Accessibility (a Euro IA theme)

It’s been a while, but here’s my final post on the Euro IA Sum­mit. Usabil­i­ty has been a design val­ue long cham­pi­oned by HCI pro­fes­sion­als from which IA has part­ly devel­oped. Nat­u­ral­ly, they’ve often been respon­si­ble for ensur­ing usabil­i­ty in projects. There have been devel­op­ments that force IAs to take a broad­er view and see usabil­i­ty as one of many val­ues that go into a suc­cess­ful user expe­ri­ence on the web. Morville realised this quite a while ago and remind­ed us in his keynote of his user expe­ri­ence hon­ey­comb.

Acces­si­bil­i­ty is one of those oth­er val­ues, and quite a few talks dis­cussed it in some way.

For instance Fredy Oré’s talk on the project he did for Dig­i­tal UK (the inde­pen­dent, non-prof­it organ­i­sa­tion lead­ing the UK’s move to dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion) con­tained quite a few exam­ples of how he as an IA was faced with acces­si­bil­i­ty prob­lems. From fig­ur­ing out how to cre­ate a site struc­ture that would sup­port both Eng­lish as well as Welsh to work­ing around the lim­i­ta­tions of a lega­cy CMS, there were many acces­si­bil­i­ty-relat­ed deci­sions to make.

Bogo Vatovec sum­ma­rized the results from a test he did with sev­er­al con­tent adap­ta­tion solu­tions (mobile web brows­ing appli­ca­tions). The state of affairs in this area appeared to be quite sor­did. Opera’s mobile web brows­er came out as the best option cur­rent­ly avail­able. How­ev­er, smart soft­ware will nev­er be the sil­ver bul­let to solve all mobile web-brows­ing woes. We’ll need to build sites to be acces­si­ble for a broad range of devices. I feel we need to go even one step fur­ther and cre­ate alter­na­tive archi­tec­tures specif­i­cal­ly tai­lored for the mobile context.

Final­ly Steven Pem­ber­ton flexed his W3C mus­cles and over­whelmed the poor non-techy IAs with a del­uge of infor­ma­tion on new web stan­dards such as XHTML 2 and XForms. The key take­aways for me were that the W3C is still push­ing for a true Seman­tic Web (yes, upper­case). Exam­ple: Pem­ber­ton said XHTML 2 is “micro­for­mats done right”. Also, XForms promise to be a real alter­na­tive for oth­er RIA tech­nol­o­gy, with the main ben­e­fit that it won’t need third par­ty tech­nol­o­gy to be installed on the client.

So again, I expect IAs to be involved in more and more acces­si­bil­i­ty-relat­ed dis­cus­sions. Acces­si­bil­i­ty is one of many design val­ues that go in a user expe­ri­ence. These val­ues should be pri­ori­tised for each project. Some might even put acces­si­bil­i­ty above usabil­i­ty. IAs could do worse than edu­cate them­selves on some acces­si­bil­i­ty basics.

This is the fifth and final post on themes spot­ted dur­ing the Euro IA Sum­mit 2006. The first post was on strat­e­gy, the sec­ond on social search, the third on process & deliv­er­ables and the fourth on involv­ing the client. My first post-sum­mit post can be found here.

Involving the client (a Euro IA theme)

As an IA com­mu­ni­ty we’ve spent an awful amount of time edu­cat­ing our clients about the worth of our work. In a lot of instances we were aim­ing at mak­ing the client be more like us. At the sum­mit, it was inter­est­ing to see a num­ber of speak­ers stress the impor­tance speak­ing the lan­guage of your client and involv­ing them in your dai­ly work. Some exam­ples: Olly Wright’s talk on strat­e­gy includ­ed such lessons as under­stand­ing your client has a boss and find­ing out what he or she wants, speak­ing $$$ €€€, the fun­da­men­tal lan­guage of busi­ness and mak­ing your assump­tions explic­it. Jared Folk­man point­ed out we should stop talk­ing about users and start using the word client (cer­tain­ly when work­ing on retail web­sites). Doing so, we’ve already start­ed using some of our client’s lan­guage. I men­tioned agile design and devel­op­ment ear­li­er and do think that one of its points that stick out for me is the focus on face-to-face meet­ings with the whole team (includ­ing a client). Final­ly, War­ren Hutchin­son’s pre­sen­ta­tion work­shop on how to run work­shops was insane­ly use­ful for learn­ing new tech­niques to loosen up and get real results in client meetings.

This is the fourth post on themes spot­ted dur­ing the Euro IA Sum­mit 2006. The first post was on strat­e­gy, the sec­ond on social search and the third on process & deliv­er­ables. The final post will be on acces­si­bil­i­ty. My first post-sum­mit post can be found here.

