Drama & ducks at the IA Summit

I’ve just returned from a whirlwind trip to Memphis, TN for this year’s Information Architecture Summit (aka, IA Summit).  What a time!  I saw some Memphis, visited Graceland, saw the Peabody Ducks who live inside the Peabody Hotel…and experienced the IA Summit for the 1st time.   It was an action-packed weekend full of great presentations, awesome food (most of it in the shape of ducks), some good people-meeting, and lots of awesometime hanging out with my classmate Lee Gingras and IA prof Dan Klyn.


peabody duck, at rest

peabody duck, at rest

At 11AM every day at the Peabody Hotel, where the conference was held, a conductor in a fancy costume leads a set of ducks from the Duck Palace on the roof of the hotel into the elevator, down many floors, and across the hotel lobby into a beautiful fountain.  The ducks then swim around in the fountain (instinctively diving for make-believe minnows) until 5PM every day, when the genteel ducks exit the fountain and ascend to their comfortable Duck Palace again.   The whole spectacle draws quite a crowd.


This post will be mostly about airing the drama, but I’m going to follow up with posts on the talks I attended and the peeps I talked with.   So apparently there is a great divide, a war even, between two factions: IA and Interaction Design.  IxD practitioners compete with the IA field for attention, conference attendees, jobs, and more – at least according to some. Eric Reiss, my FatDUX benefactor who covered my conference fees, also gave a talk called A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand: Why Big IAs and Little IAs Will Prevent Us From Holding the 20th Annual Summit.  From the talk description:

‘Definitions (”the damned thing”) and distinctions (”Big IA”, “Little IA”) will ultimately relegate information architects to the ranks of lower-middle management. This was a problem several years ago and is an even greater problem today as thought leaders and visionaries continue to gravitate to other fields and more senior positions where “knowledge of IA” is sufficient and “practice of IA” is sent downstream to junior staffers.

So his talk wasn’t directly about the IA/IxD war (or was it?), but it’s all part of the bigger division theme.  I caught the end of this talk, during which the mic was passed around the room as folks gave their personal anecdotes and feelings about what was going on with IA.  To me this felt like a town meeting (Vermont-style), and it seemed therapeutic – a type of community catharsis. But apparently I missed some of the more controversial moments when certain people were singled out for contributing to the great divide.  

Really it seems like the community is looking for leadership, trying to coalesce into something tangible, and simply struggling with an identity crisis.  Comments and questions came up at this conference and the IDEA conference, which I attended last fall, like the following:

“I’m an Information Architect…I’m here to try to figure out what I should be doing”

What tools do IAs use?  What strategies?  What makes an IA differnet from an IxD practitioner? What additional skills does an IA bring to the table?  And maybe most importantly, does the job title ‘IA’ still need to exist, or is IA a skillset that one can bring to a variety of User Experience roles?  

Ultra Drama!

JJG dispenses wisdom

JJG dispenses wisdom


Here’s where JJG, Jesse James Garrett, enters the scene (dressed in his typical attire – black jeans, black shoes, black leather jacket and thick black glasses) to give the ‘plenary’ (who thinks of these words?) talk in a large, high-ceilinged hotel conference room.  JJG begins walking slowly and deliberately down a narrow isle that leads from the front of the room to the back of the room, reading his talk from the iPhone in his hand.  The 300+ people gathered are hushed and captivated as JJG eloquently speaks about banding together, that we need to move past the cult of personality that’s characterized this field and unify under one job role: User Experience Design.  

{claps and cheers erupted at this, along with 100 simultaneous tweets}

This session had the feel of a locker room at halftime.  JJG, the coach, vacillated between sternly lecturing and inspiring the crowd.  The result was a well-crafted message of the need for evolution and unity.  I liked this passage from Cennydd’s blog:

A similar sentiment was picked up by Jesse James Garrett in his closing plenary, in which he sounded the overdue death knell of division by job title. The information architect and the interaction designer are no more: we are all user experience designers, and we always have been. Amen.

JJG also called us out on our flimsy cult of celebrity. We have practitioners famous for what they say, rather than what they do. What great works of user experience have there been? Who made them? How have they made a difference?

Last thought – I have to mention that in talking to some seasoned IA people about this unifying around the UXD role, I heard some misgivings – would rolling these titles together dilute IA skills?  I think it’s a fair question.

graceland, baby!

graceland, baby!


But I saw Elvis’s ‘white tiger’ suit, rar!  That’s what really counts.


The discussion lists and blogosphere are humming with comments about this topic.  Lou Rosenfeld just a post up on his blog today (march 30th) called ‘Stop Listening to People Like Me.’  A quote:

“So, to my old friends, time to let go. We’re not being put out to pasture—we’re just moving on to other things, as is our true nature, and creating new paths. The homesteaders have taken over—as they should, given that they’re the huge majority—and their needs will define our fields and settle these debates. Thank goodness. Let them design incredible experiences. And let us keep doing what we’re best at—instigating new things.”


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