how to take your baby to a design conference

I had the privilege of attending the UX London conference earlier in the month. I was accompanied by my then 5 week old baby. I’ve not taken a baby so young to a conference before, and you don’t tend to see many of them at conferences.  I thought you might be interested in what the experience was like in case you’re considering it for yourself.

When contemplating the event there were a few things I was concerned about:

  1. equipment – what gear to bring and what to leave behind
  2. noise and disruption – how bad would it be, how can I minimise it
  3. effort v return – would the hassle and hard work of taking a baby to a conference allow participation make it worthwhile
  4. is it appropriate to bring your baby to a professional conference?

With the benefit of hindsight, here are my thoughts.

Travel light but invest in the right gear

Having as little gear as possible but the right gear is, I think, key to giving you as much flexibility as you can possibly have with a babe in arms. Personally, I find a buggy to be high risk for hassle – it makes it difficult to do public transport in peak hour (which you’ll no doubt have to do) and it makes getting from place to place, often up and down stairs, more difficult. I used a Moby Wrap sling most of the time I was at UX London and found it fantastic for moving around, for hands-free holding while attending talks (allowing me to tweet through the sessions when my baby slept or was sufficiently settled), and for relatively discreet feeding.

The other essential piece of kit was the Samsonite Pop-Up Travel Bassinette which gave me somewhere to lay him down when he was settled in for a good sleep (and when I wanted to participate in the workshop activities). The bassinette fits in my small backpack and weighs less than a kilo (more than can be said for my MacBook which I had to swap for my husband’s tiny netbook on this occasion!). It was quick and easy to put up and take down and gave us both a bit of a break from each other!

Don’t forget to bring your own decent changing mat – the chances of finding a changing table in the bathrooms at a conference centre are pretty remote so you’ll probably find yourself doing rapid changes in the field (often at the back of conference rooms in my experience!). You can get those great clutch style mats that are sufficiently robust but small –  Isoki is my clutch changing mat of choice.

Minimising noise & disruption

The younger your baby, the more likely they are to sleep all day and make hardly a peep, thus nearly-newborns make ideal conference companions. I tried to sit close to an exit point so I could get out the door really quickly if we were going to be making a disruptive amount of noise, but found that the close cuddly sling meant that he did sleep quite a lot and when he woke, giving him a quick feed (yes, in my seat at the conference, apologies to the squeamish) worked most of the time. We did miss bits and pieces of a few talks throughout the days, but saw the majority of proceedings.

The biggest tip I have is to get to the conference room early to stake out and secure the ideal seat in the house for you (usually closest to the door!) You *really* want to get this seat and, although it’s far from the best vantage point in the house, you’ll be surprised how quickly it seems to get snapped up.

Effort vs Return: was it worth it?

It was really very hard work taking a 5wk old baby to a 3 day conference and, I confess, we did sneak away early on the afternoon of the second day for an afternoon nap. (Having said that, we were at the conference from 9am until 9pm the previous day attending the UX Bookclub in the evening).

Personally, I found that I was able to attend many of the sessions and actually pay attention to most of them, I was able to meet with lots of people who I haven’t seen for a while and to meet some new people as well, and – most importantly – I was able to escape from the relative isolation of maternity leave, to keep in touch, to feel active and engaged in my community and profession, all of which are very rewarding. So, on balance, I did find that it was worth the effort and, if needs be, I’d do it again and encourage others to do likewise.

It’s certainly very different from doing your conference solo, and you’re not allowed in the bar for drinks because you’ve got an underage drinker with you (yes, even at 5wks they’re still apparently worried they might accidently be served alcohol). I think it’s important to keep your expectations pretty low – I was prepared to turn around and head home without seeing a thing if it came to it – then hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Is it appropriate to bring your baby to a professional conference?

I have to say, this is actually the issue that plagued me most of all. I don’t bring my baby to my meetings, but I do take on work while I’m still at home with him and often do phone conferences with him on my shoulder and many of my clients are aware that my working schedule is sometimes impacted by his sleeping (or not) schedule.

I didn’t experience any negative feedback whilst at the conference or since then, and I had several people approach me to tell me they thought it was great to see a baby at the conference and that they’ll do it themselves or tell someone they know etc. I’m very aware that I’m probably the last person to hear any negative feedback though… so I’m not assuming it didn’t exist.

Ultimately – tiny babies are very portable and very sleepy and much less noisy (mostly) than you’d imagine. They’re also far to young to be separated from their mothers. If said mother particularly wants to attend a conference and has a very small baby, I think there’s no reason why she should feel that it was inappropriate for her to attend. So, it is appropriate and perhaps even necessary. I look forward to helping other mum’s at conferences in the same way that others were able to help me at UX London.

Meanwhile, interested in your thoughts, experiences & tips…

Do you have a relative with dementia? Please help with a website usability study (London)

I’m working on a website usability project for a charity that provides services to anyone affected by dementia. This project will help to ensure that we are delivering support and information services in the best possible way.

We will need an hour of your time on Monday 23 November in Central London. There will be other studies conducted throughout 2010, so please let us know if you’re interested but not available on this date.

If you’d like to participate or to find out more, please complete this form and we will contact you with more information. London travel expenses will be reimbursed.

