Sunday, April 6, 2014

2014 Information Architecture Summit -- Reflections

I've just returned from the 2014 Information Architecture Summit, the 15th one. I first attended this event in 2001 in San Francisco, and I've been going ever since (barring illness).

I've pondered in the past why I keep going to the IA Summit. Most of my career inspiration has come from outside the field. There are no academic classes or tutorials offered. I don't hear about new research that expands our field. The program is nice, and there are some presentation that I enjoy, but its not the real reason I go to the summit.

The people are the real lure for the IA Summit. This is my tribe, these are my people, the one place I can go where I never, ever have to explain what I do. I don't have to apologize for being an introvert, for sitting back and listening. The structure of the summit supports people like me, with plenty of coffee breaks, hallway conversations and shared lunches. We welcome new people and have interesting conversations over food.

The 2014 IA Summit has changed many things for me.

In addition to hanging out with my peeps, I also heard many powerful messages. Some were formal presentations, others were hallway conversation. Until now, I thought I'd moved beyond IA. I thought my career growth would come from outside this domain and community. If I went back to school, I assumed it would have to be in another field.... Business administration. Cognitive Psychology. Computer Science. These aren't bad fields, and the knowledge they offer would be very beneficial to me. What troubles me is that I'm an information architect. I'm not an interaction designer, sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, cognitive scientist, computer scientist or designer. I like those things and find them interesting, especially as they lend me tools to use to do what I do what I do best. But I don't identify as those things.

I'm an information architect. I framework. I listen. I understand. I explore. I clarify. I get overwhelmed by complexity. I doubt if things will ever become clear. I talk with others. I listen some more. I construct hypotheses. I build models. I wrangle oceans of information. I talk with users, customers, participants, members. I sketch. I ponder. I give up, but never for very long. I ask lots of questions. And I framework. Document, share, update, repeat.

What have I heard at the 2014 IA Summit that has provided me such relief? I heard that we've moved beyond the web but have kept our identity as information architects. I heard about reframing IA, designing for understanding, emphasizing context and many other things. Rather than talk about deliverables, we are talking about principles. We are demanding more substance from academia to clarify and extend these principles.

Andrea Resmini told me that IA's entered the mainstream when the web was born. We learned how to build intelligent navigation and search, promoted faceted classification and taxonomy. But we stagnated for a while and forgot to grow. Now, we are discovering that we don't just build navigation, we support wayfinding. We don't draw site maps, we show context. We don't build models, we support sense-making. And we can do this anywhere. We started with digital environments and are expanding from there. For example, I've architected future plans for non-profits, and revised messaging platforms for emerging startups, My current project is to create a culture of customer experience in a growing company, extending the company's vision within a framework centering the business around customer needs and goals. It's a messy project, with lots of ambiguity, false starts, and course corrections. But it's clear we are making a difference, helping others to make sense of how they fit in the company's vision and figuring out how to find their way within the organization.

This is the path I've taken, and until recently, I thought I was alone. I thought I needed to leave my chosen field in order to pursue the Next Step. But the 2014 IA Summit set me straight. Peter Morville summarized my feeling well:

"...there’s something about the summit that’s unsettling, and it’s not just that it’s hard to be new or that many of us are kinda off the map on the introvert scale. No, it’s deeper than that. People come to the summit and have a good time, but they leave with this uneasy feeling that they somehow missed something important. They don’t talk about it much. It’s actually a little embarrassing, so they bury it deep. And I feel bad for these folks. I want to reach out. I want to tell them a secret. You’re not alone. Really. Nobody understands information architecture. We don’t even know what it is. And that’s okay. That’s why we’re here."

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