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Learning Lab


Attendee-Centered Conference Design


Since this is my first monthly Megnut column for O'Reilly Network, I thought it would be polite to introduce myself. My name is Meg Hourihan, you may know me from megnut.com, my weblog, or from The Megway, a Segway parody some friends and I created. I co-founded a small company called Pyra, and until February 2001 I was the director of development for our product, Blogger.

I am now a freelance Web developer, writer, and speaker. I do mostly Web application development, from requirements definition through testing and roll-out, but my current favorite phase of the application lifecycle is the development of the user interface. I'm becoming more and more obsessed with usability and user-centered design, and I often struggle with how we as technologists can do a better job of making our software and Web sites easier to use.

Usability is one of the themes I hope to explore in this column, along with ways in which we can do a better job of explaining technology to non-technical folks. (The fact that Congress is voting on legislation like the DMCA while many of our representatives don't even use or understand email terrifies me.) Hopefully this column will be a place for me to explore some of these issues and technologies.

The Design of Conferences

I've just returned from Austin, Texas, and my third trip to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW). Iíve come back exhausted and slightly disappointed. SXSW is a small, annual conference, light on technical how-toís and heavy on the theoretical and conceptual what-if's.

Heck, any conference that wraps up with a keg party at sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling's house (he announced the party during his keynote address and gave out maps to his house at the end) recognizes that some of the best interactions happen outside the conference sessions, especially after you've drunk from an unlabelled bottle of Serbian plum moonshine (or Slovakian plum brandy, depending on who you ask, memories are fuzzy) from Sterling's liquor cabinet.

SXSW is also the cheapest (less than $100 if you do the early-bird registration), and for the money, best Web conference there is. The low fee results in lots of attendees who pay their own way and attend because they want to, because the connections they make and the conversations they have provide inspiration they don't find elsewhere. In the last year, the low fee has also ensured strong attendance through the weak economy. Nearly all the conference sessions I attended were full. (But the tradeshow floor was a barren expanse of carpet compared to two years ago; it was almost creepy to walk around in there.)

Though the sessions are good, it's the parties and the group dinners that often make for the most memorable SXSW experiences, and the conference organizers continue to do an excellent job in recognizing where the conference's value lies. In past years, the keynotes took place first thing in the morning (first thing in the morning being about 9:30 at SXSW) and many people, sleeping off the previous night's networking, missed some of the most vibrant speakers of the conference. This year the keynotes were scheduled for the mid-afternoon and more people attended the talks. Panels and sessions started at 10:30, allowing even the hardcore revelers five or six hours of shut-eye. The conference also offers two or three parties each night and promotes and supports independent projects like Fray Cafe and 20x2.

But for all the awareness on the parts of the organizers, for all the changes to the structure of the conference to accommodate the social lives of the attendees, something fell flat for me this year. There was a disconnect between what happened within the conference center and what happened without. Around beers and Tex-Mex conversations were lively and dialogue was intense and heated. But inside at the sessions, conversation was often lackluster.

Homogeneity seemed the norm, not only with panelists, but with the audience as well. For example, this year I moderated a panel to discuss, "P2P Journalism: Weblogs and Collaborative Media." We polled the audience, asking, "How many of you consider yourselves webloggers?" Nearly every hand was raised. "How many of you consider yourselves left-leaning or liberal bloggers?" Again, nearly every hand. Our discussion ended up as a series of rousing back-slaps rather than a thorough examination of the roles and responsibilities of personal publishers. I was dismayed by the end of it.

But that dismay only grew as I had conversations later with people (both online and off) who said they hadn't agreed with what was being said, but they didn't feel comfortable speaking up. The audience wasn't as homogeneous as it had appeared, and something in that session didn't work: those viewpoints didn't get expressed. If I contrasted that session with some others I attended and participated in that were labeled "peer meetings," I noticed a distinction in the format and realized, it was the interface.

Poor Interface = Poor Interactions

As a Web application developer, I spend a lot of my time working with user interfaces. Interfaces are both the bane and joy of my professional work.

Often, when an interface is good, you don't even notice it. It's only when you can't accomplish your goal that you realize just how poorly the UI's designed. And the same holds true not only for Web or computer interfaces, but for any interface, online or off.

Like a dinner party where the conversation doesn't flow -- how and where you position your "elements" makes all the difference in the outcome of your event. A conference has its elements (tables, chairs, microphones, dais, podium, etc.). Their layout, in conjunction with how the conference session responds to the audience, is what I'm calling the interface. The interface mediates the interaction between the speakers and the audience, and depending on its set-up, can be the difference between a great session and a mediocre one.

