This is what conferences are made of.

This is what conferences are made of.

On a Friday night in a Baltimore hotel bar, over gin-and-tonics and bacon-toffee cheesecake, Kerry-Anne and I solved all the world’s problems.

I don’t remember what our solution was, but it doesn’t matter. We were drunk on ideas and conference energy (oh, right, and gin), and world peace seemed within our grasp, or at least the grasp of really good content strategy, because we were at IA Summit, and we were invincible.

Because that’s what it was about for me: the dialogue. The offhand comments. The impromptu debates. The kismet meetings. IA Summit 2013 was my first – hell, my first real conference (AWP doesn’t count) – and, yes, the speakers were moving, the panels were engaging, the whole event was great. But it was the people that made it such a worthy conference.

The importance of conversation.

It was conversations with strangers: the people eating lunch at your table, or sitting next to you in the audience, or steeping their between-sessions tea awkwardly in the corner, just like you.

It was reams of tweets, carrying the conference along on two fronts, online and off, discovering that longtime Twitter relationships translated perfectly to real life, and finding new names that you wished you’d followed years ago.

It was a series of handshakes and luck and introductions and midnight karaoke and elevator pitches and oysters and random chance and coffee and note-taking and lots of exclaiming, “You look nothing like your avatar!” and “You look exactly like your avatar!” and “What’s your handle?” and “It’s so nice to finally meet you!”

It was fabulous and exhausting and really, really, really important.

Find your tribe.

I didn’t emerge from IAS13 with brilliant new tools for doing my job (though some people did, and that is awesome). But it did give me something that’s been rare during much of my career: connection.

There seemed to be a sense of awe running through the attendees. People were surprised to see so many IAs, to find their stories and titles and frustrations and obsessions echoed around them. So many people in our industry seem to have been operating Last Unicorn-style, every once in a while asking a butterfly, “Have you seen others like me?” (I can’t believe I just made that reference. Whatever. Child of the ’80s. I’m leaving it in.)

The Last Unicorn and butterfly
Sometimes, it’s hard to find others of our kind.

We’re amazed not only that we’re not alone, but that our stories are so similar. That we all have the same meandering, incongruent, misunderstood career path, jumping from design to code to content or from history to philosophy to dentistry to physics, it doesn’t matter – we’ve all got that story.

And there’s validation in hearing that story mirrored back to you. That familiarity, that acceptance, is supremely, intensely, unwaveringly validating. And when you feel validated, you’re empowered to press further – to build the industry, to expand it, to define it, to bring others in, to make it better. This is the importance of community.

Going beyond empathy.

Karen McGrane’s plenary touched on similar ideas about industry and community: who we are, where we’re headed, what’s the point. It was, in some ways, a rallying cry. We can try to improve our technique, our deliverables, our projects, but ultimately – are we being good people? Are we being kind to each other, to our clients? Are we extending the empathy we show our users into compassion towards, say, our coworkers?

Because – indulge my riffing a bit here – if we don’t attempt to understand the people we work with every day, what business do we have advocating for our users? It’s easy, in some ways, to design for users, or rather, our interpretations of them: personas made from stock photos, people with flaws by design (yes, informed by research, but still very much a product of ourselves). But how do we behave towards the people whose flaws we can’t control: the managers suffering from digital fatigue, the colleagues who don’t understand us, the cubicle-mates who talk too loudly or are boring or too negative or always late or turn in sloppier work than we want or refuse to play nice? Where’s the empathy in our daily lives?

Because that comes out in our work.

And if we want to be better IAs, content strategists, UXers, whatever we call ourselves (that’s a post for another time), we have to be better people. We have to be compassionate. We have to be patient. We have to be thoughtful. We have to try harder.

This isn’t going to be easy.

This is difficult. At least for me. I like to think I’m good at empathy, but I’m not. I’m judgmental, cynical, impatient, smug. I like to excuse this by turning it inward, by being incredibly hard on myself (twin complexes of inferiority and superiority FTW!). But it’s not productive. It doesn’t make me a kind person. It doesn’t make me better at my job.

We are in the business of fostering understanding, of distributing information, of creating clarity. If we want to build better online structures, it follows that we have to understand the people behind those structures. It turns out: our jobs are really organizational psychology, art therapy, teaching, change management, soothsaying – all masquerading as UX.

So this is what IA Summit felt like: willingness, struggle, passion, connection. It didn’t give me a perfect deliverable or never-before-seen strategy. But it brought community to the forefront, and forced me to think about what that means for our roles and our relationships. Because, ultimately, this sense of connectivity and communication is not only why we go to conferences, why we need conferences – but why we’re in this field to begin with.

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