A Q&A with the Speakers of This Year’s IASummit

Information Architecture is one of the cornerstones of our discipline, so it's no wonder that the yearly IA Summit conference attracts some of the industry's best and brightest speakers. We capitalized on the opportunity to pose them questions and share their responses.

“The way we find information, the devices and interfaces we use to find it, and the methods behind it all create frustration, joy, and affect the lives of everyone we know.”

Information Architecture plays a vital role in uniting our individual passions and, every year, the IA Summit brings together speakers from all aspects of user-centered design to discuss it. This particular year, we had the opportunity to digitally “sit down” with a few presenters before the event to get their thoughts on information architecture, best practices, and the future of our continued collaboration. Regardless of whether or not you’re able to attend, the ensuing discussion can help all of us think more critically about our craft.

We’re also in the position to give away a ticket to the IA Summit to one lucky reader. Read below for details as to how you might win!


Experience design seems to be increasingly focused on smaller things: micro-interactions, ubiquitous technologies, mobile, etc. Do you think this reduces or increases the scope of our work?
David Farkas David Farkas: It enlarges the scope by leaps and bounds, falling under the old adage of “constraints foster innovation.” The more things we focus on, the more constraints we have to lend shape to our solutions.

It also provides more opportunities to fail. Where the web started as static pages with an information-centric purpose, it was easy to understand the risks of a seemingly finite space. As interactivity and technology have progressed, the opportunity to design good (and bad) solutions increases. The same opportunities exist across new technologies, environments and verticals. While we understand the limitations of one area of experience design, the opportunity to discover, explore and fail in others is ever growing.

Andrew Hinton Andrew Hinton: I don’t think mobile and ubiquitous computing (or micro-interactions, for that matter) are “smaller things” so much as they are specific aspects of a whole experience.
I do think that, in the broader conversation, there’s a tendency to focus on parts at the expense of the whole. But that’s just a human quirk. People tend to grab hold of specific memes more readily than higher-level, system-wide stuff (which is complex and requires more abstraction). Information architecture concerns itself with that wider point of view: how contexts connect.
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Brad Nunnally Brad Nunnally: It reduces the scope of our work. Many teams now focus on micro aspects of an overall user experience rather than the bigger picture. We need to start asking “Why does X need to happen and how do people want to accomplish it?” We have to rise above micro solutions and start designing the overall experience.
What led you to present on your topic of choice? Is your presentation more of a summation of your current thinking or is it a sort of rallying cry for where we should head as a profession?
Lauren Colton Lauren Colton: I first heard about Plain Language in law school and fell in love with the idea of streamlining communication for a stronger message. Although clients and I sometimes have to consider the usability and accessibility aspects of language. I’m ultimately trying to convince people to not be afraid of their words. Language is how we make friends, run governments, and build the technology that improves lives.

Nir Eyal Nir Eyal: I spent several years at my last company working in, and studying, advertising and video gaming. These two industries depend upon what I unapologetically call “mind control.” My talk will be a call-to-action for interaction designers to understand and apply what those who create habit-forming products have known for years.
David Farkas David Farkas: My presentation – “The F Word… Fail” – is a rallying cry for our profession to be more comfortable with admitting, discussing, and sharing failed projects, code, discoveries and experiences with each other and our clients.

The idea came out of my MidwestUX talk on “Interaction Design through Mixology.” Much of the post-presentation conversation centered around how I document my failed experimentations. It was a crystallizing moment for me: Where have I kept them? Why aren’t they available? Over the following months I researched my own and others work identifying the gap in knowledge in our field isn’t solely in academic or mentorship programs but exists in our fear of failure, or more importantly our resistance to openly discuss it.

Karl Fast Karl Fast: I’m speaking about the big challenge of small data. This is a reaction to the assumption that big data is inherently more complex, more interesting, and more important than smaller data. Big data is complex, interesting, and important, of course, but that doesn’t mean small data problems are simple, boring, and unimportant.

Look at the information in your life: the paper piled on your desk, the photos on your computer, all the stuff in your Evernote account. These are small data problems. They are messy and pervasive; something everybody has to deal with. The conversation around big data implies that we’ve solved small data problems. We haven’t.

