"UX Communities: Starting from the beginning": #7 - Physical spaces and 'outsiders'

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 1 April 2011

In preparation for today’s panel session at the IA Summit about UX communities, Matthew Solle and I have been blogging our thoughts about London IA, and what has made it a success, and what has been a failure. The final two themes I wanted to address were the idea of physical spaces and community, and the necessary role of “outsiders”.

Physical spaces

One of the question that remains open for me is “Do communities and networks naturally mature and become institutions? Is it possible to purposefully maintain them at the younger fluid stage of evolution?”.

I think this is partly tied up with the notion of physical space and a community. If you have a committee room, then it follows that you need a committee. If you have a wooden board with gilded names of the great and the good, then it follows that you need some rules and some process as to who gets their name engraved.

With London IA we’ve avoided all the formal roles and responsibilities that come with clubs and groups and associations. That isn’t to say that they don’t work for some communities, and on several occasions it might have been easier if we’d had a treasurer and a bank account.

We’ve got a regular home for monthly events in the Sense Loft, but that isn’t where Matthew and I go to plan or organise. That is mostly done via email or instant messenger, or over a coffee somewhere. Without a physical HQ, I think we have avoided a tendency for organisations to ossify into institutions.

The role of the “outsider”

On the panel we are looking to share our experience of what makes a UX community spark. One of the things that occurs to me is that the genesis of London IA included a couple of people who could be considered “outsiders”

Ken Beatson is back in his native New Zealand now, but was the person who set up the Ning community that forms “the stone in the stone soup” when he was in London. There was already an active IA mailing list and Yahoo! group for London, but it wasn’t really a social thing, it was more about jobs.

As a native Londoner, I’m well aware of our reputation for surly isolationism - especially on the tube. And IAs also tend to come from the less outgoing spectrum of personalities. So maybe it took the “outsider” to either need the sociability, or have the sociability to get us going, by starting the network and encouraging IA pub meet-ups.

And I think at the time the group got started I felt like an outsider too. I’d only recently returned to London after living in Crete and Austria for 3 years.

It has now become more usual to see me described as The Guardian’s Martin Belam than as someone who is “ex-BBC” - but that “ex-BBC” tag hung around me for nearly four years.

That included up to the point when we held our first London IA MiniIA event in April 2009, and was one of the main reasons I was so keen to use Kings Place as the venue and help with the night. Having arrived at The Guardian as the first person with the job title “Information Architect” I don’t think many people there understood what I was going to do.

And being unfamiliar with the organisation, neither did I.

I presented a talk called “Introducing Information Architecture at The Guardian”, which was as much about me feeling my way through introducing the discipline to the business, and making a statement about not being “ex-BBC”, as it was introducing the Guardian’s existing IA to the attendees on the night.

There is another element of being an “outsider” that helps enable a community to start. My colleague Karen Loasby has pointed out that there wasn’t much need for IAs in the Future Media department at the BBC to join an external community, as there was a significant bunch of them there. And if they wanted to get some “outside” perspective, they could visit and chat to other BBC IAs working in News or in Audio & Music.

Leaving aside the personal circumstances of Ken and myself, a significant proportion of other IAs work as the only IA in a small team, and as such they don’t the chance to talk through issues with their peers. So, from my experience, it seems like an important element in forming a viable UX community is having a group of people who, for whatever reason, feel like “outsiders”, and feel a need for a community to work.

This is the last of my blog posts on the topic, but it is a conversation that will continue in Denver today. Feel free to join in...

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