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Essentials to Designing a Conference

In the past year, I’ve been to an obscene amount of conferences. It started with Nielsen Norman group’s User Experience in Las Vegas in December 2007, followed by the inaugural IxDA Interaction 08 in Savannah, IA Summit 2008 in Miami, Gel 2008 in New York, Web 2.0 Expo NY, IAI‘s IDEA 2008 in Chicago, UIE‘s UI13 in Cambridge, MA, and most recently Interaction 09 in Vancouver.

And I’m attending another six this year… so far.

I’ve been lucky to observe several different approaches to organizing a conference and varying levels of formality. But ultimately I’ve found that it’s all about creating the best environment conducive to learning and connecting to other attendees.

There are some essentials that I’ve been impressed by or felt the lack of at these events, and have gathered for anyone who’s considering organizing their own conference or looking to improve. I’d certainly ensure to hit these points if I ever had the opportunity to serve on a conference planning committee. As an experience designer, I strongly believe that it’s attention to detail that makes all the difference.

Whitney’s 11 Essentials to Designing a Conference:

  1. Powerstrips. Lots of them. Accessible from every seat, whether chairs are arranged in rows or around tables. You want your attendees to document as much of their experience as possible so keep them powered up.
  2. Free, reliable wi-fi. In every keynote and session and breakroom. The conference experience is wildly enhanced by the Twitter backchannel. Allow your attendees to be connected to each other and the outside world. It brings the conversation to a whole new level and is great publicity for you.
  3. Badges that don’t twist around. No matter how great your sessions are, the networking that takes place at your conference is unquestionably more important. Conversations start with a glance at the badge, and if my name isn’t showing it just might prevent someone from coming over to chat. IxDA’s Interaction 08 had two holes punched instead of one lanyard clipped to the middle; my badge didn’t budge.
  4. Notebook in the bag. Not everyone has a laptop or wants to lug it around, so provide paper for them to take copious amounts of notes. People can absorb more information when they’re writing stuff down or even just doodling. And…
  5. Pens everywhere. I think I’ve made my point — give people the ability to record their experience in every way possible.
  6. Posted schedules and programs. Believe it or not, this isn’t obvious. I’ve been to conferences with no signage, no printed programs and no schedule online. It was entirely verbal and despite not even having to switch rooms, I was distressed. Sometimes you need to schedule a phone call or just want to figure out when you can pee. Make the session titles, speakers, times and locations VERY prominent, accessible from multiple locations and keep them up-to-date.
    UIE provides a newsletter at the beginning of every day so that any last minute changes can be noted. Interaction 08 had the full four-day schedule attached to the badge, but flipping through the cards while on your neck was a bit funky. Gel printed the schedule on the badge itself, upside down so that you could easily look at it without futzing with it. A great solution for a one-day conference, though you do lose the space to write on your own badge.
  7. Sessions of at least 30 minutes in length. People will always be five minutes late to the session. Accept it. Then give them five minutes to settle in, open up their laptops or notebooks, have a drink of water, and you’re 10 minutes into the session. If your sessions are fewer than 30 minutes long, there’s no way to give a topic the depth it deserves. There’s the set up and the story, and by the time the speaker is getting into the meat of it the session is done. IxDA does these lightening sessions of 25 minutes, and while the point is to make time for more topics than you’d get at other conferences, this year I felt like it just wasn’t enough time for any of the sessions I attended. I was actually angry when the time was up and I had to move on to another room and/or topic. Short sessions are like reading blog posts — just a cursory treatment of a topic. I’m paying to attend a conference in order to really dig in to the material, so give me more time to soak it in.
  8. A central location online to find the speakers’ slides. If the speaker took the time to produce a slide deck, it deserves to live on past their session. I want to match my notes to the slides, share it with friends and colleagues, refer back to it for inspiration — and I don’t want to have to go hunting them down from random locations all around the web (Slideshare, the speaker’s blog, some zip file posted somewhere). Slideshare is a great tool, so use it and promote it to your speakers and attendees. Link to a group from your conference website and get those slides up there as soon as possible after the conference when the energy is still palpable and the ideas fresh.
  9. Healthy food options. Yes, cookies and muffins and brownies and soda are all lovely to provide to attendees, but sugar pumps you up and quickly drops you on your ass. Offer lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, protein and water, water, water. Especially when your conference rooms have no windows and poor ventilation, people need all the help they can get from nutritious foods to keep them going throughout the day.
  10. Social events every night. Seems obvious, but I’ve been to a few conferences that didn’t offer networking opportunities every single night. They just left it up to attendees to self-organize, which can be fun because you get to go out and explore the city that you’re in, but usually you’ll end up hanging out with the same folks that you already know. An early reception allows people to get some schmoozing done, get a bit tipsy, and then head out for food on their own. Providing something playful like Rock Band (IA Summit 2008 and UI13) or outrageously gorgeous food (Interaction 08) will give people something to talk about. It doesn’t all have to be about work.
  11. Free drinks at social events. Come on. We’ve paid upwards of $2,000 to be there when you count registration, airfare, four nights at a hotel, etc — the least you can do is get us drunk and not make us pay for it. I was astounded to see that IDEA IA Summit (oops!) was charging $10 per glass of wine at their evening receptions. I ducked out early just to get cheaper drinks at a nearby restaurant. Had I stayed at the reception longer, I might have made a few more important connections. Yes, accept it, alcohol is a social lubricant and people are exhausted from a long day of mental aerobatics and just want to relax with a glass in their hand. If in order to afford the open bar it means you’ll have to forgo the t-shirt that will just sit at the bottom of my drawer, please consider it.

What are the best touches you’ve seen at a conference? Please share in the comments. I’d love to add them to my list.

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  • http://www.reallysarahsyndication.com Sarah

    The absolutely best organized conferences I've been to was MEX (Mobile User Experience) 2008 in London. A lot of what you noted in your post, they did (great food, clearly posted schedule on wall and on badges, good notebooks, etc.) They also used a great location, and split people into “breakout groups” of 10-20 people — the breakout groups were of varying value from dumb to fabulous (depended a lot on the group facilitator), but they provided people with a way to get to know other attendees without having to go up and get introduced first.

  • http://www.graphpaper.com Christopher Fahey

    Regarding badges, the simplest solution is to print the same information on both sides. It never ceases to amaze me how so many events, especially the IA Summit, fail to do this year after year.

  • http://blog.userglue.com/ Russ

    “I was astounded to see that IDEA was charging $10 per glass of wine at their evening receptions.”

    That wasn't IDEA charging that, please don't falsely put that on us. I don't honestly recall the $10 charge for a glass of wine, but I did not drink any at the happy hour; that was the sponsor of the event, who I believe provided a pretty incredible spread, space and a variety of other drinks, as well as transportation to the event, all of which was pretty classy. Since IDEA did not provide t-shirts–and I realize that you're probably just making a comparison to the cost, but it's important to note–In fact, Manifest Digital went above and beyond as a sponsor, and they could have simply *not* provided a wine option. They also provided transportation to the event, which was a nice touch.

    It's important to remember that, in many cases, these events are sponsored. Sponsors typically handle the finer details of what they put together, and not necessarily the event coordinators.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog Whitney Hess

      My sincere apologies, Russ. That's what I get for writing in the middle of the night. It was actually the reception at IA Summit in Miami with the $10 glasses of wine. I have updated the post to reflect my mistake.

      • http://blog.userglue.com/ Russ

        Ahh–thank you.

        While I'm planning IDEA 09, the rest of what you pointed out is absolutely fantastic–and since you've now posted about badges, it saves me from having to pester you with your insights and opinions.

        I should have pointed out that the entire article was absolutely on the money. Thanks for acknowledging the mistake & correcting it! Much appreciated! (and it removes my own minor freak-out!)

  • http://www.odannyboy.com Dan Saffer

    I did a post a while back on Conference Badges 101:

    http://www.adaptivepath.com/blog/2007/11/25/con

  • http://randomsarah.com sarahcooley

    These are great tips! I agree with every single one, and I have been to my fair share of poorly designed conferences.

  • max191

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  • http://www.boojeebeads.com Katrina

    When I am sent to a conference I am always excited because I mean new people, learn new, things, eat a lot with all the foods being served and most of all I get another collection of conference badge. I have been collecting conference badges for ten years now and I already got a bunch.