Kel Smith Kel Smith: Both, really. The experience of designing for the digital outcast is something I’ve been exploring for the past several years (soon to be released as a book by Morgan Kaufmann). I’ve been inspired by how people with disabilities are increasingly relying on “grass roots” self-sufficiency as a way to successfully navigate their lives, and I believe there are lessons that we can all take from their efforts.
Designers seem to simultaneously ask “why?” and “why not?” of their clients. How does motive and/or intention factor into our work? And at what point might our work with government, healthcare, and other institutions become unethical?
Nir Eyal Nir Eyal: At some level, design is about manipulation. I’ve written on this topic before: how a designer can better decide what is worth working on from a moral perspective. I ask them to consider two things: First, “Would I use the product myself?” and second, “Will the product help users materially improve their lives?”
Karl Fast Karl Fast: Like any profession, UX designers believe our work has value; that we create positive change in the world. We have good motives and positive intent. Therefore, we naively assume our work must be ethical. Yet UX work is always coercive at some level. We deliberately design things that make people buy more, that persuade people to click ads, and so on. These are not inherently bad things, but they’re not inherently good either. Our work is not neutral. It has an ethical dimension, even if it’s not something we talk much about.
Kel Smith Kel Smith: I’ll speak from the point of view of healthcare. No authentic examples of unethical design practices come immediately to mind, likely because the industry is so tightly regulated that very few renegades are able to slip through the cracks.

The only case where I could consider a health design practice unethical is, obviously, when patient’s wellness is at risk. As we approach a new phase of healthcare that supports greater interoperability and an emphasis on quality of care, I think we’ll see new practices emerge that force us to reconsider how the patient experience is manifested through systemic or experiential constraints.

What are the biggest obstacles we’ve overcome as a profession? Along the same lines, what are challenges you foresee for our profession in the coming years?
Karl Fast Karl Fast: When Marissa Meyer was hired as the CEO at Yahoo, the headline in the New York Times was “Mayer Hopes to Brighten User Experience at Yahoo.” This headline was unthinkable ten years ago. Today it doesn’t seem unusual. So the biggest obstacle we’ve overcome is fragmentation. We have loosely assembled these pieces under the UX banner and, on the whole, it’s been a good thing for the field.

Looking ahead, a big challenge is the deep contextualization of UX practice. Take healthcare, for example: A typical UX role is improving the hospital website. Compare that to the much broader notion of patient experience design. Some people are moving in this direction, and I think it’s a positive trend. If this continues, maybe we’ll start hearing less about information architecture or interaction design, for example, and more about patient experience design (for healthcare), student experience design (for education), and citizen experience design (for government).

Andrew Hinton Andrew Hinton: Generally, I still get a sense that practitioners are impatient with complexity, and want to make everything too simple and concrete, too quickly. The zeitgeist right now is all about “making stuff” without much thinking, analysis or modeling. The assumption seems to be that if you’re working through a problem with any level of abstraction – analyzing, modeling – then you’re not making anything yet. This is horribly wrong-headed, and leads to a sort of blindness to big, complex, systemic challenges, and an over-focus on problems that can be tackled with a quick prototype. Meanwhile, the world is getting even more systemically complicated. We need to embrace complexity, then tame it.
Brad Nunnally Brad Nunnally: I’d say the fact that business executives and directors are including designers more and more during the initial conversations of a project is a big win. The results of this shift can be seen in the number of new products being released with a high level of design quality.

This new respect and desire for our skills also presents us with new challenges. Business leaders now see the value of design, but they need us to communicate that value back to them in terms they understand. If we don’t step up, then the success we are seeing will be short lived.

What book(s) are you presently reading? How else do you keep up with the accelerating change in our industry?
Lynn Boyden Lynn Boyden: I’m rereading Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting; of all the books on my shelf of professional literature, this is the one that not only bristles with post-its, but that I have returned to the most frequently during my 13 years of professional practice. It offers not only techniques for problem solving, but also for managing clients’ expectations, dealing with resistance, and other ways to get your expertise used. On my desk for the next read is Mike Montiero’s Design is a Job; everyone I respect who has read it insists it’s the best book about practicing IA that they’ve ever read.
Lauren Colton Lauren Colton: To keep up in the industry, blogs are a great way to stay informed. Smashing Magazine, UIE BrainSparks, and ZURBlog are some of my favorites. But as quickly as technology moves, the shape of a great sentence and the strategy behind an engaging message both come down to people. Copyblogger and Grammar Girl have great nonfiction blogs, but since what you read shapes what you write, I’m always reading novels too. (Recent favorite fiction includes the Dud Avocado, Snowdrops, and Reamde.)
Nir Eyal Nir Eyal: The last great book I read was Addiction by Design by Natash Dow Schull. I try and keep up with change in our industry by specializing in my area of focus, behavior and habit design.
Brad Nunnally Brad Nunnally: I’ve recently taken a deep dive into collaborative facilitation and workshops. The skills addressed in books like Gamestorming, Visual Teams, and Rapid Problem Solving with Post-It Notes allow me to work with business stakeholders in ways they may not be used to and help to drive future direction and strategy.

