I just returned from the 2008 IDEA conference, a yearly conference about "Information: Design, Experience and Access" sponsored by the Information Architecture Institute and thought I'd write a bit about some of the speakers I took in at the conference:

On the first day, I took in the pre-conference workshop with Paul Gould and David Bishop from MAYA design and really enjoyed their casual, yet informative approach. The workshop format was part instruction and part breakout sessions with groups and ran through a gamut of methodologies including concept maps, entity relationship diagrams, navigation maps, and one I hadn't heard of before: bullseye diagrams. Like the target on a dart board, the bullseye diagram is an interesting way to prioritize features (the most critical and most used in the center). I was also really impressed by the quality of documentation produced by MAYA and how effective it was in telling client stories or ensuring that the team understood the client's domain and needs.

The second and third days took place at the Harold Washington Library Centre — a stunning building and an architectural beauty even among all the other great buildings in Chicago.

If you follow the blog of David Armano from Critical Mass or read a lot of blogs and news covering web trends then David's talk didn't express a lot of new ideas, but did emphasize how brands are no longer about what they project, but rather a sum of its interactions. The winners: Dell, Starbucks, Zappos, Comcast Cares. The losers? I'll let you decide.

There were a couple things that stuck out from Jason Kunesh's talk. One, how many new tools are often founded in earlier analog equivalents (e.g. Twitter's really just like CB radios of old) and; two how information architects are like the bricoleurs of old shaping a discipline by pulling influence from other disciplines.

Dave Gray's presentation Books and Browsers was a fantastic romp through the history of the book and it's useful form and how the browser could change. I've followed Dave's work at XPLANE for years and plan to make it down to one of the VizThink conferences in the coming year. What's always engaging about Dave's talks are the wonderfully hand-drawn slides and his incredible ability to make the obvious stand out.

Elliott Malkin's talked about a couple of his recent projects: one an electronic representation of historic Jewish eruv's (one using cell phone semaphores and another using lasers) and his desire to understand the life of his grandfather that drove cemetery 2.0 were fascinating efforts in representing information.

Edwina von Gal seemed to be out of place, but one interesting take-away in her talk cut-short was the use of stones arranged like erratics (erratics are random rocks that deviate from the size and type native to an area often deposited by fleeing glaciers) to provide visitors wayfinding clues without the use of signage as they walk about the grounds of the landscape she is designing for Frank Gehry's building in Panama. I was also intrigued by the placement of certain plants and trees to encourage both familiarity for Panamanian visitors as well as to prompt visitors to stop, take notice and experience the small and regular.

Dressed all in black (like Johnny Cash) the ever-busy Jesse James Garrett gave us an overview of his work on Aurora, the future vision of the Firefox browser. The design themes: providing context awareness, natural interaction (that feels like the real world), continuity and multi-user applications that encourage collaboration are all great ideas. For those who regularly read the Adaptive Path blog, there was nothing new here. But, JJG and team have a lot to be proud of as they've managed to propose some interesting ideas that might rear their head one day in future browsers or operating systems.

Chris Crawford one of the greats of game design, shared with us his model for linguistic user interfaces. The GUI of his own software was compelling in the way that it could create and inversely parse limited inputs to create an interactive story and dialog. A most impressive effort and one worth watching over time.

Alberto Canas, a researcher at the Institute for Human Machine Cognition, gave a fantastic talk about the use of concept maps and the strength of these tools in facilitating the explicit expression of knowledge. Alberto's entire presentation itself was one big concept map run on the software application Cmap Tools. I was particularly struck by the ability of concept maps to evaluate a person's understanding of a subject (knowledge) over rote memory of information about a subject. His examples of these tools being used in schools in Panama and young children creating concept maps of their own was really empowering and spoke to the value IAs can really play in shaping our understanding of complex information.

Of course you can't do a conference in Chicago without having someone from 37Signals come out to talk. Joining us this time around was Jason Fried. I like most of what 37Signals has done as well as the "do it on our terms" approach they have taken, but there was little of substance here for an audience of IAs — but perhaps not surprising coming from someone who said he'd never hire someone so specialized as an IA.

Aradhana Goel from IDEO shared with us her take on the societal, technology and business trends she's been seeing lately. In particular that we has information architects and designers need to take in both the micro (the human factors that help us understand people and create empathy and dig into the context) as well as the macro (the trend factors and collective thinking that help us find the context). Three techniques on the macro that IDEO has been using to flush out strategy for companies include: media audits (they run off and digest media, create mood boards and try to spot themes); era analysis (where they evaluate what you find in the present, how things were in the past and what the future might look like) as well as the use of expert panels (mixed panels of people from various backgrounds and disciplines who tell them what they see happening in the future).

Bill DeRouchey's presentation spoke to how past experiences create expectations and how IAs (and designers) can inherit ideas from other interfaces and seek out inspiration from common interactions — good or bad — when creating new work. Bill shared some good suggestions about the importance of clarity (anticipate the question) and the importance of surprise (those unexpected anticipations that make us say "wow").

I sadly had to miss the talk from Andrew Hinton but all reports say it was fantastic.

If you want to hear any of the speakers, Boxes and Arrows has posted podcasts of each lecture.

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