12 October 2018
Peter Bogaards
Peter Bogaards

EuroIA 2018: Sign of the times

Impressions, observations & reflections

Having attended 12 out of the 14 editions of the annual EuroIA conference, I notice conference conversations change of what is relevant for information architects and other user experience professionals. The program of the event reflects what’s important to the community, what the current discourse entails and what digital designers are struggling with. At the start of the conference series (Brussels, 2005), the event focused on traditional information architecture practices in Europe (hence EuroIA), like findability, navigation and folksonomies. In the course of time, it changed to design for mobile (Prague, 2011) and to the challenge of how to get a strategic position within organisations for UX (Madrid, 2015).

Started last year, we now have the important theme of technology, design and ethics. In his seminal keynote address at EuroIA (Stockholm, 2017), Oxford philosophy professor Luciano Floridi (@Floridi) gave an exposé on the lack of privacy and trust and how this threatens institutions and society at large. He also addressed the significant role designers and design could play in facing this challenge. Remember, this was just after the 2016 US election, the UK Brexit referendum and the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data breach. This year at EuroIA (Dublin, 2018), various presentations, keynotes and panel discussions followed in his track and addressed issues like ethics, empathy, and inclusion in depth.

The theme of the EuroIA 2018 conference was Humanogy (“Thinking about the relationship between humans and technology from a social, economic, historical, and technological perspective”). The event was well-organised by the devoted team of co-chairs Alberta Soranzo (@albertatrebla), Oana Secara (@oanasecara), and friend and former colleague Xander Roozen (@Shuggie), a host of volunteers and under the strong supervision of Vanessa Foss (Kunverj). As in previous years, Peter Vermaercke (@pvermaer) documented the event with lots of great visual materials.

In this post, I share some of my impressions, observations and reflections as a loyal participant.

New technologies for digital realities

As a total VR/AR newbie with no understanding (yet) of how these technologies can be usable, useful or desirable, I attended a workshop by design advocate Di Dang (@dqpdang). I liked her brief overview of the field from which I got a few starting points for further learning, such the theory of presence in VR (Mel Slater), metaphors of presence and experiential design (Kent Bye) and research being done (VRST). During the assignment part of the workshop, teams focused on prototyping VR/AR applications. You can use familiair prototyping techniques such as storyboarding, paper prototyping and enacting.

Although I still consider myself a newbie, I was assured by a quote from Di that anybody claiming to be expert in consumer-facing VR/AR speaks p**p. It’s obvious we’re still in the early days of the field, but mobile AR apps will pave the way.

Reflecting upon this workshop, it reminded me of the excitement when the front cover of Scientific American (October 1987) featured the VPL DataGlove (by Jaron Lanier), one of the first commercial virtual reality products.

Getting inspiration from other disciplines

In the first plenary keynote, Amy Ross (NASA) told us about how she designs and engineers space suites for astronauts. The main design objective of the product is to stop humans from dying in space. And when you want to see it, you’ll always notice many similarities between design for digital user experiences and other domains and disciplines, like space suite design. Working decades through generations of space suites is a matter of working with innovative materials, simulating and prototyping as much as possible and testing. And, always keeping your eye on the human experience.

Be inclusive

Another theme running through the community is inclusion and inclusive design. It not only focusses on others than the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) people, but also have an eye for traditional accessibility. In her talk, Sarah Barrett (@documentalope) presented two factoids which made the audience wonder. On the one hand, it appears that although 15% of the world population has disabilities, not really a lot is happening dealing with this in our day-to-day projects. On the other hand, we’re all too familiar with the obsession of having websites work for ancient browser types (you know which ones), which are used in only 0.02% of the cases but takes up to 30% of development time to make it work. Go figure!

Tips for designers to persuade developers to pay more attention to accessibility: Follow a course on accessibility for developers, read accessibility guidelines, add one thing to your IA artefacts and then consider it an accessibility issue. Developers will listen much better, says Sarah.

