My WIAD 2015 Adventure: How I attended a global conference from home

12 min read Guest writer: David Parmelee

World Information Architecture Day (also known as World IA Day or WIAD) is a very resourceful – and free! – global UX conference hosted by the Information Architecture Institute. WIAD 2015 took place in 38 cities in 24 countries, and had hundreds of talks from both local and industry-leading speakers, all focused on this year’s theme, ‘Architecting Happiness’. Unfortunately, I had to stay home from WIAD DC due to winter weather. But many WIAD cities made livestreams available throughout the world, so I didn’t miss out on the talks. In fact, I had a great time. In this post, I take you behind the scenes of my WIAD 2015 adventure, including insights from the talks that stood out to me, and offer a few tips for both running and attending global conferences based on my experience.

How the adventure began

During Friday night here, it was already Saturday in New Zealand, and WIAD Wellington was starting. Several of us on Twitter expressed a desire to watch a livestream of Jesse James Garrett, Wellington’s keynote speaker. And although Wellington didn’t have a livestream, I got an idea. What if I watched not only DC, but also other cities to gain a more global perspective on information architecture? So I did just that. I watched all of DC’s sessions. During DC’s lunch break, I watched parts of talks from New York City and Chicago. After DC finished, I watched talks from Edmonton, Seattle, and Portland. My adventure started around 9:30 in the morning. It finished just over 12 hours later.

9:30am: The designer as entrepreneur

As a mostly-remote UXer, I commonly work with two laptops side-by-side on a card table in my house’s library. On a warmer day, I would set up the table outside on the porch. Today, warmer weather likely would have meant being at WIAD in person, not at home. I spent the morning watching the first two sessions from DC in my normal work environment. My setup was minimal: a bottle of water near my desk, livestreams showing on the new laptop, WordPad windows to take notes, and a Twitter window to live-tweet what I was learning. DC keynote speaker Christina Wodtke described how designers can advance the cause of IA and their professional careers as UXers. She encouraged designers to think of themselves as entrepreneurs. While discussing body language, Christina said that power poses lead to promotions. She led the audience in a 30-second Wonder Woman power pose.

11am: Replacing “trust”

“Trust is nebulous, off in the ether. It is a powerful word that will get you places in the boardroom. You will not get a good product by talking about trust.” – Thomas Vander Wal

As UX practitioners, we often want to know to what degree users trust our websites. But DC’s next speaker, Thomas Vander Wal, banned the word trust. He wanted users to tell him what they really felt. They used words like respect, loved, dependable, consistent, honest, valued, treasured, and comfort. Thomas then asked, ‘How do we take social scripts and apply them to the digital world?’ He suggested three levels of designing for ‘social comfort’ instead of ‘trust’.

1. Social comfort with people

  • Hallway familiarity is not the same as online familiarity. Users don’t want to share the same information with everyone, and when things are more open, they tend not to share as much (‘Allow for an ask’).
  • Clearly identify community advisors who are not part of a site’s target audience themselves.

2. Social comfort with tools

  • When the concept of ‘sharing’ is ambiguous in tools, this can have real-life consequences. An example is when one tool had a ‘favorite’ feature that someone thought meant approval from their boss when they shared a document. But instead, sharing the document meant it went directly to the CEO, who didn’t approve and fired the person involved.
  • Tools should have ways to share different levels of information with different audiences.

3. Social comfort with the content

  • ‘Get 100% of what is in somebody’s head out and shareable.’
  • But keep in mind that sharing might hurt others and cause whistleblowing.

Lunch break: Track happiness, even if it’s the only metric you track

DC went on lunch break from noon to 1:15pm. So did I. Snowed in, I moved my laptops to the kitchen counter and stood during a working lunch. Two other cities had sessions that partially overlapped lunch. So I listened to the end of Pamela Pavliscak’s New York City talk, the end of Amy Schwartz’s talk in Chicago about health and happiness, and the beginning of Russ Unger’s Chicago talk about Jim Henson and prototyping. All fantastic. Pamela discussed categories of IA Happiness: ease of use, trust, creativity, connection, and meaning. Designs most often achieved user happiness when users feel connected, entertained, informed, in control, challenged, and creative. Pam said that happiness tracks with most positive metrics: a positive UX, likelihood to return, and recommending a site. And she made a great point when she asked why UXers track Net Promoter Score instead of tracking happiness.

