Programming Conferences

This morning on Twitter, a conversation flared up around IA Summit 2014, because they received over 400 submissions for 50 spots, which means many many people, even those whose sessions were reviewed highly, were rejected. (I was rejected as well, but I half-assed my proposal.)

FOR STARTERS, let me say nothing but praise and thanks to Aaron Irizarry, Johanna Kollmann, and Abby Covert, the IA Summit chairs. They are friends and colleagues, and I know they are working tirelessly to do the best for the IA and UX communities.

OK, back to the conversation at hand. Jared Spool raised his concerns that with so many submissions for so few spots, there’s a lot of “wasted effort.” I share that concern (though I recognize my lackadaisical effort was not wasted), because a lot of people, and thus good people, likely feel burned by the work they put into a submission, and would be less inclined to submit in later years. So while this year’s summit benefits from being able to draw from such contribution, how will later summits fare?

Professional associations have it kind of tough. When I was at Adaptive Path, I programmed MX and UX Week events, all based on what I wanted to see (and suggestions from colleagues). Professional associations have a responsibility to their membership, and tend towards the “call for papers/proposals” process. The benefit of this is that you can get interesting new voices and ideas, and you give the membership a voice it might not otherwise have. The drawback is that your beholden to submissions, and it can make it hard to craft a compelling event.

Which events are better, invited/curated or submitted? They both can work, though, given that I’ve curated, I lean towards that style. I like it when there’s an editorial point of view that connects the presentations.

However, I’ve had transformative experiences at the IA Summit, and as a conference organizer, always sought out rising stars there. There’s a randomness/unexpectedness that often delivers crap, but can yield amazing stuff.

The IA Summit faces a challenge in terms of not discouraging great submissions because potential contributors feel the effort isn’t worth the likely rejection. One solution is to raise the bar on what it takes to submit, to weed out those (like me, this time around) who are half-assing it, and cluttering things up. Another might be to more aggressively ‘track’ submissions into categories, to make sure there’s a good spread of topics (and make clear to folks that we don’t need yet another submission on agile/lean UX).

Separately, I heard complaints about panels. There are always complaints about panels. Done wrong, panels are a lazy way to fill a conference slot. And many panels suck, because it’s simply 4-5 short presentations. However, I still have vivid memories of one of the IA Summit’s best sessions, a panel in 2003 on “Wayfinding and Navigation in digital spaces” which was legitimately mind-expanding. So, don’t count panels out. Just structure them so they’re stimulating.

Just what role do conferences play nowadays?

Having attended TED last week, where people spend $6,000 + travel/lodging seemingly in order to watch talks which will be posted online for free, I found myself again wondering just what role conferences and events play. This is not of mere academic interest — Adaptive Path earns a substantial portion of its revenue through its public events, I’ve helped organize professional industry events such as the IA Summit, the IA Institute’s IDEA, and DUX, and I speak at 4-6 events a year.

Given the ascent of the Web, one could have expected conferences to wither, as you can find online much of the information presented at conferences. Why bother traveling all over the country and spending all that money when you can pretty much keep up with any field through online means? Particularly when so many events now share their sessions freely on the Web?

Just the opposite seems to have happened. We’re lousy with conferences. In my industry alone there is UX Week and MX (put on by Adaptive Path), the IA Summit, Interaction from the IxDA, UPA’s annual event, the Design Research Conference, SxSW Interactive, IDEA, and this isn’t including the newer events from overseas such as UX London and UX-LX. In the “Big Think” space, there’s TED, and now Pop!Tech, Lift, and The e.g.. It seems that the internet has made people more aware of these opportunities for gathering, and instead of supplanting them, have made attendance even more desirable.

If it’s not about the content, then it must be about the people attending, right? In the case of TED, that is almost certainly true — many, if not most, of the folks spending $6,000 are able to write it off as a business expense.

About 5 years ago, there was a lot of discussion about unconferences, events with no set agenda beyond a high-level theme, and instead of canned presentations planned ahead of time, the schedule is determined after everyone has arrived, and people lead conversations on specific topics. While the unconference movement still exists, it has not taken over the way that many thought it would. It turns out you need more than just the right people.

While the cliche that “best content happens in the hallways” is largely true of conferences, those conversations require the canned presentations. They provide the seed for the ongoing dialogue. They’re the “social object” around which conversation and community revolve.

What the Web has done is made very clear what kinds of conversations are happening at different events, and if you want to be part of those larger discussions, you know you ought to get there.

I think a lot about how Adaptive Path’s events should evolve… UX Week is the event I’m most involved with, and I want to make sure it stays fresh, lively, and relevant. We continue to tinker with a mix of presentations, workshops, and social events, trying to strike the best balance between inspiration, information, skills-building, and networking. And I wonder what I’m missing, what other elements we should introduce (e.g., design charette’s like Design Engaged, where you get 30-40 people in a room, and have them do/make something.).