Opinion: The problem with UX conferences

UX conferences are becoming more and more popular. UX London, Lean UX NY, IA Summit, SXSW – the list goes on. They are great places to network, learn new techniques and hear the latest thinking from across the industry. But have they also become a place to show off to your peers?

Last year me and my strategy director did a talk and workshop session at Digital Shoreditch about digital tribes. We, as I’m sure all of the other speakers in attendance did, put a great deal of work into our presentation, carefully crafting our Powerpoint to try and get our point across in an easily understandable way to our audience.

I will confess that this was my first of such conferences. However, what I saw there and have seen since was somewhat disheartening, and something I feel is somewhat of an issue with the UX community as a whole.

UX ConferenceRather than listening, and I mean truly listening to the material being delivered – almost everybody in the audience had either their laptops or phones out and were tweeting soundbytes. This was not just for our presentation of course, but for every speaker that presented.

Now I know we are a nation of multi-screeners, however the simple fact is if you are doing something on your phone or laptop then it is very difficult to fully absorb what is being said.

Each time there is a big UX conference my timeline is flooded by tweets such as “Mobile is part of a wider user journey [screenshot of powerpoint slide] @speakername #UXLondon”

Conference Tweet

Tweets like these add little value

Each time there is a big UX conference my timeline is flooded by tweets such as “Mobile is part of a wider user journey [screenshot of powerpoint slide] @speakername #UXLondon” or similar. ORLY! That’s great, i’ll use that to guide all my future research, thanks for sharing. Wait…what?

Now you may be thinking, what’s the big deal, they are just sharing what’s going on for those who can’t attend. But simply passing around soundbytes like that without the context of the rest of the presentation isn’t helping anyone who can’t attend very much at all, and I would argue in some cases it’s simply trying to prove to their comrades that they are there.

It becomes reminiscent of watching an episode of Question Time where the guests are more interested in spitting out pre-fabricated quotes then saying anything which actually adds value or answers the audience members question, and causing David Dimbleby’s eyes to grow ever smaller.

The UX conference is where we stand around shouting at passers by

I think it’s symptomatic of the UX field as a whole. Our field is still absent of the solid definition we so crave – you only need to read a couple of blogs to see the endless ways people are trying to define what we do.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it can bring us greater focus, identity and understanding. The problem is that in a similar way to teenagers trying different cliques until they find an identity that works, some of us have become guilty of a ‘look at me’ complex and the UX conference is where we stand around shouting at passers by showing off our UXey-ness.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not tarring all UXers with the same brush here – some definitely tweet and give valuable information to those not in attendance, and to them I applaud. And I don’t even have a problem with UX conferences – valuable knowledge has surely been passed on at these events. But I wonder how much more would be shared if we stopped caring so much about showing people that we were there?

If you are going to take the time out to go to a conference, put your phone down, put your laptop away and give the speaker the respect of your full attention. There will be plenty of time to tweet afterwards, when you have absorbed the information and can turn those soundbytes into something more useful for your followers.

Are you a speaker at a UX conference? Do you tweet about them? Let us know in the comments.

Image courtesy futureshape

16 thoughts on “Opinion: The problem with UX conferences”

  1. Caroline White says:

    Great article Chris! I love everything about conferences – learning things, meeting new people and tweeting and blogging about it afterwards.

    Some people defo only seem interested in the latter two which is their prerogative I suppose. They are the ones msising out. And I do find it a bit weird when there is a conference hashtag trending on Twitter but you have no idea what it is about because the Tweets are so random.

  2. @julianstaddon says:

    Hi Chris

    I think I sit with Bianca on this in the main but agree we need to address concerns raised by Craig and others about the flood of soundbites that surrounds an event. Perhaps as part of the meeting’s house keeping section before talks some of the preferred tweeting practices can be shared?

    The context of the comment is really needed in these tweets and as Sam explains the use of the conference and session # plus reference to the @speaker should help provide some of that context. Using the official # allows someone to choose to follow or mute the #.

    Here’s an interesting blog article (others are available I’m sure!) http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/ten-tips-for-tweeting-at-conferences/54281?cid=wc&utm_source=wc&utm_medium=en

    1. Chris Mears says:

      Hi Julian,

      Great link – definitely some useful tips in there which give both respect to the speaker and useful content to other people who can’t attend

  3. Cesar Gomez says:

    I agree with Chris. I go to many conferences and see this all the time. I understand people want to tell others, but take it all in first and then tweet.
    There is meaning behind those words of wisdom.

