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Grace Lau on Information Architecture Events

“Come! Come learn with us. Come participate and contribute.”

Grace Lau is an information architect and user experience designer based in the Greater Los Angeles area. She’s the co-president of World IA Day and one of the program chairs of the 2021 IA Conference. In this conversation, we discuss those professional community events, and why you should participate.

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Jorge: Grace, welcome to the show.

Grace: Thank you very much for having me. It’s an honor.

Jorge: No, it’s an honor to have you here. For folks who might not know about you, can you please tell us about yourself?

About Grace

Grace: My name is Grace Lau. I’m a designer and information architect and a product designer and community organizer based outside of Los Angeles. I’m originally from Boston, though I’ve been in LA for about 20 years now. I started my past in library information studies. I was an IA at Disney where my claim to fame is having worked on the top-secret project for My Disney Experience, in the early days. And most recently I was a product designer at a healthcare startup in Santa Monica.

Jorge: Wow. I did not know that you were at Disney behind that product and I’m a big fan and I would love to talk to you about that, but that’s not what we’re going to be talking about today. You described yourself as a designer, an IA and a community organizer. And I’m especially interested in the overlap between IA and community organizations. Can you tell us a little bit about your career as a community organizer?

Grace: I have to say that it really started in my grad school, at the library school. At UCLA, there’s a library school program and it is heavily in the archives and library studies. And there’s a small number of people who were into the informatics track. During that time period, when I was there — we were just before the boom in 2007 or 2008 — and we were all scrambling to learn, like, “how do we design websites? How did we get database? And what does all that stuff?” So, I started doing a lot of event organizing as part of the student clubs, the student groups there. I was part of the student chapter for ASIS&T, ALA, and SLA. And so, we did a lot of organizing there.

So, it really started from there as just hearing what people are learning, or are anxious about, and it’s trying to find ways to pull people together and move resources together to help each other learn the skills needed to get into the job force. And once I left… once I graduated from there, it wasn’t until the last, I’d say five or six years, that I really got back into trying to build a community. Meaning, like actually hearing what other people are worried about. Because, at Disney, that was kind of, when we first started the IA Meetup group — the older people in the LA area would know this as IA-55, and so now it’s the LA UX Meetup group now that has over 6,000 people — but in the early days, it was like trying to get people together to learn about: what is IA, what is UX, what is design? And it was a great community! But over time, it got really large and it was hard to feel that sense of closeness to learn together because once events get really large, it’s really hard to find that sense of… that safe space that you can go, meet people, and learn about things together. It turns into events where you have lots of people who are talking, but you’re not really learning that much.

And so I kind of found that space where I want to do more of that. And I did that through being involved with World IA Day in Los Angeles. And then most recently I had started a smaller UX meetup in Los Angeles called the San Gabriel Valley UX Meetup and we had much more smaller events. And we had speakers who are either very new at speaking, or still learning about products or learning about design and it was more of a learning cohort or a place where we can learn together and speak together and be able to have a platform for us to do that.

Jorge: It sounds to me like you were part of organizing a meetup in LA and then you organized another meetup. Is that right?

Grace: So, I was part of the World IA Day in Los Angeles. I did some of that event organizing and then I also started another one where it is a small local meetup. So as part of the LA Meetup — it’s the large one where I’m a member of, which I didn’t organize.

Scale and scope

Jorge: Oh, I see. What I’m hearing there, Grace, is that there is something about scale that changes the character of communities. Is that right?

Grace: Yes, definitely. Because the bigger the platform, the bigger the audience, it’s harder for new people to break in, right? So, if you go to a large space and you’re hearing all these people are using jargon or terms that you don’t understand, it’s harder for the introverts or the wallflowers To really jump in there and be part of it and engage in more active ways. And so, having smaller events makes it easier to learn, because then you’re free to ask questions and you’re free to be closer to the topic at hand.

Jorge: So, what I’m hearing there is that the aspect of scale that you’re focusing on here has to do with how easy it is for newcomers. It also sounded to me like the communities that you’re talking about have at least two factors that define them. One is kind of an area of interest, right? Like you talked about IA, UX, which is I would guess like a career or discipline area of focus. And the other one that you spoke of was geography, where the larger meetup that you talked about, seemed to me to be like LA as the geographic region, which is a huge area, right? It’s a very large population. And then the second one that you spoke of sounded to me like it has a smaller geographic scope, is that right?