Books only help me keep up with the the design industry so much, though. The other side of the equation for me is attending conferences. Events like the IA Summit, Interaction, WebVisions, and SxSW are key to my own professional development. The first IA Summit I attended back in 2009 taught me more than two years of being a practitioner.


Many thanks to our friends at the IA Summit for helping us put this interview together as well as the speakers for their time in answering the responses. High fives all around!

See you in Baltimore?

Oh, one more thing. If you’re itching to join these (and a bunch of other) speakers at the IA Summit and haven’t yet bought your ticket, you’re in luck. We’ve got one to give away.

To win, simply let us know who you’re most looking forward to seeing/meeting and why in the comments below. Be sure to follow @uxbooth on twitter and leave your twitter handle in your comment so that we can contact you to claim your freebie.

Finally, entries must be made by midnight, tonight. We know that’s short notice, but we’d like to give the winner some time to arrange for their own hotel and travel accommodations. Please be aware that we can’t provide those!

Good luck, everyone. We can’t wait to meet you in person (@andrewmaier will be there) in two weeks.

About the Author

Andrew Maier

Andrew is a lifelong student of the design community, who co-founded the design publication UX Booth in 2008 to share his journey. He currently serves as its Editor-in-Chief. When he's not heading user-centered design initiatives for clients, Andrew dabbles in civic design. He lives in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

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17 Comments

  • Manju Muthukumaresan Reply

    @manjudotorg I’d love to hear from David Farkas because the failing fast and learning quick has low risk. However, don’t see it in action in corporations (especially big ones). The ROI is a must even on experiments. Digital ecosystem especially enables fast test and iterations but requires agile development methodology. Traditionally, UX discovery/research has been focused on surveys, interviews, ethnography but digital allows a/b testing and mvt methods. I want to get more insight into how design is changing to adapt to new discovery methods.

  • Edmund Azigi Reply

    Who: Looking forward to seeing all the speakers interviewed by uxb and all the other speakers

    Why: They all have different perspectives on all the questions asked. That gives me a vast interest on who these speakers are and their impact on UX. Obviously, there’s a reason why they were selected to be speakers. They’ve all earned it and deserve to be there. So a chance to meet all of them definitely broadens my knowledge on UX based on the information they’ll share with us at the summit.
    Twitter: @edmundazigi

  • Bekah (@marshmallowfeev) Reply

    Lynn Boyden and Chris Chandler blew my mind with their discussion of mentoring at World IA Day in Los Angeles. Really fun and useful and cut through a lot of noise and went straight to the heart of the matter. I’m brand-new to the IA community and I would love to hear more (and learn more) from these awesome people. Taking part in their IA Slam at IA Summit sounds like 90 scary and thrilling minutes of IA bootcamp. In other words, a really fantastic way to spend a Friday afternoon!

  • Steven McKenzie Reply

    I’m a huge fan of Karen McGrane and would love a chance to hear her speak. While I’m no expert in UX, my background in content strategy and project management has led me to explore the world of UX and how it intersects with the ways we manage and produce content. It’s all part of making the web more awesome, as Karen would say. For more info, give me a follow on Twitter @swmckenzie.

  • Wendy A F G Stengel Reply

    Who am I looking forward to seeing & hearing? Everyone. My “floor mom” from college. My former colleague who taught me the basics of IA. The Cranky Talkers who boosted my public speaking skills and confidence. The great people I interact with on Twitter. Those who love content and structure and design, yes, but also those who love sushi and beer and ukuleles. Every bit of the IA Summit community is wonderful. Every. Bit.

  • Amanda Goodman Reply

    I’d love to listen to Nir Eyal’s talk about brands which have habit-forming products. I work at a public library so we’re already one-up in the game in that people who visit probably are already interested in books, movies, video games, and computers. However, it’d be great to foster more power users who advocate for the library. Nir’s talk seems like it would give me some great ideas to meet my goal.

  • Angelos Tzelepis Reply

    This conference has been on my radar for months, but just couldn’t do it on a contractor’s budget.

    But sign me up for David Farkas, and “The F word.” Failure is inevitable, and yet most decisions are driven by the other F word, fear.

    Of the three projects I have going now, one of the clients is totally unafraid of tying up coders and designers and data analysts for two days to try an idea. Doesn’t work? NEXT! ANd guess what, where pushing actually viable iterations at a crazy pace because we’re trying every crazy idea.

