How we brought 24 hours of live UX content to over 7000 people across 6 continents in just 40 days

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Hello world! We are Peter and Jesse, a couple of digital enthusiasts living in Geneva, Switzerland. We recently concluded the 24 hours of UX virtual event, reaching 7000 people across 6 continents — and we did it in just 40 days. But we did not do it alone. We thought the story might be worthwhile to share, so we tried our best to recall how we got there. Read it all, or just skim the learnings sections, and definitely check out the next step at the end…

Humble beginnings

Our town of Geneva might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of technology. But it is home to the CERN (birthplace of the World Wide Web); the ITU (where so many of our digital communications protocols are defined); and it’s just a stone’s throw away from EPFL (one of Europe’s top polytechnic universities).

About 6 years ago we started a grassroots event series at the intersection of business, technology, and human-centered design, to get community conversations started, and build bridges between people and organizations. Fast forward to 2020, and we had completed over 50 in-person events with speakers from BBC, Microsoft, EA, IBM, the United Nations, the Red Cross, World Health Organization, World Economic Forum, CERN, MindMaze, etc.

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One of our events, on AI and Neuroscience. Of course neither Jesse nor Peter are visible…

People were having fun learning from one another, and we were happy to do our part to develop the local UX community. Then Covid happened, and our in-person meetings were no longer possible.

Suddenly we found ourselves in the virtual event space — along with everyone else. It’s a big ocean out there. Universities, enterprises, and professional associations are all offering well-polished online content to a global audience. But we felt that the community engagement aspect was missing.

A butterfly flaps its wings — ideation

In early May, as we were lamenting our event options for the rest of the year, we figured that we are not the only ones with this challenge. There must be countless grassroots event organizers like ourselves, deeply embedded in their local communities — but who are struggling to adapt to a fully virtual environment.

The “aha” moment came when we realized there could be strength in numbers. Peter had the idea of doing a 24-hour non-stop event, and Jesse had the idea to do this together with other organizers like ourselves. And so the idea of 24 Hours of UX was born.

Because time-boxing is a great motivator, we chose a deadline: middle of June, which was only 40 days away. Only a pair of madmen would dive headlong into such folly.

Lessons learned from the ideation stage:

  • Build on your past efforts — our event series was a good starting point.
  • Get a partner — neither Jesse nor Peter could have pulled this off alone.
  • Focus on the pain — just like with any product or service, customer pain is a source of opportunity, and we shared the pain of physical distancing with other grassroots organizers.

Baptism by Covid — setup

And so the cold emails began, Jesse finding and contacting other grassroots organizers west of Geneva, Peter doing the same for east of Geneva. We explained our vision, admitted that we were crazy, and asked them to join us. The concept was simple: every organizer gets 1 hour to fill with a topic and format of their choosing, and we merge these single events into a 24-hour thread of content.

The all-important first follower was Greece’s Athens UX Community. Then came Nairobi’s UX Kitchen. Then Beijing, Morocco, Wellington… and suddenly we were global.

Next came an important step: a hero appeared on the scene to give us a much needed boost. UXtesting.io is based in Asia, and their CEO, Aldrich Huang, has an extensive network. He introduced us to event organizers across Asia, and our momentum grew. When we had the first 12 grassroots organizations on board and people were pitching in to help with the logistics, we realized this “cage aux folles” had wings to fly.

Then came Jesse’s second great idea: adding keynote speakers to the mix! After Jeff Gothelf and Susan Weinschenk said “yes”, there was no stopping. We did not have all 24 hours filled up yet, but we knew we’d get there. Before long we had also signed up A.J. Wood, Indi Young, Jake Knapp, Jeff Patton, Phil Balagtas, and Brian Sullivan. Talk about an all-star lineup!

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the keynote speakers of ’24 Hours of UX’

Lessons learned from the setup stage:

  • Just do it — if we had given it the 7-day “mull things over” test, we never would have accomplished what we did in such a short time.
  • Smile and dial — life’s too short to live like a wallflower, so jump over your shadow, take a risk, talk to strangers and you’ll be surprised how many people you draw to your light.
  • Dare to ask for help — reaching out to famous people can be intimidating, yet we were amazed at how generous our keynote speakers were with their time and how we were able to turn the experience into a win-win.

Show me the money — financing

You know the saying “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there”? Well, we found ourselves at the bridge of figuring out how to finance this thing. And we didn’t quite know how to cross to the other side. We had been cold emailing our corporate contacts for sponsorship, but our network was limited.

Luckily, Jonathan Parra, one of the organizers of our now-partner Las Vegas UX/UI solved the problem by linking us up with Adobe. This was at 10PM Geneva time, and by the next morning at 6AM, UXtesting.io decided to also join as a lead sponsor. Brian Sullivan, from the “Dallas User Experience Group”, brought in Big Design Events as an associate sponsor. Jesse’s company, Whitespace, and Peter’s company, holistique.design, also chimed in, and the break-even was achieved.

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Lessons learned in the financing stage:

  • Know your worth — it may sound a lot to ask for at first, but if you can deliver the audience, you can bring real value to sponsors.
  • Ask for more — we already had grassroots organizers on our side, putting in their time and effort, and they were ready to also bring their contacts.
  • Listen to the group, but stick to your roots — together with the co-organizers, we debated charging for the event, but in the end we wanted to continue the tradition of every single grassroots organizer on the team: free content for the community.

