This year marked my first (and apparently last) trip to the annual IA Summit. Chicago hosted the event this time around, and with the city being an hour’s train ride away from my home suburb, I naturally couldn’t miss it.
It’s hard to know where to begin with a recap of my experience at this conference. I was blown away by the care and attention to detail put into everything from the conference swag to the website, which was continually updated throughout each day of the conference. Even now, the site functions as a treasure trove of slides and other resources from the talks and workshops.
I’ll begin by sharing a selection of my notes from the workshop I attended, which was on Content Design. This was led by Meghan Casey, author of what I’ve found to be one of the most practical and concrete guides to practicing content strategy. She (and many other speakers/presenters) graciously shared her slides on the IA Summit website, so I’ll augment some of my notes with her materials.
Content Design Workshop Notes
First thing before getting started on content – “Are you aligned on intent?”
- We see an opportunity to…
- With content for…
- So that they can…
- E.g. “We see an opportunity to increase new and recurring orders with content for single, Paleo-minded athletes so that they can feel confident that Origin Meals will help them eat to perform.” <—— This is your strategy statement
Tool – Content Prioritization Matrix
- Focus (good for user and business) (spend 60% of your budget on this stuff)
- Drive (good for business, users don’t care)
- Guide (not beneficial to business, but users want it) (spend like 25% of your budget on this stuff)
With that exercise… personas from user research help going into this, because some things might be focus for one person but drive, etc. for another. (For example “athlete testimonials”). And you could do this exercise for each different persona… and then overlay all the results and find the most important stuff. Or you can plan for cookies that deliver different content to a user.
If clients fight you on taxonomy terms on your sitemap, you can pull up analytics data to back up your word choice.
It’s not obvious to everyone that tons of content isn’t harmless. Convince clients that it’s worth getting rid of that clutter. (Has SEO benefits… could have server cost benefits based on how large the site is.)
Meghan recommends that content owners sign contracts saying that they’ll maintain it.
“I think most content problems are people problems.” – Meghan
Example of very structured content – a health site that uses different words for things based on how weight-conscious the user is
Things you could do now…
- Prioritization: conduct an assessment of a sample of your content and apply the prioritization matrix. use what you learn to make a case for further content design work
- Organization: Identify the top 3 to 5 reasons users come to your site and document paths through your content you’d like to see users take. Then review the content to ensure it supports the desired pathways
- Presentation: Pick priority content pages based on the prioritization and organization findings and hold a core model workshop with content owners, SMEs, the UX team, etc. Use workshop outcomes to recommend changes to how content is currently presented
- Specifications: work with the appropriate people to develop a messaging framework to help content creators create on-message, on-strategy content
I could practice this on my own by coming up with more ideas for websites (e.g. a charity! a shoe store!) and then doing the prioritization exercise and other exercises as well.
The Main Conference
I returned to the city on Thursday, not for any more workshops but for a “First Timer’s Dinner” with Peter Morville. A group of about 6 of us ate together at a sushi restaurant just a few steps away from the conference venue.
To me, it was these sorts of clear opportunities to sit down and have an extended chat with some of the biggest names in our field that really made the IA Summit live up to its goal of being welcoming.
(I also managed to get Peter to sign my Japanese copy of Information Architecture.)
The Talks I Attended
Each attendee’s lanyard came with schedules for each of the three days of the conference. Below, I’ve highlighted the sessions that I attended.
- Welcome to the 2018 IA Summit!
- Opening Keynote – There is No Artificial Intelligence without Information Architects, Seth Earley
- Morning Coffee
- IA at the Helm: Leading with Information, Bob Boiko
- Prototyping Information Architecture, Andy Fitzgerald
- Information Arrangement: It’s the Metadata, Dalia Levine
- Designing Our Futures, Erik Dahl
- Architecting Information for an Open Source Citizenry, Rachel Knickmeyer and Greg Swindle
- Afternoon tea
- A Strategy for Ethical Design in the Attention Economy, Samvith Srinivas
- Evening Keynote – Different is the New Normal: Why Everyone Benefits When We Design for Disability, Elise Roy
I concluded the night with a dinner with my sister (8pm was a little too long a wait for me), though I stopped by the happy hour afterwards.