1:15 pm: Games, not gamification

DC’s WIAD resumed at 1:15pm. Their hosts and attendees were becoming concerned about the snow outside. As long as I had livestreams to watch and the power stayed on, I was all set. I was planning for a long night ahead, watching sessions from other cities. So during DC’s panel discussion and Steve Portigal’s workshop after that, I walked inside to get some exercise. I still live-tweeted these sessions and kept up with what others were saying on Twitter. A panel discussed ‘quantifying happiness’ and designing for users’ sustained happiness. Among their topics was whether apps and websites that use gamification truly delight users. They concluded that it does not:

“We like games, not gamification. Points, badges, leaderboards, real-world incentives. Problem: that isn’t what makes games interesting.”

The panel gave several reasons, like the following.

  • Gamification often stops at online profiles and badges. These motivations are shallow. Setting up an account and winning a badge are not users’ ultimate goals.
  • Sometimes, gamification supports a long-term goal, such as career mastery or weight loss. Gamification needs to give users mini-interventions to keep them on the right path. It can do this by incorporating coaching, feedback loops, and next steps.

4:15pm: Highlights from DC’s lightning talks

DC ended their WIAD with a series of lightning talks. I was back into full work mode as I took notes rapidly in the library. There was a great deal of information packed into these 10-minute talks.

JZ on using cards for responsive design

JZ said that cards simplify responsive design by making it possible to design only once again instead of three or more times. The desktop-only era allowed designers to only design for one width. The responsive era makes designers create designs that typically adjust for at least three widths: smartphone, tablet, and desktop. Cards capture the flexibility of responsive layouts with the simpler design approach of desktop-only.

John Whalen on Emergent UX

John Whalen asked people to define UX and then responded with ‘No! UX doesn’t happen on a screen. It happens in the brain.’ His Emergent UX process addresses this by using psychology at each of its stages to account for the ‘six minds’. The six minds include language, problem solving/decision making, wayfinding, emotion, vision/attention, and memory/semantics. (Full disclosure: I am a former employee of one of John’s clients.)

Lesley Humphreys on flow

Lesley Humphreys showed a graph depicting how people stay in flow as learn new activities. Moving outside a flow channel results in either anxiety or boredom. Lesley then showed how we stay in the flow channel in our careers and how we get our clients into the flow channel too.

5:10pm: Boats might not be the problem

After watching the closing announcements from DC to feel more like I was there, I looked for another city to watch before I switched to the West Coast cities. While I had an early dinner at my desk, I was able to catch most of Steve Fisher’s Edmonton talk, ‘Creating Responsive Content Experiences.’ He discussed getting to the root of a problem. His illustration was shipping. The 15 largest boats in the world pollute as much as every car on Earth. Then he asked, ‘Is the real problem here ships or something else?’ Steve brought up Singapore, the most densely-populated place in the world. They have to import 90% of their food because they do not have enough land for farming. But they are applying new ways of thinking in designing floating farms so that they do not have to rely so heavily on shipping. A fascinating example to illustrate his point.

9pm: Categories limit creativity

“Don’t be stoically stuck on what you accomplished the week before, but the goal you are trying to achieve.” — Charles Adler.

I switched rooms again for the evening sessions so that my family could watch TV. With the livestream laptop on a foot rest in the family room, I took notes on my other laptop for the next several hours. In Seattle, Sameer Halai gave an interesting talk describing how the startup he co-founded helps bring electricity to the developing world. And then when Seattle’s WIAD closed at 7pm Eastern time, I saw that the last three sessions in Portland were still ahead. In a talk with much storytelling, Joshua Berkhow showed how analytics helps people make happier, more confident decisions. Cynthia Owens discussed using visual thinking concepts to define IA. WIAD Portland closed with Charles Adler‘s presentation, ‘Designing for the Unknown’, about his experience co-founding Kickstarter. He joined before Kickstarter had an elevator pitch. But being surrounded by musicians, poets, and photographers in Chicago, Charles saw a pain point: ‘I was frustrated by the fact that they had no outlet: no place to publish their work. And I thought their work had merit.’ Charles told us that ‘any startup is in stealth mode’. Kickstarter could not do user surveys, so Charles had to go with his gut in design decisions. He recommended starting with something incredibly basic, and then taking cues from users. As an example, users could initially only offer one reward to backers, but they discovered quickly that creators wanted to be able to offer different kinds of rewards — like art, poetry, and music in different formats. Ultimately, they realized that they did not know what the creators would offer the backers (one offered rewards specific to her sailing trip around the world — like a coconut or a personalized video from a specific location, as an example).

