World IA Day 2017 – Manchester

I’ve seen many specs that use numbers like this!

Despite having being linked to in various locations online for some months, I somehow managed to miss all mention of World IA Day having a Manchester event added for 2017 until quite late on when I spotted a tweet from one of the sponsors Sigma. In addition, I’m sure it must have been mentioned at several NUX evenings I’ve been to in recent times, but somehow all managed to pass me by. However better late than never as they say (whoever ‘they’ are), and thus on February 18th I gave up a Saturday to go along and listen to what the Northern lot had to say on the world of Information Architecture.

The day itself was split into a series of 5 talks, some of them being a bit more of a straight and traditional IA talk, with others taking a very different angle to things – and it’s always great to have that sort of broader mix when you have a long day like this.

The first talk from Stuart Curran focused on the topic of ‘What Comics Can Teach IA’. At first I was struggling to see the connection and just enjoying the brilliant eyecandy that a bunch of slides on comic book art could bring. However as the talk progressed it became possible to see the links in what was being said. After going in to some of the history and theory of comic books from many years ago, the talk moved on to how you could use simple images and symbols to write a narrative, rather than huge lists of instructions or prose. Followed by some looking at how layouts of comics could be used to separate structure from semantics such as by using panels to create focus. Or at least this was the understanding I came to from the talk – I realise I could be a million miles away.

The second speaker up was Cyrièle, a Senior UX Architect from the BBC, an organisation with quite a well known presence in the North of England these days. This one was a bit less of an angle talk, and instead focused quite directly on the work for putting together the accounts for the BBC website. Initially things started off sounding very much like any other business with regards to personalisation of content and how there was a strong desire to create links between content people are interested in so that they can recommend other things. However it quickly moved to bring in many of the interesting challenges that are more specific to an organisation such as the BBC. Like their need to cater for everyone, even seemingly smaller audiences which would often be ignored by other businesses, due to their broad PSB remit. Unlike many organisations, data could also not be transferred outside of the BBC ecosystem under any circumstances, making for some interesting limitations when work with third parties was needed. Additionally, the data collection that could be done around younger age groups had to be planned very differently from older age groups, resulting in some tricky to solve problems such as ‘can you reset a password, when you can’t collect an identifying email address?’. After summarising a lot of the challenges, she presented ways they had worked with them, such as by making it an important principle throughout that the data they were collecting would be the most useful and meaningful data, rather than necessarily everything all stakeholders would have liked collected. And all of this data could then be reiterated and evaluated upon to improve the system going forward, ultimately meaning the users could drive the direction.

The third talk was another more straightforward case study and analysis talk, although having two people taking turns during the talk made for a somewhat different dynamic. Matt Jukes and Jonathan Portan looked at an overhaul of the Office for National Statistics website as a case study. The scene was set by looking at the old site initially, which had over 1400 categories of statistics going 5 levels deep, many of them even empty but only there because someone at one time had thought they should be there. After looking at some of the scathing reviews of the site, they then moved on to how they came to a solution. By reviewing analytics in intense detail and reviewing every piece of usability testing ever performed, they were able to come up with a new structure. These new ideas were then tested against mixed groups of participants both moderated and unmoderated to prove how well they could work. The net result was that number of categories was brought down to only 173 across 3 levels. Even with that scale of improvement, the speakers were happy to share their thoughts on how it could have been improved further. Possibly by changing the way things were sorted, or even by spending less time on the navigation structure and more time on an improved search which could negate most people having to use the navigation in the first place. The complete opposite problem to what I’ve run into many times whereby there’s an amazingly designed search, but not a big enough set of content for it to actually iterate through. Certainly one which provided some food for thought.

Which probably made it a good time for food anyway! After breaking for lunch, the final two talks of the day continued. Juls Hollidge presented Chapel and the Box – a title which created some intrigue as it wasn’t fully explained until right near the end. The focus of this talk was on looking at the rhythms of Information Architecture – namely identifying, understanding and structure, and how all of these need to work together to be effective. Identifying looked at how to get the best information initially, particularly the difficulties in this as many people would see themselves as having already done research so not able to see any value in it, or get defensive about what they’d present. Understanding was taking that information, and being able to make something of it, whilst structure looked at how to respond and present some of these things back in the best possible way. The concluding statement was quite a powerful one – about how IA has often become about building very functional boxes, rather than building something beautiful, but it should really be a combination of both. This was also where the title came in, as it presented a photo of a beautifully architected chapel sat very close to a modern and very functional grey box building.

The closing talk of the day was probably the one that threw a lot of people. From Cennydd Bowles and billed as ‘Ethics in AI’, I’m sure I can’t have been the only one to think at first it was just a typo for IA given the general theme of the day. However no, the topic focus was around ethics in artificial intelligence, leading to a talk which went in a very different direction to any that had come before. The talk itself walked through how technology was not truly neutral as people with biases were always behind it, but it could often be used as a way for people to wash their hands of it, and how this could create severe trust issues in the future. After looking at several examples, things moved on to how it was possible to become more ethical by applying certain tests to everything people do. Such as looking at whether they were maximising happiness for the greatest number of people, or asking yourself the question ‘would I be happy for this action to be published in tomorrow’s paper?’, as well as by ensuring the broadest possible team was involved in order to try and catch issues earlier in the whole process. This was certainly quite a heavy and thought provoking talk to conclude the day, but undoubtedly an interesting one as it raised many questions throughout.

Overall it was a great set of talks, and I’d definitely say it’s worth the day out for anyone considering it in the future. Assuming it is possible, I’ll be trying to get back to it again in 2018. Who knows, my head might even have fully finished processing everything to do with ethics in AI by then too!

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