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Establishing a research agenda for information architecture.

Reframing IA at IA Summit

I am looking forward to the IA Summit next week. My 13th, out of 14. Mostly going to catch-up with colleagues, learn, sight-see with the family, and talk about business opportunities.

And I will be participating in the Reframe IA workshop. There will be many people smarter than me there who will talk about better framings for IA. My interest is more about the process of reframing and how to close aspects of the research-practice gap. I have been "studying" the problems and solutions with user experience research practice interaction (#UXRPI) and this is another attempt at making progress.

I have posted my slides for the workshop on SlideShare in case you want to take a peek.

I am not really sure what my talking points will be for each slide: going to wing it. It is "round table workshop" so it will be all about the discussion.

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Linking Hypertext Researchers & Information Architecture Practitioners

The theme for the Hypertext 2012 conference (June 25-28, Milwaukee, WI, USA) is building systems for linking people, data, resources and stories. This workshop, "Linking Hypertext Researchers & Information Architecture Practitioners," will try to connect hypertext researchers and information architecture practitioners, establishing professional relationships that will help enable more and better people-data-resource-story linking systems in the future.

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Researcher-practitioner interaction update (UXRPI)

I spent some time lately catching up with the status of various things related to my recent researcher-practitioner interaction efforts, my latest "UX community give back" focus. Something I try to make small advancements in during my "spare" time, with the hope of helping foster some longer-term benefits. Some of this is a repeat of postings/comments on gaps and IUE but it helps me (at least) to compile it all together in a new way.

Information architecture research, practice

Andrea Resmini and I wrote up our view of the IA Summit session we led for the August/September 2010 ASIS&T Bulletin. I think we list some do-able ideas at the end that could turn into something concrete for the community to embark on.

I have not seen any reaction to the report or the possible next steps. Even some negative response would be a sign that someone read it and cares enough to tell us we are full of it.

I do know that Dan Klyn has read it: the same Dan Klyn who ran for office in IAI and won a spot on the board. Andrea and others have already done a good job of showing how to mature the IA practice in IAI's Journal of IA. Perhaps one of the progress grants will focus on the increasing researcher-practitioner interaction in IA. The IDEA 2010 program has a Friday session that is related. "(How Is This All) Going To Work?" focuses on the educational aspect: if they could add the "research" role that educators often share, then it would be right on target. So I have some hope the IA Institute will pick up some of our IA research/practice ideas and challenges and run with them in some way.

As for any ASIS&T follow-ups, a few folks had ideas on how to continue the discussion at the ASIS&T annual meeting next month, but I do not see anything explicit in the program. Euro IA was last week: great looking program, but nothing specific about research/practice interaction. The IA Summit 2011 planning continues, so there is still a chance to have a consortium or some other session to help put specific ideas into motion.

CHI conference

I am still trying to digest all that I learned at the 1-day workshop and follow-up special interest group discussion at the CHI conference. The wiki we set up for the workshop - research-practice-interaction.wikispaces.com - has the position papers and notes from the sessions. I have the physical materials (flip charts and post-it notes) from the sessions and should make another pass through them to see what great points have not been captured on the wiki. And clean the wiki up some more.

One thing that has been useful for me is the overall model of the problem space that emerged for me.

Research, HCI culture on left. Corporate, practice culture on right. Bridges: Education, Knowledge-sharing, Communication.

  • There is a "pillar" of challenges associated with the research culture overall and the HCI research culture in particular. Those are on the left.
  • Similar pillar of challenges on the right: the corporate culture overall and user experience practice culture in particular.
  • It is hard to change culture. There may be some opportunities to address some of the challenges directly in each/both pillars, but be aware what you are getting yourself into if you try to tackle them.
  • There are 3 levels of bridging, across the middle: Education (fundamental training and schooling), Knowledge-sharing (helping researchers and practitioners by sharing details on a regular basis) and Communication (just making sure we can talk with each other in an intelligent way).
  • Improving simple communication between researchers and practitioners is one place to start. Sharing knowledge is harder (but has the bigger pay-off) and forming an educational foundation should lead to the ability to address deeper challenges.

