Six steps to get the most from a conference

Conferences have a mixed reputation. I don’t get to many, but I really love it when I can. I’m at my second for the month now (at the IA Summit), and I think I have a strategy that works when it comes to getting real value from a conference.

Here’s my six step strategy.

  1. Fly Solo. Going to conferences without colleagues or a whole pack of people you know can be pretty scary. Do it anyway. There are some great things about flying solo including: meeting more people – if you don’t hang with your crew you need to find people to talk to, therefore you get to meet lots MORE people than you normally would. This is probably the best thing about conference – the people you meet and the conversations you have. Also, when you’re flying solo, you can really take advantage of serendipitous opportunities. You don’t have to worry about whether your posse wants to do what you need to do, you never have to check with your people. It is scary at times, but it’s also very fun. You learn, pretty quickly, that a room full of people you don’t know is actually a great opportunity, not as terrifying as it first appears. If you talk to people, they’ll talk back. People are surprisingly friendly like that. 
  2. Choose sessions tangentally. Don’t go to sessions that look as though they are ‘for you’. Don’t choose presentations where you’re already pretty familiar with the subject area. Unfortunately, most of the time you’ll walk out unsatisfied, feeling that you didn’t really learn anything. The nicest thing you can say about these sessions is that ‘it was nice to have what I already know confirmed’. There are much better ways to spend your time. Rather, choose sessions that are tangentally related to your interest, subjects that you don’t know much about. You’d be surprised how often the content is really related to what you do AND you learn things. (And you often get the chance to meet a whole different set of people to the ones you usually hang out with, because your ‘familiars’ are all in that session that you thought was for you. Make sense? Using this approach I’ve had a hit parade of great sessions where others at the conference were much less satisfied. (That’s why I spend hours at Taxonomy and Search Design sessions in the last couple of days. Time well spent, as it turns out!) Oh, and also. If you *do* find yourself in a dud session and your conference is multitrack – get out. Go find a better session. It might feel a little rude, but you’re paying to be there and chances are the speaker is being paid to speak. Make them earn it :)
  3. Don’t be a fangirl (or boy). One of the appealing things about conferences is the opportunity to meet some gurus. As such, it’s tempting to choose your schedule on a celebrity basis. This is often a big mistake. I tend to go for speakers who I don’t really know. Here’s why. The gurus spend a lot of time speaking and writing about whatever their thing is. You’ve probably read their books and their blog. They did three presentations last week and are doing two next week. And, they don’t come up with new stuff very often. Subsequently, whilst you do get the opportunity to see them in the flesh, you probably would have already heard or read most of what they have to say. This is disappointing. On the other hand, people who speak less often are more likely to put a lot of effort into their presentation and do a lot of preparation, AND you probably haven’t heard what they’ve got to say ever before. Some of the best presentations I’ve attended have been from people I don’t know. Much better to use Stategy 1 to meet your gurus. It’s scarier, but overall a much better approach. [sidenote: this also applies to going to presentations because your friends are presenting. If you know what they’re going to say, don’t go. disclaimer: choosing unknown speakers *is* a somewhat risky strategy. You may get some who are just not very good presenters or who could do with some more experience, or who are affected by nerves. In my experience it’s well worth the risk].
  4. Participate. Take whatever opportunities you have to get involved. This might be asking a question, or signing up for something that’s interactive/activity centred, or helping out as a volunteer with the conference (I’m helping out on the IAI booth for an hour or so on Sunday, for example). Again, this is a lot about talking to people, meeting people, engaging with discussions. 
  5. Twitter. Or whatever other back channel is going on at that conference. Sign up, sign on, get involved. Find out what’s *really* going on and what people *really* think. This is especially good where there are multiple tracks and you want to know if you should leave the dud presentation you’re in for a better one. It’s also a great way to ‘meet’ people you don’t know before you actually meet them in the flesh. That’s fun, and makes conversations easier and richer.
  6. Switch off the laptop. Face it. If you have the laptop on you’re probably not really paying attention. (Exemption if you’re live blogging the event for the benefit of those who can’t attend). Same goes with Twitter and other back channels. Use these with discipline and make sure you’re actually tuning in to what’s being presented. You can check your email anytime, but this presentation is a one off experience. Be there in body AND in mind.

So, there are my top tips. Anyone got other tips to contribute? (or care to add, amend or dispute mine?)

Happy conferencing! 

[ooh, gratuitous plug. If you’re at the summit and somehow managing to keep up with your blog reading(!), pls come to the panel I’m speaking on on Sunday at 11.15am. We’re talking about where IA fits in the design process. It should be fun. I believe there will a podcast posted later on for those who can’t make it.]

Checking in from SXSW

It’s day three at SXSW and before heading out for a breakfast taco (yeah, I know)and the first panel of the day, a quick update!