    The other two joints, not so much. “Let’s meet on this. How does May 1st sound?” Six $@&$@#*@%@^@$@ weeks?!?!?

    I need to teach them to fail.

  • Alex Atienza Reply

    I *thought* I was looking forward to the listening to the speakers I already have heard of, Jeff Gothelf about Lean UX, maybe Brad Frost and Responsive Design Patterns, or even seeing Jared Spool.

    But at conferences like these, its the people you don’t know about that surprise you the most. So *today* I decided that I am looking forward to hearing and learning more from Nir Eyal! (Thanks to you guys!) I’ve always been a big believer in a designer’s “opportunity” create behaviors, and persuading the user to do the things you want them to do. And hearing him talk about addictive behaviors and manipulating the user was so enlightening! He shares a background similar to my own, and I would love to meet him and talk about creating these addictive behaviors!

    Big fan of you guys! Thanks!

  • Mandy McManamon Reply

    Thanks for the sneak peek of all the awesome info that I seriously don’t want to miss! I’m really, really interested in David’s experience with the F word. It’s so difficult to take risks and attempt to innovate when you work in a culture that does not tolerate failure. In UX, where we’re all still working to demonstrate the value that our discipline adds to businesses of all kinds, it gets just plain exhausting to fight for resources necessary to be successful, let alone resources that can be dedicated to trying something less proven. Everyone else sounds absolutely awesome as well and I’m certain I’d learn a boatload. Thanks for the opportunity, UX Booth! I’ll be waiting anxiously, @mandymcm.

  • Tulsi Patel Reply

    I would be interested in hearing Stephen Anderson’s “Stop Doing What You’re Told” talk on reframing design problems. I’ve had people come to me with what they think is the critical problem, when there is an underlying or different issue that should be focused on instead. I’m interested in learning different techniques to get to the root of a problem and to communicate the real problem to stakeholders.

    I’m also a fan of Stephen’s “Mental Notes” cards and would love to meet him in person.

    Twitter: @tulsi

  • Nikki Pfahler Reply

    Really enjoyed this Q&A. I would be incredibly interested to hear David Farkas at the IA Summit. A little over six months ago, my three co-founders and I went full time at our startup and I was suddenly faced with leading all the design/marketing/ux work for our app. It’s incredibly easy to stop a moment in time and see where I am, but how did I get there? Where was my team invaluable in leading me to something that worked really well? Needless to say, I can definitely claim my share of failures and David’s talk just seems like one that would get me thinking – and make me take action. I’ll be experiencing the IA Summit vicariously through Twitter at @nikkipfahler!

  • Kaleem Reply

    Olga Morawczynski. Her talk about the Grameen Foundation’s product development process is intriguing. The constraints and challenges that Grameen faces would stymie even accomplished teams developing for the connected, always-on audiences that most of us are used to in the industrially developed world. Morawczynski’s talk offers a completely different perspective on design. Learning how other people and organizations approach design and development is always enlightening, and offers fresh insights into how to improve one’s own practice. The “design for social impact” aspect of her talk is especially appealing to me. I am a big fan of Grameen and its founder, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus. @kaleemux

  • John Gurtz Reply

    I’d love to see Karl speak (again). His topics both interest me and have correlation to my work. Karl’s talk this year on small data sounds right in line with the user needs my employer and I are trying to meet. Our platforms are around specific tasks the require small data, yet capturing that data in a usable experience is not a challenge easily met.

  • Shannon Leahy Reply

    I would love to see Margot Bloomstein again. I attended a content strategy workshop that she led at EDUI Conference a couple years ago, and that’s when I had my “aha!” moment that content strategy is for me. Gotta thank her in person for helping guide my path. And get her to sign my copy of Content Strategy at Work, ha ha.

    I’m dying to see Karen McGrane, too. Her presentations sound fabulously informative and entertaining.

    Twitter: @sullivan_s

  • Janelle Reply

    I’m looking forward to hearing Kel Smith – among many others! I’m extremely interested in the ways we can improve the healthcare experience. I work in the digital space for health authorities and research organizations and it’s exciting that they’re finally adopting better digital experiences! Navigating the healthcare system can be extremely stressful, not only because of the large amount of bureaucracy and information, but often because of the archaic IA/UX (both online/offline). I like what Kel Smith says – we should move toward patient experience design – and I would love to hear his insights.

    In health, the UX experience could improve patient outcomes. There are so many concepts that could be applied to healthcare, and I would love the opportunity to learn more at the IASummit!
    Twitter: @janellemint, @eveningrounds

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