Take-away facts, quotes and top tips from the 2008 IA Summit - Day 3

 by Martin Belam, 16 April 2008

I've just come back from Miami, where I was giving a talk about 'IA for tiny stuff: Exploring widgets and gadgets' at the 2008 IA Summit. Here's my take on Day 3.

IA Summit 2008 logo

Search Patterns - Peter Morville

The first thing I went to on Monday was the repeat session of Peter Morville's 'Search Patterns' presentation. He seems to be doing a great job of discovering and exposing every possible variation on search interfaces that there is on the web.

What actually intrigued me most about the presentation was that he had co-opted Flickr to be the collaborative production tool for his new book.

Putting it down to laziness, and not wanting to spend money or have to learn new software, Peter has been building his pattern library in public on Flickr. This has meant that other people have been able join in, annotating screenshots and leaving comments on them, and suggesting other patterns for him to look at. The library looks like it is well worth spending a while rummaging around.

Peter was keen to explain that getting search right is both a 'big picture' and a 'tiny detail' kind of problem. In fact, he called it a 'wicked problem', because there simply is no right answer. This is not least because people still build search as a separate entity in their site, whereas:

" given half a chance, users will move very fluidly from searching to browsing to asking "

He pointed out some interesting interfaces, including a great use of sliders on the UK Volkswagen site, Apple's graphical drop-down search suggestions, the Buzzillions use of user-generated tags, and the anti-pattern of Microsoft's infinite scroll.

"This is something you almost certainly don't want to do, but its nice to know you can."

Designing for the social: Avoiding anti-social networks - Miles Rochford

Miles' presentation started with a view from inside a Panopticon style prison in Cuba, and the stunning use of photography indicated that we were in for a good session.

My favourite quotes and take-away facts were that:

  • Cellphones have been distributed to people and adopted faster than the polio vaccine
  • "We are allowing others to view us, and we don't know when they are watching us, or what they will do with the information they obtain."
  • "The challenges aren't new, but they are on a different scale. It is so easy to share information but it is so hard to control the scale of that sharing."
  • Everyone lies. Around 25% of the time
  • "'Default to harmlessness."

Miles had a couple of anecdotes about the impact of social networks in the office. He described his horror at being asked to demonstrate Facebook in a meeting, when he realised that bringing his profile page up would expose his colleagues and clients to whatever content his friends had recently uploaded, and that:

" What was in my feed would cause them to judge me, even though it was made by other people "

He also told a story of finishing a workshop early, and heading to the pub. His colleague posted a picture on Flickr of them lining up beer to taunt another colleague in the office, only to find that the boss was standing next to the colleague when they received the photo. They then got a worrying picture back of his boss looking horrified.

Miles' justification of it all was that it was good 'dog-fooding' - learning the difficult social implications there might be for their consumers when they enable these kinds of features on Nokia phones and services.

He also made the point that in IA people have begun to talk about anti-patterns, and that maybe we should consider anti-personas. We should work out what trolls 'evil' people will want to do to destroy a system, and design in a way to specifically frustrate their goals.

Again, there was too much good stuff in this presentation to do it justice in a summary - it is another one that will be well worth tracking down the mp3 version of when it is published.

One final factoid from the presentation though - apparently in 2006 the average avatar in Second Life consumed more electricity per year than the average resident of Brazil.

Good news on your cell phone: Optimizing the user experience - Jorgen Dalen, Tone Terum

I was really interested in this session, which looked at the problems and successes of putting newspaper content onto mobile phones in Scandinavia. Jorgen and Tone from Halogen thought Scandinavia made a great study because it is a mature market, having had mobile internet services since 1999, or 'the last century' as Tone cutely put it.

Their studies had evaluated sites of some major Norwegian news sources on mobile devices, to find some common failings. Not surprisingly there were quite a few. The statistics and quotes that most interested me were that:

  • 72% of mobile internet usage in Norway is by men - and they are usually young (under 40), with higher education and a higher income than average.
  • In Norway the most common place to access the mobile internet is on the sofa at home - but surfing whilst sitting on the toilet is popular too.
  • There didn't seem to be a strong correlation between usability and traffic - instead the strength of the parent print brand seemed to determine the level of usage.

