The edUI conference has been over for nearly two days now, but my experiences there are still fresh in my mind. This is my summary of my final day at the conference.

After a tasty breakfast, the day began with a talk called “Web Design is Not Dead: How to Survive and Thrive in the Era of Self-Designing Websites” (slides). The speaker discussed some of the current and near-future threats to “web design” as we know it. Freely available frameworks and pattern libraries are making “good enough” websites very easy to build, even by non-specialists. Some upcoming tools are promising to abstract the process even further, eliminating the need for a human to write any code at all. What role, if any, does the web design specialist have in a world of push-button website building?

By way of answer, she presented a list of skills and knowledge that we as professionals can bring to the process that cannot be replicated by an amateur with website building software. Specifically, she listed content, user experience, integration with outside services and social media, brand identity across platforms, emotional design, new interactions (with new displays, devices, and interfaces), ethics, copyright/legal expertise, and accessibility.

I agree with most of her list, though I think part of it is concerns that will eventually be managed by artificial intelligence. In particular, I think that accessibility is a totally feasible goal for an AI once it has the basics of web design established. Similarly, copyright is simply a set of rules, and a smart software company will begin to incorporate checks for violations into their web building tools. Integration and new interactions will always lag a bit behind the cutting edge, but I think they will get to “good enough” quickly enough for most sites.

That leaves primarily the less tangible items on the list, all of which deal with the questions “what exactly do we want to communicate, and how can we communicate it most effectively.” The web specialist of the future will not be a developer, they will be a communications specialist. That is the direction that we should develop our skills if we hope to stay relevant.

The second session of the day was “Cat Herding 401: Advanced Techniques for Facilitating the Unfacilitatable” by David Poteet of NewCity (right here in Blacksburg!) This session about facilitating strategy meetings with stakeholders was far too dense with useful tips for me to summarize — I recommend you check out the slides if you want details — but I can say that it involved drawing cats on post-it notes.

The closing keynote of the conference was “How to Make Sense of Any Mess” (slides) by Abby Covert. This talk served as a crash course in information architecture (IA), focusing on the high-level issues common to the organizing of any information.

One key theme of Covert’s talk was that there is no such thing as “true” information. All information is run through the filter of context, which not only exists passively but is also strongly influenced by both the communicator and the audience. Different personal contexts lead to different “mental models” between communicating parties, and communication is frustrating and unproductive until those mental models can be resolved.

One way to help resolve varying mental models is by agreeing on a shared “language.” This is the core of IA. The way to define this language is through ontology (choosing what words mean in this context), taxonomy (the structure into which information is organized, e.g. alphabetical, categorical, etc.), and choreography (the deliberate decisions about how to present information).

Thank you to all of the speakers, organizers, and volunteers for edUI 2015! I had a great time, learned a lot, and hope to be back next year!

I apologize for the scattershot approach I've taken to documenting this conference. I mostly put it up for the benefit of myself and people that I know (who can ask for details in person). If you found it useful or want to know more, let me know on Twitter: @wonkeythemonkey.