My Reflections on IA Summit 18

My Experience at IA Summit 18

I recently returned to work after an exhilarating time at IA Summit 18 in Chicago. As a student and practitioner, I’ve been working in the digital space for over 25 years. Many of my friends and colleagues have tried to get me to attend the Summit. However, project and client schedules always seemed to supersede my availability to attend. Thankfully, this year, I was able to attend. I went from long-time-lurker to first-time attendee representing ConnectFive and Handrail.

I’m grateful for all the thoughtful, supportive, interesting, fun, and intelligent attendees and volunteers I was able to interact with throughout the Summit’s programming, which included  workshops, talks, mentee sessions, as well as engaging and enlightening conversations throughout the coffee breaks, dinners, and evening pints.

Here are my takeaways from the Summit:

  • Ethical Practice is Imperative
  • Understanding of People & Context Will Always Be at the Heart of Effective Design
  • The Power of Community

Ethical Practice is Imperative

While the theme of the conference was Converge, I feel many of the discussions focused on ethics and our role as designers and producers in what is delivered to customers and our society at large.

The frame of ethics and responsibility may have been set while I was listening to an episode of “Let’s Make Mistakes Together.” Mike Monteiro and Alan Cooper discussed technology’s history and future, as well as our responsibility to be great ancestors. The conversation fit nicely with Monteiro’s blog post Design’s Lost Generation. Combine that with the recent news about Cambridge Analytica -  Facebook did move fast and broke a lot of things, including our trust.

As researchers and designers, we continue to zoom in and out to get multiple perspectives and have guidelines regarding the ethics about research participants, we need to continue to know more and do better. This includes our team members, our clients, and the broader communities in which we participate.

Wow, that got heavy. I swear it was uplifting to have these questions and discussion throughout the conference.

Understanding of People & Context Will Always Be at the Heart of Effective Design

Human understanding will remain key whether we frame our work as: useful, usable, and meaningful, or ease, effectiveness, and emotion; or if we strive to improve existing systems and create break through innovation, we need to embrace and improve user research. In his conference talk, Erik Dahl reinforced the need to focus on First Principles to keep us centered (and sane?) as we design for the future. Research and a deep understanding of people and context will continue to be of critical importance.

Having the privilege of presenting at the Poster Night and Happy Hour (what a wonderful combination).

I was able to talk about “continuous discovery” and dual track agile. While many organizations focus on the speed aspect of Agile, the accuracy of the design target and the insights from understanding, business goals, customer needs, and technology will be more effective for all parties. Speed’s great, accuracy is better. That accuracy comes from effective research, discovery, and synthesis. We can’t use speed as an excuse for ethical lapses.

Special thanks to Abby Covert for organizing a great event and to Elsevier for sponsoring the Happy Hour. Thanks to my team for producing and delivering the poster while I was on the road.

The Power of Community

In regard to the IA Summit, I was a long-time lurker, first time attendee. While I feel I’ve missed out on nearly two decades of community, in many ways I feel like I found my tribe. I absolutely loved my time at the conference! Knowing some of the participants directly through my career and many more due to their contributions to the field, it was great to see these folks in real life. I was able to attend a couple of wonderful workshops led by Jon Kolko and Sari Harris. There were several great talks, all of which were of wonderful quality. The questions from the audience members were especially insightful and helpful in propelling the dialogue. From “Planning for Everything” (Peter Morville) and “Fit & Finish” (Adam Polansky) to life’s big question “Is a Hot Dog a Sandwich?” (Bob Kasenchak) the IA Summit Community had me in a state of Flow.

As great as the workshops and talks were. I was most impressed with the way the conference supports its community. Kyle Soucy produced a wonderful track for mentees with the Career Center. As part of the career center Managers and Directors, like me, were able to meet with mentees to review portfolios and resumes. I wish I had some of these tracks at conferences earlier in my career. When asked what I look for in team members, my response is that I’m looking for people who are smart, get stuff done, and play well with others. That description matches all of the attendees I was lucky enough to interact with at the Summit.

The  evening programming and social events reinforced the fun, smart, and supportive nature of the IA community. I feel the IA community leveraged the City of Big Shoulders to power a bunch of great, big, supportive hugs.

As a vendor at the conference, I appreciated all the supportive and helpful conversations about our product, Handrail. As a new product it’s nice to meet friendly folks willing to give us a chance.

Thanks again to all the organizers, supporters, and attendees that made the Summit such a great experience for me and the Handrail team. I look forward to connecting with many of you at next year’s IA Summit Conference in Orlando.

With gratitude and respect,


Matt Arnold

Matt is a researcher and product specialist at Handrail, Inc. He is passionate about human-centered design and helping teams do more effective research. Matt has led strategy and design work for early and late stage startups, as well as some of the country’s most recognized brands.

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