01 October 2009

Halcyon days at the EuroIA Conference

Last week I attended the EuroIA conference. I was there primarily to give a talk with my former Google colleague, Greg Hochmuth, on a project we did on on-line privacy. To be honest I had low expectations for the conference, thinking it was not going to be very professional. That was my estimation of the IA movement in general. I favored the more rigorous CHI model. This reliance/faith in CHI is why I have been working so hard to bring practitioners into CHI with the design track work and of course the DUX conference series, etc. I assume that CHI was where the interesting professional UX work would be done. I did not expect any such thing at an IA conference, which I thought was too narrow and too niche to be interesting.
I was wrong and closed minded, both of which I find annoying.
I was quite surprised to attend a very fine conference with a strong practitioner focus with competent representatives from industry giving case studies and thought provoking discussions. There were, of course, more than a few missers. However, when you attend a CHI conference misser you really wasted your time at some inapplicable pedantic presentation. These were all interesting even if not earth shattering.
I was also pleased to see that the attendees had a kind of willful confusion of IA with UX. Eric Reiss one of the leaders in the conference series said early on he was proud that they would have no debates on terminology or definitions.
What is IA
It seems to me that IA (Information Architecture) and HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) are two ways to achieve the same effect. One is information driven, the other is interaction driven. Both strive for but don’t quite achieve UCD. To borrow a Mahler analogy, these two movements seem to dig from opposite sides of the mountain to reach the center.
Setting the stage for the conference was an interesting case study keynote given by Scott Thomas on his work for the Obama presidential campaign web site. A refreshing talk, one would probably never hear at CHI, charting the work he did as both designer and web developer and IA for one of the most successful and high profile web presences.
It was clear at the conference that there are those who do specialize in IA and don’t touch interaction design with a ten foot pole; however the majority seem to blissfully switch between IA, ID, and UX designer labels based on what will get them the job or the most influence. The resulting conference content is interesting and competent, usually not pedantic (there were a couple regrettable forrays into pedantia--oh I am being pedantic aren't I?). I will hasten to add that probably 10% of these presentations would have been accepted at CHI.
CHI Bashing
Not that I am in anyway bashing CHI (well I guess i am sort of). CHI continues to be dominated by Academia, it is its reason to exist. So it makes sense that more practioner oriented organizations thrive and offer better conference experiences like EuroIA, SXSW is another such conference. However, there are some design heavy weights very active and present at CHI. People like Bill Gaver, Bill Verplank, Bill Buxton--hey are all of them named Bill? So I guess we should also include Bill Card and Bill Dray...
Still going to a CHI conference is daunting and if you do not stick to the Design or practitioner focussed papers it is really hit and miss. Then there is also the unfortunate academic who strays into a design paper and lambastes a practitioner for not holding double blind studies on a project with a limited client budget. Ah, it is always embarassing when people can't check their egos at the door.
So, it is good there are several credible alternatives to CHI. I guess this means I need to attend the next IA Summit and see what that’s all about. I don’t think I can take anymore good stuff...
This profession
In the end, I had a friendly familiar feeling at EuroIA. A feeling like I had met these people before. It seems that regardless of whether you are at CHI or EuroIA or UPA or wherever, people of our profession(s) share this common empathic passion for our stakeholders. This makes us a particularly caring and sympathetic tribe.


Iwan said...

No definition discussion? How refreshing!

I guess with the increasing amount of decent conferences we will be needing a model to decide which to attend. ;-)

Toby said...

Hi Johnathan,

It's also refreshing to hear about a strong emergence in the european conference circut. In the past it was sometimes challenging to find such venues locally - and not to get into the budget discussions involved with longer travel.



Zayera said...

What was the main difference in american vs. european "design" practioner if you observed any?

Anonymous said...

Sounds like it was really excellent. Do come to the next IA Summit - and perhaps submit something to present? (deadline October 12 - http://iasummit.org)

Jonathan said...

To respond to Zayera's question about the difference between the american and european design practitioner, I wouldn't really hazard a guess. Because my experience in the US has been working for large software companies (Google, SAP and PeopleSoft), whereas in Europe I have worked solely as an agency designer.
Having said that, from my experience it seems the US is quite ahead of Europe concerning UX and UCD awareness, but that maybe from the difference between software companies with large UX departments and agencies that usually need to work with small start ups or at least software companies with little or no UX staff.

Zayera said...

Thanks, it confirms my suspicion about ux maturity in Europe lagging behind in comparison to USA. Although I have little experience working in US, besides working for american companies.
Even in Sweden and Scandinavia (generally speaking) I find it strange since high broadband access, internet, computers usage would imply customers demanding better ux and interfaces - but companies, commercial, non-commercial and governmental institutions do not put enough effort into ux, ucd. Few companies have ux departments, and most rely on agencies, in particular web agencies for web design but very little focus on ucd, interacting with customers. I will write a post on this on my blog.