A little over a year ago I was tapped by my friend Bill DeRouchey (from Ziba Design) to co-chair Interaction10, the Interaction Design Association's annual gathering. We both attended Interaction09 last winter in Vancouver, as observers more than participants: studiously jotting down notes about what worked and what didn't. It was there that we held our first planning meeting, excited to sink our teeth into the next chapter of the IxDA conference story, and more than a little daunted at the task before us.
Collaborating with a large team of designers, who all worked as volunteers, we decided to approach the conference experience as designers creating a service, taking every aspect of the experience into account. We thought through the lifecycle of the event, in light of the needs and motivations of the 600+ participants at the event, in their various roles from attendees and speakers to sponsors, volunteers, and conference staff. We used our empathy as designers to imagine what was important to each user at each stage of the experience. And while not everything worked out exactly as we planned, based on feedback, I think conference was a success. Here are a few things we learned along the way.
Celebrate the diversity of the community
The Interaction Conference is a gathering of peers that's become more and more popular. This year, our call for submissions received an overwhelming response from the community—250 proposals to present talks, activities, or demonstrations. We had so many quality submissions that we decided to lengthen the curated short sessions, add more community-sourced sessions, and extend the conference from 2.5 to 3 days to make more room for both discussion and content.
Our goal was to provide a breadth of content that represented the wide realms in which interaction design take place, through sessions that were both provoking and practical. We enjoyed pulling together a program that included diverse topics such as web and service design, physical computing, design within the government, designing for solitude, sustainability, augmented reality, and the body as an interface. With a diversity of topics, and more concurrent sessions, there would be something for everyone.
Create space for engagement
As home to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and one of the U.S.'s first urban-designed cities, Savannah was an ideal location for Interaction10. We were determined to do things a bit differently this year, wanting to turn the city itself into an integral part of the conference experience.
Instead of booking a sterile convention center, the conference was designed around the idea of a mini-village, with a tented square at the center, an old theatre, an even older restaurant, a pharmacy, a blacksmith's quarters, and a library. Each of the venues was within walking distance, and each had a distinct character. We matched activities to venues—whether facilitating presentations, discussions, or a quiet crowd—and we designed the flow of traffic to encourage people to engage with the city, and each other, as they walked between venues. We set up local tours and hunted down running routes, local pubs, karaoke bars and coffee shops for excursions out on the town, and planned time into the schedule for folks to relax.
Design for flexibility
While we tried to plan the hell out of everything we could control, we still had to be ready for the unexpected. For weeks before we arrived in Savannah we watched the weather closely, and as the conference drew closer we were convinced it would indeed rain on our parade. And sure enough, it did. On Friday morning we explained to attendees that our 10-venue village had grown to 11: we were moving all of the afternoon's tented sessions to another nearby theatre. We passed around the 300 plastic ponchos that our hosts at SCAD donated for the occasion. Lunchtime tours departed in rain, people took water-soaked walks to the river, and the conference continued. Rain-related complications arose, such as losing power to the sponsor booths in the square, and losing traction for the recruiting fair in the library, so we quickly reconfigured the spaces to account for the new circumstances that the weather had brought us.
We quickly came to understand that, like a service, we'd never be able to specify how everything would work out to a T, and that we needed to create a framework for the weekend to flow in the ways we'd intended. For every detail we planned we encountered at least a dozen new ones we hadn't, and the gears kept turning behind the scenes to keep each day from going off the rails. Last minute decisions throughout the weekend made the conference we’d envisioned come to life, as the work of many dedicated people turned a year of planning into a real-time experience.
Think of the little things
The joy, and challenge, of designing a conference for designers is that they can be the most vocal critics when something doesn't "feel" quite right. Experience is attention to detail. Much like any other design project, no one particular detail should necessarily steal the show, but the sum of the little things should expose a narrative through which the experience unfolds. We took the details seriously, because after all, we were designing for designers. From "Welcome Interaction10" banners in the airport to the soundtrack between sessions, to the amenities in the restrooms, we worked to weave a narrative that evoked surprise and delight, as well as anticipating the needs of attendees during different stages of the event.
