A Broader Panorama: Top 10 Takeaways from IA Summit 2016

July 21, 2016 | Katie Templin

colorful city skylineA Broader Panorama. That was the topic for this year’s IA Summit (IAS16), and as is befitting for such a topic, the interpretations of it were diverse. From inclusivity in tech jobs to broader reaching implications of technology, the focus was on the IA industry and how we, as practitioners, can use our powers for good over evil, and fight the good fight. 

Here, see our Top 10 takeaways from this year's conference in Atlanta— annotated by my tweets composed during multiple sessions over the course of one weekend. (Check out my Twitter feed or #ias16 for more insights and speaker mentions from the conference.)

1. Design for all senses to break through the technology barrier.

We live in a world where much of our living and most of our communication is done from behind a screen.

We’ve become desensitized to the many ways to experience our environment and used to the way we do things. Because technology lets us choose how to receive and interpret human signals, we begin to assume that everyone works, behaves, and interacts like we do.

Environments should appeal to multiple senses. Adding a vibration to a way-finding app to indicate a right turn, doesn’t just aid the visually or hearing impaired. It adds tactile feedback to all of us, bringing the digital experience outside of the device and making it more human, more relatable.

Many of us incorporate some level of accessibility in our products, whether because our client demands it, the government mandates it, or our own company supports it. But the more you design for accessibility (all of the senses), the more you design for an authentic, life-like, and usable experience.

2. All humans inherently crave interaction and community.

Humans are wired for each other. We yearn for connectedness, to be able to communicate with other people. This desire is a function of our biology, our evolution.

Accessibility is, therefore, not optional. It is imperative. Our function as User Experience Architects (or designers, engineers, etc.), is to allow all humans to partake in the experience and to make that experience as easy and enjoyable as possible. To omit accessibility enhancements is to deprive differently-abled users from obtaining the interaction they inherently crave.

3. Walt Disney knew his sh*t, and we can learn a lot from him.

It was the year of Disney. I went to at least three different talks that mentioned the innovator and creator of Mickey Mouse. It was, I’m sure, partly coincidence, but more so due to Mr. Disney’s mastery of human perception and persuasion.

Continuity and Consistency

Rather than building a park consisting of various, potentially disjointed, activities, Disney created a single continuous experience. Every piece, no matter how small, was designed to fit into the continuum. From castles and rides, to bathrooms and trashcans, every element was meant to accentuate the story and “keep the magic in.”

Tell a story

Disney drew from storytelling and cinematic principles to keep the outside world at bay. He drew a hard edge around the parks, but played on a cinematic dissolve—a soft edge—between lands. Visitors don’t see employees guarding Beaker’s segway. They see “lab assistants” obediently following their mentor. Guests don’t see janitors cleaning the sidewalks, they see an artist creating Goofy’s likeness on the pavement. Everything is part of the story.

Wayfinding Through a Shared Structure

But beyond how Disney made people feel, he also innovated in how he allowed his guests to explore and way find. Disney understood the importance of a coherent and shared structure. Each “land” within his theme parks shared the same structural underpinnings, the same standard elements—attractions, restaurants, retail, and services. Because of this consistency, guests always know there’s a bathroom nearby, or that they can stop to get a bite to eat before the next land.

Use Visual Beacons to Persuade and Entice

Disney didn’t stop at “usable.” He wanted to draw the user in. And he did it with “wienies.”

Wienies aren’t simply decorative. They serve as landmarks to help people keep track of where they are and find their way. These are beacons that both provide context as well as lead guests through the experience.

4. Technology can kill us, if we let it, but it can save us, too.

We’ve all been theorizing about it for decades, but the robot takeover might finally be upon us. From wireless pacemakers to self-driving cars, machines now literally determine life or death.

But what’s worse, the robots don’t have total control. They’re vulnerable to malicious hackers, and thus, so is your car, you baby monitor, your medical device—your life.

The flip side of this fairly pervasive topic was that we, as an industry, can make moves to save ourselves from the robots and the robots from ourselves. And there’s not just one way to do it:

5. Good aesthetics do not equal good design.

Jared Spool defines design as “the rendering of intent,” a definition that causes the traditional categorization of a “designer” to break down. If designing means you’re responsible for rendering the intent of a product, we are all designers—Strategists, IAs, Project Managers, Developers. Without each of us, realizing the intent is impossible.

