“Not Today”: How to Keep your Conference from Dying

Louis Rosenfeld
May 10 · 6 min read

There’s quite a bit of angst among UX/design/research conference organizers these days. Here’s some tweetage from across the Atlantic, I’ve heard similar concerns expressed among North American organizers:

This was a long, useful, and heartfelt thread; I could have called out many more individual tweets.

Conference organizers should worry. We probably reached the “peak design conference” threshold five years ago. Yet more new events—some quite ambitious, many simply fantastic, and most just a mediocre-jobs-report away from imploding—keep cropping up.

That’s both healthy and to be expected: UX is a dynamic field. The community’s interests keep morphing—as does the community itself. 2019 conference attendees are a very different sort than, say, 2014's. Conferences are massively complex productions, and it’s hard for existing events to turn on a dime as the zeitgeist changes.

But it’s not impossible. Let me tell you how we’re looking to stave off decrepitude with Enterprise Experience, the conference formerly known as Enterprise UX (and coming up on its fifth edition June 3–5, 2019 in San Francisco).

Sustainable Conference Design

It’s a Product, Dammit

These days we talk about conferences in so many ways: gatherings, communities, conversations, institutes, hootenannies, kumbayas… It’s easy to forget that our conferences are ultimately products. Even if they’re free, they still have customers who are spending their time, if not their money, to participate.

Those customers expect two things: quality content and a great experience. In organizer parlance, that’s programming and event operations. Both require what all products require: user and market research and testing, product strategy, information architecture, interaction design, visual design, content strategy, service design… I’m sure I’m leaving some things out, but you get the idea.

I could write pages full of examples, but I’ll leave you with a couple from Enterprise Experience 2019. We’ve done substantial user research (covered a bit here)—enough to change the conference from its original use case of helping enterprise UX leaders and managers build their organizations, to two new use cases:

  1. Helping those leaders and managers up-level their designers and researchers with the skills they need (e.g., soft skills, business acumen) to survive and thrive in the complex setting of the enterprise (our workshops especially address these issues); and
  2. Helping them understand, empathize, and partner their peers in other functions, like engineering, product, HR, and business development (see, for example, Theme 4 of this year’s program).

That’s a radical — but research-driven — change.

And here’s a conference interaction design example that might seem trivial: our badge booklet interiors are printed upside down so they can be easily read by the wearer. I know it’s important because the printer screwed this up for our first year (he assumed it was an error), and attendees made sure to point this SNAFU out. Repeatedly.

Diversity or Death

Having diverse perspectives incorporated into your research and design process is the best way to make sure your product satisfies a diverse audience. It’s also a way to keep up with reality: I can tell you, as both conference producer and publisher, that the audience for UX-related events and content is, certainly, more diverse than it’s ever been.

For last year’s edition of Enterprise UX, we dramatically diversified our curation team to include under-represented audiences. Because our latest research indicated the need to incorporate cross-functional perspectives, we added five curators to this year’s program team that represent a variety of functions that have a role in producing great enterprise experiences: engineering, product management, customer experience, and customer success. These curators have in turn connected us with speakers and attendees from their respective communities.

Either way, if you want to diversify your speaker lineup and, ultimately, your audience (more on that later), you absolutely must go beyond your own network. You have to partner with people who are not like you in order to find more people like them. That means delegating some of your authority to your new partners by giving them a stake in the program’s design, and that’s not always the most comfortable feeling—especially when you care so deeply about a program. But if you’re delegating and you’re not even a little uncomfortable, you’re doing it wrong.

If it Ain’t Broke, Break It Anyway

For four years running, Enterprise UX had a simple format: a single track over two days with four main topics. Each topic lasted two hours, and had a leader, three speakers, and a discussion section. These four topics were sandwiched by opening and closing keynotes, and punctuated by a storytelling session at the end of the first day.

It worked great.

But it ain’t happening that way this year.

Instead, we’ve taken two of the topics and made them completely interactive sessions (see themes 2 and 4 on our program). One gets at the tensions on interdisciplinary product teams; the other explores what motivates the C-level folks who have a stake in enterprise experience, and how to get them singing in unison.

This is exciting! And really and truly frightening: these aren’t scripted sessions. Rather, we’re looking for participants to bare their souls and be uncomfortable while working through difficult scenarios with a group of strangers. In front of hundreds of other strangers.

What could possibly go wrong?

That’s not all we’ve changed: one of our four topics this year addresses cross-functional case studies. These case studies will be presented by two peers from different functions who’ve worked together to deliver a product. In mathematical terms:

1 presenter = kinda simple

2 co-presenters = OMG my head is exploding this is going to be complicated!

So yes, we’re experimenting, and it’s scary. But to be honest, we were getting tired of the old format, and if we—the programmers—were feeling that way, there’s a good chance that would show through to our attendees.

Just as with delegating some of your control over a program, you have to live with the discomfort that comes with experimentation in order to come up with ideas that will sustain your event.

Go Long

Does your conference have a five-year plan? Ours does.

We know that in large enterprises, UX is morphing from role/job title to shared responsibility. We’re getting to a point where HR, sales, marketing, legal, and operations will all have a stake in enterprise experience, as well as product management, engineering, and—yes—UX.

As enterprise experience design becomes increasingly post-tribal, multi-disciplinary, and cross-functional, so should our conference. Enterprise Experience should be a welcoming home for all enterprise people who care about good experience, even if they don’t identify as UXers. So, our goal: by 2023, 50% of our attendees come from outside the UX tribe.

That’s why we’ve changed the curation model for the conference. And, of course, the name.

What should your favorite conference — the one you love to attend or organize — look like in five years? And how will you help get it there?

Now we Sweat

This is some scary stuff. And it’s incredibly exciting.

Will it work? We’ll find out soon enough. Just as with any other product.

Change or die, but if you’re going to die, at least die changing.

PS

Thanks for reading! If you like the approach we’ve covered here, please register for Enterprise Experience 2019. It takes place in San Francisco, June 3–5. You might also consider our other conference, the DesignOps Summit, which takes place in Brooklyn, NY, October 23–25.

PPS

Interesting suggestion, Andy Budd. Interesting suggestion.

Louis Rosenfeld

Written by

Founder of Rosenfeld Media. I make things out of information.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade