How does one approach the creation of a conference—or any event that pulls together people of diverse perspectives into a forum of shared social interaction and mutual knowledge exchange, such as team summits, discovery workshops, or design sprints?
If you think about it—no, really, think back to the past few conferences or workshops you recently attended, and if you're like me, that's maybe half a dozen!—there is a combination of interfaces and interactions that must be effectively choreographed to enable, support, and empower a community of practice within a setting (or perhaps via distributed virtual connections, thanks to modern collaboration tools). By interfaces and interactions, I am not referring to the website registration or online schedule. I truly mean the actual, presentational, expressive layer of talks and activities and the social interactions therein (or in-between talks, as it were).
It may seem peculiar to think of a multi-day confab at a ritzy hotel or a banal breakout room as a set of facades and pathways, an artificial construction to foster social connections and productive outcomes—but that's exactly what is happening! And in the midst of it all, from organizers to participants, there's an implicit, somewhat elusive hunt for some golden nuggets of meaningful takeaways to carry back to the rest of the team, thereby justifying the expense and time away. "So, what did you get out of all that...and how will it help me?" is often the skeptical retort at work the following Monday from envious peers.
Against this backdrop, designing such events is daunting—and truly a problem of bonafide social interaction, beyond mere online social-vanity acts. We're dealing with people, in real life, bustling about, motivated to attend the event and hopefully have fun!
In the end, you are designing the potential for attendees to have a rewarding, memorable experience.
I have been quite fortunate over the past 15-plus years to have spoken at a wide range of conferences for many audiences within the UX industry. It's something I greatly enjoy, the chance to meet like minds from other sectors and discuss novel ideas. More recently I've been involved in organizing such events, from internal design summits to national conferences, as well as local UX meet-ups. Indeed, as of this writing, I am deep in the midst of planning a conference and a summit and multiple workshops.
I've realized over time that designing the arenas for professional networking and knowledge transfer is a complex problem, predicated upon three interwoven elements: scenes, exchanges, and materials. Let's take a closer look.
By scenes I mean the physical staging of presentations or discussions that serve as focal points of attention, those milestone markers on a conference agenda, if you will. But I also mean scenes of social bonding, enabling introverts to patiently mill about and extroverts to buzz around with equal fluidity and amiability. These are the places and backdrops of social interaction, each with their own rhythms and styles, per the overall conference tenor and goals.
For example, scenes may include:
- Keynote talk: a primary focal point of illuminating core themes
- Panel discussion: a place for fostering debate and provocation
- Breakout session: a setting for more intimate discussion
- Workshop space: a place for personally relevant practice of methods
- Gallery: an area for exploration of demos and posters
- Sponsor booths: a space for seeing more demos—and professional networking!
- Happy hours: yet another scene for more convivial, relaxed connecting after a long day of talks.
By exchanges I refer to the dialogues and dynamics of observing/attending/listening/information processing at work during a talk or breakout session. It can even occur at something more ambient (maybe even serendipitous?) like a gallery walkthrough of student demo projects. The exchange itself is a core aspect of the event, constituting an emergent sense of awareness, understanding, and hopefully response and discussion to complete the overall feedback loop. A connection is made in the course of talks or happy hours—with knowledge relayed, with a peer commiserating, with a poster or image that resonates. Some may be more direct, with an immediacy of effect, while others may be more of the browsing and gathering kind, feeding the creative mind.
By materials I mean the actual words and material, the stuff that everyone came for in the first place. I mean, without that, why are folks spending precious time and money? How is the material composed, sequenced, and packaged effectively, given the scenes and exchanges? What is the structure and pacing of that content? Is it well suited for snackable doses or heavy digestion, or is it more suggestive and implicitly absorbed?
Also, in the context of designing social interaction and knowledge transfer, it's useful to consider the formal expression of such materials—that is, the proper mixing of words, imagery, sounds, textures, lighting, motion. Each form speaks to a different level of sensory perception and information processing, so knowing which works better is important—and may take some courage to explore and try! For example: having a closing keynote include a live-drawn projected artifact summarizing a conference's thoughts, to see the literal tracing/evolution of a speaker's thoughts, versus presenting a gallery of user research featuring videos or persona posters. The former has stronger engagement and makes for a more memorable retelling.
How to weave the scenes, exchanges, and materials together is truly the challenge for a conference or summit (or even a short workshop with fidgety managers). In the end, you are designing the potential for attendees to have a rewarding, memorable experience, thus to discover relevant golden nuggets via compelling conversations. Indeed, it's setting that stage through the artifice of a conference for conversations, implicit and explicit, that any such conference event is really about, fostering value exchange with perhaps the shifting of mindsets, the shaping of attitudes, or the refreshening of approaches.
But the bigger question remains: How do you pull these core elements of scenes, exchanges, and materials together gracefully? How do you set up the interfaces such that everyone (and by the way, who are the customers you're designing for? We'll get to that in a moment!) feels they can understand and maneuver through the various interaction pathways present in a conference? And do so while propagating a sense of community and the opportunity to learn, grow, build. There has to be a pragmatic sense of the takeaways to be shared back at the office to justify the expense, as mentioned earlier.
Here's what I've identified that needs to be correlated to achieve positive effects:
The participant journey (across multiple scenes and exchanges of content). Sure, it may sound trite, but any conference or workshop event is a journey of awareness, discovery, understanding, and self-realization for everyone involved. From that first tweet to the last feedback survey, consideration of that journey is vital to enabling a memorable, rewarding experience for everyone. The starting points, the thematic structure as a bridging of conversational moments all throughout, toward the final wrap... and also afterward! Remember the post-journey moments, of appreciatively and gently nudging to the next event, when you may spin up the journey all over again. How does it all flow together, from end to end, entry to exit, so that it feels intentional and balanced?
The points and paths. This is basically the arrangement of the agenda pieces—all those scenes and exchanges and content items—into a meaningful structure optimized for social engagement, knowledge transfer, and, frankly, other forms of human nourishment—which means great snacks and plenty of breaks for fresh air and coffee! Even some musical interludes to break up the frequencies of attention, or as palate cleansers between sessions to help shift mindsets a bit. Consider those transitional moments that guide the audience (and speakers) across the thresholds of topics and discussions, and how to facilitate such movements with a sense for the tempo and temperature.
Useful artifacts. Yes, this can refer to the swag bags, filled with fun albeit banal toys and shirts with logos. But this also refers to other artifacts that shape the arenas of social encounters: the posters, signage, name badges, schedules/brochures, and interstitial slides. And don't forget book signings, whiteboards, job boards, tables with LEGOs, and stickies and markers for ideation! Some are take-home, while others serve as references along the exploration of pathways across scenes and exchanges.
The people. This is the whole crux of the matter, right? But who, really, is the audience you're staging this event for, and who else is involved? Remember to consider the speakers (what do they stand to gain and strive to convey in their talks?); the sponsors (how do they want to get their name out and empower their brand?); the staff/volunteers (typically uncompensated, so what will they get out of it? How can you create an opportunity for volunteers to really contribute and serve as gracious hosts or leaders?); and of course the attendees—what are their expectations and goals? Never forget the cycles of feedback from the attendees and others, to sustain productive future iterations!
It is clearly a complex endeavor to stage the social-interaction encounters to achieve shared understanding and significant knowledge exchange, with valuable outcomes. But it is well worth the pressures and stresses of the challenge, if only to help everyone feel more illuminated about the topics and practices of design. So, the next time you're at a buzzy UX conference or messy workshop, consider how multiple pieces came together for you—or didn't! There is of course inevitably the "madness of the launch" of the conference or workshop itself—worthy of another essay on logistics and Murphy's Law—but in the end it's all about setting the stage for compelling conversation. To design such professional social events is to manifest a shared story, sparked by some question or problem, whereby you are intentionally shaping the conditions for crucial conversations. These should be about the essence of our practice, our arts of creating meaningful interfaces and interactions that may linger in the form of those golden nuggets each of us seek to pass along to our peers for our community of practice.
Uday Gajendar (ghostinthepixeL.com) has been a prolific UX designer and Leader for more than 15 years, shipping designs for PayPal, Facebook, Citrix, Adobe, and others. He also enjoys coaching startups on UX fundamentals. firstname.lastname@example.org
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