Singing from the rooftops — communication

The platform we chose was Hopin.to, for two reasons. We liked the experience it offered, and anyone we asked about recommending a tool either used it, or was switching to it. Of course it is not perfect — but since then they even interviewed us for UX upgrades of the platform!

So now we had the platform, the money pay for it, and about 20 hours of content lined up. We bought a domain, made a logo, set up an email inbox, whipped up a website in a matter of hours, and started spreading the news.

Having worked in advertising, Peter knew the importance of carefully crafting and financing a communications plan — and we did none of that... Aside from last-minute LinkedIn and Twitter accounts set up by Ohio-based, Keith Instone, our communications plan was bare-bones. Instead, we trusted the community and leaned into our network strongly. This approach worked and the message resonated: we spent zero dollars on communications and people started registering anyway. Couple social media with a lockdown, and word of mouth is actually a solid option. Registrations continued almost until the very end of the event!

Yes, we launched before we were ready. Except for two teams, neither the speakers nor the topics were finalized, and we still had 4 hours of the schedule to fill. Only a week remained until the big day, yet we were confident the rest would work out.

Once we started spreading the news, people started volunteering en masse. We quickly ran out of available hours and had to start saying “no” to some promising contributors. And that’s when it dawned on us: we have enough ammunition to do this event again next year. But let’s not rush ahead, we still had to do the first one.

Lessons learned from communications stage:

  • Perfection is the enemy of the good — our web presence was (is) certainly not polished, but it did the trick.
  • Close enough is good enough — we didn’t have all slots of the event filled when we started communicating, but we were certain that we could fill them up before the deadline because of the rising awareness.
  • Community is a powerful force — news about a good initiative can spread quickly if the right people in the community are involved, and if you bring value to your network.
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A day like no other in UX history — the event

As the day of the event closed in on us, we had to switch from initiators to managers, and make sure everything was working well. Peter and Jesse created scripts, explored the platform and held dry-runs of the event, wrote how-to’s, and planned the event experience. We also scheduled our own time: as the admins and facilitators, one of us had to be present all the time. We both took four hours of rest at some point during the 24-hour period, but otherwise stayed present throughout the event — we were just too curious to see it unfold for ourselves.

The event itself went smoothly. It wasn’t flawless, but there were only a few noticeable glitches — and this with over 50 speakers, all logging in from their home computers on six continents! You can watch all 24 hours of content here. Or check out our (good enough) website.

In all modesty, the effect of the global 24-hour event was nothing short of magical. People in the event chat were overflowing with enthusiasm, the speakers were excited to present to thousands of concurrent viewers, the global audience was grateful for access to quality content at zero cost, and the country organizers gained visibility on the world stage.

To ensure learnings are captured after the event, we did evaluation sessions with other organizers, and also ran a survey among participants with the help of Munich’s Thomas Glaser. One of the most interesting findings: attendees returned to the event multiple times per day!

With a bit of hindsight, let’s look at what we could have done better.

  • We were static, in the sense that we just sat in front of our computer cameras as talking heads. One of the presenting teams gathered in one space, and created a dynamic, studio-like atmosphere, which is really something to consider for the future.
  • We were non-stop, which was kind of the point, but we should have left a few minutes for breaks in between talks.
  • We did incorporate a bit of yoga, but we could have incorporated more movement and dynamics, knowing that most people just sit in front of their computers all day.
  • The event purposefully had no overarching theme. This was a limitation due to the fact that we had to put everything together from scratch in just over a month. We are planning to keep the decentralized organization, but we do want to bring more coordination into future events.

Next steps

So what’s next? We know for sure that we want to repeat the experience in 2021. But we also know that we want to do more than just an annual event. We thought a lot about what the 24 Hours of UX initiative really means, and it came down to 3 elements:

  • Reverse Glocal: the combination of global and local has, for too long, been that local people listen to globally-known speakers. We want to turn this around, and bring local, even first-time speakers with valuable content to the global community.
  • Community: We will not be doing things behind the scenes and centralized. Rather we will continue to be decentralized, bringing together the many local communities we engaged during our first event and expanding the franchise to newcomers from other cities and regions.
  • Non-stop: This is not just about the ‘all-day’ aspect, but also the fact that we are always learning. Our profession is not old enough to allow anyone to lean back. So from novice to expert, we still learn non-stop. This insight is what led us to our next idea…

Introducing the 24 Minutes of UX podcast

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The 24 minutes of UX podcast series will be the combination of an after-work discussion, a 1-on-1 chat, a global community platform, and a coaching session. And it will be all wrapped up in easy-to-listen-to, 24-minute episodes. It will always involve Jesse and Peter for introductions and facilitation, but the focus will be on The Seeker and The Giver.

  • The Seeker is a person seeking advice in a specific topic within the domain of UX. Resumes. Measurement. Personas. DesignOps. Stakeholder management. Hiring. You name it. The Seeker can be a student, a junior practitioner, or even a senior manager tackling her next challenge. She will come prepared with specific questions.
  • On the other side will be The Giver. She is not necessarily more senior than The Seeker, but she is more experienced in the specific topic at hand. She will come prepared with her own first-hand experiences, and the golden advice of “what I wish I had known when I started with this topic”.

So, what now? Well, we need Seekers and Givers. Are you seeking advice on a specific topic of UX? Or do you feel you have experience to share in a specific topic of UX? Fill out this form, and we will try to match you with someone for an upcoming episode!

Written by

I connect the dots. I am a digital strategist based in Geneva, always looking for the next challenge.

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