I recently attended the edUI conference in Charlottesville, VA. It’s a conference for web professionals working in educational institutions, and the speakers come from a variety of professional contexts including design, development, management, content strategy, and UX. For me, this conference was a chance to hear from and connect with folks outside of the archives field who are doing related work. It pushed me to think about familiar problems from a fresh perspective, build conceptual connections, strategize to improve communication across disciplines, and learn some practical approaches and skills that are not often emphasized in archives-specific conferences.

I attended sessions that covered topics including accessible design, empathetic design, the importance of word choice in connecting with or alienating people, and project management/project planning techniques like design sprints. Keynotes from Corey Doctorow and Sara Wachter-Boettcher also emphasized the importance of ethical concerns in tech design and development choices. Beyond the practical tips and ideas I took away from this conference, its broad emphasis on empathy for and engagement with users resonated with me as an archives professional, as these are among the foundational values of my work.

Design For Real Life

Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s keynote address “Design for Real Life” felt particularly relevant to the work of archivists. The talk, based on her book of the same title coauthored with Eric Meyer, asserts that design is not neutral, it is a product of culture, and that the choices we make affect real people’s lives. Using examples of designs that have failed/are failing people like the COMPAS analysis tool (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions), FaceApp, Siri’s inability to appropriately handle queries related to sexual violence, or various app messages that assume certain pronouns for users or their partners in targeted ads, Wachter-Boettcher asserts that we should be designing for stress and planning for negative scenarios and interactions. We encode culture and biases into our systems, and so should be intentional about our choices and “design for diversity and inclusivity.” She critiques the idea of delight and engagement as the primary goal and metric by which we measure user interactions with systems.

I think there are valuable insights in Wachter-Boettcher’s thesis that parallel long-standing conversations in the archival community challenging the “neutrality” of archives and advocating that archivists include and empower donors, users, and the communities represented in archival collections. The idea that we encode culture and biases into our archival systems through description, as well as the discovery and access infrastructure that leverages that description, is a familiar one. Hearing a fresh perspective on these concepts from the domains of content strategy and UX was useful and inspiring. It’s a reminder of the common challenges and essential considerations that information professionals face across many disciplines.