Reflections on the last Information Architecture Summit

James Mulholland
May 21, 2018 · 10 min read
Entrance to Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

A Strong Community

I attended my first IA Summit this year in March, held in Chicago’s downtown. While I am still getting to know the Information Architecture (IA) community, I am already starting to feel a part of it.

From the conference content, it’s clear to me this group thinks deeply and abstractly about the problems we encounter professionally. So it makes sense that a group who is attuned to ontological reframing would make this a part of their community reflection. Reflection is critical for healthy evolution. And it turns out the event itself will be evolving: The Summit is no more (as it has now been renamed). Long live The Conference!

The structure of the conference itself also revealed the self-awareness of a strong community. At a meta level, this conference oozes cultural awareness: First-Timer dinners with legendary figures (Hi, Peter!), pronoun stickers, positive attitudes, diverse content, and a mixture of evening activities to help attendees get the most out of their time. In these ways and more I found the Summit to be a truly welcoming place. Marsha Haverty’s closing keynote emphasized the importance of cultural continuation, which the coordinators of the event have taken to heart.

As a designer I am familiar with existential talk about defining your value and getting a seat at the table. Even so I was surprised to hear so much talk during the week trying to define what we are. But Dan Brown, a long-time veteran of the conference, tried to settles the fears of first-timers:

We literally have conversations about the definition of IA every year. It’s not an existential crisis. For us, it’s healthy.
iaconf.slack.com

To help share my experience, I’ve compiled albums of my sketchnotes from the conference and my photos from the architectural walking tour (links at the bottom).

Close-up of interior ornament from the Auditorium Theatre

Conference Takeaways

I’ve taken some time post-Summit to reflect and develop key ideas from the content I encountered. One thing I’ve already taken from the Summit is that knowledge building is ultimately a community activity. Please do inquire, comment, or question anything I offer below.

If you read nothing else, my learnings can be summed up in four broad topics:

  1. Influence: The scope and growth of Information Architecture practice continues to evolve to an ever more critical role, including leadership.
  2. Variable experiences: It’s important to be vigilant of the multifaceted, embodied, and contextual nature of information. The diversity of possible experiences is as important (or more so) than the sameness.
  3. Artificial Intelligence: The growing impact of in automated decision making is an opportunity to reframe the technology vision to support human augmentation rather than human replacement.
  4. Ethics and Complexity: The ethics of information architecture are seated in problem framing rather problem solving, especially when faced with complex ecological scale.

More detail on each topic below…

The Rookery in Chicago, interior designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

1) We need Information Architecture now more than ever.

The scope and growth of Information architecture practice continues to evolve to an ever more critical role, including leadership.

In “IA at the helm,” Bob Boiko illustrated how we can provide vision and leadership in projects. Even if you’re not granted leadership explicitly, because of the critical need of IA, you can still lead up, across, and down from where you are. As Bob quoting H.L. Mencken, “wherever I sit is the head of the table.”

“Naming things is my first responsibility”
~Dan Ramsden

Much of the influence of IA practice stems from the power of naming objects in the system. Naming is a representative task that illustrates both the complexity and value of Information Architecture practice. Naturally, naming is a framing, an understanding of what everything is and how it fits into a system. In Bob’s words, “we coin terms; we are coiners.”

Mike Doane’s “IA in the age of the Echo” emphasized that designing voice interactions require IA and content skills far more critically than we are used to for visual interfaces. Voice has greater input variation and we need to focus our tools on flow modeling, content structures, and taxonomies. Visual skills will be less necessary over time.

While Artificial Intelligence (AI) was a common topic at the conference, Seth Earley opened the conference with an argument that Information Architecture is a core competency for designing AI (“No AI without IA”). While it continues to grow in sophistication, Information Architecture is always aimed at the root of how humans perceive and interact with information environments. Not just in topics of artificial intelligence, but also fake news, data privacy, and unbalanced representation create critical problems in our shared information environments. A collective rebranding of the practice may be necessary to grow our influence (an exercise in naming and identity).

Seth described the concept of Model-first design (riffing of course off of Luke W’s Mobile-first), that we might understand the bigger picture before trying to design the details. (Carrie Hane also touched on this in her talk “Connected Content”) Model-first may well become our new design mantra.

2) Experience is variable to context

It’s important to be vigilant of the multifaceted, embodied, and contextual nature of information. The diversity of experience is as important (or more so) than the sameness.

Lest we believe we have everything solved, we ought to remember that the experience of information environments is vastly complex. In her talk on “Neolithic Information Seeking,” Marcia Bates reminded us of how humans developed models of information finding long ago. Information is a part of the environment and we pick up things as we pass through it. Our insistence on simplistic information tools (like Google’s famous home page) cannot possibly deliver information in a manner that will aid us in creating new knowledge.

Duane Degler’s talk on “Dynamic information environments” covered personalization, decentralized information, and negotiating “different informational realities.” Marsha Haverty closed the conference with a complex and rich talk on “Information Culture.” Building off of Richard Saul Wurman, she says “meaning comes from engagement; engaging in information is a performance.” With this she suggested we consider the whole possibilities of a performance. This requires an understanding of how all other senses work in concert to perform together. “Align information with performance; align performance with good continuation.” There’s so much to unpack, and I’m barely touching it; I would recommend digging into her transcript).

Learning about alternate modes of information reveals superpowers. Elise Roy’s keynote “Different is the New Normal” reminded us that evolution required diversity to turn us into the world-sensing creatures we are today. She showed how humans can creatively engage other capabilities to cope, often resulting in new capabilities: unique and hard to replicate through intentional creative practice. The argument here could be that the ability to describe a “normal” is not only harder, but frankly less interesting and less practical. What is considered a strength or a disibility is contextual to the problems we face.

