FEB 26, 2015

World IA Day

Vincent Au had the privilege of being invited to speak this year’s World IA Day in New York City, organized by the Information Architecture Institute across 24 countries.

Joined by my co-panelists Denise Graeff, a UX researcher at ADP; Marc Tobias Kunisch, a UX team lead at Google; and Michele Tepper, an independent UX consultant, we fielded the audience’s questions about our research and testing processes. Questions included “Who makes a final decision when there is a design conflict?” and “What is your favorite kind of user testing and research?” I found it particularly interesting that the four of us seemed to agree, not on the value of testing and research, but on deeper points around when and how we do it, how we synthesize it, and so on.  Also of note was Denise’s comment that for her, answers are usually required same day or the day after the research ask (although I hope there is some flexibility here pending the depth of the request!), whereas in the consulting/agency world, we typically have a few days to gather research, synthesize and formalize a report of our findings.

Though, in the end, there were a few conclusions that we all came to:

  • Data is the most objective driver of decisions.
  • We can’t always do all the research or testing that we want, but will always fight to make room for it.
  • There are different ways to test and research, and all are valuable within their given contexts.

Nothing overly controversial, but it’s always good to have your own opinions validated by folks smarter than you.

The overall theme of the conference was “happiness,” and all of the other presentations tackled this in various ways: some more literal than others.

Unfortunately, I missed the first few talks, including the featured presentation by the incomparable Abbi Covert, whose book, How to Make Sense of Any Mess, is a fantastic take on contemporary Information Architecture, and how it is applicable in more ways than one might expect. I highly recommend you check it out!

The talks I did see, however, were fascinating and diverse:

Nikki Roda and Tamara Waye, from Goldman Sachs’ UX team, talked about how they have been able to introduce and maintain consistency across their global organization with web-based UX toolkits and pattern libraries. They’ve made these accessible by all GS employees, and discussed the value of information visualization in the data-heavy finance industry.  In my previous work for financial services clients, one of the toughest things to overcome was always cross-continent communication.  We needed to know how people in ALL the offices used their applications and try to design something that would work for all of their employees.  The solutions landed upon by GS were elegant and really shed light on the power of internal teams and their ability to affect change—albeit at times in the face of resistance or communication woes.

Isaiah Andrew, Director of User Experience at VSA partners, spoke about his company’s engagement with IBM to disrupt how their sales force used technology to support their processes. It was an interesting look at what it takes to break something down and re-assemble it, while taking into account cultural and language differences (the engagement took place mostly in Tokyo and London). The cultural discussion was definitely what I found myself most fascinated by:  how do you work with people when you don’t speak the same language? How do you learn of their pain points, needs, and opportunities?  Certainly, immersing oneself in the culture helps with some contextual grounding (as well as general bonding and trust generation), but that only goes so far.  If I took one thing away from this, it would be how issues completely unrelated to design or product issues can often be the biggest hurdles in a design engagement, and the ability (and persistence required to) overcome these is something we should all strive to cultivate.

Jill Belli, Assistant Professor of English at New York City College of Technology, returned us to a more thematic discussion: the topic of Utopia. Specifically, she discussed her work in Utopian Studies and how that concept has worked its way into the online space. The talk was an interesting look at the current trend of positive psychology and striving for happiness. “How can we quantify happiness and who decides what ‘happy’ really means?” She discussed the Twitter hedonometer, which purports to catalog the emotions being expressed on the social network, while challenging us to think about whether we can really use this tool to gauge since its vocabulary is incomplete and the wordcounts are taken out of context.  She also introduced us to social networks that are all about improving happiness. Is there traction in this space? I don’t personally think so, but maybe I am too far from Inner Utopia to have a valid opinion.  It was interesting, though, with the earlier discussions about data and how that can show us the effectiveness of our applications, to think about these things from a slightly different perspective.  Does data really tell the whole story? Or is data valuable and completely objective in certain situations, but less so in others?  In the end, the conclusion I came to is that it’s all about the right data. Just as using the number of visits to a privacy policy page won’t help determine the efficacy of a homepage design, the Twitter Hedonometer’s  not tracking ‘egregious’ as a negative word doesn’t mean that the use of data is inherently flawed–it means the data selection is suspect.

The closing talk was by Boon Sheridan, a Boston-based UX professional who some of you may know from his various works and writings. While all the talks I saw were fascinating and had me completely engrossed, Sheridan’s struck a particular chord.  His presentation discussed the concept of self-disruption (my term) in a sense.  With all the amassed knowledge we’ve gained over the years, when do we replace it?  Best practices are great until they are no longer best practices.  Studies to support decisions trump all, until there are a bunch of other studies that support the opposite viewpoint.  He challenged us to take all we know and see which ones are Truths, which are Hunches, and which are Coin Flips.  His points rang very true and caused me to think very hard about the process of process and to endeavor to challenge the reasoning behind the design and process decisions I implement at Rokkan.

One final note:  the entire event was both streamed and recorded. So, you should be able to watch each of these talks soon over at the WIAD site: http://2015.worldiaday.org/.

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