4th September, 2011

Conferences and expectations

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.

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