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Reflections on the 2009 IA Summit

March 24, 2009

The underlying tenor of both the 2009 IA Summit and Interaction09 was no doubt a response to the current economic crisis. On the face of it, the lower-than-expected enrollment made it difficult for attendees to fully embrace the escapism we so desperately seek at these events. The world beyond the conference hotel was very much in evidence, and attendees witnessed and participated in the struggle to figure out where we fit in. You might argue that the response in each community was vastly different. By my perception, however, both were some variation of “we need to be different than we are today,” perhaps an obvious reaction to the current climate.

At the IA Summit, there were a couple of contentious sessions. To be honest, I didn’t attend them. On purpose. I don’t go to the Summit to get my hackles raised or to be entertained by over-the-top performances. I go to learn things, to make connections (both conceptual and personal) and for inspiration. The good news is that these weren’t lacking this year, only overshadowed. Here are a few themes that emerged:

1. Core Idea

The notion of using theme in the design process is hardly new or unique to design, but it’s something that was explored from several angles. I’ve been noodling on the idea for a few years, ever since I decided to revisit creative writing and read a book or two on the subject. In writing, obviously, a theme is crucial.

At last year’s Summit, Leah Buley presented a fantastic talk on being a lone wolf user experience designer. (Her CommonCraft-like approach was in part an inspiration to me to use a sketch style in my presentations.) The talk covered a few topics, but one of the things she mentioned was “design principles,” a collection of ideas that are meant to guide the design process. It was an appealing merge of two things–a theme and more traditional software requirements. They were sort of creative requirements.

Cindy Chastain took the idea further this year by more directly applying techniques from creative writing (in this case, screenwriting) to the work that we do. She generously shared a few templates with us, showing how she captured a central idea, and then built upon the idea. This nugget, this core concept isn’t a throw-away line, generic and shallow. Instead, it’s a carefully considered expression of the product’s theme, message, and philosophy. It’s specific, meaningful, and pervades the entire design process, like a melodic theme might do in a piece of music.

But the notion was elsewhere in the Summit. I loved Matthew Milan’s talk on insight. His overall message to us was that having the insight is more important than having done tons of research. A little research to back-up a couple of meaningful insights is better than million dollar research projects that serve only to validate ideas. Like creating a theme for design work, expressing the outcome of research simply, meaningfully, and in an engaging way (Matt’s shocking but useful example was “your customers behave similarly to drug users”) can be a powerful tool for motivating change.

2. Self-Reflection

Chris Detzi and I put together a pre-conference workshop on “Difficult Conversations” and it went better than I could have hoped. While we had a lot of content prepared, our real goal was to encourage good discussion and sharing. We provided a framework to help people talk about their challenges. One of the session’s underlying messages is that difficult conversations have to start with self-reflection, with gaining a better understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses. I hope the participants found this exercise valuable.

Self-reflection also popped up a couple times in the regular sessions, though perhaps not as clearly as “core idea”. Admittedly, I read it into the message of a couple sessions, perhaps because I was feeling self-reflective.

Samantha Starmer gave a heartfelt and practical talk on “HiPPOs” — the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion — and how to deal with them. While it was, at one level, a better summary of our pre-conference workshop than I could have given, it was also a good exploration of corporate politics. Again, her underlying message encouraged participants to think about their role and place in the corporate hierarchy and what they can do to route around the silos. Self-reflection seemed like a key ingredient.

Sam’s wasn’t the only sessions that didn’t deal directly with information architecture. I was pleased to see several “soft skills” sessions in the program, including “Courage to Quit,” a panel discussion on starting your own shop. Three of the panelists were sole proprietors and my colleague Chris Fahey represented the “small partnership with employees” model that we use at EightShapes. Each gave a great account of their history and lessons learned in pursuing self-employment. At the conclusion of the individual presentations, I asked what kind of self-reflection was necessary in order to make the plunge. In starting EightShapes, for example, I had to be honest with myself (and my partner) about the range of my capabilities, my ability to grow, and what I really wanted out of the arrangement.

Sarah Rice, Whitney Hess, and Chris gave great responses, echoing some of the things that I had thought about and expanding on the idea that self-reflection is important as an entrepreneur beyond just starting the company. Chris also admitted that mostly things move too fast to reflect on them beforehand.

