Thoughts on the Euro Information Architecture Summit 2008

I’m just back from the Euro IA Summit held in Amsterdam, September 26-27th. Overall it was a good event with many warm, interesting people in attendance. I was considering attending PICNIC as well but as I heard it was “very corporate… lots of white men with PowerPoint” I spent my time with the city instead. Hearing a speech is slightly better than reading it or watching it online, but only slightly.

The Summit kicked off with a talk from Adam Greenfield called “Why I’m Not an Information Architect and You Shouldn’t Be Either.” Where the community used to be filled with electricity — taking on great new challenges — he lamented it’s now focused on creating wireframes for websites. This doesn’t feel like the field that will create Bruce Sterling’s Spimes. Adam’s focus lately has been Ubicomp, and he talked about how “power and grandeur lie beneath the user interface, in the API” and that “IT has dissolved into behavior” like the swipe of an RFID-enabled train card.

There’s a lot to react to there. I agree the field is not nearly as exciting as it was seven years ago, and this state makes a lot of us that are comfortable with innovation wonder what communities we should mix in and what IA should be (see Matt Milan’s thoughts for another perspective). At the moment I’m trying to pull back and see information architecture as a new but somewhat established field. Invention used to be necessary of everyone, but now it’s only needed from a few. Compare it to an established field like electrical engineering. At the beginning there was a lot invention, but now we know enough to simply do it. Today, some engineers continue to push the envelope with the design of microprocessors while others specify the wiring in the next model of speaker phone. I would expect IA to settle into the same spread.

Ruud Ruissaard of Informaat discussed the current state of content management which can be summarized by satisfaction rates around 37%. He advocated for a more holistic approach to address systems and processes and management. I have to think CMS will go the way of portals, with everyone realizing there’s a lack of flexibility in large installed systems. Instead, let’s move content to the cloud and pull it out with flexible APIs.

Chris Fahey talked about creating seductive experiences, using product design to create connections with customers rather than conversions, which suggest a zero-sum model of commerce. While I personally prefer this approach, I’ve been on the inside of hard-sell, subscription operations and I know that they do make money, at least in the short term. Unless managers go back to staying in one job for many years and value a strategic approach to customer relationship, we need to push this more human approach further to create and show the short-term financial benefits of nurturing relationships. A triple bottom line lens of sustainability comes to mind.

Eric Reiss touched on this relationship of connections and money, pointing out that unhappy customers are virally more harmful than happy customers. From his session on customer service I particularly liked the observation that a registered trademark sign on a line of copy says to the customer, “marketing is more important than customer service.” And a note to self to check on Albrecht and Zemke’s work on service management.

James Kalbach showed some field research he did on how lawyers use documents, especially offline, demonstrating how research insights can lead to business discussions. He illustrated the power of information shape, for example the familiarity of the book makes it a useful model both to replicate online and to aggregate information and present offline.

Joe Lamantia introduced us to his building blocks framework for managing portal-like interfaces. A toolbox based on this approach, supported by educational case studies, could change the way we use widgets and in general display aggregated information.

Peter Van Djick’s session on social media networks and how they translate across cultures was fascinating. He highlighted how the simplest of taxonomies can reflect country language and bias, like Facebook’s list of relationship types (“We hooked up.”). Of course it’s fascinating to see examples like Nico Nico Douga out of Japan that go into an entirely new direction. He also pointed the company’s organizational structure changes to reflect the unpredictable customer distribution, with Orkut moving operations to Brazil and LiveJournal adding a Cyrillic language representative to their board. It made me wonder about simpler apps like Twitter which might translate easily but separate people not by cultural differences but by time zone.

John Ferrara’s session on game design pretty much blew everyone’s mind. We’ve heard an analysis of how game UIs influence behavior before, but rather than follow this thread only to Second Life, John went further and showed how games change our physical lives as well, from casinos to Wiis and the new generation of camera-based interaction. And he coined the term “death cluster” for which we are grateful.

My presentation on Concept Design Tools generated some useful feedback. About a third of the audience were doing this work already; I suspect some of the rest may feel it’s too far afield for their practice. And while I stated my focus for the tools, for example on diverging from pre-conceived notions of what a product or service should be, some comments from participants highlighted areas outside this focus that would be useful for me to pursue, such as the ways industrial designers generate concepts from scratch (“What can we do with this new material?”).

Next year’s event will be held in Copenhagen. The aspect I would like to see changed the most is to hold fewer “white men with PowerPoint” presentations and more, smaller, CHI-like workshops. Some of the best ideas are in development and would be better experienced as a workgroup of peers rather than a lecture.


  1. As long as this conference *was* full of PPTs, is there anything you can share from your Concept Design Tools session? Sounds fascinating…

  2. hi victor, per your metaphor re electrical engineering “At the beginning there was a lot invention, but now we know enough to simply do it” reminds me of a great quote by a colleague last week who went to web 2.0 summit in NY said to me when i asked him how it was..’good news is that the information is getting repetitive, time to stop studying and get to work’. while it might not be exciting to ‘just do the work’ how else do we sit back and appreciate the manifestation of a vision.

Comments are closed.