Things what I writ

I sometimes write nonsense about things to try and sound clever

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send your children to conferences

here is a revelation for anyone who has never been to a conference that’s relevant to their profession: it’s a great way to validate that you actually know what you’re talking about. I mean, honestly, we mostly operate within the duck quack void of self-appreciation and we’re only really interrogated and challenged when we’re required to present, with authority, our opinion on what our interpretation of ‘good’ is in the narrow context of our own practice. but spending a day or two listening to people just like you, presenting their own ideas, propositions and theories, is a day or two where you quickly come to the realisation that you’re not, in fact, the imposter you thought you might be. you’re actually reasonably good. fuck it. you’re very good.

a colleague of mine is out in san francisco this week, at a conference where there are some very clever, very smart people talking about design practice. I say they’re very clever and very smart, but really, I’ve no idea. at least I’ve heard of them. they’ve mostly written a book about something or other that’s relevant. but, you know, I’ve never worked with them, so I can’t personally say whether they’re any good at what they do. but they tell a good story. and that’s what we’ve got to go on. and this colleague reflected on her first day at the conference with a telling phrase: I am getting the feeling we actually are doing stuff so right! and she means that as a company and as the individuals that make that company what it is. and I’m not surprised. because that’s the feeling I get when I attend similar events.

when you find yourself in a safe environment, and there’s not much safer than conferences, especially those with a significant proportion of first-time speakers, then that’s when you give yourself permission to evaluate your own position. my first speaking engagement was at the IA summit. I’d never done any public speaking before, least of all about my own practice. but that environment was as perfect a place as any to evaluate, compare, contrast and make your own conclusions about how you’re placed on the weird global/parochial peer spectrum. and really, it’s not a question of relativity. it’s much more about reassurance and a sense of acknowledgement.

which is all a rather roundabout way of saying that there is much to be gained from attending a conference of like-minded individuals to understand your own position within that community. I advocate conference attendance as a learning experience. bluntly put, I recommend conference attendance as the place where training budget is invested, because I believe that proactive conference attendance adds value as a career development opportunity by a factor of at least ten over traditional training or courseware. it’s definitely where I spend all my training budget. and if that runs out, especially where the IA summit is concerned, I’ll pay for it myself. it’s a no-brainer.

listening post: xtc – towers of london

the glorious IA summit

it feels like it’s been a lifetime since I returned from Baltimore after the glorious IA summit at the beginning of April. it’s the event that leaves you feeling like that when its over, like the end of a long hot summer where you gambolled through the shimmering and abundant fields of learning, dancing like a teenager with your new best friends dipping your toes in the stream of enlightenment and talking like you don’t know the words for the things you have to say, watching the proud and beautiful stags of truth barking atop the mountain as if to say THERE IS NO TRUTH, JUST THE ONTOLOGY OF TRUTHS, COME HEAR ME, FOR I AM THE STAG OF BEAUTY AND I SPEAK OF THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO MAKE AND BY THE WAY SINCE I’M A PHYSICAL MANIFESTATION OF ALL YOUR ENDEAVOURS I REALLY AM THE MISSING LINK BETWEEN THE COGNITIVE AND SPATIAL DEFINITION OF CONTEXT THAT DEFINES IT ALL. HURRAH!

or something like that. to be clear, there is a reason I allocate 100% of my available budget to attend this one event each year. it’s because I get a year’s worth of worth from it. I mean, I go to quite a few smaller events throughout the year and meet splendid and lovely people and see inspiring and challenging speakers and learn so much about things that are totally relevant to me. but the IA summit is quite different. without wishing to get weirdly evangelical and creepy about it (and not the dan willis kind of creepy), I believe it’s an event that changes lives. overstating it? maybe. but I know that attending for the last few years has changed me for the better. and I’ve spoken to many people who have attended, often for the first time, who are so touched and moved and surprised and enlivened by their attendance that they can’t quite express what it is that it’s done to them. I’m not about to qualify what ‘better’ means, because that’s not the point. I don’t do definitions. but what better means to me is what counts. the change for the better is what I recognise in myself and how I attribute that change to my attendance at the IA summit is up to me. nobody can alter that.

in the grand scheme of things, with so much going in the world, and so many demands and so little time and so much to do and so much to say and so many responsibilities and so on and so on it is perhaps easy to say fuck’s sake it’s only a conference for people who get weirdly obsessed about the structure of things and why are you getting so worked up about it there’s more important things to worry about but whatever. let me bark this at you. THIS EVENT IS AN OASIS OF AWESOME. IT CHANGES LIVES. I AM THE STAG OF TRUTH SO HEAR ME ROAR.

thank you to the beautiful people, old and new, that make the change happen. I love you. if anyone would like to tell me to calm down, don’t bother.