That said, there is no intention without context. You can’t design something without knowing the parameters that bind you—the limitations of the technology, the cost to go to market, the repeatability (or lack thereof). Jared’s example of a four color boarding pass exemplified this principle. It was beautiful and easy to find information, but it also required two-sided, four-color printing. The cost to print it, alone, would be prohibitive. The beautiful, usable boarding pass was, therefore, a bad design.

6. Personalization is awesome…except when it’s not.

The big theme around Personalization was that it can easily fall victim to the “creep” factor, or worse, hurt/offend.

Don’t let your product fall victim to “Algorithmic Cruelty”

Facebook’s “A Year in Review” was a prime example. Although most of us see a photo from our NYE party or that video of our dog parading in its taco costume, Facebook’s algorithm wasn’t so kind to all. Some were shown a photo of a relative that had passed, or a post from the day they got divorced.

It was a classic case of good intentions gone wrong. And it was something that, with a little bit of foresight, could have been prevented. Trying to imagine and predict adverse effects of a personalization program is part of our job. We serve and protect by planning for and around potential pitfalls.

Base your program on meeting goals, and track success

Don’t personalize just because you can. Have a goal (or several) and craft your personalization program around realizing that goal. Once your program is in progress, it needs nurturing. Don’t assume it’s working. Monitor against Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to prove success (or failure). Then iterate on your learnings.

Like any powerful tool, personalization should be handled with care and reverence. It should be used with the supervision and guidance of a professional. And before operationalizing a program, teams must try their best to throw rocks at or poke holes in the methodology to ensure it’s sturdy.

7. Listen to your users, test & iterate.

You know they say, “when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.” It’s pretty much the motto for the UX community. We thrive on data, testing, and talking to real users. We, therefore, never get it wrong. Right? Wrong. But getting it wrong is okay. It’s how we learn and improve.

A word of caution, however: data needs context. Without context, any analyst can make the data support almost any strategy or hypothesis. For instance, one of the speakers spoke about the results of a user test focused on conversions. It showed that conversions increased when the navigation was removed. The simple conclusion would be to nix all navigation. But is this really what the data is saying?

The data also showed that removing the navigation increased frustration and ultimately reduced retention. Are initial conversions worth losing long-term relationships with your users?

8. Embrace Vulnerability

Pretending to know more than you do doesn't help you, your team, or your product.

Every perspective and every discipline has value in the overall design process. The reason that everyone thinks they are a designer, is because they are a designer, regardless of skill or training. Everyone is in various states of competence, but can, if motivated, grow to become a competent designer.

Spool’s four phases to being a competent designer:

9. We can learn a lot from the physical world.

Beyond Disney, many of the talks at this year’s IA Summit referenced (or focused on) the physical world, and how we can draw from the learnings of retail stores, brick-and-mortar wayfinding, and the path most traveled. If you’ve designed a beautiful stone path, but everyone’s taking a short cut through the grass, is that path well designed? (Hint: No – please refer to the fifth bullet in this list).

I walked away from IAS16 with many great insights on how to learn from, mimic (but not exactly), and align offline learnings with online experiences:

  • Always expect the edge case.
  • Contextualize and personalize when able (and appropriate).
  • Customize for digital use.
  • Use white space online to avoid the “butt brushing effect.”
  • Promote choice. Allow the user to decide where s/he goes.
  • Entice. Use visual cues to help guide users to high-value content and interactions.

10. People (and users) are multi-faceted. There’s no one right way to be who you are (or design for who they are).

At their surface, talks at the IA Summit often focus on business applications and lessons learned, but there’s always a humanistic consideration at their core. This year’s summit embraced and empowered diversity—of race, gender, abilities, perspectives, age, industry, and everything in between.

  • Stop trying to put your users (or people in general) in a box. It only leads to disappointment on both sides.
  • We need to stop assuming inclusiveness will just happen. We need to plan for it, drive it.
  • Consider the edge cases, specifically for accessibility. Don’t rely on the average user.
  • Design for all, but don’t let the “all” design.

About the Author

Katie Templin

I'm the Director of Digital Strategy & User Experience at TBG, and I like to watch TV. Ask me about the user experience of Netflix.

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