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posted on 04.17.2013 posted by Jeff Pass

2013 IA Summit Themes

The IA (Information Architecture) Summit is the premiere gathering of Information Architects, Content Strategists, Experience Designers, and related UX (user experience) professionals. IA Summit 2013 (#ias13) was held April 3-7 in Baltimore, MD and was a tremendous success.

This year’s themes were “Collaboration” and “Observe, Share, Build, Repeat,” but several other prominent themes (and memes) also emerged.

You Cannot Control Device Usage

There are any number of strategies for addressing increased use of smart phones and tablets.  But regardless of strategy or approach, there are a few principles that must be acknowledged:

  • Mobile isn’t a fad or a trend, it is a reality, and one you ignore at your risk –This is especially true if you focus on youth, students, and underserved (minority and at-risk) communities.
  • Device usage will continue to change and evolve faster than we can keep up – Smartphones, tablets, Google Glass, the next big thing… no one can stay on top of it all.
  • You cannot predict (much less determine) how the user will access your content – You may think that no one would ever fill out “that form” on a smartphone, but you’d be wrong.

And therefore:

  • You cannot afford to create content for any one platform or device – You must create content for the diversity of devices and ways it will be used (and re-used).

You Cannot Control Content

Digital content is a lot like a child:

  • You nurture it through careful crafting and use of plain language
  • You give it a strong foundation providing clear hierarchical organization and taxonomy
  • You encourage it with additional metadata, entry into a content management system
  • You send it out into the world publishing it out to web-wide world

But once content leaves the nest, it can take on a life of its own. This is especially true if you provide content through feeds (RSS) or social media. Therefore, if we accept this to be true, we accept a massive responsibility to create the best content we possibly can. This means:

  •  Writing with the diversity of likely users – think metrics, personas, and “anti-personas” (audiences you wish to avoid)
  •  Understanding content “chunks” – the bite/snack/meal approach plus the diversity of content types (the chunks) that make up a “content item” (that can be served out to many different ways from a single content management system)
  •  Leveraging taxonomy – which, in and of itself, implies the understanding and judicious use of metadata

You Cannot Control Meaning

Information architects, content strategists, experience designers, and content owners like to believe that they know what content users want and how they will use it. But, in fact, we cannot even control the meaning users will attach to a particular piece of content. Information Architects and other UX professionals can create frameworks of meaning, but the rest is up to the user. Therefore it is important to understand that:

  • Meaning emerges – It is not inherent or discrete and it cannot simply be turned “on and off”; it is a constellation that can be viewed from different vantages and moments in time.
  • There is surface meaning as well as deeper meaning – Surface elements, patterns, and flow create shallow meaning while connections with other content (and concepts) create deep meaning.
  • Meaning is subjective – It is based on subjective outcomes that are created when people “live” the content.
  • Meaning can be shared, but not dictated – Shared meaning typically occurs among a specific audience, group or culture but is notoriously difficult to engineer for a specific target.
  • It is worth considering a meaning-first approach – This is a novel approach to merging the “Content-First” and “User-Centric” approaches to IA.
  • You cannot create meaning – However, you will be judged by whether or not meaning is conveyed.

Take Risks and Fail Spectacularly

Not every website can redefine information architecture the way that sites like Amazon , Google or Wikipedia have. But at the same time, we cannot simply rehash stale approaches to information architectures and content strategies. And we certainly shouldn’t adopt another website’s approach just because it is new or successful.

This requires IAs and other UX professionals to be bold and to live with the outcomes. Paraphrasing IA luminary Eric Reiss (@elreiss), “Find your client’s big dreams and help them be less mediocre.”  Here are a few techniques to help along the way:

  • Have a vision and state it clearly – It is a risk-adverse world and very few of us have patrons (much less clients) that allow us to risk freely; we need to have a plan and we need to be able to communicate it.
  • Look beyond your domain – While it is useful to survey related and even competitor websites, don’t be afraid to look beyond the traditional points of reference for inspiration.
  • Engage your community – The IA and larger UX communities are vigorous and welcoming; share, workshop ideas, and take inspiration from peers. (If you don’t have an established IA/UX community in your immediate area, start one.)

Sometimes you’re the Architect, Often you’re the Builder

Information architecture takes half of its name from the field of architecture. Like many who study architecture, information architects strive to be compelling and visionary. This is a positive trait, but it must be acknowledged that we cannot all be Frank Lloyd Wright or I. M. Pei or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (or whomever’s architecture most inspires you).

The fact is that the greatest architect’s designs remain just that – designs – until skilled builders manifest them in the material world. Therefore, while we should all work to be great, IAs and other UX professionals should take joy and pride in their work so long as it serves the content and the users (bringing us to my penultimate observation).

Serve Content and Serve Users

The realities of digital content make it essential to move beyond thinking in terms of publishing web pages. Instead, we must think of content and its various audiences. With an understanding of the desired and likely audiences as well as the careful and deliberate creation, tagging, and use of content, we can:

  • Create Once and Publish Everywhere (COPE) – A content strategy created and utilized by NPR across its various content channels.
  • Improve content longevity and usefulness – There is probably very little true “evergreen” content; carefully created and tagged content clearly has a longer shelf life.
  • Better serve your targeted, accidental, and future audiences – Strive to reach your target audience, but recognize your “actual” audience, how and why people discover your content, and how your actual audience is changing over time.
  • Help to promote (even if we can never control) meaning – Allow and encourage content to have a life of its own; tag it with information that will help others to organize and digest it so that they can find their own meaning.

But to truly serve content and the users, IAs and other UX professionals must take some of the aforementioned boldness and risk acceptance, and apply it to their client and workplace interactions. We need to be advocates not only for content and users, but also for best practices and good design. We need to state our opinions enthusiastically and be prepared to defend them. And we must be aware of what interaction design luminary Stephen Anderson (@stephenanderson) refers to as the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion).

A Few Closing Notes

Next year, UX Summit 2014 will be held in San Diego and the conference co-chairs and volunteer army (of which I am a member) are already planning. But in the interim there are many great IA and UX related events (so look out for more tweets and blog posts).

Finally, as promised in my 2013 IA Summit kickoff post, my presentation slide deck has been uploaded to SlideShare. Thanks to everyone who provided inputs to and critical review of the presentation!

Special Thanks

The above summation sites a few individual IA Summit participants, but borrows heavily from the presentations, posters, and tweets from some of the Summit’s more visionary and inspirational speakers and leaders including (but not limited to): Abby Covert (@Abby_the_IA), Simon J. Norris (@simon_norris), Andrea Resmini (@resmini), Dorian Taylor (@doriantaylor), Dan Willis (@uxcrank), and Christina Wodtke (@cwodtke).  I strongly recommend checking them all out on Twitter.

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