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2018 IA Summit Recap and Notes

IA Summit 2018 Lanyard

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)
  • Nope (nobody cares but you might need to anyway – something like a privacy policy or disclaimer)

IA Summit 2018 Content Design Workshop notes - tool: prioritization matrix

IA Summit 2018 Content Design Workshop notes - tool: prioritization matrix 2

Content design prioritization matrix filled out

Here’s how I filled out this document – see items on the right side for examples of “content items”

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.

Content Design organization exercise

Content design organization exercise filled out

Here’s how my group and I made it through this exercise

Screen Shot 2018-04-08 at 4.23.04 PM

Here’s how my group and I would prioritize the content presentation for a page

Screen Shot 2018-04-08 at 4.23.13 PM

Here’s how my group and I would specify the messaging framework for a page

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

Structured content example

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

Components of content designComponents of content design

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 full slides can be found on SlideShare. 

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.)

Japanese Information Architecture book

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.


IA Summit Friday AM Schedule highlighted

  • 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
  • Lunch
  • Information Arrangement: It’s the Metadata, Dalia Levine
  • Designing Our Futures, Erik Dahl


IA Summit Friday PM Schedule highlighted

  • 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.


IA Summit Saturday AM Schedule highlighted

(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 Summit Saturday PM Schedule highlighted

  • 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 Summit Sunday Schedule highlighted

  • 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)


Information Architecture books, understanding context and managing chaos

  • 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
  • Lunch
  • 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.

Why I’ve Stopped Caring About Forgetting What I’ve Read

Reading a book

Is reading nonfiction only worthwhile if you retain the information?

I mean, fiction is its own beast, right? With stories, we’re okay to get wrapped up in the plot and characters and enjoy the tale for its own sake. If visions of Middle-Earth fade from our mind’s eye as soon as we snap the covers shut, nothing was lost. And in fact, forgetting what we’ve read might be a sort of blessing—then we can later experience the same story as if for the first time. Hell, who would want to remember what they’ve read?

But we treat nonfiction differently. It’s as if we’ve “wasted” our time plowing through a book if we aren’t ready to ace a test on the subject as soon as our eyes cross the final page.

The result is that we’ll berate ourselves for forgetting what we’ve read. (“Only ‘dumb’ people have this poor a memory.”) Or, more commonly I suspect, we simply avoid reading nonfiction entirely. We don’t want to look at a familiar spine on our shelf but draw a blank on its contents.

I had some of these feelings for a time but now I realize I’ve overcome them, and I’d like to meditate a bit on why.

For starters, I think school has a nasty way of corrupting what can and ought to be one of the most rewarding activities in life—reading nonfiction—because we start to treat such books as a means to an end, whether that’s passing a test or beefing up a research paper. The nonfiction book becomes a hurdle between the finish line of a good grade. There’s a reason why a quarter of American adults might go a whole year without reading a book, and I’m not convinced that it’s because they’re “too busy.” I suspect part of it is that they’re not eager to face the idea that they wasted their time “getting through” a book only to find that they seemingly gained nothing out of it upon reaching the other side. Once you’re out of school, there’s no grade left to earn, no essay bibliography left to pad—only the sense that your brain isn’t as fuller as it ought to be, and thus that you’ve wasted your time. Why bother?

To that I say, reading nonfiction can be an intrinsically pleasurable activity—even if you forget the details of what you read as soon as you close the book. That’s because reading = thinking.

But here’s the key—the nature of what you’re thinking about in that moment is modulated and enriched by what you’re reading. I’ve found that I’m able to enjoy reading in the moment itself because I’m almost always thinking “on top” of whatever text is in my hands. I’m relating the book to other things I’ve read, to other discussions I’ve heard, to other experiences I’ve had. I might be questioning the author’s agenda—even doubting the author’s goodwill towards me as a reader. Reading thus serves not as a crude way to download the author’s knowledge into my own head but as a spice to flavor the thinking that’s already stewing in my mind—the thinking that’s going to be occurring regardless of whether I have a book in my hands. I might spend several minutes on a page not because I’m a “slow reader” but because my mind is poking and prodding this new information, running it through my own cognitive filters. I’m enjoying the mental tangents that I’m allowing myself to indulge.

And here’s the thing—if I were to revisit the same book a year or a decade from now, I’d have different things on my mind. The sort of intellectual daydreaming that would occur when I slide my gaze across the text would take on an entirely different character. I’ve found this to be the case when I read books on content strategy. Texts that once struck me as abstract and hard to grasp have grown in relatability as I’ve grown in experience. I’m nodding my head along with the author, “Yup, yup—wow, that’s articulated exactly right!”

For some of the more instructional nonfiction books I read, sometimes all that really matters is remembering what kind of information is in the book. If I remember that UX book A contains a particularly thorough description of how to conduct remote card sorting tests or that UX book B gets into the nitty-gritty of how to price a content strategy project for a client, it’s less important that I remember those actual details than it is to remember that I can return to those books when I need that information again in the future.

(I’m vaguely reminded of Maya Angelou’s words about remembering not what people said but how they made you feel, only in this case one can substitute “people” for “books” and I think the wisdom holds just as true.)

What I’ve found is that I’ve become less concerned with the “quality” of my reading—meaning how well the information sticks in my brain after I’ve flipped the page—and more so with my “quantity” of reading. If I’m reading about a topic that genuinely interests me, I’ll naturally seek out more material on the subject. (Undoubtedly that’s another unfortunate association students make with reading—they think of the activity as a plunge into information that they probably aren’t going to give a shit about.) I’ll consume new books about the same subject, and inevitably these new books with retread over material I’ve gone through before, only this time I’ll pick it up from a new author’s perspective. After the second or third time I read about Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution,” I’ll finally be able to explain it myself. I’ll start to predict which anecdotes the author will bring up. “Oh yeah, this again? I think I know where this is going.”

So to those who are worried about their “quality” of reading, about the difficulty of retaining what you’ve read—stop looking at the final page of the book as your destination. The page you’re on right now is all the material you need to stimulate interesting, worthwhile thoughts.

“Meaningful Arrangements” – My Talk at World Information Architecture Day 2017 in Okinawa

Want to hear me talk about UX in both Japanese and English?

The organizers of World Information Architecture Day 2017 in Okinawa uploaded footage of the event to YouTube. It’s got some audio issues, but nothing major. My talk begins at 1:11:24.

You can view my slides from the talk below:


Life After JCMU

Last week, I visited my study abroad alma mater, the Japan Center for Michigan Universities, to talk and answer questions about the JET Program, reverse culture shock, and life “after Japan.” (I’m just glad I made it through the whole thing without once using the JET cliche, “Every situation is different.”)

No recording of the talk exists, but the director of the center snapped a picture before I left.