After two days of panels I can say again the same thing I always say: If you want a panel that rocks you need to be concrete: give real examples, tell stories, show us stuff. Interestingly I read a book on the plane on the way over that explains this really well, it’s called Made To Stick, and if you need to be communicating your ideas to others it’s definitely worth a read.

There have been some panels that rocked and others no so much. Here’s my top five favourite so far (in chronological order):

  • After the brief – a field guide to design inspiration Jason Santa Maria and Rob Weychart led an energetic and inspirational session sharing with us what they do in their lives to foster creativity and inspiration, including design vigilantism, crossword puzzles, and regular exercises with extreme design constraints. They talked a LOT about getting away from the computer and actually making stuff. I’m inspired :)
  • Tag, You’re It – it’s from this panel that my favourite quote to use out of context comes. “There’s no such thing as Information Architecture anymore,” says George Oates. By happy accident I ended up at this panel when I had something else pencilled into my program and it was great. I’m happy that we’re not spending time arguing taxonomy v folksonomy so much these days, but looking at how people are using tagging and what we can learn from this mass of data and human behaviour. This panel also introduced me to my new buzzword for IA ‘pivot’, which Thomas Vander Wal used a lot to describe what you’re doing when you click on a tag and which has a close relationship with facets. I’ve heard it used a few times since but it was new on me. I can’t decide if I like it or not.
  • Stop Designing Products – Peter Merholz argues that the experience is the product and there is much more to good experience than cool technology or a bunch of features. Good experiences are born from a clearly articulated strategy that is applied across all channels, and a big part of that strategy is retaining the magic in the user experience, where magic to the users is data and logic to the rest of us! 
  • Every Breath You Take – an incredibly intelligent, engaging and interesting panel on identity, attention and reputation which are topics that I’m finding incredibly interesting at the moment. There are all kinds of problems and opportunities around identity at the moment and this panel, including Christian CrumlishTed Nadean, Mary Hodder, Kaliya Hamlin and George Kelly took a run at some of them. I’m still thing about the idea of Identity Friction and how we need to increase identity friction in virtual spaces to better replicate how it works in the ‘real world’.
  • Making Your Short Attention Span Pay Big Dividends – a lighthearted, story filled and inspirational presentation from Jim Coudal (Coudal Partners) and Brendan Dawes (magneticNorth) the crux of which is – have lots of ideas and give them a go, see what happens. Less with the talking, more with the doing. That way fun lies.

The biggest highlight of SXSW is the people. It’s been amazing to meet all the amazing people I’ve met so far, to catch up with a few people I know who are here, to put faces and real life personalities to the voices behind the blogs and books I read, to be amongst hundreds of people who are also completely into it.

I got to have a quick play with one of the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) machines the other night and whine to an engineer who actually works on Google Reader that it’s way to slow (he knows, they’re working on it). This is all ridiculously good.

So, for now, I’m going to step away from the laptop and get back amongst it. More soon!

Future of Web Apps (London) – Highlights & Themes

Moo Presentation at FOWA

Continuing in the theme of hanging out with geeks* I spent a couple of days at the Future of Web Apps conference this week. It wasn’t as fun as BarCamp, but it was interesting.

Here’s some of the things that got my brain ticking (or that entertained me) throughout the two days. (Warning – it’s a rather long post):

YouTube’s success is not to do with User Generated Content, it’s about watching TV online (IPTV). Almost all the top viewed videos includes copyrighted material (TV shows, music videos etc).

Michael Arrington was talking mostly about the formula for a winning startup, but I thought this passing comment on YouTube was interesting. I’d not thought about it that way before. Makes total sense. (It made even more sense when Bradley Horowitz of Yahoo showed his chimp video later in the conference as an example of the best of UGC.)

‘There are websites I now visit just so that people know I’ve been there’

Arrington again, this time talking about MyBlogLog. I’ve always sort of gotten the vanity aspect of MyBlogLog, but I’ve never thought of it so politically! Personally, I tend to find it somewhat surprising, in a disturbing way, when I go to someone’s website only to see my own noggin staring back at me!

Again, as an interesting counterpoint to Arrington, Yahoo’s Horowitz spoke more about MyBlogLog and the role it plays in ‘turning users into neighbours’. Making each member of a blog’s audience more visible to one another, and how that can in turn promote a sense of community around a blog (and I am thinking that it actually provides readers with some potentially interesting information they can use in evaluating a blog too….).

So, that’s peaked my interest in MyBlogLog a little more… to the point that I’ve finally given in and put their little widget in my sidebar. It’s an experiment. If you have opinions, I’d be interested to hear them. (Except for opinions on the pink. It’s a phase, you’re going to have to deal with it or stick to RSS! :) )

Community has been a key promise of the web since the beginning (Edwin Aoki, AOL)

Community or the social web was a continuing theme throughout many of the presentations at FOWA, the centrepiece of which was Tara Hunt’s presentation early on day one.

