The Future is Already Here: Three Trends in IA

Below is my opening keynote slides and the talk I wrote out which I gave at the German IA Conference in Cologne, Germany May 14, 2010. I speak about experience design, social design and service design. The theme of the conference is Service. Design. Thinking. What I actually said may have been slightly different than the text here but the intent was the same.

Hi I am Erin Malone. Thanks so much for inviting me to speak to you all today.
I want to talk about some of the trends in the IA practice I have been seeing and how I believe they are leading us to a time of convergence.
[slides about me]


We are all experience designers

Regardless of our titles, regardless of the arguments.

Last year at the IA Summit in Memphis, Jesse James Garrett gave the closing plenary. He rocked the house by making a bold statement that we are all Experience Designers and that the title of Information Architect needed to be left behind.

He claimed that there are no Information Architects, there are only User Experience Designers.

I am not sure I agree with him, but he was right about one thing. Today’s IA, needs to be aware of and even engaged in the overarching user experience design of the projects he is working on, REGARDLESS OF HIS TITLE.

I am not going to get into a debate here about titles or tell you that your title is wrong. Frankly I don’t care about that. I care about what we do.

“Designing with human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as an explicit goal is different from the kinds of design that have gone before. It can be practiced in any medium, and across media.” Jesse James Garrett, IA Summit Closing Plenary 2009

Others have a similar definition – User-experience design—a sort of architecture for information that Web viewers see—is another emerging field. Jobs there include experience specialists and product designers at firms ranging from computer-game companies to e-commerce Web sites.
Diana Middleton, Wall Street Journal 12/28/2009

IA doesn’t live in a vacuum. It exists in the context of a content strategy. In the context of a brand. In the context of interactions and coded interfaces. The more successful and adaptive IA already understands this and has evolved his practice to embrace an understanding of the holistic user experience.

To stay viable and relevant and engaged, we don’t abandon what we know and practice, we expand what we understand.

We add to our toolsets.

Tim Brown, of IDEO, said in a Fast Company article, “T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things.
First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective- to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. Tshaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills. ”

We need to be understand and speak the language of business. We have to understand the language of content and brand and understand enough of the paradigm of software to engage with developers in meaningful ways.

And ever increasingly, we must think about physical spaces and about person to person – social – interactions whether mediated by a computer or mobile device or in real time. Information is woven into and throughout these experiences.

We must do all these things all while understanding and championing the people who will use these spaces.

As architects of information, we are now, more often than not, designing information frameworks. We are designing the spaces and experiences that house the data and information we shape and THAT is designing at a meta level. Being engaged at the meta “Experience Design” level gives us the mindset to be successful as we become more immersed in designing social and service experiences.


Everything is social.

Thinking about frameworks and designing for a Meta context puts us in the right frame of mind and space to be designing social into our work. It’s everywhere and everyone wants it. It is inescapable.

You may already be designing social and not even know it.

So what does that mean?

Just what is social? We hear the terms social network, the social graph, social media and social object.

The social web means that the awkwardness of human interactions and relationships are now happening online. People are unpredictable and will stretch and push the boundaries of what they can do within the digital frameworks.

So how can you be successful integrating social into your work.

Social is organic. It’s emotional. It’s about relationships. It exists along a continuum and over time.

The information architecture needs are different than what has come before. Now more than ever we are designing for things to come. For user generated content that doesn’t exist when you are creating your solutions. For relationships between people that aren’t manifested until after your work is complete.

It’s important to understand the principles behind good citizenship in social environments. You need to be aware of the tradeoffs required for shipping social interfaces fast. It means thinking about things like privacy, norms, citizenship, and designing the spaces for interaction to be created. It means giving up control within a controlled environment.

There are a handful of principles we talk about in the book (DSI). In many ways these are not specifically about social, but they have greater importance in the social environments.

5 Principles

Pave the Cowpaths
When designing social spaces or the social framework, remember that you shouldn’t or needn’t design out every feature. Create enough structure for the community to then create their own experiences. Over time, you will find that your users will create their own features, their own shortcuts.
Dogster is an example, when the company saw that people were sharing pictures and talking about their dogs, they changed the interface to accomodate the activities people were already doing.

An example of this in real life is the RT feature in twitter. Users created a meaning for RT and process for what that meant. The company later added a formal feature to support this. The implementation isn’t necessarily what everyone wanted but it addressed one definition of how people were Retweeting.

Talk Like a Person
This advice is to talk like a real person. Not like a computer. Not like a marketing person. Not like a giant corporate hairball. It’s about being authentic. About being real, while true to your brand. It’s about taking the blame for errors.
It also means keeping jokes to a minimum – they don’t translate across cultures or often across demographics so its safer to stay away from them.

Be Open
Being open doesn’t have to mean giving everything away. It can mean being open to the idea of letting people bring their data in with them. It can be as open as letting people take their data away or some combinations of the two.
It’s worth exploring options where you don’t have to design everything from scratch.

