Conferences, are they worth it?

I love the feeling when you are walking out of a conference feeling like you could conquer the world. You are full of new ideas and when you’re back at work you plan to implement all of these wonderful things… But how often do you? After that initial excitement, what actionable information did you take from the talks? Leading me to question are conferences truly worth it?

When I started out in the design world I wanted to attend every conference I could, absorbing information like a sponge, assuming everyone talking was ten times more knowledgeable than myself, and that I had so much to learn. I was using them as a tool for learning because there was no way of me learning these things internally at my first company. I thought that attending conferences would help me progress and become the ultimate designer!

After a while, I came to learn whilst many people are willing to talk, was I learning from them? The answer I keep coming back with of late is ‘no’…

So what has changed? I realised that conferences are not the ideal place to learn. Many of them feature talks that are pushing a particular product or have serial speakers, someone who spends more time speaking than doing their day to day job. These people may speak well, and be able to communicate their message but is it of use to their audience?

I started to question, did I have the wrong idea about conferences? I thought of them as a place of knowledge sharing and networking. Were they always meant for serial speakers to deliver the perfect talk and companies to push products, or is that as a result of conferences growing, needing sponsors and making money?

Every individual designer, researcher, a project manager will work differently, they will have varying systems, tools and established rules. There is no one size fits all, some talks very much come across like this, they have found a way of working that is great for them / had a successful project or product and think that should be applied to a template for all.

UX is a rapidly growing field, many people are trying to start a career in it, and there seem to be just as many starting UX conferences! Maybe that’s a bit of an over-exaggeration… but with the working from home revolution truly upon us, I receive weekly emails about a new conference or a one-off talk. Are people starting these because they can or because they have the tools and the knowledge to do so?

I now view conferences from the perspective of working within an established and experienced team, where I can develop and thrive. I ask myself if I would still have the opinions that I have outlined above if I were still working at my first company. Where they didn’t know what UX was, or had proper working practises in place within the team or with the wider department. Would I find conferences more useful picking up on structure and tools that may otherwise be lacking?

So what point am I trying to make? Whilst there are many conferences out there and lots of people talking at them you cannot always know before you step into a talk or a conference if it will be worth attending. You should choose it on the relevance of your field and interesting topics within that. Granted, you do not know if the content will be relevant if they will share meaningful learnings and insight or tools that you can use. You won’t know if they are pushing a product or if they will ‘talk about themselves and their Twitter handle for an hour’.

So be mindful, research the person and their field of expertise and ask yourself “Could I potentially learn something here?” If so. Go for it.

I am sceptical about conferences, will I attend them in future? Yes. But not as many, and they will be carefully considered.

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The product development and engineering teams behind Reach plc's award-winning news websites and digital products

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Jessica Squires

Jessica Squires

Lead UX Designer, dyslexic, explorer & occasional article writer…

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