readers want? Context? Sequence? Structure? Stories in information spaces? What a ride! Just when I was grappling with having more questions than answers about online information, Dan Saffer challenged us with a group documentation exercise to document animation that not only got everyone animated but generated lots of discussion as well. Just how much information can be portrayed in a wireframe - that was the question? So by morning tea, I was pondering "the more things changeÉ". Documentation has always been a challenge for developers, users and for those charged with ongoing enhancements. Ever since the early mainframe days, people have searched for THE answer for communicating designs and technical ideas. The types of technology may have changed and the terminology may have changed but we still search for that answer.

Thomas Vander Wal's talk about Folksonomy to Improve IA converted us all to becoming "taggers". Thomas helped us understand the difference between taxonomy and folksonomy and shared his insights into what might be if the use of webtags was increased from a mere 0.5% people. Through tag clouds and interfaces on various sites, we saw some of the challenges facing ever-increasing spheres of sociability in our online world including refindability and the ability to express the value of tagging to non-taggers.

Lunch provided more opportunities to mix and meet with fellow conference delegates. The level of sound in the restaurant increased significantly when over 100 IAs attacked the buffet lunch and joined small tables to share ideas with friends, peers and new acquaintances. Then it was back to hear Donna Maurer's take on Lakoff's Women, Fire and Damgerous Things. Listening to Donna speak about categorization made us all realize how little we do know about it. Our introduction to classical categorization theory and prototype theory left us gave us all food for thought about the meaning of "miscellaneous" and whether a top down approach was better than a bottom up approach.

In his presentation User research: Questioning the answers, Ash Donaldson provided a brief overview of what research is telling us about our thought processes. When we ask users what they do - how accurate are their answers? Ash explored some techniques that will help the IA community, and indeed anyone charged with eliciting user requirements, to undertake task analysis and obtain a more accurate understanding.

With a mind feeling overloaded with concepts, questions, new challenges and things to follow up on, the group settled in for the last session of the day and hoped that it would be a gentle experience. How wrong we were! Instead, the group was hit by a Swedish hurricane that sent almost everyone over the edge of Topic Maps! Lured by the title Sexier, Smarter and Faster IA through Topic Maps, Alex Johannesen showed us just how passionate he is about topic maps. Alex taught us that "Freedom without limits is just a word". I think that a presentation on Topic Maps without Alex would be just a presentation! The cocktail hour was a welcome finale to a very successful first day. But wait - just when I thought that the noise level of "IAs networking" couldn't get much louder, Eric held his mobile phone aloft to "connect" the OZ-IA delegates with delegates in Germany who were just starting their day. Such a roar from the crowd!

Day 2 - choices galore!

Some of the delegates looked a little fragile the next morning. Who said that you couldn't get jetlag from short flights within Australia or from NZ? Or were they suffering from "networking overload"? In addition to the early Sunday start, there was further thought needed as the programme for Day 2 was split into streams. So finding the correct room for the presentation you wanted to hear provided some new navigation challenges.

Information Architecture on Drugs gave us the right medicine for the day as Stephen Hall and Andrew Boyd presented some of their work in converting a complex paper-based Schedule of Pharmaceutical Benefits manual into an online tool for multiple audiences. Great work - and it is not over yet!

James Robertson kicked off Succeeding at IA in the Enterprise, the first part of his session, by challenging our ideas about Enterprise IA and the need for new methodologies to take IA back into a more strategic role in organisations. Later in the day, James facilitated an interactive session to try and determine what the challenges were for Enterprise IA, how to raise the profile of IA in an organisation and what role an Enterprise IA might play.

With a title such as From Mnemonics to Measurement: Designing easily navigable information, David Sless provided some impressive statistics and measurements on just how much improvement can be made by good design and reinforced the need to set benchmarks and measure for results.

Site maps came under scrutiny by Eric Sheid in his presentation Site Maps: Towards a Common Cartography. By now, many of the delegates were ready to have a say and Eric led an interactive session to define the objectives of site maps, identify tools and notation that will allow site maps to more accurately communicate information to their intended audiences. To close the conference, Eric worked through a white board marked up with subjects about which delegates "wanted to know more" and invited several speakers to speak to the topics.

While this Ambassador couldn't be in two places at once, I am sure that the competing presentations were equally well presented. And of course if you want to know moreÉ. Eric is chasing several of the presentations so he can upload them to the OZ-IA2006 site. Check it out at the OZ-IA conference website.


It was one of the best conferences I have attended in a long time. To keep everyone's interest for 2 days over a weekend is no mean feat and to have just as many people at the final session on a Sunday as there were at the kick-off on Saturday morning - well unbelievable.

Special mention should be made of Eric Sheid, the conference organiser, for his hard work at organising the conference. The program ran so smoothly and with help from a great line-up of speakers, everyone "shared their practice" and voted the conference an overwhelming success. Obviously there is a strong and enthusiastic Australian IA community and some very passionate IAs who are only to happy to share their practice and who look forward to getting together again at OZ-IA 2007!

So what is next?

The message from the conference is that there is still a lot to be done for IA not only in Australia but globally. The challenge is laid down for us all! Whether to sit back and wait for someone to organise the next conference or to get involved now and help make a difference? You can get involved in a number of ways:

What will you do?

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