Net: what I learned at CHI is helping me understand the landscape. It also inspired me to continue with all of this.

But the workshop/SIG had some specific goals around driving improvements for future CHI conferences. Lots of good ideas were generated, but like all volunteer efforts, they only come to be when someone steps up to make them happen. Here is what is in the works for CHI 2011 to improve researcher-practitioner interaction:

  • Communities, communities, communities. Arnie Lund is leading a revival of the community aspect of the CHI conference. The 4 "established" communities drive specific parts of the program and act as "entry points and guides for researchers and practitioners...help attendees and authors find ways to connect with the conference more effectively." New in 2011 are "featured" communities that provide more ways to increase RPI. For example, Health lists the benefits of research-practice interaction several times.
  • For the UX community (that I am most interested in), Elizabeth Buie and Jhilmil Jain are building upon the CHI 2010 workshop that they helped organize. They have set up a LinkedIn group for the CHI UX community to help the cause. Join it!
  • There are other efforts in progress to fine-tune parts of the process and to make the program more accessible to practitioners (like, doing a better job of providing "practitioner take-aways" for research papers). As I hear about specific advances, I will let you know. The key is always volunteers to make things happen, so if you are interested in helping out, let me know and I will put you in touch with the right people.

Norman, translational developers

As you start pouring time into a volunteer effort like this, you start to wonder if this is an important problem to try to solve. If you are lucky, then someone prominent is reaching the same conclusions as you are. That happened in May when Don Norman published his The Research-Practice Gap article. It appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of interactions later. A must-read for anyone interested in this topic.

When I posted a comment on my site about the article, I mentioned I did not agree with everything in the article. Don replied and that started some email discussion back and forth between us. So in the spirit of disagreeing a bit, let me point out a few things about the article (knowing it is dangerous to debate with someone who is a lot smarter than you):

  • I do agree that the gap between researchers and practitioners exists within professional associations (and their conferences), but one thing that Don does not point out is that those are some of the best means to address the gaps. Don calls for a new discipline, translational developers: it should be created within our existing organizational structures, in my opinion.
  • Separate "discipline"? I am not convinced we need a new "discipline" - maybe we just need more people who are willing/capable of working across disciplines. Find ways to have more people spend a few years as a researcher, then a few years as a practitioner, and so on. And "discipline" seems academic: I am more interested in business models which make this a career path that our best and brightest are interested in.
  • Translational developers? Why "developers"? In my UX practitioner world, "developers" means you write code. In one of his talks, Don used the term Translational Engineering. A little better. I think we need some work on what to call this thing. "Translational entrepreneur"?: someone who has figured out how to get rich doing this.

And on a more "write a better article" slant, I enjoyed learning about Pasteur's quadrant but it really bugged me that the article did not include a figure that was an actual quadrant. So I drew one myself - and Don kindly made it better.

Pasteur's quadrant with quotes from Don Norman's article.

I have not seen any blog postings or online discussions of Don's article, so maybe this post will stir up something. Having Don "raise the flag" should help all of us make progress.

Internet User Experience panel

Don's article was one of the topics at a panel I organized at the IUE conference (slides, Twitter stream and other details). I hope the attendees found the session useful, but I liked it because:

  • I got 3 more people engaged as panelists. Susan Weinschenk, Danielle Cooley and Mark Newman did prep work together to create short and long versions of their position on different issues. They have their own critiques of Norman's article, for example: now we need to figure out how to get the discussion going.
  • We did more napkin drawing to get the audience engaged. That has worked twice now, I want to keep doing it more.
  • One of Mark's points was about the trend of translational research that is catching on in medicine. This is a good reminder that many fields are struggling with the same issues: we may need to look beyond our traditional "industry" for some answers.

Again, check out the compilation of info about the panel to find out more. These are just a few hi-lites.

Demarcating UX

One more thing to mention. I was invited to the Demarcating User eXperience seminar that took place 2 weeks ago. I could not make it, but Elizabeth Buie kindly agreed to attend to help connect researcher-practitioner interaction efforts.