Next day, via Twitter: Stop telling users “The End”

My adventure didn’t stop here. I took some time on Monday to search through takeaways from the other cities on Twitter. And I found Kaarin Hoff’s lightning talk from Ann Arbor. Kaarin pointed out that most websites are organized to direct users to one particular end, like contacting a company or buying something. Then, applying the concept of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books to UX, Kaarin told designers to ‘Stop telling users, ‘The End.”

How to get the most out of attending WIAD 2016 remotely

I had a fantastic day. If you can’t attend a WIAD 2016 event in person next year, then here are a few tips to help you get the most out of attending it remotely.

1. Schedule your day in advance

Look for the talks in all cities that can benefit you the most. Make lists of talks to watch either when they are live or later. (They aren’t all available later.) Some cities’ livestreams went down this year, so have backups.

2. Plan activities for breaks in the conference

If you are watching the livestreams with other UXers, you can try to follow along with workshops in WIAD cities. Or, you could note action items and put what you are learning into practice immediately. Lunch breaks lend themselves well for watching live sessions in different cities.

3. Not near a WIAD city? Have a watch party

If you aren’t near a city with a live event, meet with other local UXers to watch WIAD. You could decide as a group to watch sessions that will be of the most mutual benefit.

4. Don’t forget to go premium on livestream sites

Ustream interrupted talks every 5-10 minutes to show me loud commercials. I broke down and registered. Take care of this before the conference starts!

5. Join the #WIAD Twitter conversations

Identify city-specific hashtags before the conference, and stay active on Twitter for any points in other talks that may benefit you.

6. Don’t forget to network

Most attendees get to know other WIAD attendees when they attend in person. Try to connect with other people attending in person or virtually.

Some friendly tips for how WIAD organizers can help livestream audience next year

The WIAD team absolutely nailed it, and I’m sure the event will only get bigger and stronger every year. I thought I’d share a few thoughts about how the event organizers (including individual cities) could make it even better for livestream audiences. These tips will be useful for anyone running events across state and country lines. Let’s say that other would-be attendees like my idea and want to try it next year. They might encounter these pain points:

  • Talks were only listed on over 30 city-specific sites.
  • Not all cities posted their schedules.
  • Each city listed its times in their time zones, not mine. (Knowing each city’s time zone isn’t knowledge in my head!)
  • Not all cities had livestreams available.

These aren’t problems for in-person audiences. But livestream audiences have different needs and goals. And different personas require different interfaces.

1. Create one place to show a schedule of every city’s talks

They could add a section to the WIAD site for livestreaming, which might include:

  • a master list of all talks
  • a way to tell if each talk (or its city) would have a livestream
  • a way to display the talks’ times in our own time zones
  • a way to plan our day by marking talks as favorites.

2. Promote an official list of city-specific hashtags

Cities’ WIAD hashtags took several formats, like #WIADDC, #A2WIAD, #WIADSEA15, and #WIADCH. Some cities did not have a local hashtag. This confused users who wanted to share knowledge from other cities. Both in-person and livestream attendees could share a pinned tweet with an image of every city’s hashtag.

3. Promote watch parties and virtual meetups

Austin and San Francisco have a lot of UXers but no WIAD event. WIAD watch parties in cities without events could be a great thing to foster and encourage. Maybe WIAD could add a list of Meetups or other events to their website for people who want to watch the livesteams together. There could also be virtual meetups for UX practitioners who live in areas with few other UXers. Some great possibilities (and great opportunities for us to all get involved).

Looking forward to WIAD 2016!

World IA Day is a very fun and helpful event for UX and IA practitioners of any experience level. And it’s bigger than your city. This year, it was quite literally a ‘World’ IA day as it happened around the globe. And I anticipate that next year’s global conversation will be even bigger and better.