Other really good points were that testing mobile devices in a usability lab doesn't really work, as people are much more patient in that situation than they are in real life. Halogen recommended for news services on the web that they have strong immediate branding and some global navigation on every page, but cut back to make much shallower navigation structures overall than they have on the web. They also felt it was important for newspapers to re-purpose content for mobile, making things more concise, rather than simply re-publishing what was in the print edition.

Finally, they made the point that web conventions don't always work well in the mobile setting, but that this may just be a case of waiting for the phones to develop. They didn't think they had observed any problems that better phone capabilities and more bandwidth wouldn't solve.

IA for tiny stuff: Exploring widgets and gadgets - Martin Belam

I'll be publishing a four part write-up of my presentation starting tomorrow, and the slides are also available here.

I have to give a big thank you to Aaron Louie, who stepped in and provided the inter-connect to get my laptop working with the projector, and thanks to Margaret Hanley who introduced me and handled the roving microphone for the question sessions.

Linkosophy - Andrew Hinton

" "No metaphors were actually harmed in the production of this presentation" "

The discipline of IA still shows some growing pains and a lack of confidence. In his presentation the day before, Matthew Milan lamented a tendency to 'overthink the damn thing', which I believe comes with the nature of the work, and the nature of the people who are going to enjoy that kind of work.

It struck me that a discipline that could attract 600+ delegates to the main conference of the year should not be so unsure about its place in the online world. Yet, there is a paradox here, because the conference is scheduled over a weekend.

This undoubtedly boosts attendance, because it allows a lot of IAs to come out of their own free time and goodwill. However, for a discipline that has a crisis of confidence, holding a conference at a weekend doesn't exactly send out the right signal to business leaders.

Andrew Hinton closed the conference with a tour de force of a presentation, that incorporated more sci-fi and pop culture references than you could shake a stick at. It also included some great slides and quotes including:

" Oh Noes!! Fickr taggerz ate my job!!! "

He was keen to build a mental model that allowed people to separate the activity of doing some IA things, from the role of 'being an IA', from the practice of 'Information Architecture'. I thought he made a convincing argument for everybody just chilling out about the whole debate around what is 'interaction design', what is 'information architecture', and what is 'something that a business analyst or product manager just has to get on and do in their job if they don't have a dedicated IA to hand'.

I can't help thinking that maybe conferences about Perl do end with plenary sessions where there is a heated debate about whether they call themselves 'computer porgrammers' or 'software engineers', and whether the use of HTML::Template makes them client-side developers as well, but somehow that isn't projected as the public image of the digital developer.

And finally...'Five minutes madness'

The five minute madness open mic session was rather more subdued than I had expected. Announcements included several conferences and a name change. There was one passionate plea for the IA Summit to retain 'weird stuff' after a quite conservative conference programme this year. There was also a passionate plea from Peter Boersma that Andrew Hinton's proposal to retire the terms 'Big IA/Little IA' in favour of 'Macro IA and Micro IA' deprived him of his joke that at 6ft 5" he was 'a big IA'.

One thing I did note was that the audience were asked to put up their hands if they were a first-timer to the IA Summit. Although the attendence between new attendees and repeat delegates was about 50/50, it seemed that the skew towards new attendees in the session was more like 75/25. Perhaps some of the older hands have tired of the format?

I had a great time at the summit, met some really nice people, and I even managed to download and watch Doctor Who as well. I'm looking forward to Memphis next year already, but before that, there is Euro IA in Amsterdam.


Very nice post. I hope we meet in Amsterdam.
Speaking of Memphis (how cool is that?:) - check out my little IA Summit Map: http://thehotstrudel.blogspot.com/2008/04/ia-summit-2009.html

Cheers from Berlin.

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