A Few Things I Learned at the Front Conference for UX Designers and Product Managers

Last week, I had the pleasure of traveling from New York to Salt Lake City to attend Front: UX & Product Management Case Study Conference, which included two days of talks and interactive Q&A panels, and was attended by 1000+ product designers and PMs.

This was my first trip to Utah! I loved exploring the Salt Lake area, meeting new people and listening to so many engaging talks in the beautiful Eccles Theater.

Essential gear for two days of inspired talks!

The presenters were designers and product managers from these companies: Hotel Tonight, Airbnb, Facebook, Headspace, LinkedIn, Pendo, InVision, Abstract, Vivint Smart Home, Pluralsight, Canopy, Jane.com, and Box.

Screenshot from www.frontutah.com/conference/speakers

I promised my team at AFAR Media (a small travel media startup) that upon my return, I would summarize interesting thoughts, quotes, and ideas so that we could learn together from this event. Although I enjoyed all of the talks over the two-day period, I am going to highlight the three talks that especially resonated with me below.


1. Benjamin Evans, Design Lead, Airbnb

Benjamin set up his talk by sharing a personal story about dealing first-hand with racial discrimination while renting an Airbnb property on a trip to Chile. His anecdote provided really great context for his talk on inclusive design, and helped the audience empathize with his challenge as a designer to remove bias and discrimination from a product used by thousands of people around the world.

At Airbnb, the team debated whether or not to include profile photos for guests and hosts, and tested both scenarios in an effort to find the most inclusive design solution.

They also took a closer look at the illustrations of people on their app, and decided that what they portrayed needed to depict a wider variety of people (ages, races, genders, disabilities, body types) in order to make everyone feel included.

Benjamin spoke about the challenge many companies face with incorporating inclusive design into their product, and summarized their process into these design principles:

  1. Identify assumptions: Make questioning your assumptions a core part of your workflow. Consider the opposite.
  2. Seek out diverse thinking: Don’t let the ease of the internet make you think you have diversity at your fingertips. Get out of the building.
  3. Create space: Create space for the needs of other perspectives and to align on a clear vision of success.

A couple of my favorite quotes from his talk:

“In solving for the needs of the few, we can find ways to improve the lives of many.” — Benjamin Evans
“The problem with human-centered design is that no one says which human should be at the center.” — Kat Holmes
Benjamin Evans, Design Lead at Airbnb at the Front Conference in June 2018.

2. Amanda Richardson, Chief Data and Strategy Officer, Hotel Tonight

Even before I arrived in Salt Lake City, I was especially pumped to attend Amanda’s talk, “Getting data right, a case study in how we did it wrong at HotelTonight”. There’s something super compelling in hearing about other teams’ data foibles and how they overcame them.

Amanda is an amazing storyteller with a great stage presence, and she took us on a wild, funny ride. Her talk incorporated humor, vulnerability, stories about tense meetings, losing investors, making mistakes, re-orgs, throwing out different solutions and hoping something would stick.

Amanda’s talk focused on the challenges she faced at Hotel Tonight when it came to massive amounts of data: what kind of data to look at, who should be looking at the data, how to analyze it, how to use it to make product decisions. She shared stories about mistakes that were made around data, the aftermath, and some insightful findings.

Amanda Richardson on stage at the Front conference in Salt Lake City last week.

Here is a summary of the key takeaways from her talk on getting data right:

  1. Data is a product — it needs to be spec’d, maintained, even sunset
  2. Documentation does matter — make time for it, reward it
  3. Don’t wait for the disaster — get on top of it now

Another great little tidbit from her talk that I will share with the stakeholders at my company:

“All questions are not good questions.” — Amanda Richardson

3. Cameron Moll, Design Manager, Facebook Events

Another one of my favorite presentations was by Cameron Moll, whose talk was titled “When We Align” and dealt with the idea of alignment within a team to “arrive at a shared understanding of priorities, efficiencies, and tradeoffs.”

Although Facebook Events is a much (much) bigger product than the one I work on, I liked that the takeaways could apply to products and businesses of all sizes.

Cameron kicked off his talk with a couple of examples of alignment (or lack thereof) from his personal life, which centered around a parade event he helped spearhead in his hometown, and a poorly designed fridge water dispenser. Kudos for the injection of humor and real-life examples!

In his talk, Cameron focused on these three ideas for achieving alignment within an organization:

  1. Unity over uniformity.
  2. Chemistry over culture.
  3. People over process.
Cameron Moll on stage at the Front conference in Salt Lake City last week.
“Culture suggests a grouping of things that begin similar or evolve to become similar. Chemistry is about blending similar and dissimilar things — without implicit or explicit pressure to trend toward shared norms.” — Cameron Moll

While going over his point of “people over process”, one idea that really resonated with me was the suggestion to “empower all voices in the room to contribute”, which is something only a few managers understand or do well. I am often surprised by the number of meetings I’ve been a part of where there are several people who aren’t given a chance to speak up and make some kind of contribution (or worse: they speak up and have their ideas mocked and ridiculed in front of the group).

Large group meetings tend to favor the loudest, most extraverted people who like the spotlight. Giving everyone a chance to speak, and ensuring that there is psychological safety in place, would make everyone feel included and appreciated for their thoughts.


Left: downtown Salt Lake City view from the Eccles Theater terrace. Right: conference attendees in the lobby of the Eccles theater.

Conclusion

There were many other great ideas and takeaways from the conference, and I really enjoyed my time there. As a UX department of one working for a small company, I find the benefit of attending these kinds of events to be immeasurable both in terms of gaining new knowledge, networking and idea-sharing.

Kudos to Andrew Branch, Ben Peck, and Wade Shearer for putting together such an engaging, fun event. I hope to come back again next year! In the meantime, check out their website for more upcoming conferences:


P.S. If you’re traveling to Salt Lake City, are into hiking, but short on time, check out my two favorite places to explore:

  1. The Living Room Hiking Trail (stunning views of the city, beautiful sunset)

2. Antelope Island State Park (wild bison, salt flats, beautiful landscape)

Thanks for reading!