Grace: Yeah. We call it the San Gabriel Valley UX Meetup, because we’re located right outside of LA. We’re a little bit East of LA. It’s a very, minority-majority populated area where there’s lots of Latinos and Asians in that area. And so, whenever we need to say, “want to go to a UX meetup?” It usually tends to be in the main LA area where you have to drive through the LA traffic and deal with parking, you know back before normal times. We had to deal with an hour, an hour and a half just to get to a meetup, right? It wasn’t very convenient for people who are living in the 626 area, which is the San Gabriel Valley. So, my thought was like, “well, we can start a new meetup, it’s closer to home, it’s closer to the food that we love to eat.” So, we have easy access to good food, free parking, good Boba… All these things that are important for a good meetup. And then we could be free to talk about it, we can spend hours socializing and talking about things. It’s not as, I guess, as…I don’t know… well, put together maybe as some of the more official UX meetups out on the West side of LA.

Jorge: these things that you’re talking about — food, parking, Boba, “all the things that make for a good meetup” — those all sound like they’re characteristics that were applicable in the “before times,” right?

Grace: The before times, yeah.

Jorge: So, how are you all dealing with that now? Are you still doing meetups?

Meetups in the age of Covid

Grace: We’re taking a sabbatical, a hiatus — because of the holidays and because we’re all getting ready for World IA Day. Some of the meet up organizers and also part of World IA Day as well. So, that’s why we are taking a sabbatical. But we’ve been doing lots of happy hours. And then in the early times when we were in lockdown, we were doing lots of co-working sessions. So, lots of co-working having Discord or Zoom open, and we’ll be like working and chatting at the same time, reminiscing about the good old days when we could go out and get woven together, all that stuff.

Jorge: I’m asking you, because I’ve spoken with other folks who also run events and especially regional events… a great part of the motivation for folks coming together is like, “these are my neighbors.” You know, these are the people that are part of my… not just my community of practice, but my community, right? And one of the effects of the pandemic has been the… I’m not going to use the word “erasure,” but these geographic distinctions have become less relevant. I’ve been invited to speak at meetups in far-flung places around the world that I would not have been able to be invited to if I had had to fly there, for example. And so, it’s something that is changing.

And part of the reason why I wanted to speak with you on the show is because you are a community organizer, like you said, driving this local event in the San Gabriel Valley, but you’ve also alluded to World IA Day and you’re also one of the program chairs for the 2021 Information Architecture Conference. So, I think that you’re quite active in community building and in trying to bring folks together, especially in the information architecture community of practice… bring them together during this time when we cannot meet in person. And I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about these more global events… World IA Day, Information Architecture Conference. Why don’t we start with what’s your role in each of those?

Information architecture events

Grace: So, with the IA Conference, my role is as one of the program chairs. I’m one of four. So, there’s myself, Cassini and Teresa and Claire. And I am specifically working on the marketing and communications part of the conference. So that means getting people together to understand like what’s going on. I [also] do the volunteer updates. Whenever we get emails about like, “oh, I want to volunteer!” I try to get them to coordinate with the people who are leading those particular circles. It’s really more around like the attendee and volunteer experience before the actual conference starts. Right now, at least in this phase of the planning. At the same time, I’m also inserting myself with understanding what are the good platforms that we might be using to run the conference. What are different ways that we might want to include as many people as possible, to attend a block. And so also working with the diversity, inclusion, and equity chair as well on creating more diversity at the conference as well. So, there’s a lot that I’m doing there, but I guess it’s not something that I can summarize in a short way.

Jorge: It’s worth noting for folks who might not be familiar with the IA Conference, that this is a volunteer-driven event, right?

Grace: Yes, it’s all volunteers. I spend at least 20 hours a week trying to get things together, trying to, get the website up or working with other volunteers to work on these things. As IAs, we tend to question a lot of what’s going on and the words that we’re using. So this particular year, we’re focusing a lot on clean language and making sure that we’re not using jargon and things that might alienate people from understanding what this conference and event is about. And of course, you know, having the name “Information Architecture” can be a little bit of a hard hurdle to run over.

Jorge: Why would that be?

Grace: I think it’s because information architecture can be a very hard term to understand. When people hear “user experience,” they’re like, yeah, I got it! You know? Because UX is good, right? But then when you say, “oh, IA,” because if you’re seeing good IA then it’s invisible. So, it’s not something that is top of mind for most people. But when there is bad IA on a site, on an app, on an experience, you hear all about it. But then people want to know that the reason behind it is that it’s because it’s a bad IA.

