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Behind The Scenes Vol.2 Recap

Our second Behind The Scenes event happened on 11 November 2020. You can watch the recording here. This session is a deep dive into what it takes to build a program worthy of the perils that surround us for Interaction 21.

The discussion was led by Tin Kadoic, who started the local group in Zagreb, Croatia in 2014 and is past member of the IxDA EU Core team. The guests were Elaine Matthias and Brenda Laurel, co-chairs for this year’s edition.

Elaine Matthias is a freelance interaction designer with a background in ecommerce and event design. She has worked on the past 4 IxD conferences beginning with New York in 2017, where she resides.

Brenda Laurel is a video game designer and researcher advocating for diversity and inclusiveness in video games and a pioneer in developing virtual reality. She is the founder and chair of the graduate design program at the California College of Arts.

What is involved in the program process? What does it mean to design a program?

EM: On the practical side, we looked at the submissions through our standardized criteria. How relevant to the conference topic, how much experience do the submitter has in this particular area, how detailed are they? It took an entire weekend and a big Mural board. We talked about our vision for the conference and dove right in, doing a big card sort.

What are some interesting things that popped up in terms of strengths or weaknesses or patterns?

EM: There were a lot of commonalities between the submissions. The topics proposed were very relevant for the current times and provided a lot of different perspectives on climate change, social and racial justice, data and surveillance, misinformation. These are all issues designers are talking about and tackling really actively.
I can say that participating in peer reviews for conferences in your industry is a really important professional process, it’s the best way to learn about what your peers are thinking about.

"Participating in peer reviews for conferences in your industry is a really important professional process, it’s the best way to learn about what your peers are thinking about"

Unfortunately, a lot of the takeaways were poorly written. They were just outlined, like a bullet list, and it felt prescriptive. I want to know what can be put into action in people’s day to day, giving them something actionable to look forward to. But that was missing overall in the submissions. Or it was too prescriptive like “designers NEED to have a seat at the table”. If you can’t teach people something, you might not be ready to get up on this stage.

How does the programming work?

EM: We’re cultivating a healthy level of pessimism. We want to tap into that emotional zeitgeist. What we built into the program is an opportunity for self-reflection. We want to create a space to drive conversations about controversial topics. We really examined how to tap into the confusion and strong feelings that we are all having right now.

What does the theme mean for you?

BL: I’ve been guilty all my life to be too hopeful. This year we’re traversing the distance from hopefulness to looking at a world where things are coming apart in dramatic ways. We want the conference to mirror that traverse of emotion. Let’s look the difficulties we face right in the eyes. A lot of other conferences have a lighter tone, but this is stuff we have to attend to not only as designers but as civil human beings. The theme was an attempt to pivot to a direct gaze at the harms in the world; allowing people to get mad and angry. We’re not innocent in this, in the computer business and UX community at large. We need to look at things that are actionable. What we’re getting from this is not just dark humor but real beauty from our Keynote speakers. It’s not all grim, but it’s time to get real.

The theme was an attempt to pivot to a direct gaze at the harms in the world; allowing people to get mad and angry.

How has the conversation around this theme changed or evolved throughout the year?

BL: Those of us that were in Milan felt like Covid was chasing us home. Everybody was mindful of police violence against POC but the events around George Floyd brought that to another level. We’ve been cognizant of climate change for a long time, but the extreme fires this year have made us turn our heads. It started a kind of oppression pole. The response we got from our submissions were just as powerful as we thought they’d be.

How have the chairs thought about that topic this year?

BL: Initially when the organization got their heads around the social issues and widespread interest in these difficulties, our response was to say we can talk about these things but let’s make damn sure we’re walking the walk. We needed to find talented, enlightening people from diverse backgrounds. We worked harder at that than we’ve done in the past. We made sure to pay more attention to real diversity in the program than just say nice things about it.

We can talk about these things but let’s make damn sure we’re walking the walk.

What are you hoping the next stage is?

BL: I think of it as confrontation, not pessimism. It’s about opening our hearts and minds at the seriousness of the issues facing us. We don’t expect people to be shocked, we all know about what’s going on, but we have the opportunity to surface these concerns as seriously as we feel them. Let’s look these things straight in the face, let’s look at accountability and check ourselves frequently. How am I complicit in this? What I hope comes out of this is consciousness and bravery no matter what task we’re working on. These issues touch everything we do, and we need to be taking awareness into our work.

Have you seen patterns about how speakers are interested in online conference as opposed to in-person?

BL: For people who are used to speaking on a stage, there’s something scary about online presentation. It seems so intimidating. So we’re helping those people who haven’t had this experience, really helping them figure out lighting, pointing at the screen, helping them understand the medium.

EM: We’re getting a lot of enthusiasm about engaging with the audience in real time.

Which topics from the submissions surprised you?

BL: There’s a talk about challenges faced by psychologists and therapists with telepresence. That’s going to knock it out of the park. God knows we all need a therapist right now!

EM: There’s one about setting up frameworks for future thinking, about how to continue to process the chaos happening around us and in our work as designers without coming up with ideas out of the blue?

What’s been the biggest hurdle?

EM: Engagement is the biggest hurdle. At this point, we’re still doing a lot of planning. The speakers want to be able to pull from the audience in real time and we’ll make sure they’re prepared to do just that.

BL: For me it’s rolling around timezones. We have 3 different blocks of time to allow the max number of people to participate.

To make this online event feel more tangible, we’ve created some physical goodies you can shop for here. As our thanks to ticket holders, attendees get to purchase items at cost.




The Interaction Design Association (IxDA) is a member-supported organization, focusing on interaction design issues for the practitioner, no matter their level of experience.

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