Maybe information architecture is not sleeping, just resting…

So, I spurred something of a shitstorm in my post where I commented on information architecture is sleeping. Most people focused on the wrong thing, the cancellation of a workshop, when what I was hoping to expose was the tendency towards isolation and insularity that the community seemed to be falling into.

So, I’ve now returned from the 8th IA Summit, and I’m thinking of revising my statement. While the content was mostly blah (though with a few delightfully notable sessions), the conversations I had definitely demonstrated a profession evolving. The curious thing is — it’s not clear what it is evolving into. Unlike every past event, no strong themes emerged. The closest we got was something to do with “rich internet applications,” but even that was pretty weak. Content (and hallway discussions) were all over the map — interaction design, mobile, engaging with business, second life, managing teams, etc. etc.

It made me realize that the profession is in a period of uncertainty. I wish I had attended Andrew Hinton’s highly-lauded talk, because from what I heard, he addressed this a bit.

Two of the thoughts that occurred to me about IA:

- I think I can say without much hubris that I’ve had a hand in establishing the field of information architecture. But, in discussion with Jon Littell and Jennifer Bohmbach, I realized that I found myself in that role not because of a passion for IA _per se_, but for a tendency to go after the interesting unsolved problems and take a whack at them. What this means is that I won’t be in any profession for very long. Once something begins to settle, I become restless, trying to figure out how to engage some new problem that I find critical. So, in the last few years, I’ve drifted away from things like IA and interaction design, and more towards helping organizations understand the great value of taking an experiential approach to delivering their products and services.

- My ONE BIG CONCERN is how, at this Summit, I saw no examples of interesting work built on IA principles. The presentations are all very process and framework oriented. Can you imagine going to a graphic design conference and not seeing books, posters, collateral? Or to an architecture conference, and there are no pictures or models of buildings? I’m afraid the field won’t be able to move forward until we are able to share the outcomes of where all this process and framework thinking lead to.

Information architecture is not dead, it’s just sleeping

Tomorrow marks the first day of the pre-conferences for the 2007 IA Summit. I arrive Friday afternoon, before the main program begins Saturday morning.

I have been to every IA Summit (the first was in 2000), and I’m going to this one with more trepidation than any I have been to before. While I don’t accord with the sensationalist notion that “information architecture is dead,” I do fear that it is in a deep sleep. And I’m concerned that the leadership within the field of information architecture are doing little to nothing to really advance the field.

For me, an acute sign of this, and the particular cause of my trepidation for this summit, was the cancellation of “Learning Interaction Design from Las Vegas” pre-conference session. This was to be given by three leaders in the field of user experience — Steve Portigal, Bill deRouchey, and my colleague at Adaptive Path, Dan Saffer. It was a brilliant concept — using the location of Las Vegas as material for a day-long workshop on user research and interaction design.

Sadly, it fell victim to market forces. Up against 18 other pre-conferences, it didn’t get a critical mass of attendees. I take some blame for this — I was seriously considering signing up for the class, but didn’t get around to it before it was cancelled.

But I also feel that the leadership of the IA Summit deserves some blame for this. I find it appalling that visionary sessions are being cancelled because of market forces (I know there were enough people signed up to make it an interesting workshop — just not enough to warrant the costs). Shouldn’t the main conference for a professional organization take the occasional loss in order to advance the field? Why on earth is it playing it safe? It’s not like this should be a money-making venture.

My fear, going into the summit, is that the field of IA, while not dead, is moribund. That it’s becoming insular and isolated, and unwilling to take conceptual leaps, to take the methodological risks that are necessary for it to not stagnate. IA is having a remarkable time freeing itself from its early successes in a web 1.0 world, when the ability to organize and classify static information was new and valuable. In my closing plenary last year, I encouraged the IA community to both embrace the challenges of a web 2.0 world, and to advocate for the practice of IA within physical spaces. However, whenever I read about IA, all I see is more of the same.

I really hope I’m wrong in this. I’m going into the Summit with a critical, but, I hope, open mind. This is a crucial year for information architecture (and I use “crucial” precisely — IA is at a crux), and we’ll see if the community is willing to open up and embrace new challenges, or circle the wagons and simply do those things it has always done.

The Future of the Book

At SXSW, I moderated a panel on the future of the book. Folks who have followed this site for a long time know that this is an idea I pursued in the distant past. September 14, 1999, I wrote a post about “What Makes a Book A Book?”, which in turn inspired a pretty good online discussion of the future of books.

It’s too big a topic for an hour-long discussion. But, I found a thesis emerge from what transpired.

New technologies are providing new opportunities for readers to define the experiences they want to have with books.

For me, the most interesting development since I first started writing about the books is how the technological advances have not been in e-books (I’ve seen no advancement whatsoever there), but in enabling opportunities in printed books. Clearly, ink (or toner) on paper is not going away.

Panelist Eileen Gittens is the CEO of Blurb, a print-on-demand book service, and Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive contains many books which can be printed on demand, and whose Internet Bookmobile, demonstrated the mobility and cheapness of printing books.

Our discussion dovetailed quite nicely with what I wrote about how technology has exploded the range of delivery sizes for media. The books on Blurb.com aren’t the kind you would see in stores — they tend to be smaller, briefer, and thus not typically marketable. But with the infinite shelf-space of the print-on-demand internet, there’s an opportunity for a 32-page book that simply wouldn’t have been available 5 years ago.

