IA Summit 2017: A Gathering of Brilliant Minds

photo by gabriel santiago // unsplash.com

I attended my very first IA Summit and it was an absolutely amazing experience. I was anxious initially because I was attending the conference alone. I quickly realized though that everyone’s just really excited to be there and happy to be talking about the craft we all love – information architecture and user experience. So I wanted to share the top 7 sessions that resonated with me and my key learnings for each.

How to Design the Culture of an Enterprise Software by Karen Van Houten

Karen Van Houten says, “In order to design better product experiences, we have to design a more effective process.” Her talk was most definitely the one that stuck with me the most and it’s because it completely validates the idea of collaboration. It’s something that I try to exercise with my team, making sure that they feel like they’re part of the process. This allows a common understanding of both the UX process and the end-user’s problem.

my notes from the talk // photo by me


  • Every decision made needs to be informed both by design and technical research. It’s important that we aren’t just designing experiences, we must strive to design better tools to build those experiences.
  • Deliverables are the documentation of your work, but never the end product. It should be able to relay the information necessary to your engineers. A journey map is a sole project — make sure your team understands the beautiful chart. This is what collaboration is like.
  • Empathy shouldn’t be limited to end users, we must also think about our beginning users — the people we work with.
  • Transparency of process from all teams is key. Cross-discipline and cross-team collaboration fosters trust and good relationships.

Fixing the Failures of Authentication UX by Jared Spool

sreenshot from novell.com

Jared Spool presents an astounding case on why the dialogue box is the most common, most expensive, and certainly most complex things that has ever been designed. Security UX or SUx is the first experience that our users go through and it’s probably the last thing we think about when we’re designing our product. I completely agree! How much money are we spending when customers reach out to us because they forgot their password? Each app has a different set of guidelines for passwords. That’s a lot of cognitive weight on our users.


  • Safety is a burden. We have two choices; we either put the burden on the user or the system. Designing with empathy means placing absolutely no burden on the user.
  • Putting the burden on the user creates frustration. When was the last time you forgot your password because they had really strict guidelines. This then becomes the user’s fault and this is exactly the opposite of empathy.
  • When poorly designed SUx prevents people to do their jobs, which means they will go the extra mile to find a way to bypass this.
  • We always focus on a user’s ‘happy path’, but what about the first time the user establishes identity with the system? How can we communicate these journey maps to the rest of our team?
  • The goal is to make your customers feel special by having a sophisticated system, where we first identify who they are, authorize the system to do so, and authenticate our identity.

Bridging AI and UX Methods at Etsy by Jenny Benevento, Giovanni Fernandez-Kincade and Jill Fruchter

I loved this talk by Etsy on how they solved their ‘search’ by recognizing that buyers and sellers have very distinct taxonomies. The biggest learning that happened within this project is that extensive UX research informs taxonomy, which then leads to building a helpful AI.

screenshot from etsy.com


  • They realized that most of their customers used their search for exploratory reasons or e-Search. This means that for Etsy, search is a conversation and structured data is required to inform how the AI should work.
  • Finding is the goal, search is the task. Through contextual observation, they realized that their users were doing low intent searches. They were purposely big and very personal like “Mother’s Day” or “Birthday Ideas”
  • Sellers and buyers weren’t speaking the same language. So they came up with a tagging system that places the product where sellers believe them to be, but they also show up in the places the buyers instinctively make sense to them.
  • AI isn’t enough. Data is queen. This implies that sometimes, we need to make uncomfortable changes.

Designing for Value-Based Information Seeking by Vivian Bliss, Joseph Busch and Susan Golden

What I love about this session is that it was about an industry that I was completely unfamiliar with. They found out that in medical care, there’s no way you can compare the different doctors. These are life decisions and yet we lack a solution to this problem. Because medicare usually is owned by the government, having the numerous data sets of available doctors, locations, caretakers, and good to know content is the easy part.


  • Design for the “user with the problem”, instead of designing to please the stakeholders. It helps us understand the values that are really important to our users.
  • Our job is to help clarify what the problem is. Interviews with SMEs and stakeholders can only get you to a certain point. Inventory of consumer criteria will give us a more holistic picture.
  • Information seeking is people putting themselves first, like “I have this condition” or “I need a crane.”
  • Present information in a way that reflects the value that matter to consumers. Sort the information by users, not by data.

All Roads Lead to the Bathroom by Elissa Frankle

Elissa Frankle works at a Museum in Washington, DC. This talk was extremely interesting to me because she applies a user-centric design process in a tangible manner. Visitors have bodies that get tired and they also need information, and yet 57% of questions at a museum’s information desk is where the bathroom is. Design great physical places, which can be applied to any digital space and vice versa.

map of the natural history museum // www.nhm.ac.uk


  • We must approach this problem by utilizing Maslow’s level of needs: Accessibility and Safety Needs, Physiological Needs, and Psychological Needs.
  • Accessibility and Safety Needs: The experience starts outside the museum. Listen to the people who aren’t coming in the museum — there’s a good reason why they don’t.
  • Physiological Needs: We need to be aware of where and how long our users have for content intake. We should prioritize wayfinding, otherwise we put ourselves first, not our users. This way, we set expectations for them and they’re able to decide for themselves how to use their time.
  • Psychological Needs: Always think about the language and what kind of messages we are presenting to our users.

Language Arts for the Lizard Brain by Andy Fitzgerald

The first 10 seconds are critical for users’ decisions to stay or leave. We can’t help but have an ethic bias through better information design. You can read more here.

photo taken from Andy’s blog // medium.com/@andybywire


  • Key words are automatically parsed. Easily recognized phrases are called Activation Patterns. This is how we apply meaning to words based on our experiences and knowledge.
  • Language differentiates meaning. Words don’t ‘mean’ anything on their own — we assign them on the fly. Vocabularies start making sense based on activation patterns in which they’re presented.
  • Human Scale Understanding is something we need to be aware of in design. A single space online is actually multiple spaces in our user’s minds.
  • We must always find a way to construct intended meaning and create intentional activation patterns. We need to build clear, understandable spaces.

I met a lot of great people and I am so humbled by their passion. It was a great day of learning. The sessions gave me a deeper understanding of my work and how I can be better at it. They rooted themselves in actionable ideas and processes. I can’t wait to go again next year.

Have you attended a conference recently that has really made an impact in your life? What was different from it than the others you’ve been to? I’d love to hear about it!