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Ways We Work

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Using design principles to craft a conference

Last month we attended the fourth edition of the Fluxible conference that happens every September in Kitchener, Ontario. When the co-founders Mark Connolly and Robert Barlow-Busch invited us to attend, we knew we wanted to find out what exactly it took to plan and run an event like this. If you’re unfamiliar with Fluxible, it’s Kitchener-Waterloo’s user experience (UX) design conference that has been running for the past four years. Its founders Mark and Bob are both designers by trade and probably the most interesting thing we witnessed was how they apply UX principles from their work to design and craft the overall experience of the event.

The founders insist that the first goal of the conference is “To have fun”; in fact, their tagline is even “the UX party disguised as a conference.” This goal is evident in the experience they’ve crafted for both attendees and themselves. We were given an opportunity to shadow Mark and Bob - as well as the rest of the planning team - throughout the weekend to observe how everything is managed and comes together.

There’s a base level of criteria you assume should be met for an event like this to be successful: having enough food, curating engaging speakers, making sure the technical aspects work, and making sure people can just find the washrooms. What we continually noticed were the ways in which the conference went far beyond those elements. Occasionally in some pretty over-the-top ways. You can’t talk about Fluxible without talking about their Goat Check, a physical space at the conference where you can literally bring and check your goat. Sadly no one brought their own goat, but the two local goats provided did not fail to kick the conference off with a lot of laughter. There was an espresso bar serving lattes, cappuccinos and americanos to fuel people throughout the weekend. During each talk, a group of graphic design students were designing and printing posters inspired by the talks. These “instaposters” would be hung in the hallway before the end of each talk and acted as great conversation starters between attendees and speakers.

These elements are of course a fun layer that really brings the entire event together into a cohesive experience, but what was so clear throughout the weekend was how much thought went into the attendee’s experience. It can be hard sometimes to articulate a feeling or experience in words, but there was just this flow to the weekend. You’d experience an engaging talk, then right afterwards a musician would play for five minutes so you could process all the information you’d just received. You had a chance to sip your latte, and then it would flow into the next talk. Just as you might start to feel antsy, there’d be a well placed break to get up and talk to people, grab more coffee and even interact with the speakers who sat with the audience throughout the conference. Everything had this ease, you never had to think about what you should do next, you were just there being moved through the experience.

The weekend certainly wasn’t without challenges. The planning team used the messaging app Kik to communicate throughout the weekend and occasionally a red flag would pop up in the chat. For example, twenty minutes before the first talk on Saturday morning the team realized an entire table and chairs were missing from the main theatre, which required a last minute scramble to get everything in place for opening remarks. Speakers would go over their time and the team would find ways to subtly let them know they needed to wrap up their talk. Once or twice, the music act between talks started a few seconds late or lunch would be running a little long. These are issues that went unnoticed by attendees, but which the team works to improve on managing each year.

Throughout the weekend we became increasingly curious about the process of putting an event like this together. So I sat down with Mark and Bob after the conference to ask them the plethora of questions I had.

On seemingly ridiculous ideas

To me it seems the logistics of planning and running a conference are hard enough to tackle. How and why did you decide to incorporate all these seemingly ridiculous elements, like goats?

Bob: There’s a principle we apply in our normal design work, which is never to shut down ideas. You want to encourage people to start with ideas that are frankly impossible, because that may spark something that becomes merely ridiculous, then merely unlikely, until suddenly you’ve got a great idea you can actually do. If you constrain yourself at the beginning only to things that feel reasonable, there’s a good chance you’ll miss the really crazy stuff, the exciting ideas that truly define an experience.

On speaker experience

You both talk about the importance of speaker experience, why is this such an important focus for you?

Mark: Treating them really well is the only currency we’ve got, because we don’t pay speaking fees. We cover every single expense and more but there’s no speaker fees. What we can give them is a really amazing experience and that’s what we try to do. We want them to feel like it’s been a wonderful thing to have done, it didn’t cost them anything, not just money but also effort or anything else. We just want it to be an amazing experience for them so that they’ll want to come back and tell their friends about it.

On learning and challenges

When you first decided to do a conference, how did you go about learning what things you did have to do?

Mark: It’s a mix of things. Bob is the founder of UX Waterloo, so we knew about the user experience side of running small events. We’d been to conferences. I hadn’t been to many but Bob had been to a bunch and spoken at a bunch. Locally, I helped organize Ignite Waterloo for the first three years. At Ignite we’d get a couple hundred people out pretty easily and the logistics around doing something like that fed into how we were thinking about Fluxible. So we had experience with various aspects of running events and if you pull all those pieces together it gave us enough to do Fluxible.

We were also able to reach out to other people who had done this before. So it was a combination of past experiences and doing these little things and then asking people.