Of course, Professor Michael Wesch’s keynote was nothing if not a meditation on how new technologies permit new levels of self-reflection. Hardly apologetic for what to some might appear self-centered, Prof. Wesch’s talk instead celebrated the depth of connection people find online, through these new tools. He highlighted YouTube’s “response” feature, a way for people to leave video messages for each other, as a means for inviting others into one’s internal thought process. In a meta sort of way, Prof. Wesch’s talk was a self-reflection of self-reflection. This is what conference keynotes are for, though, aren’t they.

3. Context

While hardly as strong as the other two themes, I did appreciate that there was a lot more “meta” talk at this conference than those past. Right next to discussions on facets, deliverables, and heuristic analysis were sessions on the environments and climates in which we operate and for which we design products.

Prof. Wesch again set the stage with a concept called “context collapse,” a notion that things we say and do take on a life outside the context in which they were uttered. The extreme example is the politician or TV personality who says something without knowing they’re being recorded, only to find that clip posted to YouTube. Wesch likely wasn’t saying that there is not context. Instead, I took his meaning to be that context is no longer static.

Andrew Hinton’s talk was a nicely serendipitous follow-up to the keynote. His session also explored the role of context in design. For social media, context is crucial because our identity is derived not only from who we are, but who we are in specific contexts. Giving him pause, for example, was his teenage daughter friended him on Facebook. “I can’t not friend her,” he said, “but I did have to think about who I am on Facebook and whether it was OK for her to see that.”

Several sessions raised issues around the context in which we work. Though I didn’t attend his session, Eric Reiss talked about “return on investment” (ROI). What I got from the live-Tweeting and accounts from friends was that we designers mistakenly try to use ROI as a way of shoe-horning design into a business context. Eric offered other ways of realizing and communicating the value of design in a business context.

Jesse James Garrett’s closing plenary was also a meditation on context, on the state of the industry, on the divisiveness between different disciplines and the sour situation we’ve created for ourselves. Argue with the content or the packaging, but the core assumption is undeniable: The in-fighting in the fields of user experience design is not a context that makes doing our work fun.

For me, though, it was interesting to hear about how other designers and businesses are responding to external pressures. Financial crisis aside, there’s a lot to learn about how people do design relative to clients becoming more sophisticated about our work, to the backlash against specific methodologies, to the trends in new techniques.

As always, the greatest value for me is talking to people outside sessions. This year I got to hang out with people I’ve only ever really interacted with through Twitter. I got to reconnect with old friends. And I got to catch up with people in between, people I’ve met a few times in person but mostly know online. The range and depth of our relationships is far more fascinating, engaging, and rewarding than it’s ever been before.

Next Year

I won’t mind seeing pre-baked controversy in the program next year. If organizers want to include a purposefully contentious session, so be it, but I hope these debates aren’t about how we do our work. Deliverables, methods, and definitions should be off the table for debate. Instead, I hope that these heated discussions can be around the work itself.

For example, I’m thinking of submitting a talk where me and my partner each present designs we’ve done throughout the year and the other critiques it. Nathan and I tell each other what we like and don’t like about our work all the time. I’d like to see how the community responds to that kind of debate.

Either way, I can’t wait to see you in Phoenix next year!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. John Yesko permalink
    March 24, 2009 6:40 pm

    Great write-up, Dan. I share many of your perspectives on the Summit.

    You guys are doing some impressive things at EightShapes, too.

  2. March 24, 2009 7:08 pm

    To your last paragraph—the application of the practical would be a nice contrast to the theoretical. Additionally, I (as a newbie) was/am most interested in the merging of practices which was spoke of only by the minority.

    Ian Alexander
    Eat Media

  3. javiervelasco permalink
    March 26, 2009 3:14 am

    Great summary Dan, thanks for sharing this.

    Regarding your first point on a core idea, this is something I’d been talking about since the 2004 and 2005 summits in terms of the Central Communication Concept and Central Creative Concept that is used in advertising. I showed this in a 2004 poster and 2005 presentation and

    Hope this helps!

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