Jorge: All right. That’s the role you’re playing in the IA Conference. What about World IA Day?

Grace: World IA Day, for people who don’t know what it is, it’s like a global awareness day. It’s one day where we have local events all over the world, having talks and discussions about what IA is, what IA means. And we have a global theme every year, a new theme. This particular year, for World IA 2021, it’s about curiosity. So what does curiosity have to do with information architecture? And so, this might be another way for people to understand what IA means, through the plain language way of understanding what IA is. Like what is this, what is that? How do you structure? How do you understand something? And that in itself is IA.

With World IA Day, it’s more globally focused. You have local events everywhere. In the past with World IA Day, it’s been heavily North American and European. We have lots of events in Europe, like 20 or so in the United States, 20 events or something in Europe. But this past year, or this past summer, we’ve been focused on growing areas in Latin America, growing more locations in Arabic speaking countries and locations. We’ve been developing I guess… growing the global board of directors. So, not having just people in North America who happened to be leading the leadership, but also people from Italy and Colombia and Egypt to be part of a team as well, to understand what are the different needs of people in those countries and regions.

Jorge: Great! And what is your role in helping them come about?

Grace: My official title is “co-president.” And my role right now is like… well, we want to do more! So, we trying to nail down sponsorships so that we can support the local organizers in hosting their local events. So right now, we just secured a sponsorship with Vito, the Vito community. They’re able to provide a good platform where we can set up and help put up virtual events in a more professional way. It’s really more about building community as well. We’re happy to partner with Vito because they’re also very community focused. They want to build community around topics of interest.

We want to build a space where people can get together and learn more about IA, and how we can support that, and how can we like help with transcription and understanding the information and content that is normally just available in English or Spanish, but also in other languages too. So, we’re also doing more around translation, transcription, trying to figure out what kind of platforms are out there that we can help I guess coordinate these types of efforts. Again, World IA Day is also all volunteer, all not for profit. So, it’s difficult because lots of the local organizers also have full-time jobs. As someone on a global leadership team, you have to figure out how can we best support them without overwhelming them with lots of event planning logistics. So, we’re trying, on the global team… we try to make it easier for them to manage their day as well.

Jorge: It’s worth noting the dates for these things. World IA Day, I think, is in February?

Grace: Yeah! World IA Day is February 27th. We’re also trying to organize regional roundtables for World IA Day. Just so we can help, you know, build more exposure to what IA is, and also to build communities in those regions. And then the IA Conference is in late April.

The difference between World IA Day and the IA Conference

Jorge: I’ve participated in both World IA Day and IA Conference for a long time. And the distinction between them has been fairly clear in my mind. The IA Conference — previously IA Summit — was a yearly gathering of folks from many parts of the world, mostly North America, but many parts of the world, who would come together for a week or so to discuss the discipline, right? And try to move the discipline forward. World IA Day was one day a year and it was more local. The intent was to have it be more regional and encourage folks to develop the community of practice in their own geography. And I’m curious now in the times that we’re living in where everything is happening virtually, what happens to the distinction between these two events?

Grace: That’s been a very tricky question because the IA Conference has always been where people can continue their education. It is one week a year that people get together. But at the same time, it’s also one of the cheaper professional conferences that are out there. So, I think before the pandemic, it’s been, I don’t know, at least $900, $800, to attend a conference in North America, and you usually have to pay airfare and lodging, and you actually go to a place, right? For World IA Day, it has always been either free or low cost depending on where you are. And all the local organizers have the burden of trying to find local sponsors. It’s more about elevating the local community as well. So, finding local sponsors to sponsor the event and then being able to be more affordable to people who live in that area.

Right now, in these times, you still have the benefit of being regional because it’s in your time zone. So, I mean, ideally… yeah, you could wake up really early in the morning, like, five in the morning for me to attend events in Europe. But at the same time, that’s one great advantage of it being in these times, that you can attend any of the events. But you still want to be able to maybe… you know, on some faraway date when people can meet up in person again, you can say, “Hey buddy who lives across the street, can you be my mentor? And we could talk about job hunting around here.”

I think still having a local community still counts a lot, because we’re still navigating in our current spaces — even though having a wider global mindset is important. There’s still a lot of attachment that people feel comfortable and familiarity around, like, what’s around us. So for me, being able to connect with the world’s IA community, is very important. At the same time, it’s also important for me to build a community around me locally because it’s more of a grounding effect.

