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ICYMI – IA Summit 2015 Recap

IA Summit 2015, or #ias15, is a wrap. I attended it for the first time this year. I’m still exhausted from it; I did and learned so much! Some of it I expected, and some of it completely surprised me.

In case you’re not that familiar with the Summit, here’s a background post from ASIS&T’s Executive Director, Dick Hill. ASIS&T Board members planted the seeds for the Information Architecture (IA) Summit after reading the first edition of the Polar Bear book and seeing the crossover between the more practical IA field and the more research-oriented interests of many ASIS&T members. The first Summit took place in 2000, and it has been growing happily ever since. ASIS&T provides administrative support, but the Summit’s content is organized by its enthusiastic volunteers.

As a dedicated ASIS&T member and devoted Annual Meeting attendee, I knew that the Summit existed, but I was only vaguely aware of its purpose… and, admittedly, its existence. Over the last several months, I learned more about the Summit and its crowd through Kevin Hoffman, Owner of Seven Heads Design, the company that just finished redesigning ASIS&T’s website. Kevin co-chaired the Summit in 2013, so he was already familiar with ASIS&T when he bid on the project. Additionally, Dick believed it would be good for me to start attending it every year as ASIS&T’s Social Media Manager so I could cover it on our social media channels. Therefore, I found myself on a plane to Minneapolis last week.


Thursday evening featured an orientation session for first-time attendees. I really thought it was helpful, not only for new people to learn about the structure of the conference, but also to help people new to conferences learn how to *do* a conference. IA Summit participants tend to be practitioners, so they might not go to as many conferences as academics do. When I was new to conferences, I would have appreciated the practical tips that were offered here such as “go to the social events,” “don’t be afraid to jump between sessions,” “get introduced to people you don’t know,” etc., etc. It made me think about the New Members Brunch that ASIS&T provides each year at the fall Annual Meeting – could it be done more effectively?

After the orientation, we went to the Opening Reception at the Target headquarters. Yay Target! Target was a major sponsor of this conference. It is one of my favorite stores, so I’m not going to complain about all the cool free Target swag I brought home. I even photographed it in my hotel room:


From the reception, I headed out with a Kevin-led group to a pre-arranged first timers’ dinner at The Third Bird. It was fun to talk with other newcomers who approach IA from diverse backgrounds (I like to make sites functional, but I have no idea how to make them pretty). There’s a picture of us at dinner in @tham’s tweet – well, ok, only my hands are in the picture, the ones holding an almost-eaten burger, but close enough.


Friday morning opened with Jorge Arango keynoting. He’s an author of the forthcoming edition of the Polar Bear book. I really enjoyed his comparisons between information architecture and physical architecture, and I almost screamed with joy when he mentioned Marcia Bates. One thing I noticed (I seriously don’t mean to offend anyone here) is that the IA Summit presenters don’t cite related work that’s been done in information science, or any other field, for that matter. I wouldn’t expect academic-style presentations at this conference, and it was a refreshing change to hear presentations with a different focus, but work exists out there that could ground and inform the practicalities of this emerging field.

I went to many other talks on Friday that covered a range of things: “crossover” jobs that incorporate project management, IA, and user experiencemobile web designthe pre-attentive variable (makes me so happy when I see cognitive psychology informing design!), “Defining the Damn Data” (one of the best titles ever!), new approaches to card sorting, and the use of story in working with your users. For fellow Game of Thrones fans, I had this Twitter interaction based on a tweet I posted during the session about story. WIN.


The evening keynote, Ted Nelson, was amusing, mesmerizing, and enlightening, all at once. A computing pioneer, he came up with the concept of the Back button in the 1970s, among other things. He wasn’t able to be there in person, but he recorded his talk in advance, and then joined us via Skype for Q&A.  His talk is available on the IA Summit website.