It didn’t start with Fluxible, it started with a whole bunch of little things that led into it.

What are some of the major challenges in organizing and running a conference like this?

Bob: Sponsorship would be a challenge we face regularly. Not that we’ve ever failed to find great sponsors, but it’s definitely a question on our minds each year. Fluxible funds itself, meaning our only sources of revenue are registrations and sponsorships. So the more generous our sponsorships, the more we’re able to invest in the conference experience. That’s one thing that can keep us up at night, which I think is true for anyone who runs any event. The good news is it keeps us up at night far less as the years go by.

Another challenge is getting a good team together who we can depend upon. We certainly made some mistakes in our first year in particular! We’ve learned a lot of lessons and since then it’s been working really well.

How did you build the planning team? How did you determine what roles needed to be filled?

Bob: The first year we approached differently than subsequent years. We went into this with a goal of building community, so for the volunteer team we had very open arms. If you were interested, chances are we’d welcome you to the team.

But of course folks come with varying degrees of dedication. At times, there’s frankly a lot of work to do so our jobs turned out to be more project managers and whip-crackers than we wanted. At the end of the day, we ended up having to swoop in and do a bunch of the work ourselves at the last minute.

In year two, we changed our strategy. We realized we needed to treat it as if we were hiring a team. So we interviewed people as if it were a job application, and you had to make the cut and get accepted. That’s made a huge difference. Our current planning team has been with us now since year two, with a couple additions along the way.

On planning the event

What does the timeline look like for when you start planning and putting the conference together?

Mark: It’s definitely a whole year. We’re already getting people contacting us asking about speaking next year.

Bob: It’s actually more than a year. We booked our first venue for 2016 about 4 months ago already. Venues tend to come first because it’s hard to lock down anything else before we have a date. We can’t confirm speakers, for example, until we know when we’re asking them to join us.

How do you go about choosing speakers?

Bob: The way we approach program design is to emphasize getting great people. Our second emphasis is on the content and topic. Other event planners reverse that, which is totally fine; it’s just not how we do it. We don’t begin by mapping out all the topics we want covered, although we certainly have a sense of what some of them might be. Instead, we first find people who will be interesting and a lot of fun and a good fit to help create a sense of community and that special Fluxible vibe. Then we work with our speakers to craft the program.

Sometimes it doesn’t work out with everyone. We’ve had examples in the past where the topics they were passionate about weren’t a good fit for the program that year.

Mark: Not everyone agrees that this is the right approach. Maybe we should be more purposeful. But we describe our approach as behaving like a chef at a great restaurant who goes out to forage for ingredients, seeing what’s fresh and available out there. Once we’ve found the ingredients, we put together the meal. We don’t have a meal in mind first and then go looking for the ingredients; we go out to see what we can find and design the meal around that.

On using design principles to design an experience

So the signage at the conference, this really stood out to me. The quantity of signs and where they were placed - how do you make those decisions?

Mark: Well it’s an experience, right? It has to work, so we put a lot of attention and focus on it right from the very start. Every year we’ve tweaked our approach to signage and tried to make it better. The first three years Bob put all the signs together. This year, Katie from our planning team took it on. It’s mostly a matter of treating it as a design problem, and wayfinding is a well understood sub-discipline in design. We spend time walking through the spaces and understanding where people are going to need to move from and to.

Can you talk about your UX background, and what elements you’ve used from it to help you plan a conference like this?

Bob: We started Fluxible with very clear goals, just like we would kick off any project with a client. What are the equivalent of business goals here? What are we hoping to accomplish? We also identified specific design principles, so right from the outset we knew what kind of experience Fluxible would be.

Also, in UX design you’ll hear people talk about a “north star”, a vision statement, an idea that gets your mind going and provides direction. For us, it was the concept of approaching Fluxible as if we were designing a festival rather than a conference. Not that we would make decisions based on that idea literally, but it put our minds in that space instead of a typical business conference. That’s a good example of how we design the conference using tools of the trade from user experience.

We focus on the customer journey, too. That’s how a lot of the signage is done: by walking the physical journey someone will take and looking for opportunities and challenges. We also consider attendees’ non-physical journey, from that first touch point when they hear about Fluxible, to learning more, to signing up, to attending, to the post-conference experience. We map out key moments in that journey.

Mark: We start out with clear goals: strengthen the local community, put Waterloo on the map, and have fun.

What is Fluxible? It’s a design conference, a design retreat, a design festival, an unforgettable on the ground experience. It’s fun.

Our design imperatives are to have: delightful moments, high value, high impact, beautiful design, unexpected insights, meaningful encounters, and time to reflect.

Whether we’re actually nailing all this stuff or not, we’re trying to.