A Conference Like None Other, in a Time Like None Other

Musings on UXPA International 2021, Traveling Again After 17 Months, and Presenting an In-person Keynote in the Midst of a Pandemic

On the speaking front, it’s been a busy last year and a half — the dry erase-scrawled line items on my home office whiteboard tell the tale. 100% of those engagements, as you might imagine, happened virtually: behind a webcam and the warm glow of my MacBook Pro’s screen. Often, in sweatpants. That is, until the UXPA International conference on August 31st.

Home office whiteboard, tracking speaking engagements

I’ve engaged with copious UXPA chapters across the country (US) and the UK over the past year. I love the organization’s mission of supporting researchers, designers, and all those invested in their craft through quality events and programming. So when UXPA International reached out and discussed an opening keynote slot for this year’s conference, I was of course excited to talk about it. But then came the whopper: this was an in-person event. Hoo boy.

It’s a hot topic: how will conferences (continue to) evolve now that the world has changed from the pandemic? Just last week, AIGA Eye on Design published the article “Will Design Conferences Stay Digital or Re-embrace the IRL?” pondering the same. In the virtual events I’ve participated in over the past year and a half—of varying scales—numerous ultra-robust (sometimes too robust) platforms have been employed. Some of them have an incredible degree of polish, but as a speaker—going from ultra-robust product to ultra-robust product—has at times been a tad daunting.

By and large, virtual events have found their footing and run quite smoothly. What’s been lost amongst the webcams and screens, however, is the spontaneity—those happenstance hallway dialogues, sparks, and connections. Similarly, the same notion of “lost spontaneous serendipity” can be said for remote work, as well. For me personally, after this past year and a half, this need—more than a want—gave me the first nudge toward participation in the event.

Though initially hesitant — and after asking a million (possibly billion) questions of the organizers on safety protocols and precautions — what drew me in was three-fold:

  1. The safety precautions employed by the conference were followed to the letter based on state, city, and hotel guidelines. Inclusive of masking and distancing, the event would also operate at a reduced capacity, with after hours events all scheduled to be held outside (side note: I began the talk by setting the tone that this in-person event is likely a new dynamic for many of us, encouraging empathy and respect for wherever anyone was at psychologically along the way).
  2. This was an opportunity to finally connect with people — human beings — in a tangible capacity, and talk about our craft. It’s a need that’s long been unmet, and was incredibly appealing to satiate.
  3. This was also an opportunity to talk about where my head has been since releasing Creative Culture — on the imperatives of our fulfillment, what it means to the connection to our work, and how the impact of potential disconnection is far bigger than us (those on the receiving end of what we create, the environment, etc.).

After ~17 months of not having been on a plane, or speaking in front of a live audience, I was…rusty. About everything. Just making my way through O’Hare and its new procedures, even. What had been fairly routine before, now felt foreign in many ways — with new policies and impacted social dynamics on a grand scale. So, in short, there was lots of “new” with this UXPA engagement: traveling again, being at an in-person event again, and a brand-new presentation, to boot. Deep breaths…

And here…we…go.

Once I arrived in Baltimore (after 4 flight delays), I began to feel a bit more at ease (4 flight delays flying out of O’Hare felt like home, in fact). Held at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel in Baltimore, MD, you couldn’t have asked for a lovelier venue or locale.

(pic 1) The grand ballroom where I had the opportunity to present // (pic 2) The gorgeous view of the harbor from my hotel room

There wasn’t much time between landing, getting to the hotel, stuffing some bar food in my mouth, and getting right to it the next morning. Sound check was at 8am, with my opening keynote set to begin at 9—I was up at 6 to go for a run and burn off some excess energy.

A couple shots from sound check
Taking Q&A post-presentation // photo: Alain Robillard-Bastien

With full transparency: being on a stage again felt amazing; the energy, the connection. What was unique to the present state of the world was not being able to read anyone’s expressions via everyone’s mask wearing (and as a side note: bravo to everyone). I’ll pretend my crappy dad jokes induced a smile or two. I also got to trot out my pandemic-era self-shaved head (haven’t gotten an actual haircut in as many months as I haven’t traveled).

The talk, “Our Imperatives: Connection and Fulfillment,” was fulfilling in and of itself to deliver — largely to see how people responded to the material. Did it resonate? Was it of value? Had the themes and approaches connected with them?

I’d be speaking about the perils of disconnection: how our own fulfillment is an imperative toward ensuring our work connects with those on the receiving end of the experiences we create, wherever they may be (and whatever dynamic they be a part of at that moment). How a designer’s legacy isn’t defined by their choice of tools, but rather by the decisions they make. How our values must align to what (and how, and where, and why) we create, to underpin it all. And, introducing a new connection-based platform, Make Meaningful Work, for the first time — and demoing it live on stage.

The talk’s summary (via the UXPA International ’21 event site):

What fulfills you, inclusive of both sides of your personal and professional journey? Research? Questioning? Advocating? Connection? Communicating? Elements such as these are common to both spheres of existence. Understanding this, in tandem with a clear value system, is essential to defining your legacy as a designer.

The designer’s legacy isn’t built upon tools. The designer’s legacy is built upon the choices they make — as macro and micro as that implies. There is a privilege and responsibility that are inherent in the craft. In communicating. In connecting with people through design.

Privilege and responsibility. Those notions are so vital (and evergreen) to our craft, and how we connect with other human beings. Formative, yet intrinsic to what we do. Every decision carries weight, and is bigger than us. We simply cannot foresee under what conditions people will be engaging with what we create. They need to be understood, advocated for, and included along the way.

We create to connect. We create to advance. Leveraging our system of values as a North Star — and aligning to a role, team, and business whose own values compliment ours — ensures we’re ever-mindful of the results of our actions through the choices we make. We’re inserting meaning through action, our work a product of focused intent.

For designers, disconnection can yield breakpoints in visual communication (connection) between designer and user that inhibit quality at potentially imperative interaction points. Design, UX, and all its permutations are not disciplines where we can “phone it in,” so to speak, as we can never assume people are going to be engaging with what we create under idyllic circumstances.

When I conclude any presentation I give, one of the last slides is always an earnest solicitation for feedback — to help the material, its message, and me, evolve. This talk was no different in that capacity. In fact, it was particularly vital in this case as much of the material I walked through is in the DNA of my forthcoming 2nd book, In Fulfillment: The Designer’s Journey, coming next year — news I was excited to publicly share with the audience for the first time (!!!)

With Tremendous Appreciation

A little later in the afternoon I did a book signing in the vendor area outside the ballrooms. Those who approached me were in fact incredibly generous with their feedback, something I deeply appreciated.

Funnily enough, after being “on” for so much up until that point (after effectively not physically interacting with much more than my family in person over the past year), I had to go up to my hotel room once the signing wrapped up to take a nap. All tuckered out.

Truly, everyone at the event seemed thrilled to be connecting with one another—the spontaneous dialogues were wonderful, the opening reception party was electric, and the energy from attendees was palpable. UXPA International struck a wonderful balance of reduced scale and safety precautions, via well-conceived and equally well-executed event planning.

In the end, it was an incredibly humbling experience to be surrounded by such kind, engaged, and inspired people: the event organizers, event staff, my fellow speakers, and all the wonderful attendees. During sound check I wrote a quick note on one of the table cards that I hope made it into someone’s hands — my appreciation for those who made it out to the event is immense.

All sessions from UXPA International 2021 were video recorded and are available by reaching out to UXPA International. If you happen to watch my talk, as stated above: I’d love your feedback.

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