Safco Products Wire Book Cart, Black, 5333BL. Content not included, apparently.

Ode to a Cart

The young woman approaches tentatively from the side. Clearly, she doesn’t want to be noticed.

Her slumpish posture suggests conference fatigue. Like a lot of people in the UX field, she’s an introvert. And she’s blasted from the event: too many talks, too much time sitting in a dark auditorium, too many forced conversations with strangers.

Poor thing — we’re not even a day into the conference, and she’s clearly ready for something different.

That’s when she spots the UX Bookmobile (and us, its caretakers).

Elaine manages the crowd single-handed; UXcamp Ottawa, 2014.

Lured by the world’s ultimate conversation pieces—books — she cranes her neck for a closer look. Feeling braver, she strolls over, picks one up, and starts to read. Engaged, she is re-energized; her posture changes completely. We can practically hear the sigh of relief.

We’re watching, of course. Her eyebrows arch oddly, and we ask her what she thinks. Without looking up, she tells us everything — what she likes about the cover, how she’s not sure we framed the topic correctly, why she needs an updated edition, and who should write it.

This is user research, folks

We’re thrilled. What we’re observing and what she’s telling us is more valuable feedback than just about anything imaginable. It’s free. And she just might buy one of our books.

The UX Bookmobile and the books on it help us learn so much about the people we serve — not just about their current and future reading interests, but about who they are, where they work, what they do, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. And we always come away surprised.

We’ve been pushing the UX Bookmobile up and down conference floors for years. In a nutshell, it’s a cheap library cart that we stock with our books. (It’s so cheap that we often leave it behind rather than pay to ship it home.) We load it up with stock, keep an iPad with Square handy for sales, and tweet out that the books are deeply discounted (no shipping, of course!). Standing with our books makes us visible at the conference — we’ve got wheels and can try out different spots. And, if we’re lucky, we sell out and make a little money.

Karen and me at the IDEA Conference; Philadelphia, 2010.

And bringing the books to the people sure beats the hell out of being tethered to an exhibition booth. (Ever worked at a booth? Then you know exactly what I mean.)

Yes, it’s dorky. It’s also cheap, it’s different, and it works.

The UX Bookmobile is much more than a way to sell books: it’s an engagement platform. It’s perhaps our most important means of starting conversations with the people we care most about — and riding those conversations in the unexpected directions our customers take us.

What’s your platform for engagement?

Are you doing something like this? If you’re not, here are some questions to help you brainstorm:

  • What’s your conversation starter? It could be your product, in all its glory. It could be your people. It could also be your new concept. It just needs to be interesting. (Your stuff is interesting — right?)
  • Do you have a platform that helps get engagement going — then gets out of the way? Fast? The bookmobile is unique enough to draw attention, but the novelty wears off quickly, which is perfect. What might you use to similar effect? Get creative. Maybe drag a portable whiteboard into the event space? It almost doesn’t matter, as long as it’s not a booth. Because nothing is worse than a booth.
  • Are you ready to join the conversation? Look for cues in body language, and make yourself accessible. Sometimes we wear company hats to make clear that we’re the people who can help, or quietly mention that we’re glad to answer questions. Then we step back and keep out of the way. But we never stop looking for that moment where a person signals us permission to engage.
  • Are you prepared to meander? Conversations often end in a very different place from where they started. Let that happen. Ride away from the starting point, which may be your product, to another place — which ultimately may be your next product.
  • Can key people be part of the conversation? For example: is your CEO at the event? Can you hijack him for ten minutes to observe and — good lord — directly engage with customers? It’s a rare opportunity, so if you can, make it happen.

There are so many ways for companies to engage with their customers in public settings like conferences. Unfortunately, for most of us, that still means stale scripted product demos in fixed booths, perhaps aided by an iPad raffle.

Feh. Try something different. Move around. Observe. Engage.

Find your own cart, and take it for a ride.

(This piece originally ran in the Rosenfeld Review; sign up here for new ones.)