Learn From Games
Amy Jo Kim, who wrote the book Community Building on the Web in 2000, is now working on social games and has collected and presents a list of game mechanics. These are very powerful in game situations and are as powerful in social situations.

Game mechanics:

Collecting give people bragging rights and encourages them to complete tasks or activities in order to get every item that can be collected.

Feedback, from the system or another person, lets that person know they are not alone.

Points drive competitive behavior and for some people the desire to win or always be first. Points are tricky, in that they often drive quantity rather than quality. Teamed up with other features though and they can be strong driver for engagement.

Exchanges, like gifts, and other items from person to person often gives a sense of value to the relationships between people and are a passive way to strengthen bonds.

Customization, allows people to make their experiences personal and once someone feels like they own it, they are more likely to be a return user.

Respect the Ethical Dimension
There are often a lot of ethical questions and issues to address when designing social spaces. These can be as simple as developing a licensing system for the user generated content and as complex as who owns what data that is emergent by behavior and activity.

There are tradeoff that need to be made and they can’t be ignored when thinking about the whole ecosystem of a social environment. It is important to think through and make decisions before building a community, than after something has happened.


5 Practices

Give people a way to be identified and to identify themselves.
Identifiable information – names, avatars, contributions, all build a person’s reputation on line and help others differentiate between people with the same or similar names.

Giving people a way to identify themselves lets them check in on how they are perceived by others. It’s just like checking the mirror before heading for night out on the town. You want to make sure you look good.

Make sure there is a “there” there.

People should be able to have an affinity – through interest, passion, background etc. to the offerings of your social service. The social object – the thing which draws people together and around which they interact, communicate, build relationships etc. – should be clearly articulated. It’s not about building social for social’s sake, but to create a “there” there.

Give people something to do.

Because people are different, and their engagement is going to happen along a continuum, based on their interests and passions, there needs to be options for varying levels of social engagement. In other words, it’s ok if some people are just watching.

Enable a bridge to real life.

Provide tools for people to find each other, plan and organize, meet in real life and bring the stories and pictures and follow up conversations back on line again.

Let the community elevate people and content they value.
When there are too many people in a community, especially one that is vocal and active, people will get lost. There is too much noise and not enough good content gets to the right people. Once a community crosses over that critical mass sweet spot, you need to either add tools to allow users to help surface the good stuff, find their friends and create their own sub-groups or you need to calve off areas into sub-sections or sub-groups that may be more formal.

Create the spaces for people to make things happen.

These ideas and ways to respond are part of the challenge of designing social experiences. The framework needs to be flexible enough to adapt and evolve as the needs of the community change and evolve.


Service design is the new old frontier.

In my opinion, Service design is the culmination of Experience Design and Social Design. It is the merging of information with brand with real life and real time human interactions. It’s how people interact with an entire system over time.

The difference between products and services is more than semantic. Products are tangible objects that exist in both time and space; services consist solely of acts or process(es), and exist in time only. The basic distinction between “things” and “processes” is the starting point for a focused investigation of services. Services are rendered; products are possessed. Services cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced, created or participated in. Though they are different, services and products are intimately and symbiotically linked.
1982 article by G. Lynn Shostack entitled How to Design a Service:

Services are choreographed interactions. Service=performance. There is a performative aspect to designing the holistic service experience.

Does this diagram look familiar? We have the tools already in hand to lead the way in evolving and improving the services of our everyday lives. We do ethnography and watch people to understand behavior. We tell stories and develop scenarios to understand and model how people move through an experience over time. We prototype to experience what we design in real life. The new aspect lies in expanding our horizons beyond the computer and towards understanding and designing the holistic system.

We have no control over how are users access our offerings. They come to us from all angles… from our website, some else’s website, from the phone, a kiosk, from a bricks-and-mortar lcoation, through a help desk or someone else’s site like Get Satisfaction, and through social media channels. People will go wherever they can to get the information they need or to complete a transaction. From their point of view, they’re just interacting with our brand, our company. And they don’t care about what channel they’re using.

Brenda Laurel, an early experience design practitioner, who studied theater as well as computers, uses improv and acting to show designers and engineers how to think about the people that use their products and services. She shows them how to use enactment and acting to inform design.

There are at least two reasons, Laurel writes, for considering theatre as a possible foundation for thinking about and designing experiences:

“First, there is significant overlap in the fundamental objective of the two domains — that is, representing actions with multiple agents. Second, theatre suggests a basis for a model of human-computer activity that is familiar, comprehensible, and evocative.”

While the actor uses empathy to perform dramatic characters in scripted situations, the designer uses empathy to perform design solutions that are drawn from deep identification with real, individual people in specific situated contexts in the real world. Brenda Laurel, Design Improvisation essay in Design Research Methods and Perspectives, 2003

Techniques like body storming, scenarios and storytelling are tools we already have to act out these new experiences.

People want more information and have higher expectations. People want better information tailored to them.