Have empathy

Kat King (@katalogofchaos) discussed empathy. She framed empathy as feeling inside the other with three important dimensions: autonomous, cognitive, and emotional. Empathy as understanding the internal world of the other is really hard. Empathy emerges from the ongoing process in interaction with the other. However, she’s critiquing the application of empathy in design within an organisational context. Organisational empathy is not the same as human-to-human empathy. Empathy as ‘good doing’ within the business context is anonymous and mostly superfluous.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning and beyond

Along the lines of pay attention (What is intelligence?), be astonished (How do AI and ML work?) and tell about it (Where do we come in?), Marianne Sweeny (@sweeny) guided information architects c.s. through the universes of artificial intelligence, machine learning and neural networks. And she’s on a campaign for more involvement of designers in AI, because she’s worried. Current technological disruption has significant implications for society, because it’s ecological. Therefore, designers need to step in and get engaged. But they also must have much better understanding of technology, so start here.

Marianne covered many complex topics, like (un)supervised learning, thought vectors and convoluted networks. For many workshop attendees mind-boggling complex concepts. Although the concept of artificial intelligence is more than 50 years old, AI professionals in the past could never imagine the capabilities we now have, in terms of big data, computing power and network capabilities. Marianne identified some significant events regarding AI we should know about, such as the Asilomar meeting on long-term AI futures (2009) and the NYU AI Now initiative (Kate Crawford, 2018). Along those lines, a recent initiative in Europe addressing societal implications of artificial intelligence: Dutch Alliance for Artificial Intelligence.

As an observation of how things have changed since Google started in 1998. At the start, the design of its search engine user interface was ‘magic’. But Google has lost all its magic. All design decisions are based upon data, hence data-driven design.

The plea of the session for more participation, involvement and engagement of designers in AI communities was loud and clear.

Frankenstein and ethics for designers

Two other presentations I attended also addressed the ethical dimension of design work. Clementina Gentile (@clementina_g) used Frankenstein as a metaphor and dramatisation of our technofobia. Do not be afraid, but concerned. She referred to the Data Ethics Framework of Luciano Floridi, which provides guidance. Sławomir Molenda (@uxevolution) focused on the design of ethical algorithms in autonomous machines. He made us realise we are on an inflection point, so we must act. We are at a point in history in which designers can make a difference. He pointed to two guiding posts: Ethics for designers (Jet Gispen, 2017) and Design for Values (Virginia Dignum, 2018), both from TU Delft.

The connection of design and philosophy

EuroIA 2018 ended with a keynote by designer Oliver Reichenstein (of IA Writer fame), philosopher by background. Oliver (@reichenstein) shared some of his reflections and concerns on how tech giants deal with ethics, morals and truth. He wondered why nobody takes final responsibility for the outcomes of algorithms. They delegate everything, but take no responsibility. Data-driven design is a dangerous concept because truth is not to be found in the data. What matters to humans will be lost, in the end. His plea for aesthetics as a human characteristic will never be matched by machines. And the beauty of information systems is represented and experienced in the UX over time.

Asked during a previous panel session to compare the cultural environments in the East (Oliver also works in Japan) to those in the West, he focused on differences in the concept of humanity, what makes us human as based on a humanistic culture and philosophy. He considers humanism as the core of Western culture. He warned us for not getting lost in numbers (the most, the biggest, the largest), but always reflect on what it means to be human. Like last year, a deep thinking closing of EuroIA.

Riga, here we come…

Next years edition of EuroIA will be on the last weekend of september in the beautiful city of Riga (Latvia). EuroIA 2019 will be organised by co-chairs Martina Hodges-Schell (@polaroidgrrl), Clementina Gentile (@clementina_g) and Alex Boamfa (@alexboamfa). I look forward to the next (as mastermind Lutz Schmitt suggested in his lightning talk) Euro Digital Ethics Summit 2019!

Further information on the 2018 Dublin edition is available on Medium and through #EuroIA18.

About the author

Peter Bogaards (@BogieZero) is digital design educator and editor-in-chief of our blog BiRDS. Peter also works as a curator and coach at Informaat. He has been an online content curator avant-la-lettre in various UX-related fields for almost three decades, choosing what he thinks is interesting, relevant or remarkable to share. Peter presented several times at EuroIA and co-chaired the 2015 Madrid edition.

Events (26), Information architecture (6), User experience (53)