Yes I do that too

A continuing and repeated conversation at the IA summit in Baltimore this week is about knowing how to say what you think you can say about the things you’d like to say.

That can be having a bazillion drafts of blog posts that you think nobody is ever going to want to read, or wondering whether anyone in their right mind would sit through 45 minutes of you telling them how you actually have no idea what you’re talking about but that’s alright because you’re not about to change the world with your reimagineeration of practice fundamentals you just did a thing recently that included some of the stuff that everybody here also seems to be doing but you weren’t sure whether you were doing the right IA thing and actually you weren’t even sure it was IA at all but, like, it was just a good story about how I did a thing which you think is a bit like how other people do a thing and perhaps is would be interesting to other people to see how I did it you know like let’s understand how we actually do what we do with the things we know and see if we might learn something or validate an approach or find a different way to do it rather that necessarily trying to understand how calling something a fish means I’ve subconsciously induced a cognitive brain spasm which can be expressed as an inducement to a systemic failure in brain pattern structure mapping that is an unavoidable and not entirely unexpected relation of disentropy that exposes your failing as a labelling person to understand the role of that artefact in the ontology of the universe of stuffz.

We want to hear and read and see and discuss that stuff. We just want you to tell a story about what you’ve been doing. It’s pretty simple. I mean, we like the big crazy things, but there’s nothing like a good story, well told, about a personal experience, that helps us say YES I DO THAT TOO.

On being topical

One of the most difficult things to overcome when attempting to create some masterpiece of literary commentary with a topical edge is trying to work out what the topical edge is without coming across like some trollbaiting landgrabber whose only purpose in the act of creation is to somehow capitalise on a zeitgeist that probably isn’t geisting and most likely has run out of zeit in order to further some perceived standing in a peer community whereupon the very act of dribbling inanely onto your ipad keyboard would be celebrated with some not insignificant cacophony of trumpets, trombones, grinding teeth, handclaps, notification alerts and apnoea snort-awakes such that congratulations, you’ve captured the moment like some now fish in your net of insight, grabbed from the jaws of one of those thought leader brown bears poised over the river of consciousness ready to paw a beautiful shimmering leaping thought salmon to thought death AND THEN EAT IT WHOLE WITH THE HEAD AND EVERYTHING.

Sometimes it’s simply a question of saying something because you feel like it for no reason at all. I can pretend that it’s relevant to the current topic somehow by relating it to a current activity, like watching the morning keynote at the IA summit and wondering how my using IA writer and saving into the cloud to write this plays rather neatly into Scott’s contention that I’m locked into some kind of app cave hardwired not to the cloud but to a cloud in the sky of clouds and make some ironic commentary on my connectedness to a old paradigm and how I’m literally careening into the trough of ultimate despair without a smart seat belt, but that would be a pretty cheap shot at crowbarring a topical reference in to a moderately nonsensical accident of prose just because I happen to be talking about this stuff later. I would never do that.

The trouble with context

At the Information Architecture Summit in Baltimore, I’ve just had the pleasure of a full day with Karen McGrane, considering content strategies for mobile which of course isn’t content strategies for mobile at all but content strategies for content which might somehow be consumed by 76% of us using some kind of hand-held device or other as the primary device that we use to consume that stuff because that’s our preference notwithstanding the fact that indeed for some 40% or other of the 76% or other that preference is actually the only option because using a smartphone to access the internet is the only way to do it and don’t forget that an ever-growing percentage or other of the new natives in the 18-24 age range just actually don’t see why you’d want to access the internet on anything other than your smartphone because, like, using a proper computer is what your dad does in the corner of the home office and I should know because that dad is me.

Which is to say, don’t get led astray by implied contexts of physical devices when considering the user needs and behaviours in relation to the structure and organisation of the content they may consume. There is no specific mobile use case that defines a content strategy when considering your options for creating a compelling user experience. There is only content. And the structure of that content. And the user experience of interacting with that content is what defines the context of use. It is a misappropriation of the term to hypothesise scenarios based on context, since context can only ever be undefined up to the point at which the manifestation of the moment of interaction occurs.