Tara opened with a nice definition of online community care of Lee & Vogel (2003) which was more or less ‘generating member driven content resulting in relationships’. I also liked her definition of the three ‘Levels of Engagement’ which were Lightweight Social Processes (a la Digg, Last.FM), Collaborative Information Structures (a la Flickr, Threadless, YouTube ) and High End Collaboration (a la Wikipedia, Open Source projects, CouchSurfing). Continue reading


Design Consequences @ BarCamp

When I finally had the opportunity to grab a ticket to BarCampLondon2 last Thursday – in the midst of a busy week at work and with weekend plans already in place, it was very tempting to just let this one go through to the keeper. It’s now Sunday evening and I’m pretty exhausted (although, I’d have nothing on everyone who camped on site overnight and were up to all hours playing Werewolf!), but I’m very glad I went along. It was a great weekend.

For me, I found that I got more out of this BarCamp than the last one. There seemed to be a lot less navel gazing around ‘being geeks’ and lots more just getting on with it. Also, I wasn’t able to coerce any of my workmates to come along with me, so I had much less of a safety blanket. This is a great strategy. I met lots more people at this BarCamp and had so many interesting chats. It does make walking into a room a little scary at first, but you just do it. Walk in. Find someone who doesn’t look too scary. Talk.

Speaking of talking, there were lots of great presentations. I went to some… the bummer about BarCamp is that you miss more presentations than you can see. Some highlights for me included Ian Forrester kicking off with a talk about cool things you can do with Pipes; Andy Budd with a great overview of the importance of Design, Usability and User Experience; Riccardo Cambiassi talking about ‘Always On Brainstorms’ and using social software like Skype as everpresent and inclusive channels for idea generation (‘creating a playspace for imagination and creativity’); Tom Coates evangelising and defending the importance of social software and giving insight into what works and why; Simon Willison enlightened me, at least, as to what OpenID is and why I need one (I have one now); and lots and lots of people either angsting about Microformats and/or RDF; and a really interesting talk on Artificial Intelligence + Emotion by a guy whose name I just couldn’t remember (not for want of trying… sorry!)

Not to mention all the other great chats in the breaks between sessions or in front of the ‘wall’ trying to work out which session to go to next!

For my presentation I managed to make people who turned up do most of the work :) I ran a demo of a homespun design workshop technique I’ve recently started using which we currently call ‘Design Consequences’. It’s much more approachable and fun than the name suggests, so I’m issuing a call for suggestions to rename it! I’ll do a write up of what Design Consequences for anyone who was there and wants the notes, and those who missed out, in the next couple of days. Thanks to everyone who came along and participated in my session. I had lots of fun! (Update: I’ve written up the technique here if you’re interested in trying it yourself)

Something else I find really interesting about BarCamp are emergent themes… little topics that keep popping up over the course of the weekend in somewhat unrelated ways. Here’s a few I picked up on:

  • Play & Fun – I heard these words mentioned in quite a few sessions I attended. More times than I expected. This makes sense to me. You should be spending your life working at something that you enjoy, that is fun. Integrating play and fun into work is something we should be more conscious of, I think.
  • Time – in particular capturing and navigating time… either time we’re spending right now, or content we’re creating now that we and others might want to retrieve in the future, as well as content created in the past that we want to retrieve in a way that is specifically related to that time and place. I don’t think we think about this very much at the moment. I bet we start doing this a lot more soon. It’s going to be very interesting. I keep thinking of IA/IxDA and Microformats/Semantic Web. I think these two communities will be spending a lot more time together in the near future and rightfully so.
  • Working together and thinking about ‘normal people’ – there seemed to me to be a much smaller delegation under the design/usability/accessibility flag at this BarCamp (see above re: me not being able to coerce co-workers to attend at short notice… although it could have been that it was a larger BarCamp so we were a little more dispersed?). Last BarCamp I got the sense that the developer community were a little bemused to find so many ‘not-proper-geeks’ had turned up to BarCamp. This BarCamp I got the feeling that there was a growing concensus that we all need to be working much more closely together. That together, we’re much greater than the sum of our parts and we can do much greater and more effective work that way. 
  • The Power of Social – there were a few presentations that were dedicated specifically to social software, but it really pervaded almost all of the presentations I attended in one way or another. It makes me think of what Om Malik wrote recently about social networks being ‘just a feature’ – part of the offering of sites that set out to meet particular needs, rather than an end in themselves (which, perhaps, is just meeting the need of ‘being social?). I suspect we may look back and laugh at all the time and effort we spent in trying to ‘architect’ social spaces. That, in the places they add value and are powerful, social networks will just evolve. There are certainly some good examples of that already. More on that later.

So, that was BarCamp for me. Next up, I’m fortunate enough to be spending Tuesday and Wednesday this week at the Future of Web Apps conference. So, it’s likely there’ll be more posts in this vein before the week is out.

Anyone else going alone? I’m flying solo at this one too! :)