February 2009

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Now that the workshop has come and gone, I’m here to say that it went swimmingly, if I do blog so myself.

My colleagues did some great work — hopefully it’ll all be up on Slideshare at some point. But here are the slides I contributed. Alas, there are no “speaker notes” with these — but most of the points are pretty clear. I would love to blog about some of the slides sometime soon — but whenever I promise to blog about something, I almost guarantee I won’t get around to it. So I’ll just say “it would be cool if I blogged about this…” :-)

Just one more blog plug for the workshop some of us are doing before the IA Summit in Memphis this year.

See the Pre-Con Page at the Conference Site.
Register Here

For those of you who may be attending the IA Summit in Memphis this year, let me encourage you to look into the IA Institute’s pre-conference workshop called “Beyond Findability: Reframing IA Practice & Strategy for Turbulent Times.”

A few things I want to make clear about the session:

– We’re making it relevant for any UX design people, not just those who self-identify as “Information Architects.” In fact, part of the workshop is about how different practitioner communities can better collaborate & complement other approaches.
– By “Turbulent times” we don’t just mean the economy, but the turbulence of technological change — the incredibly rapid evolution of how people use the stuff we make.
– It’s not a how-to/tutorial-style workshop, but meant to spark some challenging conversation and push the evolution of our professions ahead a little faster.
– There will, however, be some practical take-away content that you should be able to stick on a cube wall and make use of immediately.
– It’s not “anti-Findability” — but looks at what IA in particular brings to design *beyond* the conventional understanding of the practice.
– We’re hoping experienced design professionals will attend, not just newer folks; the content is meant to be somewhat high-level and advanced, but you should be able to get value from it no matter where you are in your career.

Here’s the quickie blurb:

This workshop aims to take your IA practice to a higher level of understanding, performance and impact. Learn about contextual models and scalable frameworks, design collaboration tactics, and how to wield more influence at the “strategy table.”

If you have any specific questions about it, please feel free to hit me up with an email!

*Note: the IA Summit itself is produced by ASIS&T, not the IA Institute.

Here’s an excellent article written up at the ASIS&T Bulletin, by some talented and thoughtful folks in Europe (namely Andrea Resmini, Katriina Byström and Dorte Madsen). I’ll quote the end of the piece at length.

IA Growing Roots – Concerning the Journal of IA

Even if someone’s ideas about information architecture are mind-boggling, if they do not discuss them in public, embody them in some communicable artifact and get them to be influential, they are moot. This reality is the main reason behind the upcoming peer-reviewed scientific Journal of Information Architecture, due in Spring 2009. For the discipline to mature, the community needs a corpus, a defining body of knowledge, not a definition.

No doubt this approach may be seen as fuzzy, uncertain and highly controversial in places. Political, even biased. But again, some overlapping and uncertainty and controversy will always be there: Is the Eiffel Tower architecture or engineering? The answer is that it depends on whom you ask, and why you ask. And did the people who built it consider themselves doing architecture, engineering or what? The elephant is a mighty complex animal, as the blind men in the old Indian story can tell you, and when we look closer, things usually get complex.

The IA community does not need to agree on a “definition” because there is more to do. An analytical approach must be taken on the way the community sees itself, with some critical thinking and some historical perspective. The community needs to grow roots. We hope the Journal will help along the way.

I especially like the Eiffel tower example. And putting a stake in the ground saying let’s not worry about a definition, we have more work to do. This is the sort of mature thinking we need at the “discipline” level, where people can focus on the academic, theoretical framework that helps evolve what the bulk of IA folk do at the “practice” level. (Of course, that flow works in the other direction too!)

The UX Tribe

UX Meta-community of practiceI don’t have much to say about this, I just want to see if I can inject a meme in the bloodstream, so to speak.

Just an expanded thought I had recently about the nature of all the design practices in the User Experience space. From the tweets and posts and other chatter that drifted my way from the IxDA conference in Vancouver last week, I heard a few comments around whether or not Interaction Designers and Information Architects are the same, or different, or what. Not to mention Usability professionals, Researchers, Engineers, Interface Programmers, or whatever other labels are involved in the sort of work all these people do.

Here’s what I think is happening. I believe we’re all part of the same tribe, living in the same village — but we happen to gather and tell our stories around different camp-fires.

And I think that is OK. As long as we don’t mistake the campfires for separate tribes and villages.

The User Experience (UX) space is big enough, complex enough and evolving quickly enough that there are many folds, areas of focus, and centers of gravity for people’s talents and interests. We are all still sorting these things out — and will continue to do so.

Find me a single profession, no matter how old, that doesn’t have these same variations, tensions and spectrums of interest or philosophical approach. If it’s a living, thriving profession, it’ll have all these things. It’s just that some have been around long enough to have a reified image of stasis.

We need different campfires, different stories and circles of lore. It’s good and healthy. But this is a fairly recently converged family of practices that needs to understand what unifies us first, so that our conversations about what separates us can be more constructive.

The IAI is one campfire. IxDA is another. CHI yet another, and so-on. Over time, some of these may burn down to mere embers and others will turn into bonfires. That’s OK too. As long as, when it comes time to hunt antelope, we all eat the BBQ together.

And now I’m hungry for BBQ. So I’ll leave it at that.

PS: a couple of presentations where I’ve gone into some of these issues, if you haven’t seen them before: UX As Communities of Practice; Linkosophy.

There are a lot of cultural swirls in the user-experience design tribe. I’ve delved into some of them now and then with my Communities of Practice writing/presentations. But one point that I haven’t gotten into much is the importance of “taste” in the history of contemporary design.

