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“It’s A Great Time To Be An IA” : IA Summit 2013

A few weeks ago I got the chance to attend the IA Summit in Baltimore, MD. It had been over 5 years since I’d last attended one and boy did I feel like I’d been missing out!

There was a lot of interest in tackling the “big questions” : Who are we? What are we doing? How do we work better with clients, with other IA/UX professionals? And, most of all: What’s next? The opening keynote, Beyond Mobile, Beyond Web, by Scott Jenson set the tone with talk of self-aware toasters and other objects in the “Internet of Things.”

Other sessions continued the theme by tossing around terms like “sense making”, “meaning making”, and “just in time interaction.” A good number of the talks focused on strategic issues such as stakeholder persuasion, creativity, innovation, and collaboration (my personal favorite from this category was I Can’t Work With You But I Need To presented by the dynamic and hyper-articulate Kyle Soucy).

Bringing IA Back to the Frontline

Just when I started to think I was the only one there who still spent time with nuts-and-bolts IA (wireframes, taxonomy, requirements gathering) I was lucky enough to catch tweet from Lou Rosenfield announcing a new “flextrack session” during an intermission. I ditched the talk I had planned on and instead got the chance to participate in amazing discussion with a small group of industry leaders about the future of IA education and publications.

I discovered I wasn’t the only questioning the way that UX has come to overshadow more traditional IA. Specifically, there are several UX books that have come out over the last year or so that do not have any mention of information architecture. Frankly, I had been feeling a little adrift in the midst of all the more futuristic theoretics — weren’t there still a lot of basic here-and-now problems that had not been solved? So it was gratifying to find out that I was in good company. We all seemed to agree that there was a need for a new IA bible — something that could be used by professions making the move from other fields as well as university students.

After that, I hit a streak of highly practical presentations on typography, analytics, and just how do you run a card sort with thousands of people (hint: use social media to recruit & screen).

Working with Ambiguity

One of the talks that resonate the most for me was Kerry-Anne Gilowy’s all-too-short presentation Schrödinger’s IA: Learning To Love Ambiguity. Kerry-Anne believes that we need to embrace the ambiguity inherent in IA consulting projects. I absolutely agree with her idea that discovery isn’t just an initial phase to get out of the way before the ‘real work’ but an ever-present component of their entire project.

Here at Dovecot Studio, we’ve been experimenting with incorporating “live wireframing” with clients earlier into the process. Remaining open to ambiguity means being open to new information and new ideas — even after the “Research” phase is over. This way, we are able to avoid the trap of functional fixedness and can continuely reassess whether we are, in fact, solving the right problems.

Solving the right problems was also very much a part of the great, in-depth, session by the amazing Lisa Welchman and Peter Morville, Web Governance: Where Strategy Meets Structure and the absolute highlight of the event, Karen McGrane’s closing plenary. Both delved into the increasingly apparent need for IA/UX/Content Strategy people to look beyond content & screens to the structure and cultural of actual organizations. Welchman & Morville talked through great examples of how rearchitecting IA can, and often must, involve rearchitecting organizational structures and workflows. As McGrane said, “We still need our boxes and arrows, but we must also manage people and politics.”

As with any high-quality conference, there were too many great options to choose between. I’m looking forward to when they post the digital recordings of all the talks so I can go back over my favorites and catch the ones I had to skip the first time around.

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