Lessons from edUI

Last week I attended edUI, a conference for web professionals (including designers, developers and managers) who work at learning or teaching institutions like colleges, universities, libraries, archives and museums. It was one of the best conferences I’ve attended, and I wanted to share four lessons from the conference with you.

Look outside your profession, discipline and comfort zone.

This is perhaps the most important thing I learned. At edUI, I was largely around people I’d never met before, very few of whom were archivists, or with whom I had a common educational background. Many of the conference talks leant heavily on the insights of disciplines with which I’m totally unfamiliar; behavioral psychology, neuroscience, color theory and design history, to name a few. At first this was a little uncomfortable. I felt ignorant, out of place, and a little overwhelmed. And then I realized that everyone was having their horizons expanded; while my brain was being stretched by hijacked amygdala and skeuomorphism, other people were having their minds blown by concepts of information objects and models for organizational culture. It seems to me, as a first-time attendee, that edUI is a place that values a particular kind of learning and innovation, one which looks outside of one’s native discipline, profession and regular job responsibilities to incorporate insights, paradigms and solutions from other domains. It was an incredibly fertile approach for me personally, and one that I hope to continue in the future.

Organizational culture matters

Another major theme for me at this year’s edUI was the importance of organizational culture. As archivists, we are used to thinking about the organizational culture of institutions we collect, because we understand that the ways in which they operate have profound implications for their record keeping practices. However, we don’t often think about the organizational culture of our own institutions. What kinds of things do we value or not? How do we think about who we are as an institution? How do we present ourselves to our patrons and to each other? It may sound obvious (and I suppose it is), but knowing the organizational culture you are working within is essential to getting things done. Organizations respond to different kind of stimuli; some are moved by data, others are moved by stories. If you understand the culture of your organization, you will know what questions to ask (though not necessarily the answers) and you will know how to ask them.  One presentation that I thought was particularly provocative in this regard was Kim Goodwin’sQuestions, Not Answers,” which I’m planning to detail in a later post.

Process matters

As a related point, the idea that our work can be approached as a series of processes to be understood and either worked within or changed to better suit our needs came up throughout the conference. Anyone who has been involved in a process of redesigning a website or implementing a new piece of technology will understand that these are processes that involve institutional change, but we very infrequently think of these processes in that way. Approaching a website redesign as an institutional change project is a very different paradigm from approaching it as a technical or design problem to be solved; it reshapes our thinking about who should be involved (and who shouldn’t) and the ways in which we invite others into that process. Many talks discussed the process of design or redesign, and either implicitly or explicitly addressed the structure, order and concurrency of project phases. A high-level model for change processes began to emerge, with discovery/exploration, design, development and deployment phases. Some speakers advocated running several of these phases concurrently, others said that a more traditional step-by-step model worked for them; it seems to me that the best approach will probably depend on organizational culture and capacity.

Who we are matters

Finally, edUI made it clear to me that who we are as individuals – both in terms of our role within organizations and processes, as well as our skills and talents – makes a great deal of difference. The notion of roles came up throughout the conference in various talks, starting with the opening keynote, in which Kathryn Zickuhr from the Pew Internet and American Life Project talked about our role being that of “information sherpas,” rather than gatekeepers. And later on, Sean Hannan and Steven Heslip from Johns Hopkins University urged us to think of ourselves more as facilitators, and less as design leaders. Nishant Kothary’s excellent keynote brought together many of these threads as well. Discussing the mechanics of failure (his underlying contention was that we learn more from understanding failures than trying to emulate success) he posited that human beings are almost always the root cause of failure, not a flawed process or a broken institutional structure. Understanding how human beings work and how we respond to particular kinds of stimuli is, he argued, a technical skill that requires more skill than making code, and a skill we all need to invest in. Finally, one of the personal highlights of edUI for me was Leah Buley’s talk, “Secrets of the User Experience Team of One.” The first part of her talk included many slides with beautiful sketches and drawings, which made me both jealous and insecure, since I can’t draw all that well. But she wrapped up with an incredibly affirming and powerful idea, simply putting the words “Everything that you need is already in you” up on the screen.

I hope to post in more detail about a number of the sessions, since many of them deserve closer examination of the ideas they presented.

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