Information Inspiration

An IA Summit 2018 Recap

The 2018 IA Summit was held in Chicago! Image credit: Optimal Workshop

The IA Summit is a 3-day conference (5-day if you count the 2 days of pre-conference workshops) where information architects, user experience designers, and content strategists gather to discuss problems, ideas, strategies, and techniques all centered around working with information. I recently attended this conference for the first time and I got so much out of it that I wanted to share a little bit about my experience and what I learned.

First, a bit about me

I’m an Experience Designer at ExpandTheRoom (ETR), a design and development agency headquartered in NYC. I’ve been “doing UX” for about 6 years now and in that time I’ve had the opportunity to dabble in just about every type of UX role. Over the last couple of years, I have started to really hone in on my UX happy place, which involves more research & analysis and less visual design & prototyping.

Midday break to visit Cloud Gate (aka The Bean!)

When you are part of a small team, everyone has to play multiple roles. As our team grows at ETR, I am more and more often able to be in the roles of researcher, content strategist, and information architect, which is exciting. I enjoy solving all sorts of problems related to organizing, structuring, and communicating information in the most helpful and effective ways for both end users and business stakeholders.

My preference for working with words over working with visuals is what really drew me to the IA Summit. A lot of the other design conferences that I’ve researched seem to have more of a visual design angle, which isn’t where my passion lies. By far, my favorite thing about the IA Summit was that information was at the forefront, not on the back burner.

The conference atmosphere

Image credit: Samvith Srinivas

I can’t say enough about the welcoming and inclusive atmosphere at the IA Summit. From the Code of Conduct emphasis to the preferred pronoun pins to the special first-timers events, it was a wonderful environment.

The social activities at the conference included first-timers dinners, jam band night, board game night, and karaoke. There was something for everyone. AND, if you needed to retreat to your room for a break at any point during the conference, everyone totally got it. There was even a quiet room available for anyone who was not staying at the hotel. I’ve never been someplace before where introvert and extrovert needs and differences are discussed so openly. It was really cool to feel so understood!

The most awesome thing about this conference was that nobody was off-limits. Some of the greatest pioneers in UX and IA were right there alongside of us attending the same conference talks. All speakers were accessible, willing to share, and willing to listen. To get a chance to meet people who share the same values, goals, and interests as I do, and, on top of that, who have the knowledge and ability to articulate things I have struggled to, was an amazingly rewarding experience.

What I learned

A slide from Karen VanHouten’s talk on collaboration. Image credit: IA Summit

I am so inspired and I learned so much from a variety of design and content experts whose presentations ranged from discussing large philosophical questions to sharing practical hands-on advice.

Here are the big ideas that really stuck with me:

  • We need to slow down. 
    Design decisions are being made too fast and we are not doing a good enough job at considering the long-term effects. Also, content strategy is not a “phase”. It’s a necessary part of the design process. Thanks for championing this, Carrie Hane.
  • Information architecture is not neutral. 
    The ethics panel discussion reinforced that organizing information for discovery and use makes it accessible and also adds a lens through which people experience it.
  • Designing for extremes yields better solutions. 
    Thank you to Elise Roy for so clearly articulating why designing for the average user is useless. Different is the new normal.
  • Diversity is a cure for unpredictable adversity. 
    We need to take the blinders off and be honest with ourselves. Peter Morville reminded us that there are consequences to our decisions.
  • Revolution starts with taking responsibility for change. 
    Karen VanHouten inspired us all with her passionate rally to fix the way we collaborate.

And here are some of my more practical takeaways that I plan to try out on upcoming projects:

  • Try using information personas.
    Bob Boiko introduced me to the idea of information personas, which I am excited to try on my next project. The idea is to replace the traditional design persona (focused on a user’s goals, behaviors, needs, and frustrations) with a persona that is focused more specifically on a user’s information needs and behaviors.
  • Try content-first prototyping. 
    Prototyping information structure allows for context and makes conversations easier. Tree testing is great, but it robs us of context. Thank you to Andy Fitzgerald for sharing your content-first prototyping framework.
  • Try to design search for browsing instead of scanning.
    Marcia Bates taught me that scanning is not the same thing as browsing. Digital search experiences today are sterile in comparison to how we gather information in the physical world.

These are only some of the many things that I learned at the IA Summit. In addition to the things I learned from the speakers, I also learned a whole lot from the amazing people I met and talked to every day — from fellow first-timers to IA community founders. The value I got out of this conference is quite astounding and I am still processing everything I learned.

Elise Roy highlighting that different is the new normal during her keynote address. Image credit: IA Summit

That’s all, folks!

Well, there you have it. That’s my conference recap! Do you have any questions or comments about my experience at the IA Summit or the things I learned there? I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading.