IA Summit 09 – days 2 and 3

Maybe we’re finally getting back at all those cheerleaders.

The closing comments of Eric Reiss’s session A house divided summed up the IA Summit’s descent into angst, self-doubt and jealousy.

The tenth year of the Summit saw our field struggling with the onset of puberty. We’re stumbling towards an adult identity, while battling the conflicting voices amongst our ranks. It won’t be pretty but, like puberty, the necessary transformation will take us to new maturity.

But first, the content. Conference highlight Karl Fast used analogies from Tetris to describe usability testing. Studies show that skilled players over-rotate blocks to get a feel for how their shape will integrate with the current board. Yet classical usability theory would regard this as inefficient. How do we discriminate between errors and this epistemic action?

Fast also gave an overview of embodied cognition. In short, Descartes was wrong. Cognition is not just in the head; we also use our bodies to help shape our thoughts. This new theory of cognition presents problems. Our tactics, metaphors and patterns have been set up for a mind and body isolated. A finger here, an eyeball there. Mice, keyboards, touchscreens. None reflect the monism of embodied cognition.

Miles Rochford discussed the under-reported issues of IA for the rest of the world. It was a fascinating and sobering session that, like Fast’s, showed us how far we still have to go. Fred Beecher and Jared Spool also gave popular talks, but the Saturday focus was Eric’s. In this notorious session, he mixed mild personal censure with more welcome criticism of the IxDA’s divisive tribalism and the cult of ego over community. Applause and anger from the audience, which was probably the desired effect.

A similar sentiment was picked up by Jesse James Garrett in his closing plenary, in which he sounded the overdue death knell of division by job title. The information architect and the interaction designer are no more: we are all user experience designers, and we always have been. Amen.

JJG also called us out on our flimsy cult of celebrity. We have practitioners famous for what they say, rather than what they do. What great works of user experience have there been? Who made them? How have they made a difference? It’s a polemic that will surely go down as an important turning point for our profession. Every practising information architectuser experience designer should listen to it at the soonest opportunity.

The adversarial mood, no doubt exacerbated by economics, meant that the majority of off-stage discussion focused on the politics. However, it was mercifully balanced with a determination to unify and move on.

I’ve little interest in the petty politics of job titles, of IA Institute versus IxDA. However, I do care strongly about our combined future. It’s natural and healthy to air and resolve these conflicts rather than pretend there’s nothing wrong. Indeed, I see it as a mark of our growing maturity. But we must unify. In times of weakness, we need the strength of numbers, and this can only come from reversing the entropic breakdowns we’ve seen in recent years. Indeed, at the Sunday night meal there was a grass-roots movement to rename the conference (“The Memphis signatories”?) to simply The Summit, to reflect our new common agenda. Whether it works is to be seen, but I agree we need to change and broaden our focus if we are to find our true place in the world.