European IAs are three years behind on their US counterparts*

War­ren Hutchin­son thinks this year’s Euro IA Sum­mit was way behind on the US big broth­er con­fer­ence in both con­tent and form. I can’t con­firm or deny this (as I’ve nev­er been to the US sum­mit) but I’d say any sum­mit is bet­ter than none, and it’s clear we’re still build­ing a practice.

He also bemoans the preva­lence of con­ser­v­a­tive, ‘lit­tle IA’ think­ing and a pas­sive con­sumerist atti­tude with the major­i­ty of con­fer­ence goers. True as this may be, putting your­self on a pedestal look­ing down on those that have been less for­tu­nate than you in their devel­op­ment and expo­sure to big IA (or EA) thought is hard­ly the most pro­duc­tive path to take IMHO. Also, Hutchin­son implies he has a tighter bond to the US sum­mit and in some ways seems to deny a rela­tion­ship with the EU design com­mu­ni­ty, which I feel is a bit sus­pect and in some ways per­haps symp­to­matic of UK design thought.

I’d rather see Hutchin­son take up the chal­lenge of being an exam­ple for Euro­pean IAs, design­ers and what­not, as he did with his great pre­sen­ta­tion on work­shops (or is that work­shop on work­shops?) and not slap his eager stu­dents in the face because they haven’t yet got­ten the point entirely.

Just to be on the safe side: please take some of this crit­i­cism with a grain of salt. Lets have a healthy con­struc­tive discussion.

* As you can tell I don’t agree (com­plete­ly) with this post’s title, which is inspired by one of the com­ments on Hutchin­son’s post by Jonathan Mul­vi­hill.

Process & deliverables (a Euro IA theme)

So soon­er or lat­er, any design­er work­ing in the pro­fes­sion­al are­na doing client work will start think­ing about process. What are the actu­al steps you go through to get to a suc­cess­ful out­come? Are those steps always the same? (Most design gurus would like you to think as much.) Is there one true IA process? Some attempts were made dur­ing the sum­mit to answer these ques­tions, most notably dur­ing the process pan­el lead by my col­league Peter Boers­ma. This got a bit stuck in dis­cus­sions on how the pan­el­lists’ com­pa­nies devel­oped and man­aged their process and not so much into the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of their respec­tive process­es. A shame.

The sec­ond day of the sum­mit was kicked off with a wire­frames pan­el. Wire­frames are maybe the most pro­duced deliv­er­able by many an IA. Deliv­er­ables are a nat­ur­al fit to process, which usu­al­ly con­sists of a descrip­tion of activ­i­ties, roles and artefacts. 

Both RUP and Agile were fre­quent­ly-used terms with a mem­o­rable obser­va­tion by one of the peo­ple present that dur­ing their life­time com­pa­nies seam to fluc­tu­ate between big scary process­es and loose small work­flows. It’s clear that any design shop adopt­ing RUP will need to slim it down and add a much-need­ed user cen­tred design com­po­nent. Agile sounds cool and excit­ing but real­ly only is fit for a cer­tain type of client (a fear­less one).

On the deliv­er­ables side, it struck me again how poor­ly we as design­ers are equipped to mod­el our intend­ed archi­tec­tures in such a way that clients get it and devel­op­ers can pick it up and build it. Who will fill this void?

This is the third post on themes spot­ted dur­ing the Euro IA Sum­mit 2006. The first post was on strat­e­gy, the sec­ond on social search. Oth­er posts will be on involv­ing the client and acces­si­bil­i­ty. My first post-sum­mit post can be found here.

Social search (a Euro IA theme)

This could also be called ‘social find­abil­i­ty’ (with apolo­gies to Peter Morville). A lot of stuff has been said about both the dan­gers and virtues of tag­ging and their result­ing bot­tom-up infor­ma­tion archi­tec­tures (aka folk­sonomies). IAs have been work­ing hard to come up with prac­ti­cal ways of merg­ing these with tra­di­tion­al tax­onomies, to vary­ing degrees of suc­cess. An Ital­ian del­e­ga­tion showed off a cool demo of a facetted tag­ging appli­ca­tion (Fac­eTag) joined with some sol­id aca­d­e­m­ic the­o­ry (as far as I could tell). The BBC pre­sent­ed a poster on their way of slow­ly includ­ing tags into their con­trolled vocab­u­lary using a com­bi­na­tion of algo­rithms and old-fash­ioned human labour. These all point to the emer­gence of archi­tec­tures that actu­al­ly apply the con­cept of IA pace lay­er­ing intro­duced by Morville in his lat­est book. I’m sure we’ll see more of these in future.

Besides har­ness­ing the pow­er of mas­sive online ama­teur librar­i­an­ship (MOAL), anoth­er hybrid that should be fur­ther inves­ti­gat­ed is the one result­ing from com­bin­ing social net­works with search. There wasn’t much talk about this (Peter Morville briefly men­tioned it in his keynote) but it’s def­i­nite­ly in the air. Social search has been exper­i­ment­ed with in the web 2.0 are­na, but I get the feel­ing not many IAs have been involved in the effort up till now. Most cur­rent endeav­ours feel like whiz-bang tech demos. Where’s the first use­ful and usable social search engine?