If you know someone who might be interested in participating, please pass them this information.

Thanks very much for your help with this.

Customer Vs User Experience

Since it came up in discussion at the recent London UX Bookclub where we were discussing Selling Usability: User Experience Infiltration Tactics by John S. Rhodes, I have been thinking about whether it would be useful to start calling myself a Customer Experience Consultant rather than a User Experience Consultant.

In the book, the author advocates using the term ‘customer’ rather than ‘user’ because your business colleagues will both understand & value a ‘customer’ more than a ‘user’. This is not really the reason that I would consider the change, though. It’s actually more about me and the kind of work I do.

The main reason that I would consider changing to a Customer Experience Consultant is because I’ve found that more and more the scope of ‘experience’ that I need to access and can have an impact on goes well beyond the website. Despite the fact that I have much more expertise in engagement with customers in digitally interactive environments, more and more the holistic experience that the customer has with the business I am designing for is relevant and important in the strategy, recommendations and ultimately design work that we do.

By defining myself as a ‘User Experience Consultant’ I am effectively signaling that my scope, interest and usefulness starts and ends at the digital border (however fuzzy that border may be becoming these days). I don’t think this does anyone any favours.

I’m also on the record as not being a huge fan of the term ‘user’, because there are so many more descriptive and humane alternatives. It would be a nice fringe benefit for me to get the word ‘user’ out of my job title.

Of course, there are downsides to this. ‘Customer’ is also a fairly limiting term, it implies consumer focus, it doesn’t allow for differentiation between the person who is ‘buying’ the product/service and the ultimate end user (who can sometimes be very different people!), and it is often too generic and not descriptive enough for companies we engage with, where ‘customers’ are called ‘members’, or ‘readers’, or ‘subscribers’ for example. (Were I working inhouse I could tailor my title to suit, but as a freelancer this is more challenging!).

Another downside of this change is that it creates yet another definition for us (the IA/UX/IxD and however else we already define ourselves) to argue over, it is another title for clients to learn, and it doesn’t give any clues around ‘usability’ which is still something that a lot of clients look for when they are really looking for user experience (but don’t yet know it exists).

I’m not really one for labouring over definitions of what we do, and I don’t think I’m going to go out and change my business cards tomorrow, but it’s something I’ll be mulling over for a while I think. My gut feel is that there is something important here, but also a bunch of problems. I’d be very interested to get your thoughts on this as well, included suggested alternatives.

You can now read this post in Belorussian (thanks to Fatcow for the translation).

Make it measurable: set clear goals & success criteria for your projects

Over the past few weeks I’ve been wrapping up and kicking off a bunch of projects. It is during both of these phases that I am reminded how incredibly valuable it is for me, as a UX practitioner, to proactively encourage my clients to clearly define the goal for their project and to create success criteria – ways that we can tell whether or not the project has been successful.

Be specific

In my experience it is very often left up to me to make sure that the project goals are as clear as they need to be. Many clients come into projects wanting ‘to improve the usability of our website/application/etc’, in my experience that is most often too vague a project goal as to be useful.

The kind of project goals that are really useful go more like this:

We’re getting lots of traffic to the site but not many are joining/buying/contributing/coming back. We want to fix this.

We’re getting lots of calls from people who have visited our website but still don’t know what we do. We want to fix this.

People are coming to our site and doing X but we really want them to start doing Y, we want to find out why this is happening and what we need to do to address it.

As soon as you start defining more specific project goals you can immediately see the way that success criteria start to become immediately apparent.

Measuring success criteria

Some success criteria are immediately apparent and easy to measure, for example return visitors, increased membership, activity or sales. Ideally you want to put some numbers around what you’d consider would define this project as ‘successful’, but even just identifying the metrics that you will use to judge the success of the project is a good start.

Some success criteria are less easy to ‘measure’ but don’t let that discourage you. Often for these kinds of criteria I’ll use a round of research to determine whether or not we’ve been successful – those things that are difficult to quantify are often quite easy to examine using qualitative research. I find myself more and more using a last round of research to ‘check off’ the less quantifiable success criteria for projects.

What’s in it for me?

Failure is a built-in risk of success criteria, but don’t let that put you off. Failing knowledgeably is actually an incredibly useful learning experience for practitioner and client alike (and yes, I speak from experience). I would argue that by defining clear goals and success criteria you are going to do nothing but increase your chances of success in a project.

Clearly defined project goals allow you to make all kinds of good decisions on a project and it can impact everything from design decisions through to who you recruit to participate in design. Just the other day a project I’m working on managed to avoid wasting a number of research sessions on ‘people we felt we had to include’ because we were able to really clearly define why, for the purposes of achieving the goals for this project, they were not our target audience. Without the clear goal we would never have been able to come to this decision.

Clearly defined and measurable success criteria similarly guide you through decision making throughout the project, but they also continue to be useful well after a project has wrapped up. Of course, we use them to judge the success of the project, but we can also use them to communicate this success to others in the organisation and beyond. Clearly defined and measured success criteria give us something tangible to talk about and take much of the ‘touchy feely’ fuzziness out of User Experience and that makes it much easier for more people to understand and appreciate the value of the work we have done.

Would love to hear your thoughts & experiences.