This quote from the seminar shows the relationship: "UX is seen as a holistic concept covering all aspects of experiencing a phenomenon, but we are facing the point where UX has become a concept too broad to be useful in practice. Practitioners have difficulties to understand the concept and to improve UX in their work, and researchers rather use some other term to make their research scope clear."

From what I have heard (and seen), the seminar went well and I am looking forward to what they share as a result (some sort of white paper). You can check out the position papers and other preparation material.

Since I was not there, I will not comment a lot on the preparation material, but my personal favorites are statements from the practitioners whom I know.

  • Nigel Bevan: "UX Should Not be Demarcated!"
  • Elizabeth: "If the practitioners can't use it [the white paper], it doesn't work!"
  • David Gilmore: About the relativity of experience, and the innovation cycle

Staying in touch

As these different strands of activity progress - and more crop up - and we discover other strands that are already in motion, staying in touch with it all is a big challenge. What is the simplest thing we can do? To me, that is to use a common tag that people can attach to different objects that represent progress in researcher-practitioner interaction.

I did some poking around and thought that uxrpi would be a good starting point. Short form of "User experience researcher-practitioner interaction". So I started tagging my tweets with it. And Flickr photos. And this blog posting. Let's see if it provides any value. If we need more mailing lists or groups or whatever, then that is fine, we can do that too.

If this post inspires you to write up your own comments on Don's article, or to dispute something that I said, or if you know of more going on to try to improve researcher-practitioner interaction, use the UXRPI tag. That will help others discover it.

What is next for me? A keynote about this for the Tri-State World Usability Day at LexisNexis & Elsevier in Dayton (Ohio) on November 11th. Hope to see some of you there!

(Oh, and this really did start out as a short blog post. Then it grew and grew and grew...)

Research and practice gaps

I will have a focus on the gaps between research and practice in user experience during my April conference run.

From April 7-10, I will be in Phoenix at the 2010 IA Summit. On Saturday the 10th, I am hosting a discussion on Bridging IA Research and Practice with Andrea Resmini.

We tried to get a pre-conference consortium organized, but will settle for this meeting to hopefully get a head start on 2011. The "research track" at the IA Summit has been a slowly traveled, winding road. One bend was a panel in 2006 and I wondered then if we had turned a corner. Still looking.

From Phoenix, I fly directly to Atlanta for CHI 2010. I am part of a great team that organized a Sunday workshop on Researcher-Practitioner Interaction (the call for participation has passed, but it has a good overview).

I am looking forward to the workshop because I get to spend the day with people who know a lot more than me about the challenges facing the HCI research and practitioner communities. There are a lot of great ideas for closing the gap which have surfaced in their position papers; but there are no easy answers.

If the topic interests you but you are not already part of the workshop, then you can attend our special interest group meeting at 9am on Wednesday, April 14th: How to bring HCI Research and Practice Closer Together. We will recap the workshop and engage more people in the conversation. After it is all done, I hope we will have something substantial to back to the community.

So far, I only know of 1 other person crazy enough to hit the overlapping IA Summit and CHI conference. If you are also one of these crazies, contact me. If you are just a "normal crazy" who is attending only one of these 2 awesome conferences, then be sure to track me down and say hello.

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ASIS&T meeting impressions

Last month I attended the ASIS&T 2008 annual meeting. I have attended all of the IA Summits (also by ASIS&T) but this was my first "annual meeting." I typed up some notes during the conference, but wanted to wait to compose my thoughts and reflect a little longer. Here ya go.

Highlights for me:

  • I liked spending time with colleagues that I have not seen in years. Like: Gary Marchionini and Cathy Marshall, to name just a few. I caught up on their research, they caught up on the challenges for my job.
  • I got some IBM work done, meeting David Millen and connecting some of his research to ibm.com initiatives. It still pays to find IBMers by going to (outside) conferences.
  • Both plenary sessions helped me think outside my ibm.com box and see how the rest of the world is using the Internet these days. For example, the Digital Youth Project report has now been officially released. Check it out.
  • Strengthened/made local connections, such as old colleagues at IAKM and LexisNexis, new ones at OCLC and Wayne State.