The Almighty Mic

SXSW panelists were directed to look straight ahead thanks to the placement of their stationary microphones. So unless speakers had perfected the technique of "talking out of the side of their mouth," interaction on stage was difficult. Photo by Matt Haughey.

Photo from the panelists' point of view.

At SXSW, the majority of the sessions had microphones atop long tables behind which the panelists sat. The microphones rested in stands and looked like the kind you used to see on newscasters desks or during Senate hearings -- large and silver, official and formal, also very stationary.

The result? An unnatural conversation style for panelists who were sitting next to each other. If you turn to speak to the person on your left, you're not speaking into the mic. If you speak into the mic, you're not looking at the person you're responding to. As the moderator, I was forced to sit at the front of the room, rather than roving between the audience and the panelists like I'd wanted. Additionally, the table was in the front of the room on a dais, raising the panelists above the audience and creating a slightly intimidating atmosphere.

The panelists' names were printed on cards that sat in front of them on the table. Problem was, it was last name only, so if you were unfortunate enough to miss the introductions or forget someone's first name, you could only address them formally. In the "P2P & Superworms" panel (there were maybe 15 of us total) someone had a question for "Mr. Doctorow." Cory responded with a very nice, "Please call me Cory," and then pulled down his name tag, wrote "CORY" on the other side, and returned it to its stand.

SXSW is the kind of conference where panelists want to be called "Cory" or "Meg." The conference is the most casual and informal of any I've ever attended. But the equipment set-up imposes a formal interaction between the speakers and the audience and this perpetuates the SXSW experience: most often the exciting and engaging conversations take place outside the sessions.

Last fall at the O'Reilly P2P & Web Services Conference I noticed that the short sessions (45 minutes) prevented every relevant point from being addressed and discussed. Panels and sessions served as instigators of discussions that continued in the hall afterwards, or over lunch in the courtyard. A seemingly small decision like this -- 45- or 90-minute sessions -- can have strong repercussions. Especially when the decision-makers weigh their needs more heavily than the needs of those being effected by the decision (We can squeeze in more sessions if we limit ourselves to 45 minutes.).

O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference

Meg Hourihan discussed Web Services for the Real World: A User-Centered Examination at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference.

In the past year I've been to six conferences and my experiences as a speaker and an attendee have ranged from wonderful to down-right awful. And in nearly every case, simple decisions influenced the outcome of the panel. The person who makes the decision -- and more importantly, why they make the choice they do -- determines the outcome not only of one session, but potentially the entire conference.

User-Centered Conference Design

In application development, we are often confronted with similar decision points. Sometimes we must choose between what's easier to implement (less work for engineers, yippee!) or what's better for the user (more work, deadlines pushed back). The process of keeping the user foremost in our thoughts is known as user-centered design. When we choose solutions based not on the user's needs, but on some other criteria (faster to produce, less costly, easier to code, etc.), the end-user, and the product as a whole, can suffer. The same holds true in a conference setting (perhaps it should be called attendee-centered conference design?).

Before my talk at the P2P Conference, I mentioned to a fellow speaker that I was considering holding questions until the end of my presentation because I didn't want to get off-track or lose my place in my presentation. I was placing my needs as a speaker before the needs of my audience. He recommended I take questions throughout, since I'd be able to gauge my presentation based on the audience's feedback. If I waited until the end, he warned, it would be too late to adjust. That one simple suggestion led to the best presentation I've ever given, and a very engaging discussion throughout my session.

In contrast, a month prior I was on a two-hour panel at a conference in Germany. The moderator instructed us to each introduce ourselves and talk for 10 to 15 minutes on the topic at hand. He said we would save questions for the end. Though I shared the stage with two other panelists, I felt encased in a presentation silo. There was no cross-panel discussion, and worse, because the other panelists talked beyond the allotted time, we could only take one question at the end of the two-hour session. The experience was so uncomfortable I vowed I never wanted to speak in public again.

When it comes to interactions, we design by focusing on the results we want. This has a tremendous impact on how we build systems, and what we get out of them. At the conference level, decisions like whether to use lapel mics or table mics can change a session from a stationary (dull) presentation to a dynamic, motion-filled conversation.

Clearly identifying an attendee's expectations before the event, and an awareness that seemingly small things can have a disproportional impact on a session, will enable smarter decision-making. The best conferences are informative and engaging. With an awareness of user-centered design principals, more conferences could be so. For SXSW, the result would be a fulfillment of the conference's conversation philosophy: a synchronization of the discussions taking place over beers and over microphones.

Meg Hourihan is an independent Web consultant and freelance writer. She is a co-author of the book, We Blog: Publishing Online with Weblogs.

Read more Megnut columns.

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