Speak­ers on social search dur­ing the sum­mit: Peter Morville, Andrea Resmi­ni, Emanuele Quintarel­li, Luca Rosati and Karen Loas­by (poster).

This is the sec­ond post on themes spot­ted dur­ing the Euro IA Sum­mit 2006. The first post was on strat­e­gy. Oth­er posts will be on process & deliv­er­ables, involv­ing the client and acces­si­bil­i­ty. My first post-sum­mit post can be found here.

Strategy (a Euro IA theme)

It’s fun to track trends in IA. A lot of IA think­ing orig­i­nates in user cen­tred design. The case for bal­anc­ing user goals with busi­ness objec­tives has been made for quite a while (one of the most clear exam­ples is in Jesse James Garrett’s dia­gram). The con­cept of a strate­gic IA has been gain­ing crit­i­cal mass. At the sum­mit, there were plen­ty of speak­ers point­ing out the impor­tance of being able to make sure your designs are per­ceived as rel­e­vant with­in a busi­ness con­text. This means (some if not all) IAs will have to come to grips with icky sub­jects such as ROI and con­ver­sion. But it’s also an excel­lent oppor­tu­ni­ty to final­ly jus­ti­fy doing more research. Mar­ket­ing has got­ten this right a while ago. Research before and after the actu­al real­iza­tion of an archi­tec­ture will enable IAs to make more informed design choic­es and mea­sure the suc­cess of those same choic­es when the archi­tec­ture is built. Get­ting com­fort­able with tools and tech­niques rang­ing from ana­lyt­ics, online mar­ket­ing exper­i­ments to sur­veys, ethno­graph­ic enquiries etc, will be essen­tial for strate­gic IAs. After all, it’s all about the $$$ €€€.

Speak­ers on strat­e­gy dur­ing the sum­mit: Eric Reiss, Olly Wright, Ariel Guersen­z­vaig and Jared Folk­mann.

Final thoughts

  1. Eric Reiss is wor­ried about strate­gic IAs loos­ing touch with tra­di­tion­al ‘lit­tle IA’ tac­tics. Is it real­is­tic to expect IAs to be both expert strate­gists and tacticians? 
  2. When we start to talk about users in stead of cus­tomers, won’t we loose sight of what they want to buy and only think of what we want to sell them?

This is the first post on themes spot­ted dur­ing the Euro IA Sum­mit 2006, oth­er posts will be on social search, process & deliv­er­ables, involv­ing the client and acces­si­bil­i­ty. My first post-sum­mit post can be found here.

Euro IA Summit 2006 themes

Euro IA Summit 2006 mind-map

The sec­ond Euro­pean IA Sum­mit has come and gone. The promised live updates from Berlin weren’t deliv­ered due to the scarci­ty of pow­er sock­ets and flaky WiFi (a les­son for the orga­ni­za­tion of next year’s event, IMHO). I do have a few hun­dred pho­tos to go through, includ­ing the con­tents of my Mole­sk­ine (chaot­ic mind-maps of each talk, for the real connoisseur.)

All in all, the sum­mit was great. It was nice to meet old acquain­tances and make new ones. We had quite a few laughs because of lan­guage and cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences, which is what a Euro­pean event is all about I guess. 

It was encour­ag­ing to see that the num­ber of atten­dees was con­sid­er­ably larg­er than last year. The vari­ety of nation­al­i­ties had also increased I think, which is good of course.

The con­tents of talks were of a pret­ty high stan­dard, while pre­sen­ta­tion skills of the speak­ers var­ied wide­ly, as could be expect­ed. It’s a shame when high qual­i­ty con­tent becomes hard to grasp due to bad pre­sen­ta­tion, and we had a few of those, but I still respect any­one who had the courage to step up and express their views.

On the way back I cre­at­ed a mind-map of all the big themes I picked up on dur­ing the week­end and intend to delve into the main ones over the course of this week in a series of mini-posts. The first one will be on strat­e­gy; the fol­low-ups will cov­er social search, process & deliv­er­ables, involv­ing the client and acces­si­bil­i­ty.

I’m a European IA

Tomor­row I’m off to the 2nd Euro­pean IA Sum­mit. This year’s con­fer­ence will be held in Berlin. That’s great because I’ve nev­er been there until now. I’m plan­ning on doing some mind map­ping of talks (inspired by Lars Ploug­mann) so keep an eye on the Flickr pho­to­stream dur­ing the week­end. Of course, I hope the orga­ni­za­tion has man­aged to get some open WiFi going (last year that was a bit of a prob­lem). Con­ve­nient pow­er sock­ets would come in handy too… See you there, or see you later!