Two years ago everything changed. Like every other company around the world, we pivoted online. We didn't just want to replicate a conference online because we knew that the medium would have a huge impact on the experience for attendees. We ran 20 online events over the past two years, including five major conferences, and we changed up the agenda on each iteration because the cost of testing was dramatically reduced. We tested new ideas, doubled down on ideas that worked, and scrapped the ones that didn't work.
But now we have had to change again!
We could return to our previous, successful, physical conference format and stream the talks so people can tune in. That would be nice and easy, but we would be throwing away all of the learning that we had had over the past two years of experimenting online.
We could ask people what they wanted. But conferences are no different from other products; asking people what they want doesn't work. People don't spend nearly as much time thinking about your product as you do and they often don't know what is possible. Their feedback, while absolutely critical for direction, should not be relied on as the solution to build.
So we had to resort to doing the hard work of digging into the underlying needs and seeing how we could take advantage of the new opportunities of the hybrid format.
The key goals of a conference
When we ask people what they are looking for in an event it usually comes down to five things:
- Learn and be inspired
- See how others are solving the same problems (particularly competitors)
- Build my network
- Improve my skills
- Have fun
Learn and be inspired & see how others are solving the same problems
I've merged the two of these together as they both relate to the content of the conference. At UXDX, our mission is to help teams shift from projects to product teams. The challenge is that this is a huge remit - improving the practices and techniques that Product Managers, UX Researchers, Designers, and Developers use to build products that customers actually love.
Context: Venues come with time constraints so we needed to squeeze content covering all aspects of product development and team enablement into as short time as possible.
Output: We ran multiple stages at our conferences with different streams of content on each stage.
Outcome: Every year we would get feedback from people that the multiple streams meant that they had to miss talks they wanted to see.
Context: Online space is unlimited so we had options on how to distribute talks. We did not need to squeeze in content.
Output: Pre-record most talks so people can watch whenever they like. Stream a single stage during the live event so people don't have to choose. Ensure that the speakers in the pre-recorded talks take part in the live sessions so that the audience can still interact with the speakers.
Outcome: People get to watch everything they want but some people do not gain as much value from online talks.
Context: Venues are expensive but online space is inexpensive. Content can be distributed between the two.
Output: Pre-record a lot of the talks so people can watch whenever they like. Run a single stage during the live event so people don't have to choose between parallel sessions. Ensure that the speakers in the pre-recorded talks take part in the live sessions so that the audience can still interact with the speakers.
Outcome: People get to watch everything they want and they still get to have the live experience.
Build my network
Also known as the Hallway track, conferences are great ways of meeting new, like-minded people. Building your network helps to grow your career by opening up new perspectives and ideas, as well as more directly through job offers. But many people really struggle with the awkwardness of networking and meeting new people.
Context: Put people in a physical space and they will bump into other people.
Output: Design the lunch space to encourage mingling. Run an after-party to encourage more mingling.
Outcome: Networking was up to the individual. It was still hard to start up a conversation even if you were close to someone else.
Context: People are not in the same physical space so more effort needs to be invested in ensuring that people interact with each other.
Output: Make networking easier using online tools that suggest topics to talk about. Replicate an after-party online.
Outcome: The two per cent of people who interacted enjoyed it but 98 per cent of people did not interact.
Context: Helping people to interact was shown to work online. Having people together in person removes the biggest barrier that online networking faced. Also, with pre-recorded talks, more conference time can be dedicated to networking.
Output: Bring people together physically during the conference to talk about a specific topic. These sessions take the format of forums.
Outcome: We ran our first forums in our USA event and people loved them. They had the opportunity to share their particular challenges and context, and others could offer solutions. Scheduling breaks immediately after the forums let people continue talking and connecting.
Remaining challenge: Some of the online attendees asked to attend the forums, but since it is a conversation, it is hard to involve both online and in-person people. It's the same problem that many teams face when side conversations start happening in a meeting that has remote attendees. We will keep assessing feedback here.
Improve my Skills
Talks are great for sharing ideas and getting started on new concepts but they don't improve skills - this requires hands-on practice with trial and error. We run workshops where you can dig deeper into the concepts that are covered in the talks.
Context: People are in the same space.
Output: Run a pen-and-paper or computer-based workshop.
Outcome: Get hands-on experience with the content.
Context: People are online.
Output: Run an online workshop.
Outcome: Get hands-on experience with the content. But some people prefer physical workshops because the environment aids in learning.
Context: People are in a room as well as online.
Output: Run an online workshop. The instructor always speaks to the camera but there are some people in the room. Group activities will be split - people within the room will be split into physical groups and people online will be split into online groups.
Outcome: Get hands-on experience with the content. The in-person attendees get to see more context - gesticulation, body language, etc. and they get to do in-person group activities.
Fun means many things to different people so it is a hard one to quantify. A conference is an opportunity to break out of the regular day to day of work. But a consistent line of feedback is that people would like more non-alcohol-themed networking options.
Context: People are in a new location for the in-person event and have more free time than usual.
Output: Run an after-party for those who enjoy that form of socialising. Run non-alcohol-based activities such as a walking tour, a historical run, forums, and more.
Outcome: Multiple options for people to have fun in the way they find best.
Context: People are remote for the online conference. They have their regular activities planned so they have limited free time.
Output: Run an online after-party.
Outcome: Attendance isn't great - online networking feels more forced than in-person.
Context: People are in a new location together for the in-person event and have more free time than usual. People are remote for the online conference and have many other usual activities planned.
Output: Be explicit that the extra-curricular elements are in-person activities so as to set expectations. Run an after-party for those who enjoy this form of socialising. Run non-alcohol-based activities such as a walking tour, a historical run, forums, and more.
Outcome: Multiple options for people to have fun in the way they find best when in a new city. Free up the remote people to continue with their regular activities.
Remaining challenge: I would love to find a way to run online networking more effectively. We are going to keep researching this space. If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them.
Going online was initially daunting, but it also reduced the cost of running experiments. We learned a huge amount over the past two years and we expect to learn a similar amount as we continue to evolve our hybrid offering. We're really happy with the structure of the conference and how it will help deliver on the goals of attendees.
Why don't you join us and see for yourself?
If you've had any experiences that you've really valued that have taken advantage of the unique features of hybrid conferences I'd love to hear about your experiences.
I hate "It depends"! Organisations are complex but I believe that if you resort to it depends it means that you haven't explained it properly or you don't understand it. Having run UXDX for over 6 years I am using the knowledge from hundreds of case studies to create the UXDX model - an opinionated, principle-driven model that will help organisations change their ways of working without "It depends".
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