It might have been the past RIA hype (which according to Jared Spool has nothing to do with web 2.0) but for whatever reason, IAs are moving into interface territory. They’re broadening their scope to look at how their architectures are presented and made usable by users. The interesting part for me is to see how a discipline that has come from taxonomies, thesauri and other abstract information structures approaches the design of user facing shells for those structures. Are their designs dramatically different from those created by interface designers coming from a more visual domain concerned with surface? I would say: at least a little…
I particularly enjoyed Stephen Anderson’s presentation on adaptive interfaces. He gave many examples of interfaces that would change according to user behaviour, becoming more elaborate and explanatory or very minimal and succinct. His main point was to start with a generic interface that would be usable by the majority of users, and then come up with ways to adapt it to different specific behaviours. The way in which those adaptations were determined and documented as rules reminded me a lot of game design.
Margaret Hanley gave a solid talk on the “unsexy side of IA”, namely the design of administration interfaces. This typically involves coming up with a lot of screens with many form fields and controls. The interfaces she created allowed people to edit data that would normally not be accessible through a CMS but needed editing nonetheless (product details for a web shop, for instance). Users are accustomed to thinking in terms of editing pages, not editing data. The trickiest bit is to find ways to communicate how changes made to the data would propagate through a site and be shown in different places. There were some interesting ideas from the audience on this, but no definite solution was found.
Like other design disciplines, IAs are typically brought in to solve a problem. The extent to which the design problem is defined and explicated is a huge determining factor in the success of their undertaking. More often than not, an IA would take a problem and run with it, not thinking whether this is the right problem to solve, or even a problem at all!
This has always seemed like a silly situation to me. Some of the most enjoyable sessions at the summit therefore were the ones that discussed ways in which IAs can join in on strategic thinking. This way, we can help discover the actual problem that needs solving, which gives us a better chance of actually delivering a successful and valuable solution.
Gene Smith and Matthew Milan discussed conceptual models (which I’ve been playing around with for a while) and the more involved rich mapping, from soft systems thinking. Key takeaway for me was when modelling a system we should also describe its context (including the project itself). Other good stuff by people of Critical Mass (Milan again together with Sam Ladner) was provided in the form of ‘backcasting’, a very visual brainstorming method to be used in a workshop session with a client in order to envision desired project outcomes and map paths from the current situation to those outcomes (notes at The Chicken Test).
People from Avenue A Razorfish (Garrick Schmitt, Marisa Gallagher) talked about their framework for tying together lots of different user research such as click stream analysis, search logs, eye tracking and others. This reminded me of Jared Folkmann’s excellent talk at last year’s Euro IA Summit in Berlin.
Finally, I attended one nice talk (by James Robertson) on the value of contextual enquiries, which if nothing else has made me all the more determined to try this myself the next time an opportunity presents itself.
(Here’s the third post on the 2007 IA Summit. You can find the first one that introduces the series and describes the first theme ‘tangible’ here and the second one on ‘social’ here.)
Typically, IAs have concerned themselves with the design of web sites. The metaphor most suited and used for the web so far has been space. Even the term ‘information architecture’ points to this. Nowadays, besides having to tackle the social dimension (as per the previous trend mentioned) IAs are forced to rethink the spatial metaphor in favour of a new one: the web as platform. This means designing for a web of data, where sites become data sources and tools to view and manipulate that data. This is a far cry from the old hierarchical model. Like design for social software, IAs are still exploring this new territory.
Jared Spool talked about the usability challenges of web 2.0 and focussed on (among many things) the shortcomings of RSS and the dangers of mash-ups. RSS as a technology is pretty cool, but no normal user intuitively understands its application. This is a technology still looking for a killer app. Mash-ups are typically made by enthusiastic amateurs looking to combine available data sources or interfaces. This means we’ll see a wave of sites with serious usability issues. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing per se, but still something to look out for.
(Here’s the second post on the 2007 IA Summit. You can find the first one that introduces the series and describes the first theme ‘tangible’ here.)
The recent web revival, that I will not name, pushed one trend to the forefront – social software. The most challenging aspect of designing social sites and applications is that you’re not ‘just’ designing for single users, but also for groups as a whole. The IA community is still in the beginning phases of creating a body of knowledge about how to best go about this.
Andrew Hinton gave one of the best talks of the event, first describing the unique properties of network-like communities of practice and how to design for them. From there he made the point that IA itself is a community of practice, not a formal discipline, which means it should try to stay open and flexible.
Bonus: Gene Smith took a stab at the building blocks of social information architectures and came up with this nice model.
I’ll be posting a top 5 of the themes I noticed during the past 2007 IA Summit in Las Vegas. It’s a little late maybe, but hopefully still offers some value. Here are the 5 themes. My thoughts on the first one (tangible) are below the list:
The IA community is making a strange dance around the topic of design for physical spaces and objects. On the one hand IAs seem reluctant to move away from the web, on the other hand they seem very curious about what value they can bring to the table when designing buildings, appliances, etc.
The opening keynote was delivered by Joshua Prince-Ramus, of REX (notes by Rob Fay and Jennifer Keach). He made some interesting points about how ‘real’ architects are struggling with including informational concerns in their practice. Michele Tepper, a designer at Frog talked us through the creation of a specialized communications device for day traders where industrial design, interaction design and information architecture went hand in hand.
I’m sitting in the North West Airlines World Club in Detroit using my eleven hour (!) lay-over to work away all the email and RSS feeds that have been piling up during the past days of being (mostly) off-line.
I had a great time at the IA Summit. It was definitely worth the trip. Attended lots of thought-provoking talks and met a whole bunch of inspiring people. It’s interesting to now be able to put the European IA scene in context of the ‘international’ one.
I’m single-quoting international, because to be honest, I think the IA Summit is a North American event. Of course there were quite a few visitors and even speakers from outside the US& Canada, but I can’t help but feel that the majority of attendees really are not very aware of the truly international character of the IA community.
That’s a shame.
One example is something I really should have fixed during 5 minute madness: the announcement of the European IA Summit. Apart from mentioning the event’s name and URL, people weren’t exactly persuaded to come over. It wasn’t even mentioned that this is in the beautiful city of Barcelona!
Anyway, I’ll just use this opportunity to invite all my American colleagues to make the trip and get a taste of how we do things in Europe. Seriously, I’m sure people will enjoy learning about the unique issues we’re dealing with (I did the other way around). Like Jesse James Garrett said: “embrace ambiguity”.
Just firing off a quick post while packing for the IA Summit. Tomorrow morning I’m taking off on my flight to Vegas. For anyone curious about my doings while in the states, your best bet is Jaiku1. SMS-ing the occasional update should be affordable and won’t take too much time. No live blogging I’m afraid, I will be taking plenty of notes2 and promise to do a proper write-up when back.
1. Although all the crazy Americans are hooked on Twitter like an addict on crack, so to keep up with what’s going on there I’ll need to switch between two presence apps. Grumble.
2. A fresh squared Moleskine pocket notebook is ready for action.
While we’re on the topic of attending events: I’m lucky enough to attend this year’s IA Summit. It’s all the way in Las Vegas (a long flight from my humble country) so there’ll be plenty of jet lag to cope with. Also it’s just the conference for me, no time to attend the pre-conference workshops (which is a shame really, because there’s plenty of interestingstuff). Regardless, I’m looking forward to experiencing the mothership conference after two years of being at the Euro IA Summit and meeting lots of new interesting people. Perhaps I’ll see you there?