in Conferences

Another great IA retreat

I just returned from the New Challenges IA Retreat, which was held at the Edith Macy Conference Center. As the main organizer of the event, I would probably be somewhat biased to say that it was a huge success—but it was a huge success! After arriving late on Friday (we got rear-ended on the highway, and the car that hit the car that hit ours drove off, so suddenly the whole thing turned into a crime scene and oodles of paperwork), I had to call ahead to make sure someone would actually be there. Crystal and the “Philly Van” were there to cover for me. What a relief it was to arrive to a crowd of smiling faces and an amazing dinner, after having gotten lost in the maze of highways criss-crossing Westchester county. It was great to see a lot of familiar faces, like Jorge Arango, Peter Van Dijck, Livia Libate, Wendy Cown and Victor Lombardi (who I rode up with and also had to fill out oodles of paper work at the car accident “crime scen”), as well as several new faces, like Todd Warfel of MessageFirst, and Marcelo and Mary-Lynne from Razorfish.

The IA Retreats have been an ongoing tradition for a few years now, but as far as I know all have been held on the west coast at the Asilomar Campgrounds, a gem of a retreat venue on the Northern California coast. After attending last year’s amazingly great Asilomar retreat, I thought it was time to do this on the east coast, if nothing else for a change of scenery, but also to attract people who may not want to travel all the way across the country for a retreat.

I have to admit I was a bit nervous on Saturday morning.  How would the presentations turn out? Would the fact that the pouring rain was forecast for the entire weekend put a damper on the whole thing? (Part of the reason for picking Edith Macy was all the little winding walkways and outdoor areas, and the thinking that we maybe could hold a session or two outside.) But after a quick welcome talk, and getting the first presentation (“Global IA”) underway, the retreat sort of went on auto-pilot.

One of the things I really love about retreats like this, which sets them apart from larger conferences, is that you’re not really married to whatever schedule you’ve come up with for the event. If you’re at a conference, and there is an interesting presentation, which inevitably leads to discussion afterwards, it equally inevitably gets cut short, because there is another presentation scheduled and people have to clear out of the room. Not so at a retreat. We all attend the same sessions, and being very much aware that IAs tend be of the discussion-intensive ilk, we padded our schedule with about an hour and a half of unscheduled time spread out across each day. By the end of Saturday, every last minute of that padded time had been filled with intense discussions about global enterprise intranets (I mean really global, as in deploying them to offices in virtually every major country on the globe), how to best produce wireframes (I say standards-based, you say drawing-based…), the tantalizing possibilities and elusive pitfalls of applying prototype theory to content management, or navigating Enterprise IA through the unpredictable waters of mergers and acquisitions (and coming out on top.) Even the lunch break was intermingled with a “Women in IA” session, held by Livia (put together after we realized that almost all the presenters that had been selected were male.) While we were having drinks in the lounge that evening (we were supposed to be out on the patio, but that was out due to the unending downpour), several people came up to me and said they were really enjoying the retreat. I can’t even begin to express how nice it was to get those compliments. After all, putting together a retreat like this was a much bigger undertaking than I had expected. But I am so glad we made it happen.

Peter Merholz, the current president of the Information Architecture Institute, which sponsored the retreat, has said that one of his major goals is to place a greater emphasis on events. Just as last year’s retreat at Asilomar was a huge inspiration for me, I hope people attending this year’s event found it equally inspiring and go on to organize events of their own, and that the IA Institute can be there to support them in their efforts.

To read more about the retreat, check out this article I wrote about the retreat at Boxes & Arrows.