This year’s World IA day took place in major cities around the world, giving like-minded people a chance to listen, talk and debate about Information Architecture. Bristol was proudly hosting the UK gathering and I headed to the Watershed for a series of talks from some of the industries leading experts.

The day kicked off with a fascinating talk by Andrea Resmini – renowned information architect and researcher at the University of Borâs in Sweden. His talk ‘Ghost in the machine – the architecture of cyberspace’ was a psychological view of information and architecture, exploring physical space, digital space, and how we should consider them. With references from William Gibson’s work of the early 80s,  Masamune’s “Ghost in the Shell” and the more familiar idea of the Matrix, he discussed the idea that we should not view the physical (the “shell”, or “machine”) as a separate entity from the cyberspace of information that we use today. The need to “jack in” to our information is no longer valid as it is all around us. Moving away from the idea of individual platforms and devices, we should view Information Architecture as a cross channel solution that encompasses all types of media, and both digital and physical spaces together.
He gave examples of architecture, and how the emotions they invoked change our perceptions about them. One of these was a photograph of an old, disused industrial building, which raised a set of thoughts and emotions, entirely different to those resulting from a panned out view of the same building, which showed a gate with the name of the facility (a concentration camp). This demonstrated that our awareness of a physical space could be altered, to create a totally different space, by our non-physical perception of it. “Spaces are not just bricks and mortar – meaning creates space” and we need to appreciate that both physical and information spaces can be places, and should start to perceive both the “Ghost” (consciousness, information, data) and the “machine” or “shell” of the physical, not as separate entities but as one way of looking at information as a whole.
The next talk was something altogether different, but equally interesting, looking at process rather than concept. Freelance UX expert and adviser Leisa Reichelt‘s, talk’ “Prototyping IA” explained how abstraction at the beginning of a project, not only “hurts brains”, but requires your best ideas when you know the least. “Problem solving is squiggly” and the design process should not be a direct path to the end solution.
Rather than working down one route from the beginning, use quick prototyping from the offset, to quickly learn what the best solution could be. By going straight from a simple sketches to multiple HTML prototypes, there is the ability to not only start playing with numerous products as quickly as possible, but to test them and start narrowing down towards the best solution as quickly as possible. Quick iterative prototyping means quickly learning what works and what doesn’t. “Be making, not documenting… No one reads the documents anyway”. What a client really likes is to have a product (even if it is a very basic one) in their hands to play with. This not only gives them a sense of rapid progress, but once the final product is produced expectations are often over exceeded.
Leisa went on to explain how using a front end developer from the off set, to do HTML prototypes along side the designer, will save time and lead quickly to a better solution. Rather than spending time creating functional specs to hand on to the devs, have a conversation with them instead. Although Leisa’s process was directed entirely at websites I am looking forward to applying some of her ideas when designing apps.
After lunch Mags Hanley, freelance information architect and UX manager, talked about search in her talk “Is search IA”. She explained how Search is a way to pull information up to the surface. It is important to look at the users intent and the facet, or structure of the search. Different types of information seeking lead to different types of search and results.
Giving examples from her work at Time Out, Mags talked about the importance of understanding the users profiles and intent of the search engine, and modeling the search input interface around them, as well as tailoring the search results accordingly. This then brought up the question: should the content of a company’s website be manipulated to start following the intent of their user’s searches?
The final talk of the day was by architect and philosopher Martyn Dade-Robertson. Starting with the prehistory of architecture, he discussed how architecture should be defined, from the idea of a social gathering around an object creating “place”, to the first architectural gesture being the actual naming of a place. Following similar ideas to Andreas he discussed how geography is no longer defined by physical thresholds, and how our data is no longer device specific, but held in a cloud of information that we can access in many different ways.
He went on to explain his Data Portraits project and the writing of an algorithm to create pieces of art out of the hypertext structures of online information. These beautiful pieces, which visualized a company’s web traffic and functions as lines of light were not only beautiful to look at, but were a great demonstration of tangibly visualising data and information.
The image above shows a Data Portrait of
The day was very enjoyable and gave me lots to go away and think about, and some interesting new ideas to read up on. I hope world IA will become a regular annual event in Bristol.
Eli Newman, Creative Director

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