Jorge: What I’m hearing there is that World IA Day still has very much a local focus, where it’s about building this local community of practice. I’m wondering, given your experience with doing that in the San Gabriel Valley… and also, I think that you’re a local World IA Day organizer, right?

Grace: Yes, I work with that, yeah.

Remote regional events

Jorge: So, given the times that we’re in, where so much of this kind of stuff is happening remotely… Like, I have in my mind a clearer picture of how a more traditional conference, like IA Conference, how that can play out remotely, but how does a remote regional event infrastructure work?

Grace: With the local events, we’re still trying to promote local speakers, right? So, it’s still providing more opportunities and platforms for our new speakers to get into the speaking circuit, learn about how to speak in online events. It’s still a launching point for people to learn, to get used to and then before they start speaking at larger regional conferences or international conferences, even though, anyone from anywhere can speak. If people say from Atlanta want to speak at an event in Singapore, that’s still very possible. It’s more about time zone, right? I think the local impact is still about… it’s providing an audience. People still find affinity towards, “Oh yeah, I’m going to go to the one in LA because that’s still my family. That’s still my community of people that I want to be touch with.” Whereas when you have like a global IA day, and you have like a IA event where it’s including people from all over the world, it might be intimidating for some people to reach out and to talk to people.

Jorge: Does World IA Day provide frameworks or infrastructure or advice on… like I’m thinking like very tactically. It’s like, what do we do? Do we set up a new Discord site to have these discussions? Like, how do folks… and I’m thinking now, like I’m putting myself in the situation of a listener who might be hearing us talk and thinking, “you know, I might want to organize something like a World IA Day Meetup in my community.” What would the experience be like for those folks?

Grace: So, the call for locations still open because our success criteria for organizing an event is very low. I mean, if you can get a group of people just talking about IA, then that’s an event already. We have a call for location open on the website board at worldiaday.org. You can apply, we’ll go through it and see you know if you need any additional support, you get set up with a location page. We’ll set you up with an event page. You get access to our Discord. If you are an organizer, then you’ll get access to the secret organizing channels. But if you just want to learn about what IA is, you can also get access to the same Discord server as well. We have lots of channels and topics talking about like accessibility and language and how do we want to organize a content repository to help support the events next year?

Jorge: And you said it’s still open. And just for folks listening in, we are recording in early December. When would that window close?

Grace: Hopefully, maybe in January.

Jorge: Okay, so there might still be a little bit of time left then for folks to do that.

Grace: Yeah! We’re not really closing it per se… I mean it depends on how much energy people have to put together a call for speakers and things like that.

Why you should participate

Jorge: In the last few minutes we have left, I’m hoping that you could tell folks why they would want to participate in either or both of these events.

Grace: Being part of the IA community has been really grounding for me. And I think it’s really easy to find a family outside of family. For me it’s been… so, even if I don’t see them in person we’ve been meeting irregularly, it’s been a really great way to get motivated and be mentored and guided through, working with a group of other volunteers. A lot of the volunteers are also veterans in the IA field and in the UX field so there’s a lot of researchers, a lot of designers as well, who participate and volunteer their time as part of World IA Day and the IA Conference. So, just being a volunteer just brings you that much closer to the great names of Jorge Arango, Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld. So, it’s a really, really great networking opportunity as well too to just be a volunteer.

Jorge: Well, I’m flattered. Thank you for including me in that august group! That’s as far as volunteers goes, but what about folks who might just want to tune in?

Grace: It’s also just really great to hear like, “Oh yeah. So that’s what IA means. And there’s a name for something that you’ve always been doing.” Whether or not you are actually practicing IA or its just you learning or being productive… those are all IA things. I think just learning on its own — whether you’re listening to podcast or reading from a book — that’s also IA work that you’re doing. So, I would say, “Come! Come learn with us. Come participate and contribute.” It’s a great way to meet other people. It’s a great way to network. It’s also a great way to feel a part of another larger community of people.

Closing

Jorge: Well, fantastic, Grace. Thank you so much for the work that you’re doing to help make all of this happen. Where can folks follow up with you?

Grace: You can find me on Twitter; @lauggh it’s laugh, with two g’s. You can also find me on LinkedIn, Grace G. Lau and you can also find me on my website, graceglau.com.

Jorge: Thank you so much. I’m going to include those and also links to both World IA Day and the IA Conference in the show notes, so if folks want to follow up with the conferences and meetups, you can go there as well. Thank you so much, Grace.

Grace: Thank you.