  4. Bianca Woods says:

    I appreciate your perspective on the matter and have found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with parts of what you’ve said.

    Is tweeting random soundbites as valuable as taking the time to really process what a session speaker has said and add your own thoughts? No, definitely not. If that’s all a person is doing at a conference then you’re right, chances are they aren’t getting much out of the experience.

    My concern, though, is your conclusion that the best way to give the speaker and their topic your deepest respect is through putting down the devices and just listening. I think it misses out on the fact that for some of us that actually isn’t the way we get the most out of the material.

    When I first started attending conferences, I struggled with whether or not the sharing I wanted to do via Twitter would take away from my ability to truly absorb the content I was hearing in sessions. I didn’t want to fall into the trap you mention of being so focused on tweeting that the content I was hearing wouldn’t actually stick with me. What I found after time was, however, quite the opposite. The sessions where I simply listened didn’t stay with me nearly as well as the ones where I live-tweeted and actively engaged with other people in the room via Twitter.

    Why is that the case? I’m sure part of it ties into the fact that I tend to think out loud, so Twitter was pretty much an extension of that. I’d also credit going to conferences that had particularly great backchannels. But I think a lot of it has to do with using Twitter both in the moment AND for later reflection. Those live-tweets (both from myself and others) and in-the-moment Twitter conversations proved to be better ways for me to recall and process session content afterwards then paper notes or my memory alone could have ever been.

    So I’d push back a bit at the assumption that an audience member looking down at a device is less engaged than one looking directly at the speaker. While I can definitely understand that for some people live-tweeting or fussing with a device in any way could be incredibly distracting, for others it’s an important part of the way they process and interact with information.

    1. Chris Mears says:

      Hi Bianca,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. In fact I recently did a post on how different people process and learn information (http://theuxreview.co.uk/behaviour-change-using-multiple-intelligence-learning/) and I think you make a valid point. Twitter as a medium to encourage these backchannel discussions around a topic I think is no bad thing at all.

      As I pointed out in the previous commenter’s thoughts – I have absolutely no problem with these kind of tweets and I think it definitely adds value, the article was really aimed at the other kind of tweets (one of which I took a screenshot of in the article).

      It does raise the issue of the motivation for the tweet which I suppose would fall into one of two camps and only the tweeter would truely know which one they fall into:
      – A well meaning but not particularly useful sharing of information (at least from the follower point of view)
      – Only tweeting to make their presence at the event known

      My concern, though, is your conclusion that the best way to give the speaker and their topic your deepest respect is through putting down the devices and just listening. I think it misses out on the fact that for some of us that actually isn’t the way we get the most out of the material.”

      My comment on that was aimed to be slightly over-opinionated to stir the debate and I do agree with your response 🙂

  5. David C. Dunkle says:

    When I attend conferences, I’m often tasked with providing a Trip Report upon my return to the office. So I am usually taking notes, either on paper or laptop, during the presentations that I attend. No lack of respect is intended with that, and none should be assumed, right?

    In addition, the presentations and conference environment always seem to spawn a unique creativity; ideas and topics can pop into my head that are only tangentially related to the session I happen to be attending. I’ll always try to capture these thoughts as they occur, and I expect that others are doing the same. If we want to stop this from happening (which we don’t) we’d have to ask the presenters to make their talks less “thought-provoking.”

    I don’t personally tweet during the presentations, but I’ll bet many of the people who do are the ones who habitually tweet 6-10 times a day anyway- they just happen to be at a conference during their latest round of continual tweets. Their troubles extend far beyond conference etiquette.

    1. Chris Mears says:

      Hi David,
      Interesting point and I agree that these conferences can spawn additional ideas. I don’t have any issue at all with these kinds of tweets, the attendee has absorbed some information, interpreted and shared an idea on it.

      The main point I was trying to bring out in the article were the kind of tweets which simply provide a blow by blow account of what is happening in the powerpoint involve no thought processing, and serve mainly as ‘boasting’ that the attendee was there, either intentionally or not.

