IA existential crisis...err, Summit

The existential crisis

I have to admit that there was far more spirited discussion and angst at this year's IA Summit than I have ever seen (or would ever have expected) at a professional conference.

General themes: Big IA vs. Little IA; IAI vs. IXDA; big documentation vs. little documentation; and, of course, what does it mean to be an information architect?

There was a central thread to the discussion that felt very circular to me, and I futzed around in InDesign a bit to try to capture it:

It's probably healthy to discuss these things in public. I think some of the tone of the debate was concerning, though. And I'll admit I went to the sessions that were likely to prompt debate. Once a journalist, always a journalist -- I felt compelled to follow the story, and this was the story of this IA Summit.

Whether we call ourselves IAs or something else, many of us started in this career by categorizing and defining things. But our nebulous-by-nature career doesn't fit well into any one bucket.

We may never define IA. This debate is not going to change the fact that some of us are innies, and some of us are outies; some of us are agile, and some of us are waterfall; some of us need heavy documentation, and some of us can do light documentation; some of us have huge business constraints, and some of us have lots of freedom.

Everyone's reality is a little different. Eric Reiss put it best in his "House Divided" session: The true definition of IA is whatever you do.

In many ways my day-to-day responsibilities might better fall under the definition of interaction design or user experience design. But it doesn't bother me to be called an information architect, and when people outside of the industry ask me what I do, I tell them I help make the web site easier to use. I think any of the job titles you hear bandied about for what we do can be boiled down to that description.

All of the fuzzy-bounded disciplines, and their knowledge sources and conferences, are places to meet cool, smart people, and learn things that help me become better at my job. I think that's why most people go to the IA Summit. Those of us who go for those reasons, I think, could happily find ourselves at a 20th IA Summit, still getting the same benefits.

Hopefully by then the debate will have progressed.

The sessions themselves

I had a chance to see some really good sessions, and some of the best stayed completely above the whole IA debate. Some of my favorites:

"Revealing Design Treasures from the Amazon" (Jared Spool) - Jared pulled out YEARS worth of Amazon.com screenshots in this presentation that was both highly entertaining and full of nuggets to make you think. The room was packed for this one and I hope everyone found it as worthwhile as I did.

"Strategies for Enabling UX to Play a More Strategic Role: What Will Work Where You Work?" (Richard I. Anderson and Craig Peters) - Some of the most important moments at the IA Summit are over lunch, dinner, or drinks, not in the sessions, and that makes me wonder why more sessions aren't structured like this one. We sat in round table groups, and led by the instructors, discussed UX's strategic role amongst ourselves. I really hope they do more sessions in this format in the future.

"ROI - Retaining Our Interest" (Eric Reiss) - Aside from the obvious entertainment value of a session that starts out with bloody mary sales, this one also had some important lessons. My main takeaway: sometimes proving your case is more about emotion than numbers.

"Unify Your Deliverables!" (Nathan Curtis) - We already use EightShapes' documentation system at Marriott, so I didn't learn as much from this session as I'm guessing others did. But I was still excited to see the new Unify system unveiled.

That's about all I've got. A slush pile of IA Summit and Memphis pictures and video are posted on Flickr.

Cross-posted at www.carriegarzich.com.



So I am back from the IA Summit in Memphis. The conference itself was not your average conference, and I'm still trying to get my thoughts together about what I want to say about it. So, for today, just Memphis the city.

By the time I got to my hotel from the airport, I had about two hours of time during normal museum hours to go and see something. My friend Norah was in town for a separate conference (what is it with Memphis and conferences lately?), and we had talked about trying to make it to Graceland. But she was swamped at her conference, and I decided Graceland would not have been nearly as fun by myself, plus it looked like a haul to get there. So I ended up going to the Civil Rights Museum.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I knew that it was connected to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. It ended up being one of, if not the most, emotionally moving museums I've ever been to. The museum takes you through slavery, through separate but equal, through Rosa Parks and sit-ins, a very detailed account of the history of the civil rights movement that still works well if you only want to skim some of the extensive text. All of this takes place in what looks like a warehouse more than an old motel.

But when you reach the end, April 4, 1968, there are two restored rooms from the motel, one of them Dr. King's. Looking into those rooms, and out on the balcony, you feel a sense of place and a power that wouldn't be there if the museum was located anywhere else.

