Wherein I finally write about my IDEA Conference experience

The conference that I spent around 8 months planning, IDEA, transpired over the course of last Monday and Tuesday. In short, it went really well. Attendees seemed genuinely enthused — many went out of their way thank me. The speakers had a good time with one another and the audience. And, after I was able to come down off the epinephrine buzz of constantly being “on”, I realized that it all pretty much went off without a hitch.

And now, some remembrances, lessons learned, and other thoughts about the event.

On Being the Host

I’d never run a conference before. Having taught two-day workshops, I figured this would be easier, in that I would be doing very little speaking. Um, boy was I wrong. Someone running an event falls prey to continuous partial attention. You are constantly “scanning the periphery,” and, after 8-9 hours of this two days in a row, I was pretty spent. I also didn’t drink in the talks as much as I’d like, particularly David Guiney’s National Park Service discussions. By the second day I was better able to focus on the presentations, but still, let’s just say we didn’t record the event just for those who weren’t there…

Thematic Takeaways

The other thing about being the host is that you don’t have the element of surprise around the presentations that others do. You’ve been working with the speakers for months, and, even if you don’t know exactly what they’re going to say, you’ve got some pretty good notions. Typically, if I attend an event like this, I pull together emergent themes, often unintended by the conference organizers. I have no idea if such themes existed for IDEA — I had trouble seeing beyond the overarching “designing complex information spaces” theme to identify anything else that emerged.

And even though I shouldn’t play favorites with the sessions, some talks have really stuck with me:

(by the way, all presentation audio, and many of the slides, can be downloaded here.)

Dave Cronin – Art for the Public. I am a sucker for presentations where standard user-centered design methods (stakeholder interviews, user research, interaction design, prototyping) are used in novel environments, such as the design of a web, kiosk, and mobile system for supporting art appreciation at the Getty Center in L.A. It continues to provide evidence that such design isn’t special or otherworldly.


Fernanda Viegas – Democratizing Visualization. This might have been, for me, the single most exciting project discussed at IDEA (with the possible exception of StoryCorps). Fernanda gave a sneak peak at Many Eyes, a service soon to be released by IBM Research that allows people to visualize data — either their own, or publicly accessible data. It also turns these visualizations into social artifacts — people can comment on one another’s visualizations. There is so much potential for this — my glib take on it is “It’s Youtube for Data Viz!”


Dan Hill – The New Media. As Dan’s talk unfolded, I feared that he was going to wander off into esoterica, satisfied to show pretty pictures of buildings and musical notation. But he pulled it all together in the end, demonstrating how the experience of media, increasingly fractured across many different channels and at many different times, can use this discontinuity to create an effect where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Bruce Sterling’s closing keynote. It’s a thing of poetry. For a taste, read Bruce’s blog post of phrases taken from IDEA presentations.

The Venue: Seattle’s Central Library

I chose the Central Library because it is a space that embodies the theme of the event — it manages complex information across a physical and virtual realm, and really allows information to be a substrate of the architectural space. It’s also just a fun, weird, and interesting building to be in.

I also chose the Central Library because it was crazy cheap — the Microsoft Auditorium costs $1,000 a day, for a room that holds over 200 people, has up-to-date presentation facilities, and comfortable seating where everyone has a good view. It even includes a full-time A/V technician.

If you’re planning an event in Seattle, you’d be foolish not to consider the Central Library as a venue. It’s well-located, surrounded by hotels, a brief walk to Pike Place Market, excellent wi-fi coverage, and your attendees will just dig it.

Meals

Sarah Rice, who was essential to the success of the event, insisted that we serve breakfast and afternoon snacks, and she was right to do so. Attendees devoured the food we gave them, and never again will I consider NOT feeding and watering people coming to an event.

The first day, we experimented with having groups sign up to lunch together at nearby restaurants. It worked okay, though even when we extended lunch to 90 minutes (from 75), timing was still very tight to get people out of the library, to a restaurant, seated, ordered, served, fed, paid, and returned. Also, all the nearby restaurants were kinda pricey.

