Euro IA 2010 – ‘Strong IA feels real’

Last week I was in Paris for an entertaining, yet equally perplexing Euro IA. The majority of talks were a thought provoking foray into the usual domains of information architecture but also service design and co-creation.

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The opening keynote from Oliver Reichenstein was a strange experience, part personal take on the field and part philosophical reflection on how he personally arrived at his own professional destination.

I am an admirer of his work and yet elements of those great data visualizations and experiments (the web trend maps) were not mentioned here. He did attempt to explain his user experience diagram but after claiming metaphors were only useful to a point, he then likened IA to ‘the recipe for user experience’. This gastronomic reference, was a recurring theme throughout the two days.

Contradiction seemed to be the order of the day. On the one hand stating that he found IA used too many ‘bullshit’ terms that were unhelpful, he then described his own design process as ‘dialectic’. I find philosophy in alignment to IA has never been helpful to our profession. It doesn’t resonate with me as thought-through – ‘the architecture of the mind’ that Reichenstein holds up as one of his views is unhelpful to a layman and really only strengthens the opinion of those who feel that IA is intangible. Even Reichenstein says that ‘if you stretch metaphors they break’.

 

image   Ian Fenn wrote a fictitious tweet, and yet ironically it was exactly what it felt like after he delivered his keynote.

It was a shame that this opportunity was lost of convincing the group that he didn’t just use the term because he liked the phrase. But unfortunately that seemed the real reason if you take the talk at face value.

 

His comment that ‘strong IA feels real’ was ironic, as this ia felt unreal, unrealistic and abstract. Even if it works for him and his company, I felt he didn’t tell the whole story.

I think therefore IA…
Other talks also reflected the philosophical aspect. Koen Claes focussed on designing for memory (enjoyable but try selling that to a CEO). Peter Bogaards talked about the similarity with gastronomy to aspects of what we do as UX people.

All thought-provoking stuff but really it had the feeling of some in-joke that only UX people would get, and that those from other communities who were present, the product managers, marketing and developers would look on and question.

This is not a practical application or useful in my opinion and after talking to a few attendees after day one they felt the same. These talks gave more attention to the experience of being human than the thing that we design. Though the two are obviously connected, it becomes too indiscernible from existentialism.

Lean IA, service design and Ubicomp
The second day proved far better, more real  and more tangible. More useful to talk about how to design in an agile way, using co-creation and the methods and skills found in the scrum processes of product development teams.

Here Jeff Gothelf, Johanna Kollmann and Franco Papeschi proved that the application of our skill set is the most important thing in our domain. The tools and methods are fine but not as important as engaging the team, working collaboratively and transparently and being an agent for change.

Their approaches were the exact opposite to the mysterious design master. This is the future of UX, with Claire Rowland and Chris Browne representing service design and ubicomp in a very comprehensive, fascinating talk.

Christophe Tallec also talked about how the theory of the wisdom of crowds, has usefully been applied to a product. These emerging fields becoming more relevant every year, and I guess in the not too distant future these fields will become facets of the same discipline.

Aimless ends
The closing plenary was given by Paul Kahn where he stated that Facebook was not important to him. But with its 500 million users and a previous slide stating how the biggest sites are user generated it just seemed he was being provocative for the sake of it.

As he ambled through several sites that he liked, it was similar to surfing a smashing magazine post of cool dataviz sites. The structured and non structured aspect of metadata is well documented but the talk really just seemed to meander without purpose.

His closing message that user-centred design is best tackled by saying ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ was uninspiring. Did this statement derive from too many failed projects?  One he showed – though it used a neat UI trick it was where he openly admitted he didn’t have numbers to know if it was effective or not. Who knows?

Summing up
There were a lot of great presentations and Martin Belam has gathered the talks on his site and are well worth a look. But keynotes are from thought leaders. Surely they have a responsibility to not use the platform as a casual debate (or product promotion) with throw away comments?

Or perhaps that is their call, but I do ask as an attendee for the speakers to prepare the material and avoid being self-indulgent or misleading. Give us something real. Give back something tangible to this community.

I remember last year being at a talk where a student pleaded – ‘give us something we can use’. From the keynotes, I was left with the same feeling…

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