The EuroIA Summit – a Wow Experience

I did plan to write this a bit earlier, but while I was in Prague at this year’s EuroIA summit, I got a bout of bronchitis that’s been slowing me down. That said, I can still easily say “Wow.” It was a great conference.

What made it great, first and foremost, was the spirit. Just about everyone there was infused with a certain joie de vivre that was infectious. People were there to share and celebrate their profession. The “celebrate” part was really important. There was a sense that information architecture, as a profession, had gone through some hard times, and that it was now possible to hold one’s head up high and jubilantly proclaim to the heavens, “Ich bin ein IA!” – OK, wrong language for Prague, but I don’t know any Czech ūüėČ

Another reason for the success of this conference is that it is deliberately kept small – sold out at 200. This is done to guaranty that most people get to speak to most people, and that you get to meet new folks, not just hang out with old friends. The small group fosters camaraderie as well. There were only two concurrent sessions at a time, so, although choices were sometimes difficult, they weren’t as daunting as for some larger conferences.

Then there was the quality of the presentations themselves. While I can’t say that they were uniformly outstanding, every presentation I attended was able to grab and hold my attention, even the one that I found disappointing. No one was so boring that I wanted to leave. That might seem to be a backhanded compliment, but anyone who has had to organize a conference knows that it is very difficult to achieve such a thing in a three-day event.

I specially appreciated that this conference was really for people in Europe. There were some attendees from North America, but the focus of the conference was on European practice and European issues, and that was a refreshing change from many so-called “international” conferences where people from all over the world can congregate and talk about the state of their professions in the United States.

One innovation of this conference that I really loved – and will probably steal next time I have to organize a conference myself – was what they called “The IA Shuffle.” Conference chair Eric Reiss explained that in the past, organizers had been disappointed by the poor quality of panels and debates that had been proposed and prepared in advance. They decided, a few years back, that an improvised panel couldn’t possibly be any worse, and thus was born the IA Shuffle.

Here’s how it works. At the beginning of the day, a tall hat is placed in front of one of the meeting rooms, and attendees are invited to drop their proposals for a panel discussion topic into the hat. At the end of the day, in plenary session, a single topic is drawn from the hat, and that is the topic of the discussion. Volunteer panelists are then solicited, and the process is repeated as they put their names into the hat. Five or six names are drawn, and Bob’s your uncle! A panel is born.

I personally agree with Eric Reiss’ assessment that the panel we witnessed was every bit as good, and perhaps better for its spontaneity, as any prepared panel could be.

I came back from Prague knowing that next year I’ll be submitting a paper proposal, and going to Rome for EuroIA 2012 whether my paper is accepted or not.

Oral Tech Comm

This, too, is technical communication, and it enters perfectly into the “humanist nerd” camp. This TED talk has made a few rounds, but is worth viewing, or reviewing.

Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain researcher who got an insight into her own field through her own stroke. ¬†While this kind of occurrence is dramatic, it is not in itself that exceptional. Many bright people who are researchers have had insights into their own research through a personal accident – the most well-known probably being Sir Isaac Newton’s famous apple.

What makes this one special is the combination of the following:

  • The clarity of the explanation – the technical content.
  • The personal point of view – she describes each of her senses shutting down, one by one, from a first-person point of view that has rarely been possible.
  • The emotion that suffuses the presentation. She manages to communicate an intense personal experience with all its sensations, and at the same time be clear about the scientific part, and for the most part (perhaps not so much at the very end), she manages to keep both clarity and a certain kind of precision in her content, and to convey the human experience.

I’ve noticed some problems using the embedded player, so in case, here’s the URL:¬†http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

Lessons Learned:

We technical communicators have come from what used to be called “technical writing.” ¬†We forget, sometimes, that the written word is just one means of communication. We also communicate orally (presentations, webinars, etc. – see my previous post about my experience delivering a webinar for the first time, for example).

The quality of the technical part of the communication – and its ability to stay in the memory of our audience – can often be a function of the human impact (humanistic impact) that it carries.

While this example is probably at the extremes of such a communication, and while some might even criticize the excess of emotion and loss of objectivity, particularly near the end of the talk, it remains a vivid illustration of just how powerful a technical communication can be.

Transformation and Then Some!

Please watch this TED talk!  In less than 20 minutes, you will learn so many things on so many levels, and have a good laugh doing it!

Hans Rosling is a specialist in public health. This is the story of his discovery of the visual presentation of information. Now, he works with David McCandless, who created the animation I embedded in my earlier post,  A Beautiful Example of Transformation.

This video illustrates transformation on so many levels:

  • Public health
  • Education technique
  • Visual communication
  • Cultural misconceptions
  • Economic disparity

It shows how all this is connected and interconnected, and does it with humour, grace, wit, and intelligence. A lesson for us all.

Minimalism and Dogma

Let’s talk about minimalism for a minute.

A recent emailing on the subject from JoAnn Hackos emphasized the need that

“..users get only the information they need… And, the more languages we translate means that we cannot afford to add “nice to know” extras that fail to help the users succeed in reaching their goals. Their critical goal — getting their tasks done as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

I’d guess very few of us would argue with this position. At the same time, I’m not sure we’d all agree on what constitutes “nice to know extras that fail to help the users succeed in reaching their goals.”

If we define extras as “any non procedural information,” for example, we come into conflict with another important trend, the need to include decision support in on line help. Getting tasks done quickly and efficiently might mean, in some circumstances, having the answer to “why would I want to do this?”

Let’s be clear – most of the time, these days, we’re talking about software, and thus, online help. If you’re doing paper documentation, or even electronic, but related to electro-mechanical operations, or chemical processes, or manufacturing operations, you might have a different view of what constitutes essential information, even if you buy into minimalism as a principle.

The answer to “why would I want to do this?” or other decision oriented questions needs to be clear, concise, and limited to the immediate need. In most cases, probably not more than a sentence or two.

It means that those of us with an editorial function have a particularly onerous task. If we’re to practice minimalism with intelligence, and really provide service to our users, we need to avoid the dogmatic approach of ideas such as, “if it’s not procedural, cut it out.” ¬†On the other hand, if we favour too much conceptual information, we’re not minimalist any more.

How much is enough?  How much is too much?

I’d like to take a stab at a simple guideline: ask yourself, “if I didn’t know anything about this software (or whatever it is), would I know when and why I need to do this?”

If the answer is “yes,” see if there’s anything to strip away, and ask the question again. Keep at it, until the answer is “no.” Then put back the smallest number of bits that make it “yes” again.

As you might imagine, this can’t be done by the numbers – it requires judgement, intelligence, and intuition.

What do you think?