So, net, it was worth attending, for sure. Any time I can drive a few hours and hang out with fellow user experience professionals who have traveled here from around the world, I will be there. I do all I can to support UX-related gatherings in the midwest.

What I found really interesting about the event (neither good nor bad, just different), were the elements that made it a meeting first and a conference second. When I compare it with other professional association annual gatherings that I have been to (like the CHI conference by SIGCHI and UPA's conference), then I notice some things that stand out here:

  • Business and committee meetings, special interest group planning and other things to "do the business of ASIS&T". These things happen at "conferences" too but they were more prominent here.
  • The "intellectually stimulating" content (the conference part) is driven by the ASIS&T org chart. Special interest groups, in this case, sponsor the panels, seminars, etc. In other association events, I think the sessions are more driven by individuals, not "each SIG organizes their own track".
  • Lots of fellowship, awards and recognitions. Since this was my first ASIS&T meeting, it sort of felt like my first big reunion with my wife's extended family. I only knew a subset of people, I did not get all of the inside jokes or the personalities, but everyone was very welcoming and wanted me to come back for next year's get-together.

I can see how this type of annual event builds up loyalty. Come to one meeting and you could get "hooked", volunteering for all sorts of worthwhile ASIS&T activities for the next 12 months. You will almost have to attend the following year.

The meeting-focus does provide some challenges for the "technical program" side of the event, however. There is a lot of competition for compelling conference content, and when people ask me "where can I go to really stretch my brain for a week?" then it will be hard to recommend this conference over the many other choices. Making the conference sessions better would also help draw in some "outsiders" (non members), which would hopefully lead to some getting "hooked", and so on.

Which leads me to my only real complaint about the conference. To be blunt: There were too many academics on stage talking for too long. There were not enough researchers from companies on the panels. There were not enough practitioners giving their views. Most sessions did not leave enough time for audience questions and conversations.

I really do not hate academics - I love them, actually. I knew this would meeting would be research and academic focused, I was looking forward to that aspect. I had some great conversations with professors and students (at the SIGUSE symposium, in the hallways, at lunch and at the poster sessions.) But it was too unbalanced for me. If you know me, you know I do not bitch that often, and I only do it because I care and I want to make things better. So let me offer these suggestions for future technical sessions at the annual meeting:

  • Each research-oriented panel must have at least 1 member who does not work at a university. A researcher from IBM, Microsoft, some other organization, who talks about the topic from their company's point of view.
  • Each panel must have at least 1 practitioner to act as a sounding board. "I hear what you are saying and here is how I deal with it in my world" sort of thing. Get more practitioners up on stage.
  • Encourage people to follow "best practices" for presenting. Like: more pictures and less text on slides. Take "clarification" questions during their talk and leave lots of time for discussion after. Provide an overview (only) up front and leave the details for Q&A (so if no one cares about your details, we do not have to hear them).
  • When a student is presenting their research, do not allow their advisor on stage. The advisor can only help answer questions after the student has done their best. I do not mind going to a session where students are presenting their work, but I want the students thinking on their feet and answering questions, I do not want their professors explaining things for them.

The research/practitioner divide was exacerbated for me because of the gap between the SIG Information Architecture community and the ASIS&T membership as a whole. That fracture runs deep and goes beyond the ASIS&T annual meeting, so I do not want to get into it here. Those things will get addressed.

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Keynote at SIG USE research symposium

I had the honor of presenting one of the keynotes at yesterday's SIG USE annual research symposium (part of the 2008 ASIS&T annual meeting in Columbus). The theme was "Future Directions: Information Behavior in Design & the Making of Relevant Research."

I took on the task of giving SIG USE feedback "from the outside" with these two perspectives:

  • Human-computer interaction, information architecture and general user experience professional. What is this thing called "human information behavior (HIB) research" and how does it relate to the research disciplines I am familiar with?
  • Practitioner. What can practitioners learn from HIB and apply to their challenges? How do we bridge the research/practice gaps?

