Washington DC metro area information architect and occasional blogger, with interests including personalization, the paradox of the active user, social apps/media, mapping and wayfinding, and rich Internet applications.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009


IA existential crisis...err, Summit

The existential crisis

I have to admit that there was far more spirited discussion and angst at this year's IA Summit than I have ever seen (or would ever have expected) at a professional conference.

General themes: Big IA vs. Little IA; IAI vs. IXDA; big documentation vs. little documentation; and, of course, what does it mean to be an information architect?

There was a central thread to the discussion that felt very circular to me, and I futzed around in InDesign a bit to try to capture it:

It's probably healthy to discuss these things in public. I think some of the tone of the debate was concerning, though. And I'll admit I went to the sessions that were likely to prompt debate. Once a journalist, always a journalist -- I felt compelled to follow the story, and this was the story of this IA Summit.

Whether we call ourselves IAs or something else, many of us started in this career by categorizing and defining things. But our nebulous-by-nature career doesn't fit well into any one bucket.

We may never define IA. This debate is not going to change the fact that some of us are innies, and some of us are outies; some of us are agile, and some of us are waterfall; some of us need heavy documentation, and some of us can do light documentation; some of us have huge business constraints, and some of us have lots of freedom.

Everyone's reality is a little different. Eric Reiss put it best in his "House Divided" session: The true definition of IA is whatever you do.

In many ways my day-to-day responsibilities might better fall under the definition of interaction design or user experience design. But it doesn't bother me to be called an information architect, and when people outside of the industry ask me what I do, I tell them I help make the web site easier to use. I think any of the job titles you hear bandied about for what we do can be boiled down to that description.

All of the fuzzy-bounded disciplines, and their knowledge sources and conferences, are places to meet cool, smart people, and learn things that help me become better at my job. I think that's why most people go to the IA Summit. Those of us who go for those reasons, I think, could happily find ourselves at a 20th IA Summit, still getting the same benefits.

Hopefully by then the debate will have progressed.

The sessions themselves

I had a chance to see some really good sessions, and some of the best stayed completely above the whole IA debate. Some of my favorites:

"Revealing Design Treasures from the Amazon" (Jared Spool) - Jared pulled out YEARS worth of Amazon.com screenshots in this presentation that was both highly entertaining and full of nuggets to make you think. The room was packed for this one and I hope everyone found it as worthwhile as I did.

"Strategies for Enabling UX to Play a More Strategic Role: What Will Work Where You Work?" (Richard I. Anderson and Craig Peters) - Some of the most important moments at the IA Summit are over lunch, dinner, or drinks, not in the sessions, and that makes me wonder why more sessions aren't structured like this one. We sat in round table groups, and led by the instructors, discussed UX's strategic role amongst ourselves. I really hope they do more sessions in this format in the future.

"ROI - Retaining Our Interest" (Eric Reiss) - Aside from the obvious entertainment value of a session that starts out with bloody mary sales, this one also had some important lessons. My main takeaway: sometimes proving your case is more about emotion than numbers.

"Unify Your Deliverables!" (Nathan Curtis) - We already use EightShapes' documentation system at Marriott, so I didn't learn as much from this session as I'm guessing others did. But I was still excited to see the new Unify system unveiled.

That's about all I've got. A slush pile of IA Summit and Memphis pictures and video are posted on Flickr.

posted by Carrie G  # 5:38 PM