“Starbucks has always been designed to provide customers with a third place; a place between home and work where they can relax or meet with friends.”
– a company spokesperson

“… the essence of Starbucks is not about the coffee, although it’s great coffee. It’s about the coffee-drinking and the coffeehouse experience,” says Hayes Roth, vice president of marketing at Landor Associates, a consultancy that has advised Starbucks on branding strategy.

From Judy Stokes, Sutter Health, My Life Stages staff member
“Inside the café, I had witnessed numerous others conducting their business on the tiny Starbucks tables or settled into the couches.
Others were there with friends, children, spouses. Friends greeted friends when they arrived – clearly a place where, for locals at least, “everybody knows your name.”

Later that day, I spoke with my 19-year-old son about the experience. He pointed out that HIS friends also use Starbucks as THEIR meeting place. The barista knows Ian’s name and his favorite drink. His cycling friends meet there to plan their next ride. He uses their WiFi connection to conduct his important business.

While I have formerly dissed Starbucks as a conglomerate that tends to push out the local coffee shops – I am softening my view. Starbucks has built something that we, as Americans, are responding to! And it’s larger than the cup of expensive coffee. It’s a cultural phenomenon – the creation of neighborhood gathering places that are becoming part of our lives.

Is that true for you, too?”

Apple raises the bar with the choreographed experience at the genius bar. The staff have a specific role and process. There is a rapid transactional, purchase process and all of this is designed to accompany the environmental design and the product design of the items they sell.

“As service designers we are engaged in meta-design—designing design—and are producing resources for people to creatively engage with a service.” Dubberly Design, Designing for Service

This idea of designing design, reinforces my statements about our need to be designing at the framework and systems level.

A great example of a simple design change in the overall service experience of security can be seen when comparing the security check point and processes at the International Terminal in Stockholm, Sweden versus the security checkpoint system at San Francisco International.

In San Francisco, the trays are on a rolling cart at the end of a straight table. People get backed up grabbing and unstacking the trays, They have to slide the trays and their belongings (often numbering up 5 or 6 items and trays per person with shoes and coats and laptops and bags) across a flat metal table. Once they go through the scanner, they retrieve their belongings and the empty trays are placed on a rolling cart by the TSA people. Only when there is a shortage of trays at the other side are they rolled back or sometimes carried back by hand, to the front, requiring both someone to pay attention to the inventory and for someone to restock the trays.

In Stockholm, the “table” is an oval rotating conveyer belt. The trays for shoes and items are stored beneath the rotating conveyer belt, so that as items are scanned and retrieved, the trays wind their way back to the people in line needing trays. No extra people needed to move the trays.

The simple difference at the Stockholm airport means less time in line for passengers and more focused security staff who could pay attention to security and not tray inventory.

This different system was designed by someone and the impact it makes on the stress level of customers is immeasurable. By contrast, most customers at SFO are stressed out and frustrated before they even get to their gate.

I share this story because it is an example of a small design change that can have a big impact. It takes people like us, with skills at observation and imagining a different outcome, to design these changes.

As certain experiences (entertainment, restaurants, shopping) get better through design, people come to expect it in all facets of their lives. With everything moving into the digital realm and information informing personal interactions for things like healthcare, fitness, sales, shopping, travel and a myriad of other contexts, the need for thoughtful, cross channel, choreographed experiences by the people in this room becomes more important than ever.

“In order to feel connected, important, and understood, people need meaningful experiences.”
Pierre Bourdieu, Sociologist

Ultimately, it’s about convergence and making meaning within contexts. Understanding our role, our expertise and how all the disciplines work together will only enhance our ability to change behavior with the tools at hand and will make us successful in designing these spaces, whether digital, social or as part of a larger ecosystem of services.

Thank you.


  • Jesse James Garrett, Closing Plenary, IA Summit 2009
  • Diana Middleton, Wall Street Journal 12/28/2009
  • William Gibson, in an NPR interview (30 November 1999 Timecode 11:55
  • Web project roles diagram, via via, updated by Erin Malone
  • A Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander
  • Designing Social Interfaces, Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone, 2009, O’Reilly Media
  • Power law of participation diagram, Ross Mayfield, founder SocialText, 2006
  • Design As Theater, Brenda Laurel
  • Design Research Methods and Perspectives, 2003, Brenda Laurel
  • How to Design a Service by G. Lynn Shostack, 1982
  • Strategy by Design, Tim Brown, IDEO, Fast Company, June 1, 2005
  • Designing for Service: Creating an Experience Advantage, Hugh Dubberly and Shelley Evenson, February 1, 2010,
  • Service Design Iterative Process by Shelley Evenson, Dubberly Design
  • Ubiquitous Service Design, Peter Morville, Semantic Studios Blog, April 19, 2010,
current: experience matters design :: senior level interaction design and systems strategy consulting former partner, tangible user experience; Yahoo! founder of the public and internal Yahoo! pattern library. design director of ued teams responsible for designing solutions across key yahoo! platforms: social media, personalization, membership and vertical search.