This is the celebrated journal of Mr. Simon Collison A.K.A Colly

Conferences and expectations

4th September 2011

I have just returned from dConstruct in Brighton, unpacking ideas and notes not just about the web, but also regarding the conference itself, and the views of its audience. As with last year, the general consensus was positive, with attendees feeling inspired and motivated.

Still, there was some noticeable resentment (verbally and via the back channels) from a probable minority whose expectations were not met, and this has prompted me to quickly share a few paragraphs on the subject of conferences that I wrote at the turn of the year.

I personally believe that good conferences develop their own identity, and that attendees should not expect every event to suit their own exact expectations. In the UK alone, many events sit distinctly from others, and this is of course a very good thing. We see a lot of very theoretical talks, perhaps asking more questions than they provide answers (something I relish). In the US, An Event Apart has attracted an audience who know they can expect some solid theory, but most importantly a wealth of immediate “takeaways” that can be used in their work without delay.

With this in mind, I do think us organisers have a responsibility to manage the expectations of our attendees through our websites and other material. Regular attendees will know the score, but if we introduce newcomers to the nuances of events and their intended focus, we can help avoid the vocal disappointment of those expecting something very different for their money.

In some cases, conference websites perhaps don’t do enough to prepare expectations. In turn, when the website suggests a certain narrative or specific theme, we have a responsibility to ensure the program delivers on that promise.

With design, we often say that for something to be universally loved it is probably too safe, or doesn’t move us forward. A difference of opinion makes us feel as though we’re doing something of merit, something challenging. We can never expect 100% of our attendees to enjoy 100% of their conference experience, but as they’re paying customers, we must at least try to improve the ratio through good communication and site content from the day of launch.

The following three passages are taken from my editorial in the New Adventures newspaper, January 2011.

In many ways New Adventures in Web Design is no different to other events that I consider extremely valuable; events such as Build, DIBI, EECI, Brooklyn Beta, and dConstruct. These are brought to us by individuals, small teams, or agencies that do the same work as you and I every single day, and this real-world empathy ensures that we as attendees see our concerns and interests being addressed, year after year.

All conferences have value, but for me the ones listed above have a special integrity as they treat audiences with great respect, and assume a level of intelligence that allows the organisers to program a range of brave topics. The talks may be immediately useful, or they might deliver ideas through analogies or sideways perspectives that make attendees think a bit harder; the fruit of these topics often not truly ripening in our heads until days, weeks or months later.

Maybe the true role of a conference is to investigate new ways of thinking and collectively examine our challenges; to inspire, enthuse, and validate our thinking in broader strokes? The conference hall is not a classroom, and more direct learning is perhaps better placed in workshops.


# Rick Monro responded on 4th September 2011 with...

Very salient points Simon.

Perhaps the fate of this year’s Inspire Conference was an anomaly, however it could be argued that we are close to saturation point for web-related design conferences in this part of the world.

Expectations are of course key, as are perceptions. New and existing conferences are likely to face diminishing returns particularly if a cynical minority perceive the circuit to be a core of familiar faces all speaking at each other’s conferences, and on similar themes.

Coupled with the current trend in our community toward preaching over discourse (“you’re not a web designer if you…” etc), it may be enough for a middle ground of designers to opt out of attending conferences where they feel that, rather than being inspired or challenged, their credibility will be questioned.

# Proactive Paul responded on 4th September 2011 with...

I too was amazed at the chat on the back channels, and as a conference organiser too, I did indulge in a little open chat, and a little direct contact with the team at dConstruct while the event was in progress.

I was a first timer at the 2011 conference - I rated it 9 out of 10 or perhaps even a fraction more than 9. And whilst the majority of delegates no doubt gained something, a vocal minority made it hard work wading through the litany of tweets on the day.

And in turn, the malcontents merit a comment in my own blogpost on the matter.


# Dean Vipond responded on 5th September 2011 with...

Some good points there, Colly.

I thought dConstruct was excellent (again). I probably enjoyed 75% of the talks, which I consider pretty good going. Anyone expecting every single talk to blow them away is frankly very optimistic. Who goes to a music festival, expecting every band to be stunning?

I go to dConstruct precisely because of its more abstract, thought-led nature.

Ultimately I think there are a lot of people in this industry (let’s just generically call it ‘digital’ for now) who lack a lot of confidence in what they do, so they look to more prominent or successful people to impart some magic bullets which will help them all-of-a-sudden become better designers/developers/whatever. It also highlights the myopic way in which some people approach their work. What these people should really be looking for is some slightly different views of the world, which may just make them see a project or brief from a different angle, or try a few ideas which they might not have previously considered. dConstruct delivers this in spades.

All the people who spoke this year have worked on hugely successful, innovative and jealousy-inducing projects. But I’m not really interested in hearing about the production processes that went into them; I want to know what excites and inspires these people to create.

If you’re looking for, I dunno, how to make shiny buttons using pure CSS, then a blog post is a much better place to go than a £150 conference.

The marvellous Michael Beirut from Pentagram wrote a great piece on this subject too. He sums things up much more coherently than I could –

As a side note, paying customers absolutely have the right to broadcast their views via the backchannels, be they positive or negative, and should be treated with respect, so it was disappointing to see some rather rude comments from people who took umbrage, particularly the organisers.

# Miami car accident lawyer responded on 19th September 2011 with...

I had the same thing happen at a conference for attorneys.  It would seem as though folks are just more onary when they are using “back channels” to do their griping.

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