(It’s also worth noting that the quality of the photographic imagery of Blurb’s books was quite stunning, and seems to be used by many photographers for presenting their portfolios.)

We dipped into the discussion of e-books, because Brewster had with him a working prototype of the $100 laptop, on which he’s placed many Project Gutenberg texts. The $100 laptop has a tablet mode, and a 200 dpi screen, which makes it a good candidate for book reading.

Upcoming Adaptive Path Events

Two things to share:

Today is the last day for early registration to Adaptive Path’s newest workshop, UX Intensive, April 23-26 in Chicago. For intermediate-to-advanced practitioners, these 4 days of hands-on, activities-based learning will help you level up your skills.

Also, we’ve just announced our first virtual seminar, Showing the Value of UX: Connecting User Experience to Business Value. It takes place April 5 at 10:00am Pacific Time. We’re experimenting with a new format here, and seeing how we can use the intertubes to spread the love far and wide.

With both (and all) events, use promotional code FOPM and get 15% of the registration fee.

Zen and the art of South by Southwest

I’m trying to figure out how to write this without sounding too grumpy. But I have to say that, in total, I’m pretty dissatisfied with South by Southwest. And that dissatisfaction stems almost entirely from the scale of the event. The numbers I heard was that attendance was in the 4,000-5,000 range.

Actually, the dissatisfaction is rooted in my inability to live in the present. Because of it’s size, there’s always a lot of things going on simultaneously at SXSW. And because I live in a world of continuous partial attention, I have trouble staying in the moment, as I want to optimize the potential of my experience, which means scanning the horizon for whatever might be better than what I’m doing right now.

Along with this is a paradox of choice problem. Monday night, there were no fewer than 5 simultaneous evening events that intrigued me. How do you commit? How do you feel good about that commitment?

And then there were the lines. I simply will not wait in a line to go to a club. But you couldn’t not wait in lines Monday night. Only then to enter that club, pressed against others, shouting to be heard.

What I realized, and what I need to do if I return to SXSW, is that in order to enjoy what SXSW Interactive has become (and boy, has it changed since 1999) I have to take a more Zen-like approach, ignoring all the Things I Could Be Doing, and focus on simply getting the most out of whatever I Am Doing.

Two Thoughts about Twitter

Here at SXSW, Twitter has tipped. It has become *the* way to stay abreast of what’s going on, where your friends are, and where to drink if you want to keep out of the rain. (For those who don’t know: Twitter is a dumb-simple messaging application optimized for mobile phones, but accessible through the Web, IM, and other means as well.)

Using it, I’ve had two thoughts about it:

1) It needs event functionality, bad. Twitter is ideal for events, keeping track of friends and activities. The problem is, the only relationship Twitter understands is one of friends/contacts, which means that all my friends in the Bay Area and elsewhere are getting overwhelmed by my Twitter messages to people here at SXSW. It also means that I’m not following all the SXSW twitters that I could, because I’m not linked to everyone at the conference using Twitter. There are many people whom I’d love to “follow” just for this event and never again.

2) I would encourage the Twitter developers to go old school and dig up some HCI research on command line interfaces, cognitive psychology, and the like. Using Twitter on a mobile phone means remembering commands (such as FOLLOW, NUDGE, ADD, D (for direct message) etc.) I’m certain that Twitter is re-making many mistakes when it comes to such commands, and that a literature review could do much to kick usability up a few notches.

3) Actually, I’ve just had a third thought. Because I used the word “usability” in the last comment, and I realized that Twitter should consider not just being usable (which is a laudable goal), but is totally primed for game-like experiences of discovery. I’d love for there to be cheats/easter eggs that the Twitter folks never mention in terms of commands and functions, but which some how get out across the internets, and make using the tool, well, more fun (kinda like ordering off In-n-Out Burger’s secret menu).

Heading to SxSW

On Friday, I arrive at SXSW.

I’m staying at the Austin Motel (so close… yet so far out) on South Congress–away from the nonsense that is Austin’s downtown, and next to many of my favorite places in the city — Jo’s for coffee, Blackmail, Amy’s Ice Cream, the Hotel San Jose, Uncommon Objects, and an excellent pizza place whose name I forget.

I’ll also be making my yearly pilgrimage to Ruby’s barbecue, Toy Joy (bestest toy store in America!), and Spider House (bestest coffeehouse in Austin!).

I will also be attending the many many parties happening every evening.

And, as an afterthought, actually have two official jobs:
– “Stop Designing Products” – session on Saturday
– “The Future of the Book” – a panel I’ll be leading on Tuesday (I think it’s on Tuesday)

Obscure DVDs – Where’s “The Long Tail”?

Today’s New York Times has an article on how obscure DVDs have a precarious future in a world dominated by big box stores. I find it a little disconcerting, because one of the great things about the DVD market is how it made obscure international and older films available.

What’s missing from this article, though, is any discussion of online retailers or Netflix, which I find bizarre, as The Long Tail is predicated on how the infinite shelf space of online stores means there’s a market (though possibly a very very small one) for anything. Are Amazon and Netflix unable to provide enough of a market for these DVD distributors? Or is something else going on here?