The second day we just sent people out on their own, and I headed over to the Public Market for a killer grilled cheese sandwich. If the weather is right, going to the market, and then to the park at the end of the market is probably the best way to have a quality Seattle experience.

So Will We Do It Again?

I suspect so. I haven’t talked about it with the IA Institute board yet. I know I cannot put in the time and energy I did this go around, but I don’t think I would have to. We’ve figured a bunch of stuff out.

A Day in San Francisco

Days like yesterday remind me how much I do miss living in San Francisco. I had a day all to myself, with no plans, so I headed to SF, and biked around. I’ve drawn out the bike route on Community Walk, and am embedding it here:

CommunityWalk Map – October 14, 2006 Bike Ride

It was a very good day. Highlights include:

  • glazed raised at Bob’s Donuts — still the best in the city
  • banh mi at Baguette Express — I liked the ham and head cheese, but the pate made my mouth taste like ass
  • Hayes Green — the new park on Octavia Blvd and Hayes Street is a true community treasure; Jeff, Julie, Lane, Courtney, and Niall provided the camaraderie
  • Propeller — a furniture store I’d never been in, and immediately wanted to plonk down $$thous$and$ of dollar$
  • Frjtz — back patio with a good book, a cone of fries, and a belgian ale (Affligem); this is about as good as it gets
  • Cafe La Onda — I hadn’t known it was no longer Macondo; also it was closing forever the very next day; spent 2 hours shooting the shit with Mike, Liz, and Maya, all great company
  • Dosa — Mysore Dosa! And good chatting with Judith
  • The Homestead — I must admit, I’m sad that this place is no longer Dylan’s (which was my local when I lived in the neighborhood); still this place is very pleasant, and has Fullers on draft

    Such a simple day. I had no plans to meet anyone before I came in. Those I did hang out with were coordinated either on a lark via SMS, or, almost literally, running into them on the sidewalk (hi Mike!). Such happenstance is very much a part of SF magic. I could do it every weekend.

  • What does Jakob Nielsen have to do with the current state of the web?

    Jakob proudly points to an article in The New York Times on Google’s acquisition of YouTube, where he is quoted, “What does a video storage service have to do with search?” Suggesting he doesn’t appreciate the reasoning behind the takeover.

    This sentence reveals two drastic oversimplifications. Taking the second, first, Google is as much an advertising company as it is a search company. In fact, without advertising, there would be no search. Google’s true genius is not in the search engine, but in figuring out how to extract massive value from that search engine, with a brilliant approach to advertising that plays directly to the web’s strengths (Think “long tail,” think algorithmic, think decentralized, think results-driven, etc.)

    YouTube is not “video storage service,” but a video *sharing* service, much like Flickr is about sharing photos, not just storing them. With sharing you get human interaction, and with such interactions, you get emergent behavior. And with emergent behavior, you get all manner of unpredictability, such as a site becoming the 10th most visited on the entire web in the less than 12 months.

    And so, if we ask, “What does a video sharing service have to do with web-native advertising?” we begin to get a sense of why Google was quite smart to pay $1.65 billion.

    Embrace the chaos – designers and systems with emergent behavior

    Last night’s BayCHI panel on the role of design and designers in systems with emergent behavior proved lively, fun, and informative. Tim, Larry, and Joy were great contributors. We touched on a lot in the 90 minutes we had, but even so, I realized we could have spoken for an entire day and not exhausted the subject.

    We’re designing tools and rules
    Tim used the phrase “tools and rules” to describe what it is that we’re designing when we’re working on systems with emergent behavior. This can be a challenge for designers, particularly those who are trained in the design of form, of artifacts.
    As part of this, what we’re designing are containers, vessels for our users to fill with their stuff–the “content,” their commentary, their metadata. We then design other containers for the system to fill with stuff it’s figured out through algorithms — whether products that people have bought, or photos that might be interesting.

    There are no good user research methods of emergent behavior
    The standard tools that a user researcher has tend to focus on an individual’s interaction with the system. Or, if we do engage with groups, we’re limited to the scope of groups we can interact with. So, how can user research inform the design of systems with emergent behavior? We need new methods and approaches that allow us to work with a crowd.

