I just got back from the User Experience in Libraries Conference in Cambridge, UXLibs, and it was completely amazing. In the spirit of the kind of MESSY detail UX encourages, I'm going to write some unashamedly long blog posts about it over the next couple of weeks. This one is about the organisation of the conference itself.
I've been asking my boss if I could attend this since August last year when I first heard of its existence, because I KNEW it would be amazing, due to conferences basically being a reflection of the people organising them. And the people organising this one were all ace. The whole committee. But particularly Andy and Matt, whose brainchild this was, and whose approach I thought really permeated the whole event.
It felt like this event was planned from scratch, rather than following any traditional conference path. No one said 'right, what normally happens at conferences? Let's do that.' I think a brilliant exercise for anything important (teaching, communication, events) is to sit down and say, how would I build this from the ground up? That doesn't necessarily mean redoing everything, but it does mean only keeping the parts that work well, and then innovating.
So UXLibs still had keynotes (albeit exceptionally good ones), and welcome talks at the start of each day, and conference dinners. But otherwise, it rewrote the script and got rid of all the parts of conferences that work less well (sometimes a conference just consisting of talks can become a sea of grey; sometimes the sheer choice of parallel sessions can be dizzying, and sometimes you have 'break out groups' which then 'feed back' which fills me with dread) and replaced them with new and interesting stuff.
Learning by doing appeared to be the underlying philosophy. And for an area like UX, which is relatively new to libraries and fairly intangible at times, that was exactly what was needed. The conference was intensely practical. There were basically 4 actual talks (plus some very rapid sponsor presentations) and 2 Q&As - that left a LOT of the three days for activities. By my reckoning we had FOURTEEN AND A HALF HOURS of doing, in this conference. We had to tick a box on applying to attend where we agreed to participate. We were warned this conference would not be a passive learning experience. They weren't messing around!
The doing included being split into teams (and we were able to start collaborating online 4 weeks before the conference actually took place), workshops on ethnographic techniques (the one I attended involved leaving the conference venue and going out into Cambridge itself, which was nice), actual proper honest-to-goodness ethnographic field work in an actual library, learning about and using design techniques (in our group we designed an app which literally solved health), ideation (this is where you take the word 'idea' and make a portmanteau with any word ending with 'ation', so most commonly Idea Creation I think but there seemed to be no rules here), and preparing and later delivering a pitch to a room of judges.
The pitch part was crucial and I felt like some people maybe got caught up in the wrong part of it. The reason we were put into teams and were building up to pitch a concept (based on the results of our ethnography) on the final day was to force true IMMERSION in the ideas the conference was exploring. It was a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. The competition element was a device to help us focus our minds on what it truly means to design for user experience - it didn't really matter who won, or how comprehensive we were in our planning, or how much longer real-world ethnography would have taken. I thought it worked really well - the other extreme, the meandering 'explore these tools' approach without a specific goal to work towards, would have been too aimless and insubstantial. We needed to be grounded in truly learning by doing, because so much of this was new.
I'm going to write about the Keynotes, the Pitch and the ethnographic techniques in future posts, but for now, if you weren't there (or even if you were) have a look through the tweets for a sense of how it was and what we learned.
We worked pretty damn hard, and everyone was completely exhausted by the end of Day 3. I've only ever taken a big role in organising two major events, and they were the most stressful things I've ever done - so I hope the organisers of this one were able to enjoy it! They can certainly look back on it and be proud. It was AWESOME.
So without further ado...
(As you can see from the tweet above, credit for the picture in the header goes to Andy Priestner.)