Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Representing Many Voices

On Thursday I am off to Portland to attend IA Summit 2003, and present a version of this paper.

These thoughts are the beginnings of a story about people and technology. In the summer of 2002, we started a small Web design project with a few basic goals and a few people. In the beginning it was just me, a social anthropologist who practices information architecture, and the new Knowledge Products and Mobilisation team at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Now nearing completion, our project actively involves many people with a wide variety of roles, needs and wants. This story is about how we went from being a team of few with few goals, to being a team of many with many goals. In describing this process and growth, I want to draw attention to two things: the social software IA as ethnographer, and the benefits and risks of collaborative and emergent design practices.

Key lessons learned:

1. Design expertise is still required.

Some people don't want to have a say. Some people don't want others to have a say. It is the role of the information and interaction designer to represent voices that are absent and to negotiate shared understandings despite differences. Principles of good design still apply, and the designer should also represent her own communities of practice in the collaborative process.

2. Diversity is crucial for creativity.

A large part of being social is who we are able to be in the presence and absence of others. Less diversity means less chance to become something else, less ability to create and to re-create our identities and devices. The role of the designer is to ensure that diversity is encouraged and supported at each stage of his design process. Ignoring or controlling the multiplicity of participants limits the potential of what can be created. Designers should also explore and cultivate non-hierarchical ways of leading.

3. The project is never done.

Social software should be encouraged to hack itself. We experienced crisis each time we were about to reach consensus on issues of design and community. When we finally agreed that we couldn't design the experience from beginning to end, we stopped trying to close something that struggled to stay open. We began to take pleasure in the process of building, which led us to create something that would continue to allow more changes as needed or wanted.

See you in Portland?

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