(I got a late start Saturday given my impromptu stay in Chicago that night and my waking up late as a result of that.)
- No Static: IA for Dynamic Information Environments, Duane Degler
- Group Mentoring lunch with Dan Klyn and Abby Covert (one of the highlights of my Summit; see notes from that below)
- Connected Content: The Future of Information, Carrie Hane
- IA Lenses: A New Tool for Designing Digital Structures, Dan Brown
- Afternoon Tea
- Folk Illusions: Embodied Cognition for Today’s World, Claiborne Rice
- Evening Keynote – Postcards from the Edge, Jason Hobbs
- Dinner with the Chicago UX Strategy meetup
- IA and Ethics – 2018 Roundtable Redux, Surla, Rice, Resmini et al
- Morning Coffee. (I believe this is when I picked up some discounted books that I’d had my eye on for a while)
- Going Global: The Intersection of IA and UX, Blanch, Shew, and Sengers
- Don’t Make Me Wait! User Perception of Time & Software Speed, Chris Kiess
- Using Stuff I Learned at Previous IA Summits to Set Up a CMS as if Content Mattered, Kristin Rowley
- Bringing Everyone into the Process, Whitney Quesenbery
- Closing Keynote – Marsha Haverty
- Summit Closing
- Pizza Party
Notes from the Group Mentoring Lunch (with Dan Klyn and Abby Covert)
- What is the IA deliverable?
- De-emphasize deliverables
- Maybe the process is where the value comes
- Facilitating decision making
- The meeting is the deliverable
- Making the complex clear
- You only get [IA, etc] into the culture by making everyone feel good after doing X
- IA is the process, not the thing
- Show the client a picture of what they’ve always seen and never seen
- Getting started in IA
- Find someone who’s doing what it look like IA is
- Even Dan wonders about these definitions (“6.5 out of 7 days I don’t know what content strategy is”)
- What do hirers look for?
- “How do they sweep the floor?”
- It’s the “who you are” not “what you do”
- Don’t bluff. How do you deal with not knowing?
- You can ask at an interview, “What does my 4th week here look like?”
- You want to be a human at this company, not a body.
- Is there such a thing as an entry-level IA?
- Probably not
- How much coding does an IA do?
- “The more you know, the more you’ll do.”
- You don’t need it but learning it is not a waste of your time
- It’s valuable, for sure
- That said, many IAs don’t know coding. They’ll use InVision or something to prototype their ideas
- Key difference between content strategy and information architecture
- Information architecture is the car, content strategy is the gas
- Can an IA be good only for me? It’s subjective, right?
- Yes, for example in the movie High Fidelity where the records are sorted by the owner’s personal experience. That’s perfect for him and only him.
Conference Talk Notes
And finally, here’s a selection of notes that I wrote in the fancy black journal they gave us:
- IA —> organization to screen
- UX —> screen to user
- IAs turn business into information
- “IAs main talent is naming. If nothing else, we’re coiners.”
- The basic skill of IA: naming: “Figuring out what everything is and how it relates to each other.”
- Code is what nuts and bolts were 100 years ago
- Surround yourself with artifacts to acclimate yourself to the identity you want, e.g. putting running shoes by the bed so it’s the last thing you see before you sleep and the first thing when you wake up
- Starting with a screen is problematic because screens are downstream from structure
- “My job is to consume ambiguity and shit clarity.” (Dan Brown quoting Ken Fast)
That last one is pretty great.
Next time I want to actually stay at (or near) the venue; taking the train back and forth from Chicago to the suburbs every day was tiring. That said, I’m glad I went and I hope I can go to more of these summits in the future. I was bit less talkative than I wish I had been, but nevertheless I managed to meet interesting, smart people. And hanging around such people, I hope, will help me too to become one of these interesting, smart IAs.