    What do we deliver in a world of ever-evolving designs?
    An attendee commented on how many contemporary systems seem to live in perpetual beta, that they continually release new features, functionality, and interface designs, and, well, what do we do about that? I think this is a non-issue for in-house designers — folks that are there everyday and can evolve their solutions bit-by-bit.

    But it’s a HUGE challenge for design consultancies (like, say, Adaptive Path). We deliver a system at what is essentially a moment in time in the life of an organization, and, if this is a system predicated on emergent behavior, from that moment of delivery that system is moving away from our delivery. What is the value of a design consultancy in this situation? I think this is one of the reasons that Adaptive Path has pulled pretty strongly in an “experience strategy” direction. While the details of execution are likely to change with some rapidity, the overarching vision that guides the system has greater permanence, and if we deliver at that level, we can deliver longer-lasting value. We can help provide a strategy from which this system can evolve.

    Embrace the chaos
    Joy, who had the most experience designing interactive systems (in fact, she might have more experience than the rest of the panel combined), has, particularly in her work with Yahoo, come to terms with the realization that you cannot predict response, that there are limits to the utility of user research, and really, what’s often best is just to throw stuff out there and see what people make of it.

    I might be a little less cavalier. I’m surprised that most companies don’t take the Amazon.com approach of testing designs with small percentages of the users and gauging behavior before unleashing it on the world at large. Separately, but as importantly, I’m shocked that more companies haven’t followed in Amazon’s stead when it comes to truly capitalizing on emergent behavior, on having that inform algorithms that drive a user’s experience.

    Timing is a lot of the thing
    Maybe not everything, but boy is timing important. I introduced myself by saying that I worked on a project that involved user-generated content, involved user-submitted ratings, allowed for social networks through trusted friends, provided content based on algorithms informed by your behavior, and even allowed you to place site content on your own blog (kind of like how Youtube allows you to embed video on your blog). And that site was Epinions, which I worked on 7 years ago. And while still around, it hasn’t had anywhere near the success of some of the more recent systems. And I wondered, was Epinions too soon? Was the market just not ready for it?

    I think it’s obvious that Youtube is in large part successful because of timing: broadband deployment at such a level that video on the Web is feasible, not a burden; “community” features like comments, tagging, favoriting, etc. are increasingly familiar to web users; the rise of MySpace and people outfitting their homepage with various sorts of multimedia bling.

    So what is the role of the designer?
    In systems with emergent behavior, I see designers primarily serving the role of facilitator and enabler. Designers can provide immense value by capturing an experience strategy, a statement of the design purpose of the system, for what reason(s) it exists for those who use it. And then doing everything they can to provide an experience that lets the people using the system to do everything THEY can to have an experience meaningful to them.

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    Two weeks until IDEA!

    Suffice to say, I’m excited and anxious about the impending IDEA Conference! We’ve got a stellar line-up, people attending from all over the world (including a group from Thailand!), and a bunch of details to attend to before the big show. The website now has abstracts for pretty much every presentation, and I’m confident in saying that this will be quite unlike other design conferences. Practicing designers from a range of backgrounds discussing their various approaches at helping manage a world of information overload.

    I hope to see you there!

    Putting you in your place

    Last night I took part in a large conversation on the meaning and importance of place and space, and tools that we use to define our relationship to space. There’s been a lot of activity and interest in place — from obvious things like people’s love of Google Maps, to the passion around geotagging photos on Flickr (over 5,000,000 tagged and counting!), to geekier-but-growing tools like Plazes.

    (Separately, when I think of the word “place,” I think of the Santa Monica Place, the indoor shopping mall in Santa Monica, where I grew up. But I digress.)

    I’ve been thinking about my use of these tools, and why I’ve found them meaningful to me. The primary reason I’ve geotagged a bunch of photos, and that I’m pretty dogged about maintaining my “plaze,” is that I love the idea that they are creating passive trails of where I’ve been. There’s a journaling aspect to it, a way to trace my history without me having to be super-vigilant about it myself.