  6. Craig Taylor says:

    Hi Chris,

    I use to fanatically tweet from events when I first started using Twitter back in 2010, however I came to realise after about 12 months that (as you mention) I was tweeting for other people’s benefit as opposed to my own. It’s even got the stage now where I will mute certain hashtags using my Twitter client to move the context-free, ‘stream of consciousness’ babble that floods my Twitter stream whenever there is an event on.

    Of course the cruel irony of this is that every now and then there could be a real *gem* of a tweet that ends up being muted because it is muted along with the crap…..

    ….. I guess I’ll live……

    Craig

    1. Chris Mears says:

      Hi Craig, thanks for taking the time to comment. I think you are right that often tweets which are genuinely useful can get buried beneath the rubbish, but that’s probably endemic of Twitter as a whole.

      However as I mention in the post I think the benefit really comes from people taking the time to process and then add their own take on what they have heard. This has to come after the event or talk has happened in order to allow the proper thinking time.

    2. Vicky says:

      I once got told off by a person for live-tweeting! My solution (which I should probably write about) is to start livetweets with the @ name so that it shows up in a conf stream but is hidden from people who normally follow me (though I do alternate the odd one so that those who are interested can delve into the hashtag). Of course, those that follow those speakers still get a firehose, but I can’t please anyone bar set up a separate conference account!

  7. Sam Burrough says:

    This is really interesting. I don’t work in UX. I work in Learning & Development, but I specialise in using online tools to help people develop themselves. I’m UX curious because I can see lots of application to what I do.

    I found it interesting because the same issue is raised fairly frequently at the big L&D conferences. So it’s certainly not unique to UX. However, in L&D I think the tweeters have won the argument, if that is possible. The twitter backchannel is now regarded as an essential feature of any conference because it raises the profile of the event and extends the reach of the messages. That makes it more attractive to everyone involved.

    The last conference I attended was Learning Technologies 2013 at Olympia last January. They went to the extreme of “employing” an official twitter backchannel reporting team. I was lucky enough to be in that team (being employed meant getting a free ticket to £1000 event). Because we were tweeting “professionally” we all knew exactly which sessions we were attending (we even had individual #tags for each session ) this meant we could research the speakers beforehand and have some useful relevant links to share during the session which gave more context. I think this could go further by making all of the slide decks available online in real time. Some sessions were also live streamed which obviously makes it easy for anyone to get involved.

    That didn’t stop lots of duplication during keynote sessions, where everyone tweets the same glib soundbites. But as people get more experienced at communicating in this context, they do get better at adding meaning and insight.

    1. Chris Mears says:

      Hi Sam,
      It’s interesting that it happens at conferences in other areas too. I think you are right in that the more Twitter matures as a medium for insight at these events hopefully the ‘noise’ levels should reduce

    2. Sam says:

      I think your reply is missing the point of contention entirely.

      It might be a useful ‘marketing tool’ to spread the reach of the conference and enlighten those who aren’t in attendance as to it’s content. However it detracts from the tweeters ability to engage fully with the content and learn in an effective way. Personally I cringe when I see someone giving their all on stage, while the crowd stare zombified at their phones desperate to inform all their digital acolytes of every detail being presented while largely ignoring the real detail of what is happening around them. It is a buffer between the audience and the speaker that shouldn’t be there and despite loving technology and the benefits it brings, I believe this is one of the major draw backs.

  8. Vicky says:

    As someone who does a lot of tweeting/storifying/reporting at conferences, I say yes … and no. If anything, sometimes twitter is a communal notetaking exercise (and Webstock goes one step further with an entrepreneurial person providing google docs for communal notes!)

    Also, it is actually seen as broadcasting/notes for those not there. Just yesterday I saw a tweet from a usual live-tweeter who was missing a conference due to illness and sad at the lack of commentary.

    However, the wider issue that I do agree with is that on people not really processing the talks (I hold sketchnotes particularly claim to that one as they’re utterly incomprehensible for those who didn’t attend, whereas at least a stream of tweets usually has some sense of narrative).

    1. Chris Mears says:

      Hi Vicky, thanks for commenting. I think you are right in that the problem is possibly something that is inherent with social sharing as a whole, people simply move information around without it being processed.

      The point about making the information known to those who aren’t there is valid and on further consideration I think I perhaps underestimated the value that may give to some.

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