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.]

Design starts with Proposition (ergo Usability)

Layers of Customer Experience

Here’s a typical story.

A project is in its final phases when it gets to the part of the Gant chart that says ‘usability testing’, and so they do.

People come in and are asked to perform tasks, and so they do, with greater or lesser degrees of difficulty. And yet, something else is wrong.

It’s not so much that they *can’t* use your website, it’s just that they don’t want to.

People ask me all kinds of questions about usability. What are the most common usability problems? What’s the best way to make sure our site/application/system is usable? That kind of thing.

It’s pretty clear when they ask these questions that they’re thinking on the presentation layer. Is that button in the right place? Is it big enough? Has it got the right label.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the presentation layer is important, but it’s not the biggest usability problem I see in my work. The biggest problem is that you’re designing something that people don’t care about. You’ve got your proposition wrong.

What’s your proposition? Well, basically it’s the value you’re offering to your customer. Are you offering something they want? Are you solving *real* problems for them? You’d be amazed how often this is not the case, and how often people don’t know about this until they’re about to launch their product or, worse still, once it has launched and is failing.

The diagram above is one that I pull out fairly often these days (it’s another one I’ve borrowed from Flow). It talks about how you need to design from the proposition down. You need to get the value offering right, then look at the model for delivering that value to clients at a conceptual level, then start looking more at what elements go on a page, what functionality is included, how it is structured and ordered. Unless you have all of these in order, it doesn’t really matter where your buttons go or what they’re labeled. Appearance level usability is the most superficial, easily remedied and perhaps even least important of all of the levels of design.

If you’ve got a flaw in your thinking at the top of the chain, then no amount of surface usability is going to save your product.

So, how do you approach this kind of Proposition design and usability? It’s pretty simple really, you test your proposition. This kind of testing (or really, research) is more about talking than tasks, and it’s about understanding your customers better and checking whether you are conceptually on the same page as they are.

I’ve been involved in several projects just in the past twelve months where doing this kind of research has saved companies tens of thousands of pounds (double that if you’re talking dollars) in *not* designing and developing functionality that either was unwanted by their customers or was designed to solve the wrong problems.

Working this out when you have a few pencil sketches or a couple of visio wireframes with a few days invested is an awful lot better than working it out when you get to the ‘usability testing’ line in your Gant chart.

So, if you really want my advice about usability, it’s that it starts right at the very beginning. Before a line (or a box) has been drawn. If you’re not designing the *right thing* then no amount of design expertise is going to get you a really usable product.

Talk to the people you’re designing for.

You’ll save lots of time and money and look really smart.  

Amen.