    Now, what’s important about this is recognizing that “place” isn’t all that meaningful in isolation. I’m really interested in the intersection of “place” and “time.” I would pay money for someone to use the Flickr API to create an interactive map that either provided a slider so I could see what photos were taken in what date range, or, even better, something that overlaid an infographic over a map of the world, with arrows or some such, that showed how I moved across the globe taking pictures. Something kind of like the Indiana Jones map.

    The other thing that interests me about place is the obvious, “What’s around me?” This is particularly useful when I’m traveling to new cities (often for work), and I haven’t a clue where to get a decent meal, or find free wifi, etc. Obviously, I can get some of this by going to a regional search engine (Citysearch, Yelp, Google Local, etc.), but there’s something just sweet about popping open the laptop and having access to my surroundings.

    Anyway, place. What I’m thinking about.

    Six Days in Lisboa

    Thanks to the extremely generous efforts of the organizers of the Shift conference (Bruno! Pedro! Hugo!), I have just spent the last six days in Lisbon, Portugal. It was my first time on that side of the Iberian Peninsula. I’m going to save my thoughts about the conference itself for the Adaptive Path blog. Here, I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences on the travel I was able to do.

    As a traveler, there were two regions that I loved. One is Belem, a riverfront neighborhood on the western side of Lisbon, home to many cultural institutions (the Cultural Center of Belem, museum of archaeology, ethnology, and coaches (yes, coaches, as in vehicles), beautiful gardens, awe-inspiring monuments, gorgeous views, and the best pastries in all of Lisbon. I spent an afternoon and an evening here, and could have happily spent longer. My Belem Photos on Flickr

    The other area of note is Sintra. Tucked in the hills west and slightly north of Lisbon, Sintra was once the weekend getaway spot for royalty and nobility. Now a UNESCO World Heritiage Site, it has a storybook charm that impresses. My Sintra Photos on Flickr.

    Visitors to Sintra are obliged to visit the candy-colored Palacio da Pena, an awesome structure atop the tallest hill. The Palacio has exquisite architectural detailing throughout, but more impressive than that was the literally breathtaking views all the way out to the ocean. Photographs do not do justice to the experience. Not that I didn’t try…

    Another favorite of mine, which gets short shrift from the guidebooks, was the Quinta da Reguleira, a twisted neo-gothic garden playground. It has the organic-ness of Gaudi’s work, and continually captivates as you roam the grounds. It’s a little off the typical beaten path, but well worth the visit. It’s probably even better with a friend (I went solo), and make sure to bring a light source–there are labyrinths so dark you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face.

    The biggest disappointment of the travel was the main city of Lisbon itself. You definitely get the sense that decades, if not centuries, of economic has-been-ness has beaten down this place. The center of town appeals only to tourists. In the neighborhoods near the center live an increasingly aging population. The liveliest urban spaces are massive indoor shopping centers — for good reason, too, as they’re the only place you can buy things truly relevant to a modern existence. Lisbon is awash with graffiti, the sidewalks are in a state of constant disrepair, people drive like maniacs, and, well, apart from the novelty of the narrow hilly streets and some antiquated residential architecture, it’s just not that *interesting*. (Oh, and the same goes for the seaside town of Cascais — it’s perfectly pleasant, but I didn’t feel it was really worth the excursion.)

    From a food perspective, if you visit Lisbon, be prepared to eat a lot of pastries. Pastelaria’s dot the entire city, selling tarts, rolls, breads, croissants, custards, and the like. And it’s hard to find anything to eat before noon that isn’t baked. Definitely make time to visit the Pasteis de Belem for the best pasteis in city.


    And when in Sintra, go to Piriquita, for delightful traversseiros and queijadas.

    Lunch and dinner meals were fine, but nothing special. I had no amazing meals during my stay, though I did have one excellent course — a codfish salad at the CCB. While in town, I ate everything from cod to octopus to beef to goat, and while none of it was terrible, nothing stood out.

    In short, I would happily return to the area, but I’d make a point of avoiding the main city, focusing on Belem, Sintra, and some of the other cities that head north along the coast.