Confessions of a UX conference junkie

by boon

This year I decided to attend more UX conferences, having fully made the transition into UX for good. The year kicked off with UX Hong Kong (which was amazing), followed by UX Lisbon in May, and just few weeks ago – the DIBI conference up in Newcastle.

Every conference has its own strengths and general vibe. After getting advice from some seasoned conference attendees, it was a matter of choosing the conferences that would suit me best. For me, UX Hong Kong was a perfect start, as it was a fairly intimate conference where I got to meet some really interesting people and give me a taste of what a UX conference feels like.

May came around and it was as people had prophesied – UX Lisbon turned out to be a big UX party – food, fun, sights and Don Norman. Plus a stellar cast of UX rock stars made it promptly a trip to remember.

Then, just when I thought I had exhausted my remit for conferences, I made an impulse purchase to attend DIBI a few months later after finding out that Jared Spool and Jeffrey Zeldman were speaking.

At this point you’re probably wondering why I keep attending so many conferences, and what have I really benefited from them?

Well for one, I don’t really attend conferences to learn new skills or even pick up on future trends. The real reason I attend conferences is to absorb the intangible benefits of being around people who influence and care about this industry.

Some people call this networking, but that’s such a lame word. I prefer to call it a ‘community of practice‘, based on the work done by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, where a profession evolves and develops around groups of people with shared interests.

There are several reasons why this is important with regards to conferences.

Watching our industry evolve in real time

UX as an industry is still taking on form, shifting and moulding from a primordial soup of different disciplines, practices and vernaculars. Thus we constantly draw upon the work of highly influential people who have done the good job of piecing together these otherwise separate domains. Each practitioner represents a specific sphere of influence, but this again is constantly changing in and outside the context of work.

Conference settings allow for ‘change’ conversations to happen between experts, practitioners of varying levels, students, and casual observers. It is during these moments that we collectively work out our perspectives, beliefs, and approaches as a community.

As with all new industries, the main challenge isn’t about solving problems from what we already know as a community, but about how to tackle issues from what we collectively don’t know.

You can only get this kind of thing by working it out with other practitioners, and conferences are great places to do that.

Engaging with the wider conversation

There is a tendency of assuming something had been codified after it has been published in some form or practiced more widely – the more popular, the more ‘permanent’ its effects. It’s far better to understand the wider conversation that is taking place between influencers, and the work that goes on between them.

At DIBI, speakers like Inayaili de León, Jeremy Keith, Faruk Ates and Jeffrey Zeldman all made references to the history and progression of digital (publishing, web, devices, teams…) to establish the context in which we *ought* to think about digital. So although they each delivered different talks, their overall message was the same – that the web has now matured and a huge re-thinking is in order.

Missing the wider conversation is really about missing the plot entirely, because the wider conversation (in the case of DIBI) explains why we had the web in the first place, how it has become what it is today, and where is it trying to get to. Skip that, and all you get is a dumbed down instruction book on how to code HTML5. That’s not what you come to a conference for.

Understanding UX across horizons

Conferences like UX Hong Kong and UX Lisbon are great for meeting an international crowd. Everyone has a different story to tell about how they got into UX and it varies per country, locale and city.

I think this is important since we’re increasingly designing for a far wider audience now. This isn’t just about solving design problems, but also about how clients in different countries perceive the value of UX, and how designers adapt their practices to the local culture and market demands.

This challenges us to rethink our own approaches – are our designs really fit for purpose? Is there such a thing as a universal design language? How do we ensure that we communicate design effectively across borders and cultures?

Being human

Conferences shouldn’t feel sterile and mechanical but it occasionally does. No one’s really at fault but it does take a lot of empathy, hospitality, encouragement, patience and candidness for attendees to feel welcome and in good spirits.

By all means, organizers should consider hygiene aspects such as the registration process and fun stuff like the schwag bag, but I think it comes down to the fact that practitioners are making a sacrifice to be with other practitioners, regardless of rank, background, specialism, principle or agenda.

Plus, I try to stick to conferences that allow me to be myself. And I suppose this is self-selecting that certain conferences tend to attract a certain crowd, but it’s better when people get along.

So, yes – I feel there are good reasons to be a conference junkie – however I think setting the right expectations, picturing the broader context, preparing to meet people, and a dose of humility and empathy can make a big difference in the conference experience and how one is ultimately enriched from it.