In IA Practice, Information Architecture
Summary: Recap of World Information Architecture Day 2014 in Los Angeles California: Using information architecture skills to frame and solve wicked problems.

Nearly 200 attendees from all over Southern California came together on Saturday, February 15, 2014, to celebrate and learn about Information Architecture at World IA Day 2014 in Los Angeles – “Reframe IA”.

Long-time Los Angeles IA/UX leaders, Lynn Boyden and Chris Chandler kicked off WIAD LA with a historical overview of information architecture as both a field of practice, as well as an active community in the LA area. They closed their opening remarks with the idea (and a bit of anecdotal proof) that IA-thinking, skills, and approaches can be used to solve some of life’s larger, more complex problems.

Photo of participants at World Information Architecture Day in Los Angeles 2014

Standing Room only at WIAD LA 2014

Then the real fun began. It’s no secret that I don’t care much for LA—it has its share of wicked problems, many of which I link to the lack of information architecture, placeness, and strategy in many of the city’s systems and locations. It was a pleasant surprise to me then, that the singular focus of the 2014 Los Angeles edition of WIAD was dedicated to ACTUALLY SOLVING some of the most loathsome aspects of LA life—with an IA mindset as the keystone.

Using IA to Solve Wicked Problems

World IA Day LA organizers, led by Lara Federoff, invited three LA community groups to share their truly wicked problems:

  • Providing low income housing to Angelenos in need – explained by Helmi Hisserich, Assistant General Manager of the Los Angeles Housing Development Bureau
  • Reducing transit headaches experienced by most all LA residents—explained by Hilary Norton, Executive Director of FAST (Fixing Angelenos Sitting in Traffic).
  • Increasing LA’s green space, community health, and alternative transit methods via the LA River Bike Path—explained by Jennifer Samson, from the LA River Revitalization Corporation.
  • Framing the Problem with IA

    After a short break, attendees sectioned off into groups to tackle the problem they cared about most. The group I facilitated selected the LA River project and included a business analyst, a graphic designer, a strategist, a few UX designers, and generalists—most of whom had very little IA experience. Assigned as the project manager, I was happy to provide an IA-skewed approach for our 3.5 hours together.

    Our team agreed to break the session into three parts: [1] understanding the organization and problem, [2] understanding the user, and THEN [3] sketching some strategic flows, sitemaps, and structural design ideas.

    In our first hour, we were able to do original stakeholder research, narrow in on the flavor of the problem with performance continuums, and distill three main organizational goals for the LA River Bike Path, which ended up being:

    1. Awareness
    2. Fundraising
    3. Completion of the 51 mile path & Surrounding Community
    Our team working with a stakeholder on Performance Continuums to frame the problem with IA thinking

    Our team working with a stakeholder on Performance Continuums to frame the wicked problem with IA thinking

    After understanding the main goals, in the second hour we took a look at some of the users of the bike path, as well as some of the roles of people who worked at the coalition. After gaining a larger understanding of the organization and the people who are involved with its use and development, we decided it was only THEN could we determine the type of tool or systemic approach that would add the greatest value. We figured out the Why and What before we jumped through the How. Look at us, using “Big IA” skills to frame a wicked problem!

    Our subsequent strategy and structural design sketches focused on an internal tool that would allow LA River Revitalization Corp team members to better store, manage, see, and analyze data. This would help them prioritize and track completion of associated project tasks. As an added bonus, the data created and maintained in this system could then also be leveraged by the organization in fundraising and marketing efforts, which would eventually result in the creation and completion of the unified trail.

    We called our proposed digital product a “community-derived, data-driven project management tool for community improvement.” While at the beginning of the project many of the team members were mostly envisioning sexy iPhone apps or complex and glossy cross-channel marketing solutions, in framing the problem with IA thinking, we realized that empowering the staff at the coalition would be the best way to meet the goals of the stakeholders, and actually foster improvement in the community. Our stakeholder loved it, and we were thankful to have created a possible solution to a very real problem.

    Discussing our strategy and structural concepts with the stakeholder at WIAD14

    Discussing our strategy and some structural ideas with the stakeholder at WIAD14

    WIAD14’s Call to Arms: Stop Talking About It and Start Doing It

    The morning talks and working sessions were engaging, and my team was proud of the work we turned out towards solving LA River’s bike path revitalization problem. But my favorite part of the day came in group discussion at the event conclusion. When the crowd was asked, “What did you learn today?”, one impassioned participant stood up and expressed their concern that IA wasn’t even really discussed at all at WIAD LA. Solving community problems was nice, but it wasn’t TRUE IA.

    Another person got up and shouted across the room “You’re right! We AREN’T talking about IA, we are DOING IA!

    I love this sentiment. WIAD14, at least in Los Angeles, was a call to arms. It’s time, as a community of practice, that we start working on the wicked problems instead of giving lip service to them or getting stuck in semantic arguments about the label of the work we are doing.

    Every conversation we have bickering about Big IA vs. Little IA or IA vs. UX vs. IxD is less time we are making a positive impact for our clients, for each other, for the IA community, and I’d argue most importantly—for our communities. I hope that across the globe, WIAD 2014 becomes known as the turning point when the community conversation shifted from talking about using IA skills and deliverables to change the world to actually doing it.

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