The badge design was a key area of improvement for us, as we wanted attendees’ badges to merit their usage throughout the event. We saw this as an opportunity to rethink a traditional conference artifact with an aim to make it more useful, more relevant, and environmentally friendly. Our design team worked diligently on prototyping badges that would fit the bill, and settled on folded cardstock that featured each person' first name in large bold letters for easy scanning and quick identification. The folded badges formed a pocket that fit a conference map and daily schedules, easily to pull from the badge quick reference and recycle after use.
We also rethought the idea of conference swag. Instead of the traditional tote bag filled with one-sheets, we decided to try something new. We sought out gifts that were hand crafted, useful, and where possible, designed specifically for us, including a small zippered pouch and a stainless-steel water bottle. We took a similar approach to recognizing our speakers, sending them Scott Berkun's book Confessions of a Public Speaker as a pre-conference gift that they could read as they prepared for the event. Lastly, our keynote speakers each received a handmade wooden vase designed by Tom Gattis, SCAD's own chair of industrial design.
Feed people well
While you might not think of conference food as anything to write home about, we knew the food at Interaction10 had to be special: this was Savannah. Luckily, a former conference co-chair had moved to town, and he was up to the task. In collaboration with local restaurants and caterers, he chose a conference menu that challenged traditional conference food, with enough sweet and savory/soy- and veggie-friendly/protein-rich and low-fat fare to keep people going throughout the day.
Forget wrapped sandwiches and chips, our conference lunches were served family-style in the Olde Pink House Restaurant, which also hosted one track of the conference program. Menus highlighted Southern delicacies and local specialties such as pecan chicken, sweet potatoes and pralines. The evening receptions were spaces transformed by fabulous food, décor and entertainment: low country style the first night, for example, including an oyster roast and a blues band.
Breakfasts and snacks were served in the square and were creative and refreshingly healthy. Our caterers used local and sustainable resources where possible, and even recycled over a half-ton of materials by the end of the weekend. The only complaint I heard about the food, completely valid and unforeseen, was that the snack packs of nuts and pretzels served on Sunday afternoon made distracting noise when opened during talks. Note to future conference planners—consider the noise factor of the foods you choose!
For the planners there was no seeing of talks—there was mainly a lot of running around between them. We were reminded right off the bat that the challenge of designing an event is that it doesn't really exist until it's underway, and the work to keep it running is just as important as the planning before hand. The payoff, however, is that since it plays out in real time, it can change and adapt to make the best of everyone's experience. This means straddling the chaos "behind the scenes" and the experience itself, and building in enough flexibility so that any unforeseen complications—like the weather—can be catered for, without disrupting the rhythm of the event.
Luckily for us, however, all of the talks were recorded and are available online. Essential for a conference with four tracks of programming, as no one can take everything in at once, recording sessions for later viewing allowed the attendees, and the committee, to relax about what they were missing, with the knowledge that they could experience the weekend as it happened, and catch up with the content at a later date. And now that I'm back at home, finished with conference follow-up duties, that's exactly what I'm going to do.
Read Rob Tannen's review: Back to the Future: The Interaction10 Conference Goes Old-School
Architecture tour and lunch photo courtesy of Michael Gemelli, FlickerFly
Jennifer a is co-founder and Principal at Kicker Studio in San Francisco. She started her multifaceted career in tangible and interaction design at the circus—quite literally—at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. In the last 13 years, she has created multi-platform products and services for myriad clients including Nokia, Yahoo!, BBC, Gucci, and American Express. Her design management background includes the Prada Epicenter store in New York, which inaugurated a new paradigm of tangible retail experiences. Jenn is fluent in French and Italian, and has lived and worked in the U.K., France, Italy, and Germany. Before Kicker, Jenn was VP of User Experience at HUGE and at Schematic, and is on the faculty at New York's School of Visual Arts MFA in Interaction Design. Her work has been exhibited throughout Europe, including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Jennifer has a Masters in Interaction Design from the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea.