The 11th Annual IA Summit  was held in sunny Phoenix Arizona this year. It might have been more appropriate for a Masters student studying Data Curation to attend the Research Data and Access Summit, which was running concurrently, but in this particular case, curiosity prevailed. Clearly, Information Architecture (IA) is a hot field, but this fact may only serve to increase anxiety as some may not have a firm grasp on what it entails. As it turns out, Information Architecture seems to be loosely defined, if at all. Instead it is more important to focus on what Information Architects seek to accomplish: facilitating understanding and improving the human experience in a world where the quantity of information is growing rapidly, and people are confronted by—and must interact with—more information than ever before.
An opening reception was held on the eve of the conference. One of the hotel ballrooms served as the venue, and not long after the reception began it was full of people engaged in lively conversation. In comparison to other conferences, this one looked to have a pretty cool crowd! Whereas many appeared to have come with someone, or were meeting up with colleagues or friends they hadn't seen in a while or since the last summit, for others this may have been their first time out. Regardless, the participants at the Summit comprised a welcoming and lively group which, in looking at the credentials listed in the conference programme, was also surprisingly diverse. And in this diversity some, perhaps those new to the field or the Summit, found reassurance.
Richard Saul Wurman is an Information Architect with degrees in Architecture and Fine Art. Wurman is a perfect example of a passionate person. His particular passions are for information and 'understanding,' to borrow a keyword from his presentation. He is a prolific author; the topics of his many books range from baseball to healthcare. He is the founder of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference , and as he noted in his address, is responsible for the coining of the term 'Information Architecture'. Ideas for his projects derive from what he refers to as his own ignorance or lack of understanding.
On Saturday morning (10 April), as the audience trickled in to take its seats, Wurman sat in an armchair on the stage, chatting with those who had arrived early enough to nab seats in the front row. On the side table next to the chair was a banana, his only prop. He began his keynote by talking about the banana. Eventually he would open it, this 'perfect fruit,' from the opposite end. His explanation and the object lesson: everyone always tries to open bananas from the stem-end, which often results in frustration and a bruised, squishy banana, but open it from the opposite end, and this doesn't happen. Opening the banana from the other end is Wurman's metaphor for what he calls 'the opposite paradigm.' When something isn't working, start over from the beginning, and from the opposite direction. He conceded that this can be a 'terrifying' proposition, but a necessary and ultimately rewarding one.
The speech that followed this demonstration was fascinating; filled with anecdotes about his adventures and accomplishments, insults (including a few pointed remarks about the recent release of Apple's iPad in the United States), and general musings. Wurman was both wise and charming, and he made the following points.
Wurman's presentation style was unexpected. Aside from the banana there were no props or slides, instead the focus was on him and his words which were inspiring. Wurman's keynote as a podcast and a transcript are both freely available, and worth investigating .
The keynote presentation given by Dan Roam also addressed this theme of 'understanding.' A consultant, best-selling author, and the founder of Digital Roam Inc., Roam holds degrees in Biology and Fine Art. The topic of his talk was on solving complex problems through visual thinking—using pictures or 'sketching' to explain things. Roam's proposition to the audience: 'whatever our problems are...we can solve them with pictures.' Such a simple concept, which speaks to another over-arching theme from the Summit: keep it simple. An interesting idea, when the tools and modalities for structuring and communicating information have become so complex. Everyone likes pictures and everyone, Roam stated confidently, is capable of drawing them. Drawing may very well be the most effective tool in solving the most complex problems—how ironic. Roam also pointed out it is quite often the case that 'whoever draws the best picture gets the funding.' Sophistication and complexity aren't necessary attributes of the 'best picture,' it is infinitely more important that the picture is easy to understand. As an illustration of these points, Roam described the start of the most successful airline in history—Southwest, an idea that was hatched over cocktails and sketched on the back of a napkin.
Roam has given talks and hosted workshops at such places as Boeing and the United States Senate. One sequence of his slides in his presentation at the Summit included hand-drawn sketches from the notebooks of United States Presidents: Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, etc. A sketch on the back of a napkin was actually the basis for Reaganomics. Even Barack Obama, the current United States president, draws extremely well, Roam noted. Interestingly enough he is left-handed, as were five of the past seven American presidents—all drew avidly. This makes sense given that left-handedness is commonly associated with a tendency for spatial-thinking. President Obama is one of the most eloquent Presidents the United States has ever had, and seeing as he draws so well, Roam asked the United States Senate in his presentation to them, 'Why isn't he using pictures to explain things,' how about healthcare?
The new healthcare reform bill that was recently signed into law in the U.S. has caused somewhat of an uproar among Americans. In Roam's opinion, it's not so much that people don't agree with the bill, they just don't understand it. So, why not explain it with pictures? Roam did, with the help of a colleague. His drawings (on napkins!) are available via Slideshare .
In summary, Roam gave an inspiring talk about bringing Information Architecture back to basics. Understanding is all-important, and drawing pictures is an effective way to explain complex problems—or convey information. One which uses a simple tool that everyone possesses. So, why isn't everyone just drawing pictures? For Roam's explanation, and his keynote in entirety, download or listen to the podcast .
Nick Finck is an active and leading figure in the Web design community. His presentation was entitled The commoditization & fragmentation of the Information Architecture community. In his abstract he suggested that Information Architecture is at a crossroads, perhaps on the brink of fragmentation, that IA is a 'profession defeating itself through the lack of clarity in its own message, a lack of value in its own offering, and through simply a lack of commitment by those within.' The session was intended to be a light-hearted discussion among practitioners (and to aid in the levity of the atmosphere Finck had illustrated his slides with robot cartoons); in reality, it was anything but.
One of his first slides read: 'Let's not get into a debate about defining the damn thing.' Here it was, out in the open, proof that some practitioners do not agree on the state of the profession. Subsequent slides had questions like 'Do you feel loved as an IA?'; 'What are your challenges as an IA?'; and 'What is the future of IA?' The session rather resembled an IA support group meeting. It was valuable in that it illustrated the struggles practitioners are having, but also a common desire among the 'veterans' to support the new generation of IAs and each other, and above all to 'be the advocate for the information.' Rather than be disheartened by the session, and perhaps it was the very presence of young people in the room (presumably 'junior IAs'), there was instead a sense of hopefulness that if at a crossroads, or 'on the brink,' despite being this ephemeral, undefined, perhaps intangible entity, Information Architecture would come out okay. It certainly has a solid future, though it may be impossible to achieve total clarity in its own message.
Having explored what Information Architecture was over the first sessions of the conference, and where it stands at the moment, the end of the weekend presented the opportunity to explore where IA is going, perhaps the most exciting part of any conference, i.e. what's new and yet to come? Just as understanding was one of the major themes of this year's summit and is perhaps a tenet of Information Architecture, another was certainly experience, in particular, the human experience. It became evident, from sessions throughout the weekend on user experience, labelled UX, that one of the things information architects do is to model information, or structure it, in such a way as to optimise its use for people when they access it. The most exciting examples of 'experience' were presented in a few sessions towards the end of the conference: the first on social networks, the second on 'wayfinding,' and a third on 'metropolitan IA.'
Paul Adams, a Senior User Experience Researcher at Google gave a presentation Closing the gap between people's online and real life social networks. Adams asserted that peoples' offline activities—their interactions and behaviour in real-life—influence their online activities and behaviour. His prescriptive message, which was supported by two years of research and analysis, seemed to be that in order to understand online behaviour and create good design, Information Architects need to understand offline behaviours, and develop tools that allow for the incredibly complex social interactions of the people that use them. Paul described social networking tools at present as 'crude,' since '[o]ur relationships in real life don't boil down to accepting/following/ignoring and blocking others.' And developing better tools at this point is more about understanding sociology than it is about technology. Adams presented a series of case studies from his research on social interaction via Facebook. An example of one of their findings: 'friend' is an 'unhelpful' word, and that instead designers and their tools must allow for multiple categories and types of relationships, as this is the way it works in the real-world.
Another significant point Adams made that reflected a common theme across the conference was the importance of privacy, and by association, trust. The Internet is far-reaching and information on the Web is persistent. People don't always understand that their interactions are public, thus designers must make sure that tools are transparent—that users know what is happening and understand the possible consequences. Transparent design is the only way to guarantee trust in a tool, so it must always represent a top priority. This is an important point, one that is especially pertinent and often overlooked. An apt example is Facebook and its ever-changing privacy policies ('settings'). As a result of these changes and the loss of transparency, many users have lost trust in it. Facebook aside, Adams' presentation provides a valuable lesson: simply look at what people do in real-life, and design accordingly.
Cennydd Bowles, a User Experience Engineer for Clearleft in Brighton, England, gave a presentation called The future of wayfinding. The abstract for his presentation stated that '[t]he boundaries between the abstract digital world and the real physical world are becoming blurred,' GPS and RFID chips are enabling spimes (unique, location-aware, environment-aware, self-documenting objects), which will allow our environment to 'tell us about itself and how we should interact with it.' In the near future, our surroundings may be annotated. The data cloud will, in some sense become grounded and transform into a data fog (paradoxical as that may sound). Location-driven technology is already prevalent, the next step is in 'shaping the chaos'—designing tools that help users better to experience and understand their surroundings, ultimately making them 'feel at home.' Again the issues of privacy and security are factors in making this experience secure, but another particularly interesting one is that by making this technology too important (such that it 'inhibits exploration') could result in negative experiences or interaction, in the event of (even temporary) failure. Thus it would be prudent to maintain personal knowledge of one's environment, and analogue 'wayfinding' techniques and skills.
The presentation by Don Turnbull (whose entire bio in the programme read, 'better than a sandwich, but not better than a cookie'), and John Tolva, Director of Citizenship and Technology for IBM, was entitled Metropolitan Information Architecture: The future of UX, databases and the (Information) Architecture of complex, urban environments. Though similar to Bowles presentation, rather than a strict focus on navigation, Turnbull and Tolva explored how information and actual, physical architecture could 'synchronize' or integrate. The presentation addressed a number of topics: the constraints of cities on design and how design could improve cities; how mobile communication and Web culture affect the streetscape; who has and is embracing data and networks as matters of physical design; at what point social media begin to change digital and physical social spaces in the urban network; and finally what metropolitan experiences could be like in the future.
Their main points emerged as follows:
One of Tolva's current projects at IBM is called City Forward. The goal of this project is to make 'smarter cities' and consequently, better user experiences. City Forward launches in June 2010, and represents perhaps a first step in the direction of 'metropolitan IA' .
While some suggest that Information Architecture is on the brink of fragmentation, that it lacks clarity, and that its future is uncertain, the ideas put forth on Sunday 11 April provide evidence to the contrary—or evidence that such worries are irrelevant. Rather than 'debate over defining the damn thing' maybe it is unnecessary either to define IA or even to seek complete clarity. Whatever its course, its future is bright and brimming with possibility. With any luck, these ideas for the future are what will remain with the delegates after the Summit. The most exciting parts of this future seem to fall into the category of 'ubiquitous computing'— information will potentially both leap off of the 'page' (the Web page) and out of the 'box' (the computer) distributing itself throughout the built environment. Some of this is already happening now. Information Architects will be the ones who further liberate it, and the ones who design the 'experiences' through which humans are able to interact and, ultimately, better understand the world around them, in all its complexity.
Information Architecture is not new. The practice of structuring information, as Information Architects do, has arguably been around for as long as humans have been drawing pictures. Perhaps it is the increased exposure that has made Information Architecture so provocative. Or perhaps it is more likely a predictable outcome of our close proximity to an ever-increasing interaction with 'information.' Whatever the case may be, it is arguable that a great way, maybe even the best way, to learn about Information Architecture, is to attend an IA Summit. Without over-simplifying the complexity of the work many Information Architects do, or the technical qualifications many possess, it is important to make it clear that the common denominator among Information Architects is a passion for information.
Though the mantra of the IA Summit was that 'the best conversations happen in the hall' (and a great deal of these conversations were 'in the hall,' as it were, or via Twitter feeds which were displayed on flat-screens), the best conversations, in fact, probably happened after everyone had departed. The very best conversations are probably those happening now, and are the ones that people will continue to have in the coming months. They will be the ones in which the most exciting ideas from this year's summit—so many more than could be covered here—will be shared with those who were not able to attend. With any luck these conversations will lead to more ideas, some of which will perhaps be revealed at the next Summit.