It's not an easy or a fun museum, but I would definitely recommend it. It has a second half, following the motel side, that takes you through the boarding house across the street and the hunt for James Earl Ray.

After the museum, I walked around taking pictures to kick off the massive glut in my Flickr account.

I found Memphis really interesting in that there didn't seem to be distinctive "bad" and "good" neighborhoods. I'd walk past a newly renovated industrial building, turned into condos, and immediately next to it would be a boarded-up building. There were gated communities within a block or two of piles of broken beer bottles and ramshackle loading docks. And later, during a walk to midtown (more on that in a bit), we would encounter a block of thriving bars and other businesses, immediately followed by businesses that could have failed anywhere from last year to 50 years ago. It really seems to be a place where things survive on their own merit, not because they're located in a hip neighborhood.

On Friday evening, after some delicious deep-fried burgers at Dyer's on Beale St. (so worth it until I get my next cholesterol test), fellow Kent grads Roger, Carrianne, and I started the walk to a blues club in midtown Roger wanted to check out. It was a two-mile hike, which should be totally doable, right?

Well, there are short two-mile hikes, and long two-mile hikes, and this one definitely fell into the long category. We walked through quiet neighborhoods, past soulless strip malls, and then into some of those odd thriving/abandoned areas I talked about earlier. We never made it to the blues club, but I'm glad we went -- it was a chance to really see Memphis, and take some weird pictures of the abandoned and the amusing. We stopped for some delicious martinis at the Side Street Lounge, so we were still rewarded for our effort.

We stuck to Beale Street on Saturday night. Beale Street is interesting in that there's such a range of things you can do. Want to have some beers and listen to really good blues? You can do that. Want to drink hurricanes from a bucket and listen to a cover band? You can do that. Want to wander the street drinking beer and/or frozen rum drinks until you have the courage to go sing karaoke? Yep, you can also do that.

For me, the highlights of Beale Street that night were wandering the A. Schwab museum/store and taking pictures of all the floors of bizareness there, and wrapping up the night at the hole-in-the-wall Juke Joint, with some really, really good blues up on the stage.

All in all, I really enjoyed Memphis, and wish I had built in more sightseeing time. I'll admit I got pretty startled the first day by one panhandler -- apparently I've become desensitized by DC's aggressive panhandling laws. Once I got my hackles back up, it was totally fine, though.

At some point in my life, I want to ride the City of New Orleans train from Chicago to New Orleans, making stops along the way. A stop for some more time in Memphis will definitely be warranted.

After all, I still have to see Graceland.


Ode to my StationMasters map

So this weekend I was in DC's Golden Triangle district, aka the Golden Carrie is Disoriented district, and needed to walk from a store near the red line stop where I'd gotten off to a non-connected orange line stop. Why these two stops, which are in one place only a block apart, aren't connected by a below-ground pedestrian walkway is a Metro mystery.

At any rate, I had to do a quick map check. One of the helpful Golden Triangle tourism people asked me if I needed help.

"Nope," I said. "I've got it."

And I really did, despite my very fuzzy sense of direction. When I first moved here, this might not have been the case. I was persistently coming out of Metro stations and heading in the wrong direction. But since then, I've discovered the StationMasters map.

If you've come to visit me since then, I probably gave you one. If I didn't, remind me next time. They are the best maps I've encountered for getting around a city because they actually orient you around the way you've been traveling -- by the subway.

Stations aren't marked as some median point on the map (I'm looking at you, Google Maps); instead, every exit is displayed, including the direction you'll be heading in when you make the exit. No more walking a block to discover you'd been heading towards 11th St instead of 9th and instantly marking yourself as lost bait. And each mini-map is oriented around an individual Metro station, which makes the map you need easy to find -- just flip to the Metro stop you used.

As an IA, I think this is a perfect use of information to help explain a physical space. But as a traveler, I mostly just wish StationMasters would take their excellent maps to other cities. They could start with Boston -- I'm heading there in May and sure I'll be walking the wrong way out of the subway without fail.

You can check out the Station Masters map here. They also sell them at the Metro Center Barnes & Noble (and probably other Barnes & Nobles in the area).

Cross-posted at www.carriegarzich.com