Several of my twitter acquaintances recently pointed to a post by the excellent Michael Bierut over on Design Observer. It’s a great read — I recommend it for the wisdom about process, creativity and how design actually doesn’t fit the necessary-fiction-prop of process maps. But I’m going to be petty and pick on just one throwaway bit of his essay**

In the part where he gets into the designer’s subconscious, expressing the actual messy stuff happening in a creative professional’s head when working with a client, this bit pops out:

Now, if it’s a good idea, I try to figure out some strategic justification for the solution so I can explain it to you without relying on good taste you may or may not have.

Taste. That’s right — he’s sizing up his audience with regard to “taste.”

Now, you might think I’m going to whine that nobody should be so full of himself as to think of a client this way … that they have “better taste” than someone else. But I won’t. Because I believe some people have a talent for “taste” and some don’t. Some people have a knack, to some degree it’s part of their DNA like having an ear for harmony or incredibly nimble musculature for sports. And to some degree it’s from training — taking that raw talent and immersing it in a culture of other talents and mentors over time.

These people end up with highly sharpened skills and a sort of cultural radar for understanding what will evoke just the right powerful social signals for an audience. They can even push the envelope, introducing expressions that feel alien at first, but feel inevitable only a year later. They’re artists, but their art is in service of commerce and persuasion, social capital, rather than the more rarefied goals of “pure art” (And can we just bracket the “what is art” discussion? That way lies madness).

So, I am in no way denigrating the importance of the sort of designer for whom “taste” is a big deal. They bring powerful, useful skills to the marketplace, whether used for good or ill. “Taste” is at the heart of the “Desirable” leg in the three-leg stool of “Useful, Usable and Desirable.” It’s what makes cultural artifacts about more than mere, brute utility. Clothes, cars, houses, devices, advertisements — all of these things have much of their cultural power thanks to someone’s understanding of what forms and messages are most effective and aspirational for the intended audience. It’s why Apple became a cultural force — because it became more like Jobs than Woz. Taste is OK by me.

However, I do think that it’s a key ingredient in an unfortunate divide between a lot of people in the User Experience community. What do I mean by this?

The word “design” — and the very cultural idea of “designer” — is very bound up in the belief in a special Priesthood of Taste. And many designers who were educated among or in the orbit of this priesthood tend to take their association pretty seriously. Their very identities and personalities, their self-image, depends in part on this association.

Again, I have no problem with that — all of us have such things that we depend on to form how we present ourselves to the world, and how we think of ourselves. As someone who has jumped from one professional sub-culture to another a few times in my careers (ministry, academia, poetry, technologist, user-experience designer) I’ve seen that it’s inevitable and healthy for people to need, metaphorically speaking, vestments with which to robe themselves to signal not just their expertise but their tribal identities. This is deep human stuff, and it’s part of being people.

What I do have a problem with is that perfectly sane, reasonable people can’t seem to be self-aware enough at times to get the hell over it. There’s a new world, with radically new media at hand. And there are many important design decisions that have nothing at all to do with taste. The invisible parts are essential — the interstitial stuff that nobody ever sees. It’s not even like the clockwork exposed in high-end watches, or the elegantly engineered girder structures exposed in modernist architecture. Some of the most influential and culturally powerful designs of the last few years are websites that completely eschewed or offended “taste” of all sorts (craigslist; google; myspace; etc).

The idea of taste is powerful, and perfectly valid, but it’s very much about class-based cultural pecking orders. It’s fun to engage in, but we shouldn’t take it too seriously, or we end up blinded by our bigotry. Designing for taste is about understanding those pecking orders well enough to play them, manipulate them. But taking them too seriously means you’ve gone native and lost perspective.

What I would hope is that, at least among people who collaborate to create products for “user experiences” we could all be a little more self aware about this issue, and not look down our noses at someone who doesn’t seem to have the right “designer breeding.” We live in an age where genius work can come from anywhere and anyone, because the materials and possibilities are so explosively new.

So can we please stop taking the words “design” and “designer” hostage? Can we at least admit that “taste” is a specialized design problem, but is not an essential element of all design? And the converse is necessary as well: can UX folks who normally eschew all aesthetics admit the power of stylistic choice in design, and understand it has a place at the table too? At some point, it would be great for people to get over these silly orthodoxies and prejudices, because there is so much stuff that still needs to be designed well. Let’s get over ourselves, and just focus on making shit that works.

Does it function? Does it work well for the people who use it? Is it an elegant solution, in the mathematical sense of elegance? Does it fit the contours of human engagement and use?

“Taste” will always be with us. There will always be a pecking order of those who have the knack or the background and those who don’t. I’d just like to see more of us understand and admit that it’s only one (sometimes optional) factor in what makes a great design or designer.

**Disclaimer: don’t get me wrong; this is not a rant against Michael Bierut; his comment just reminded me that I’ve run across this thought among a *lot* of designers from the (for lack of better label) AIGA / Comm Arts cultural strand. I think sizing up someone’s “taste” is a perfectly valid concept in its place.

Just had to point out this quote from Clay Shirky’s post on the inherent FAIL of the micropayments model for publishing (and, well, much of anything).

Why Small Payments Won’t Save Publishers « Clay Shirky

We should be talking about new models for employing reporters rather than resuscitating old models for employing publishers.

But it’s amazing how hard it is to shift the point of view from looking through the lens of Institutions rather than the talents of the actual content producers. Same problem vexes the music industry.