I broke my talk down into 3 sections:

  • About me and my journey to gain an initial understanding of HIB
  • An analysis of the symposium position papers, where I tried to distill them down into both "how do we connect with designers" and the specific research they are doing which I might be able to apply to my "finding information" challenges
  • Stories about things I work on for ibm.com, with the hope that they could spur some ideas for some research topics

Download a PDF of my slides (2 meg). I deleted / cleaned up a few things for the public archive. And usual disclaimer: slides geared for the presentation. If you were not there, they may not be very interesting.

I sped through the slides and talked too fast, but I think (hope) that I put forth some good questions for the SIG USE community to debate going forward. The individual discussions and small group work after my talk were very valuable to me. I have some more reading to do (such as information encountering) and contacts of "SIG USE people" who I can stay in touch with. Looking forward to it!

One final note: I can see why SIG USE wins awards from ASIS&T. Very well run.

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Collaborative sensemaking workshop

I will be attending the Collaborative Sensemaking workshop at the HCIL symposium on Friday. I have not been in the "research groove" for about a decade (since I was still at BGSU), but collaborative sensemaking is one research topic that seems to apply to what we are doing on ibm.com and what information architects do every day. So I thought it was worth coming to the workshop to give my practitioner's perspective - and learn more.

I'll report later with more information (after I get back from vacation...).

Fixing computer science with web science

In the June 2007 Communications of the ACM (Vol 50 #6), Ben Shneiderman has a "Viewpoint" article that hits close to home. "Web science: A provocative invitation to computer science," subtitled "Here's how it can awaken computer science to the interdisciplinary possibilities of the Web's socially embedded computing technology."

I have written about various pieces that Ben mentions (Web science and IA, universal usability, IBM's services science, as examples) but he has tied them together better. And added a wrinkle that I was not concerned with (until now): how to invigorate computer science programs by adopting the Web science framework.

I am not really in touch with the specific woes of computer science, but I can see how the social perspective would make CS research a lot more relevant. Studying social networks instead of computer networks. Researching e-government instead of compilers. Student projects on sharing animation instead of rendering algorithms. Focusing on users instead of computers.

Ben's other main point is that web science can help create a synergy for more interdisciplinary research. Emerging applications like Web 2.0, universal usability and ubiquitous computing are all natural fits under Web science (that traditional computer scientists would likely say are outside their scope).

Ben ends with: "Visionaries say it is time for a change, but will the traditional computer science community accept the invitation? I hope it will."

This CACM article is not online yet but will eventually be in the CACM section of the ACM Digital Library. Here are the references and other mentions from the article while you wait. (Some links lead to summary pages where you need membership to get the full article.)

  1. Japan Prize Commemorative Lecture
  2. Foundations and trends in web science
  3. Creating a science of the web
  4. A research manifesto for services science
  5. The social life of innovation
  6. Crisis and opportunity in computer science (PDF)
  7. Leonardo's Laptop
  8. 911.gov
  9. Web Science Research Initiative

Other reform movements

Web Science

Related to the IA research agenda from the IA Summit, now comes the Web Science Research Initiative with its plans for "web science" and a web research agenda:

There is...a growing realization among many researchers that a clear research agenda aimed at understanding the current, evolving, and potential Web is needed. ...The Web is an engineered space created through formally specified languages and protocols. However, because humans are the creators of Web pages and links between them, their interactions form emergent patterns in the Web at a macroscopic scale. These human interactions are, in turn, governed by social conventions and laws. Web science, therefore, must be inherently interdisciplinary; its goal is to both understand the growth of the Web and to create approaches that allow new powerful and more beneficial patterns to occur.

I know, the web is not IA and IA is not the web, but I see many similarities. For example, from Creating a Science of the Web, I see topics that interest me as an information architect:

  • moving from text documents to data resources
  • reuse of information
  • "policy aware" systems

The Framework for Web Science has more about this research agenda. Where would an IA research agenda overlap, where would it differ?

(Josh has more excerpts, links, and his social web design angle.)

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IA Research and Practice

Karl Fast's The Confluence of Research and Practice in Information Architecture is a recap of IA and research from the summit. If you were at the panel discussion you will remember Karl as the guy in the audience who had more / better stuff to say than those of us on the panel.

I like his point about the difference between researchers and academics, and I look forward to the 2007 Summit.

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