My Thoughts on IA Summit 2012: “Why Is the Sky Blue?”

The theme of this year’s IA Summit – Cross-Channel Experiences – was well represented, and regardless of which wall of the user experience room you tend to lean against, it’s clear we’re all moving forward toward this universal promise of “future-friendly” web properties, where our content moves from one format to another through the magic of metadata and chunking.

The hidden theme of the conference, however, and the one that relates most directly to my work as a content strategy consultant, was the need for this industry to “Ask More Questions.”

If you have kids, you’re already an expert. “Why is the sky blue?” they ask. “Because light scatters through the atmosphere in a way that makes it blue.” “Why does the light scatter?” they ask. “Because it reflects off of dust particles in the air.” “Why is there dust in the air?” “Volcanoes.” “Why are there … ” “HERE IS SOME ICE CREAM PLEASE GO OUTSIDE.”

The concept reflects upon our need as consultants and strategists to keep asking questions. More questions, all the time questions, keep going deeper and deeper until we no longer find anything new. When project stakeholders say, “We don’t like yellow,” or “We think this button should be larger,” it’s up to us to continue the discussion.

“Why don’t you like yellow?” you ask.

“Because yellow is not part of our brand,” they respond.

“Why isn’t yellow a part of your brand?” you ask.

“Because yellow is the primary color of our competitor,” they respond.

In other words, we find that what seemed like a flippant personal issue is actually deep rooted in the competitive nature of the industry. Of COURSE we don’t use yellow. Just as Pepsi shies away from ads and commercials that are bathed in Coke Red.

This practice of asking more questions helps ease the tension that forms between a client and consultant – or management and user experience, or designers and content creators, or any two members of any partnership in the world of web development.

Brad Nunnaly was one of the first to notice this undercurrent, and his IA Summit 2012 Recap post does a great job of summarizing how that thread wove itself through the conference. Brad brings in a new twist on the concept: we shouldn’t only be asking MORE questions, but also BETTER questions. Sometimes, they’re one in the same: “Tell me why you feel that way,” helps clarfiy AND dig.

All in all, IA Summit 2012 was both overwhelming – three days of super smart, well-spoken industry stalwarts tends to throw the N00B CSer’s brain to mush – and enlightening, both for the realization that, despite the percieved rift between content strategy and information architecture, we’re all part of the same community, fighting for the same thing, and for the relief that there is SO MUCH WE HAVE TO LEARN and that’s completely and wonderfully okay.

Also: New Orleans is still beautiful. As it does.

Highlights from the conference:

  • Karen McGrane’s Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content, which focused on our need to adapt workflow to encourage better chunking of content for improved future-friendliness.

  • Josh Clark’s The Myths of Mobile Context (PDF download of slides), wherein we are schooled in the fallacy of all of those pesky mobile myths, i.e.: “mobile means less,” “extra taps are evil,” “mobile must rely on apps,” etc.

  • Adam Conner and Aaron Irizarry’s Discussing Design: The Art of the Critique, which reminded us to be humble and level when receiving critique – and sensible and sensitive when giving it.

  • Dan Brown’s Managing Difficult Situations on Design Projects, a primer in overcoming organizational management issues, complex problems, and project dead ends.