I went to Poster Night, and it seemed like there were many interesting posters, but honestly I was really tired by that point. I had traveled to Minneapolis from my new home of Scotland, and jet lag had crept in. Of course, I woke up at 4 am on Saturday morning, and I couldn’t even get breakfast until 6.


Well, some people went on a Polar Bear Run/Walk at 6:30 on Saturday morning. I only know this because I walked right past them to go out for breakfast…

Saturday led me to even more great sessions, such as how to handle the politics of content (anyone who’s ever worked in a university will understand the importance of this topic!), stuff on the technicalities of marking up contentmodels for providing content in new ways, and gender identity and design. After lunch, I attended part of “Giving the Right Amount of Shits: Combating Burnout” (THE best title in history!), and admittedly realized that what I really gave a shit about at that moment was taking a break because my head was so full of ideas, so I took a walk in the (relatively) warm sun. And I do mean relative. This is Minneapolis, people.

Elizabeth Buchanan gave the evening keynote on online information ethics. I’ve done some work in this area, so I really enjoyed her discussion. Moral of the story: be careful about what you put out there, what you make your users put out there, and as you collect what they put out there, be nice to it.

I went to dinner with a friend, and then came back for Karaoke Night with Keyboard Man (aka Kevin). My friend went there briefly and then opted for bed. I couldn’t get myself to leave, and ended up doing something I never thought I’d do. I actually got up there on stage… I did that “500 miles” song (yeah, you know it, we all do) along with a new friend. During our song, the audience started a conga line, which is an IA Summit Karaoke Night first, according to Keyboard Man! Since I didn’t present, this was my biggest accomplishment of the Summit. My live tweeting @asist_org paled in comparison.

But, ASIS&T staff member Stephan really stole the show. Because of his performance of Uptown Funk, his nickname is now Bruno. He even had a new conference badge on Sunday with his new name. But he was better than Bruno. He did “Happy” later in the night, and he was also better than Pharrell. You have to come to the Summit next year to see him. He’s already planning next year’s set list.


So, Sunday morning, I rolled myself down to Mourning Coffee (spelling is theirs; as you can see, their description is “Overdid it a little last night, did we?”) Vanessa and Dick from ASIS&T came up to my table, smiling. Vanessa held out her phone and hit Play. She had a recording of my karaoke debut. I’m not posting the whole video, but here is a screen shot from the video:


Perhaps in an effort to overcome my disbelief, I took some time away from the conference and out in the city on Sunday, but I made sure to come back for the closing session. Brenda Laurel, the closing keynote speaker, called for an ecosystem-based approach to design: no entity on the planet exists alone, and our systems need to reflect that. The closing session included several endearing “Five-Minute Madness” speeches, and the unveiling of next year’s Summit location: Atlanta! I’m certainly planning to go if possible, because I enjoyed this one so much, and I love Atlanta.

At the end of the closing session, they told us to go to the room to our right for a surprise. We found a dance floor and a Prince cover band. Because Minneapolis. And although we’re well past 1999, there’s no reason not to party like we’re still there, when it’s the end of a great conference.

The way home

On the way to the airport, I held Peter Morville’s new book, Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything (he gave it to me for free and signed it!) in my hands, and thought about what I learned at the Summit. I could list plenty of particulars, but the overarching theme is that it’s all related. The users, the researchers, the practitioners, the wireframes, the content, the designs, the molecules, the snails, the springtime thunderstorms, the embarrassing karaoke performances… everything. And the connective tissue is information in all its forms. Our job as information professionals, whether we’re an IA or a professor in an LIS school, is to make that connective tissue work together better so all the things can have all the information.

I got on my flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam (who knew?) and fell asleep almost instantly, which to me is a hallmark of a good conference. I only woke up for dinner. I ordered a glass of wine with dinner, and I woke up several times throughout the flight to sip a bit of the wine and then go back to sleep. (That was also a first.) When I finally woke up for good, we were only 90 minutes away from Amsterdam. How far is that… about 500 miles? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

See you next year!