“Diversity is a cure for unpredictable adversity.”
~Peter Morville

The network designers and the humans for whom we design needs to remain diverse and representative. If we can’t ensure this, we risk losing the opportunity to recognize and learn from new skills and concepts. Ignoring it outright creates impoverishment of ideas, which should not just be recognized and avoided, but actively derided and resisted. If we can create healthy diversity, the structures we create can redistribute the future.

3) AI: Augmentation over Artifice

The growing understanding of computational intelligence is an opportunity to reframe the discussion to emphasize human augmentation rather than human replacement.

In addition to Seth’s keynote (mentioned above), many talks featured stories, anecdotes, or considerations for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning as it relates to our practice. As we move through the hype cycle, I’m interested to see how the content around these topics evolves and matures.

Karl Fast explored the questions of authorship during his reflection on deep learning technology. When we use computation to generate things not producible by a human alone, who is responsible and who gets credit? We may expect to see a more entangled view of these roles — the future is fuzzy. When we look at systems of intelligence, who is responsible for the outcomes of its decisions: the creator of an algorithm, it’s implementers, or somehow those it acts upon? Or is it somehow the algorithm itself is to blame for being?

Most talk of artificial intelligence these days is focused on how humans can or will be replaced by computers. But taking the humans out of the equation doesn’t make it better. The more powerful narrative is illustrated by understanding how these intelligences play chess: while a computer intelligence can beat a human, the best player is computer-assisted human intelligence. In Karl’s words: We should design with the artificial.

Alëna Iouguina walked through the human brain’s mechanisms for processing contextual information in “The Nature of Information Environments.” It’s important to bring a more context-rich understanding into AI and to do this we need to pull context into our understanding of objects.

4) Grappling with ethics, influence, responsibility in a complex ecology of information

The ethics of information architecture are seated in problem framing rather problem solving, especially when faced with complex ecological scale.

Our view of what IA “is” continues to evolve. Dan Ramsden’s “Converging with Curiosity” positioned Information Architecture practice as a balancing of an equation between problem and solution. We counterbalance solution definition with problem framing. Jared Spool walked through how technology design practices have evolved from the screen, to entire applications, to organizations; and now “pioneers” are emerging who are developing tools to design at the ecosystem level. This is the next new frontier in designing for humans.

But with great power comes great responsibility, as my Uncle Ben once said. I think it’s a really good thing that ethics have become such a ubiquitous topic. It is important for our discipline to have a voice in that discussion. A quote I found from Bob Kasenchak covers many key ideas in one tweet:

“Categories have ethical implications… The power of naming is a power of assertion… Any information architecture project is the encoding of a point of view… Almost all categories are false.”

The academic roundtable’s theme this year focused on ethics, and exploring how ethics space is influenced by (and influencing) Information Architecture. during roundtable recap session, Andreas Resmini (I think) said, “if you’re not thinking about ethics, you’re doing it wrong.” There was another comment I appreciated where a discussion leader humbly admitted the IA community is “still immature when discussing ethics.” I think it’s important that we not just acknowledge ethics, but take the next steps: deeper awareness and accountability (where we can have a direct effect) and advocacy (for issues outside our hands). I think this last part is too often dropped from conversations.

In a conversation with Stacy Surla during poster night, she shared their workshop’s output and responded to my questions about the assumptions and limitations of their efforts. As an aside, she introduced a perspective on ethics that I found quite intriguing: non-living things can be modeled as “stakeholders” when considering ethics in a design decision. Her example was water. Water represents not just a simple substance but an entire cycle, a system that is affected by the what we put into the world. At this point, any system that can be drawn as a black box could potentially be an ‘actor’ in ethical conversations… my mind is still blown a little from this so I might just leave it at that.

Illustration of Grant Park by Daniel Burnham from book Plans of Chicago,

Runners-up

A couple themes popped out to me as interesting threads that didn’t quite capture the spotlight. I think they’re worth mentioning and I hope to see more on these in the future.

The architecture of aesthetics

In an architectural walking tour of Chicago’s downtown, Andrea Resmini and Dan Klyn posed questions about the supposed axiom ‘form follows function.’ Their purpose here was to provoke a conversation of how we relate an internal structure to the beauty of the outside. Jason Hobbs posed questions about the role of IA in art. And Naoko Kawachi shared a poster exploring fashion as a form of ‘mode-shifting’ for a personal brand. While aesthetics is something as a community we seem to shy away from, I hope to see more critical thinking like these topics in the future. It will help cement IA as a critical function not just in developing concepts and models but also in understanding all aspects of human perception.

History-fueled thinking

For a for a critical view of design practices, it’s important to tap historical perspectives in knowledge creation. Marcia Bates reached back to the Paleolithic era to gain an understanding of today’s human-technology relationships. And Clai Rice has dug deep across the United States to uncover an impressive vernacular of “Folk Illusions” that have been a part of our experiences since our childhood that we never had a name for. Dan and Andreas’ walking tour was also, intentionally, a walk through history to understand embodied experience created by the spaces designed for us. I am thrilled that at the IA Summit this kind of research was included as often as talks on creative work. It’s inspiring to be exposed to so many thoughtful new ideas and concepts. Everything old is (framed as) new again.


With all of that I think it’s fair to say I greatly enjoyed my first, the last, IA Summit.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Would attend again. See you in Orlando?


Rear-side view of The Monadnock Building, Chicago
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