It’s been a busy few weeks of conferences for the D-Team, and it wrapped up for me with the 2023 Information Architecture Conference (or IAC23 as it’s more commonly known). While not on my regular rotation (the last IAC I attended was in 2016 in Atlanta), I continue to find this conference a welcoming, provocative, and generative environment. Since this is probably not a conference that other archivists attend with any regularity, I thought I’d provide a rundown of the themes that stood out for me this year, as well as a couple of the talks which most resonated with me.
A major through-line of the conference (which, based on my memory, was present at previous conferences as well) was a grappling with what it means to be an “information architect,” particularly since there are relatively few people who have that actual title. This conversation felt very similar to recent conversations about “who is an archivist” and “what is a digital archivist.” Threads of inadequate resourcing; no distinctive educational path; and the ways in which these roles are expected to both be change agents without access to power and have no consistent location in organizations felt eerily familiar. If anything, this was a useful reminder that many professions are grappling with who it is and what it’s doing in the world.
Another theme I was surprised by was a focus on dealing with adversity and change in the workplace. Like many professions, IA has really been hit by layoffs, and many of the talks referenced this at least in passing. A number of talks focused on burnout and fatigue as systemic realities for folks working in information architecture, and proposed methods for intentional “design” of work life (including meetings, remote work, alignment on mission and values) to address this phenomenon. The conference’s opening keynote by Farai Madzima addressed many of these issues as did one of my favorite talks, This is fine, everything is fine: Leading well through change and uncertainty by Vidhika Bansal.
Something I was expecting to see more of in the program was a focus on artificial intelligence (AI). There was only one AI-specific talk (Duane Degler’s excellent IA-for-AI: An evolving framework for a changing IA practice, which provided some very useful IA framing for thinking about applications of AI), but as it turned out almost every presentation I attended gestured in some way at AI. With some exceptions it seemed to me that as a community, information architects are really just beginning to grapple with this technology. No shade; at least they’re grappling. I get the sense that many archivists are actively running away from AI.
I’ve mentioned a couple of my favorite talks already, but a few more that don’t fit neatly into the themes:
- The Non-User Experience (N/UX): Designing Safe Systems for Non-Users by Timothy Quinn of the Dark Data Project was a really unusual talk which dug into user privacy and best practices for protecting user data (spoiler alert: best practice is not to collect it at all). He defined “non-user” as a person whose data is present in a system without their consent or without them having any agency over that data. This got me thinking a lot about archives and how we handle this sort of data, which I’ll continue to ponder in the coming months.
- [A]ffective IA: discovering and designing for emotional sense-making by Ashley Brewer made some really compelling arguments around designing interfaces which work for people on their worst days. Her talk critiqued “emotional design” which attempts to elicit particular emotions from users and called instead for design which allows for a wider range of human emotions. I was also struck by her critique of UX personas (something we used a lot in Project Electron), counterposing what she called “compassionate, inclusive, non-reductive personas” which focus on user goals and are written in first person. Overall this talk reinforced for me that interfaces are often where power is worked out. As people who design those interfaces we can choose whether we want them to reinforce existing power constructs (or “power users”), or if we are going to try and make them accommodate people who are marginalized. This choice is, of course, very determined by organizational values which can lead you down one path or the other.
- Last, Karl Fast’s How to design an epiphany engine was a fascinating deconstruction of the theory of insights – moments of sudden “step-change” growth of understanding – and their relation to epiphany. This talk was dense, and I’m always down for a super-theoretical discussion of obscure topics. Still, one thing I noticed about this talk, though, was that all the representations of knowledge/insight/epiphany were growth models; that is, the line of the graph always moved up and to the right. I’m not so sure that knowledge or understanding always move that way, and it seemed to me like we might need to develop models for unlearning and false epiphany.
Overall, I found a lot to connect with at this conference and will definitely continue to find ways to remain connected to this community.