We can, of course, be pragmatic and facilitate a conversation about context by making some assumptions about likely renditions of scenes where actors follow a script to bring to life some awkwardly cinematic versions of potentially reasonably representative portrayals of the personification of a user need. These are the ‘what if’ propositions that at least enable us to align our thought gazelles behind a weirdly myopic vision of a real life event. It enables us to say ‘that might happen. what might we consider based on the knowledge acquired from that?’ And actually, we can write pretty good scripts. And we can develop pretty good personas.

But we’re just making it up. And we bring to that imagination every subtle or not so subtle nuance of our own limited experiences and assumptions to the point where we can imagine a whole sundance festival of what ifs but if the only person in the audience for the special screening of ‘a series of what ifs in the style of a seemingly disconnected robert altman style parable that ultimately defines the human experiences but coincidentally demonstrates the likely context of use for you the user’ just sits there slowly shaking their head muttering something like ‘they don’t understand. they don’t understand’ then we’re wasting our time.

Have phone, will travel

This is a blog on a plane. It is the story of a number of systems I’m using to make the overall travel experience simpler, more efficient, and less painful. It will include this plane. It will include a few trains. It might also include a taxi or two. And hotels. And maybe some government systems that will allow me to enter the country without all those questions they felt necessary to ask me back in 1984 because I had a bit of a beard and looked like I maybe hadn’t slept much.

It will definitely include online booking systems.

All of today’s journey was researched online. Of course it was. How else do you do it these days? Nearly all of it was booked online, apart from the taxi. The taxi company we use for work does have some kind of online booking system I think, but it works rather better to phone the night before and tell them in person, because I’m not entirely convinced the online system is anything more than a copy of wordstar sending faxes to a pigeon.

And everything has been tracked online. Confirmation of booking, booking reference, whether the train is on time, what platform it will be on, checking into my fight, getting my boarding pass, checking the plane will be on time, what departure gate it will be at, right up to me sitting here in 27k somewhere over a cloud the size of Greenland, having taken a photo of my feet and a highlife magazine and bored 1044 to death with it on twitter.

When I say online, of course, I mean, on my phone. Everything I’ve mentioned here has been done using my phone. That’s to say the train company, the airline, the hotel chain (not the taxi company) make it possible for me to arrange and book and track an entire travel itinerary just using my phone. I mean, I could have used a desktop computer or a laptop, but, you know, that’s not the first thing we do these days. I fill the gaps between whatever I do either side of gaps by fiddling with my phone. It might as well be productive fiddling. Those companies might as well make it easy to use their service over someone else’s, because, increasingly, if I can’t do it on my phone, I won’t do it at all.

There are of course, some drawbacks to a wholly phone-based travel experience. When I want to print out the hotel details to leave at home, I’m a bit stuck. It’s almost an affront to have to turn on the poor neglected desktop just to connect to a printer. But really, that’s about it. For me, this is an entirely paperless trip. So paperless, in fact, that I forgot to take the most important piece of paper of all. My passport.

Ok, so I didn’t really forget it, BUT I NEARLY DID. That’s a good enough anecdote for me to describe the modern travel experience and how it’s changed our expectations of what is possible. The ubiquity of mobile and its effect on some of our largest ecosystems continues to change the way we manage our lives, mostly, I think, for the better.

I should probably point out the some of the apps and mobile sites I had to use to make this happen were fucking awful, but that might take the edge off my nicely upbeat story, so I won’t.

Watching the prospectives at London IA

I was lucky enough to talk at the May London IA event a few days ago. Even better than that, I got to share the stage, well, I say stage, I shared the bit of floor at the front of the loft, with the most charming man in the world, Giles Colborne, and the most charming woman in the world, Johanna Kollmann. Unfortunately for them, they had to share the small walk around in front of the projector area with the most charmless dancing dad Soho misfit in the world, me. I’m prone to a bit of self-depreciation, but really, it was as much as I could do to breathe in for 30 minutes while I was up there before collapsing into a Stella at The Endurance and a subsequent face full of Ginsters on the steps of Centre Point like a lost corporate team-builder from the M4 corridor.

We’d gathered for a redux of the IA Summit, which took place in New Orleans earlier in the year. Johanna and I had presented at the summit at the same time – 8:30 on Sunday morning – and hadn’t seen each other speak, so it was great for us, and Giles had very kindly offered/volunteered/I dunno, been threatened with something to do a recap of a few of the highlights from the conference. It was going to be a good night even if nobody else turned up.

