Journeys and Picnics

If I’m known for anything, it’s probably for helping establish information architecture as vitally important for improving web sites. Which is great, but strikes me a little funny, because over the past decade I’ve been far more involved with designing books and conferences than sites.

Books and conferences are practically ancient content formats. Yet they continue to be fascinating, indispensable, and packed with opportunities to try out new ideas. As someone who gets to create both, I find it impossible not to examine them side-by-side. Here’s my oversimplified take:

  • Books are journeys. Books remain the best way to explore an idea in depth, because the author and reader travel together for weeks or months with little distraction.
  • Conferences are picnics. Conferences allow you to sample from a smorgasbord of ideas in a very short time, and as social events, they enable you to learn with others — which can be far more impactful than learning alone.

Both have drawbacks, of course. Books are a painfully slow food to consume, force us to proceed linearly, and often swing and miss at the zeitgeist. Conferences can come off as slap-dash collections of big name speakers whose canned talks have been sloppily retrofitted into themes so broad as to be meaningless.

Making conferences more like books

How do we improve both formats? There’s an entire industry trying to make books more interactive and social; I won’t cover it here. But I’ve been thinking hard about trying to make conferences go, like books, into more depth. Can the picnic be fun and meaningful? Can a much larger group go on a journey together?

At Enterprise UX, I’ve worked with Dave Malouf, Uday Gajendar, and Lada Gorlenko to come up with an approach. We:

  1. Identify the themes that currently animate the conversations that designers are already having in enterprises
  2. Sequence those themes from from pragmatic to strategic
  3. Find speakers to who can speak to each theme
  4. Drive those speakers insane by forcing them to develop their ideas iteratively and collaboratively over 4–5 months

I’m happy with both the recipe and the result, as we’ve got consistently high marks on the program’s depth and relevance. Even the big name speakers often begrudgingly thank us, as the months of preparation force them to develop their ideas and learn from each other.

Another experiment

I’m working with Dave Malouf again, along withKristin Skinner and Abby Covert, to create a new conference: the DesignOps Summit (November 6–8 in New York City). While we’re obviously using “DesignOps” to draw parallels with DevOps, it’s an area so new that it’s anyone’s guess what the right term should be.

More importantly, so many designer leaders are waking up to the challenges involved in operationalizing design in large organizations. We’ve finally nabbed a seat at the table; now comes the hard part: developing the supporting infrastructure to help design organizations truly succeed.

DesignOps, at the moment, is sufficiently broad and ill-defined that it can cover a diverse set of topics, ranging from pattern libraries and design systems to staff onboarding and guiding design principles. Whatever DesignOps is or will be, it merits a deep discussion; to crib a Jon Kolko line, it’s time for organizations to move from “design thinking to design doing”.

Like Enterprise UX, we’re organizing the program by themes. However, these themes don’t reflect the conversation in design operations because, well, there isn’t yet a community to have this discussion. Instead, we’ve developed themes that get at what we perceive as the primary gaps in what’s known about how design and operations fit together:

  1. What designers have learned so far about operations—especially in settings where design is already within the organization’s DNA
  2. What operations people from contexts outside design can teach designers
  3. What operations people have had to learn about design—especially in settings where operations is established and design is relatively new

Because design operations remains ill-defined, we’re bringing in Dave Gray and his team from XPLANE to lead a couple hours of collaborative sense-making. And we’ll have Jim Kalbach and a jazz quartet on hand to demonstrate, through playing music together, inherent protocols for collaboration. Together, with our three themes, we think we’ve hit on a good formula. We’ve now gone out and found our speakers; we’ll see how well our approach works once November comes around.

Creating a new conference is frightening, to say the least. The financial risks literally keep me up at night. But I’m excited to keep experimenting with the conference format and looking for ways to deepen its content. We’ve got to keep questioning our assumptions about the things—like books and conferences—that are familiar to us. Many old formats can be reinvented; and all old formats merit reexamination.

I’m also enjoying roaming, once again, through unknown territory. Making sense out of DesignOps has much in common with digging into enterprise UX and, a long time ago, helping define IA by organizing the first few Information Architecture Summits. If you’re also a roamer, consider joining us at the inaugural DesignOps Summit this November.