2018 IA Summit Report: Designing for Ecosystems

I recently attended the IA Summit 2018 in Chicago. This was my first time attending the conference, which brings together a mix of information architects and design-related professionals, and I came away with some fresh perspectives on my work here at the RAC. The summit consisted of both practical talks about specific methods and tools, as well as wider reflections on ethical considerations and trends in the field.

Jared Spool’s talk, Optimizing Your Organization to Produce the Best Designs, was particularly interesting to me in thinking about our work on the RAC Digital Team, especially with Project Electron. Evoking the classic documentary Powers of Ten, Spool outlined three “resolutions” of UX design: screen-wide, application/site-wide, and organization-wide. He posited that the next major challenge of design innovation is in ecosystem-wide design: moving beyond the boundaries of the organization and designing “for a better world” across organizations and domains. He called out some innovators in this area, like Ariel Kennan, the Director of Design and Product at the Center for Economic Opportunity in the NYC Mayor’s Office of Operations, who has been involved in designing systems to connect homeless New Yorkers to city services.  

Spool’s talk prompted me to consider how this idea of designing for ecosystems operates in the domain of archives systems design. Thinking beyond organizational boundaries is not always valued in the private sector, but in not-for-profit educational and cultural heritage preservation contexts it is essential, as these are collaborative and often under-resourced endeavors with common standards and practices. Open source, community-driven projects like Archivematica and ArchivesSpace are, by necessity, designed for an ecosystem. We take these and incorporate them into organization-wide designs, but they are part of a wider design that responds to and sometimes defines conversations around archival functions and best practices. While trying to be many things for many people can have its drawbacks, these kind of community projects are uniquely situated to drive design and potential innovation at the “ecosystem” level.

Although Project Electron, is being developed for use by our organization, the project has always been about creating something that other information professionals can use, and its values emphasize reproducible and modular deliverables and the support of existing archival practices and standards. As we move forward with implementing systems integration architecture, start using the Project Electron transfer application with our donor organizations, think about adaptations for use with different types of donor organizations with varying tech capacities, and ideally work to help other archives implement Project Electron technology, I think Spool presents a useful frame to think about how our work can be situated and integrated in a wider context beyond the RAC.

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