But turn up they did, and based on a quick show of the hands that people showed when asked, it seems that the vast majority of the attendees had never been to a London IA event before, which was very inspiring. Either that or they just didn’t like Martin waving his iPad at them saying “who’s been to one these before? Hmm? Matthew and I organize these you know! THEY’RE FREE!’ Either way, a lot of new faces is, to me, a very encouraging thing. Let’s be honest, you can go to events in London that are the physical manifestation of the echo chamber and although the people are extraordinarily nice and I would like many of them to be real friends that know what the sound of my voice is like, these events are excellent places to learn things you don’t know and see people you may have read say things out loud. Far be it from me to sound like some kind of curious Werthers Original style UX granddad shedding a small tear into my slippers when the young uns look up at the stage that isn’t a stage with those beady eyes of youth, pondering your gibberish like some unbounded grasshoppers, but it’s encouraging to see them sat in that loft, just BEING KEEN. *sniff*

So thank you to Martin and Matthew for organising and inviting me along, and thank you to Giles and Johanna for being charming and fascinating, and thank you to everybody who turned up and was polite and keen and asked lovely questions, and thank you to the weather for hailing on my legs as I cowered under a newsagent awning just before arriving, and thank you for listening, etc.

Slides from the IA Summit (On Slideshare):
Making sense of messy problems: Systems thinking for multi-channel UX by Johanna Kollmann
Designing the Mobile Wallet: A Case Study by Tim Caynes

I’m bored of this UX event

If this is you, get out of the way. I’m off to the IA Summitnext week and it’s the highlight of my year. Honestly. If you want to bring your event-weary commentary along with you and bemoan the fact that it wasn’t like it was 10 years ago then if you don’t mind having that conversation with yourself that would be lovely. I don’t know if I mentioned, but it’s the highlight of my year. Some people never get to go to events at all.
Really, I’ve nothing wrong with some kind of constructive criticism of events and conferences, and that has appropriate channels, to make sure it gets back to the organisers. You know, the event organisers. That small army of people who took upon themselves 11 months ago to make the event in 11 months the most awesome event in eleven month’s time it can possibly be notwithstanding the fact that actually no we’re not getting paid to put this thing together and we possibly didn’t realise 11 months ago what a monumental task we agreed to be a part of and now it’s upon us we could literally weep with the joy and relief of letting loose the staggering waif of the fawny event calf as it teeters into the forest of discovery like some conference Bambi, slipping and sliding on the ice of enlightenment, growing, living, flourishing and maturing into that majestic stag of experience, standing proudly atop mount adversity, barking, or whatever stags do, I AM THE EVENT STAG, HEAR ME BARK, OR WHATEVER IT IS I DO. What you probably don’t want to hear at that point is “Yeah, that event stag isn’t as good as last year’s event stag. It’s a bit shit. I’m going #sightseeing. Who’s in?”.
If you really are having a bad experience at your event, conference, meetup, bootcamp, jam, summit, unevent, unconference, unmeetup, unbootcamp, unjam, unsummit, (unjam is a word? Who knew?), then I’m sorry about that. Not all events are as advertised. Not all events run smoothly. Not all events meet expectations. But it might be just you. Well, maybe you and a couple of others. Alright, maybe it’s really bad. But if you’re quietly snarking at the back, that’s fine, I can deal with that. I mean, it’s annoying and once I’ve noticed you doing that I can’t unnotice you doing that and you’ve already planted a seed of distraction that will grow like a triffid in my subconscious, like some venomous metaphor for something really distracting and vegetative. However, in a parallel universe-made-the-opposite-of-parallel, it’s now pretty much alright to do that snarking out loud. And when I say out loud, I obviously don’t actually mean out loud. I mean on the #backchannel, which isn’t a backchannel at all, but a Norwegian bridge that small children skip lightly across to get from #whatisthis?land to #Ilovethis!land with faces that radiate with pure delight, but being a Norwegian bridge, thereunder treads a recalcitrant troll, lobbing poo bags at minors squawking BLAH BLAH BLAH I’M BETTER THAN THIS. Even worse, some trolls have got so good at lobbing their poo bags of derision that they can make them stick when they’re not even at the event.
You take the joy out of it. Stop it.