Ninth Boston Mini-UPA Annual Conference
Chris Hass is a Senior Vice President of Experience Design at Mad*Pow where he directs human factors research and user interface design activities for the development of innovative user experience products and programs. Chris has unique expertise conducting accessibility research with persons who have physical and cognitive disabilities, and designing information architecture and interaction designs for consumer, medical, professional, and human service products. Chris is the President of the Usability Professionals' Association (UPA) Boston Chapter, and an Advisory Board member of UPA International.
It honestly wasn't an attempt to wear anyone out.
But if you asked the attendees around 3 p.m. on June 9th, 2010 if the ninth UPA Boston annual conference was an attempt to exhaust them, you might have found some who were willing to believe it. After all, a gathering that offers thirty-two presentations in a single day runs the risk of providing too much information and by mid-afternoon, the crowd was enthused but ready for some sugary snacks.
Conference Mirrors Growth in the Field
As one of the event planners, I can tell you at that point in the day, I was too! Over the past nine years the UPA Boston annual conference has mirrored the growth and acceptance of usability, UX, design, and related fields in the professional arena. Once an intimate gathering of thirty or so local professionals, this year's event outstripped its predecessors by selling out a month in advance, drawing over 450 attendees and wait listing nearly a hundred more.
We attribute the conference's appeal and success to three key factors: the presenters, overall affordability, and a jam-packed one-day format. Primary among these, of course, were the presenters, who spoke on topics that ranged from designing search engines for children, desirability testing, rapid and automated research techniques, eye-tracking studies, how to design for happiness, card sorting and focus group techniques, taming social media, understanding FDA medical device regulations, to the ins and outs of neuromarketing. (And more!)
The day saw some familiar faces: Former UPA International president Whitney Quesenberry and Kevin Brooks spoke on Storytelling for UX, World Usability Day originator Elizabeth Rosenzweig talked about innovation and invention, former UPA Boston president Diana Brown discussed how and when to have group design workshops. UPA International keynote speaker Jared Spool spoke on "Search, Scent, and the Happiness of Pursuit." UPA Boston newcomer Will Evans outlined his "Socio-Cybernetic Model for Designing Leadership" (and the membership is still buzzing about it). The conference roster (http://www.upaboston.org/miniconf10/schedule.shtml) is available with a full listing of presenters and their presentation abstracts. We encourage you to invite them to reprise their talks, every one of which had much to offer.
This high-caliber roster of presenters led to an increase of about 150 more potential attendees (100 of whom couldn't attend due to unfortunate space limitations) than the previous conference, which posed some interesting challenges. In addition to accommodating the crowd, one of the event's key goals is to maintain the traditional "local chapter" feel while providing as broad a forum as possible for practitioners, students, and thought-leaders to share their findings, ideas, and techniques. Lectures and presentations are important, but attendees are unhappy if they aren't given enough time during the day to network with colleagues. Furthermore, despite its popularity, the membership request each year is that the conference remains a one-day affair, which makes it easy to fit into professional schedules. How then to keep the day "power-packed" with knowledge, but also provide networking time?
Over the years, trial and error has led to a good balance between thought-output and networking-input, an assessment based on attendees' responses and post-event surveys. Here are some key lessons we have learned:
Sponsorship and Vendor Support Made it Happen
In truth, the conference wouldn't have been the same without the kind sponsorship of usability-related companies and publishers. This year drew two title sponsors: Boston Interactive and One to One Insights who led the charge to support the conference. Attendees toured the Bentley Design and Usability Center, tried Sensomatic Instruments' and Tobii's eye-tracking equipment, browsed books from Morgan Kaufmann, learned about Loop11's automated user testing, were interviewed by the ClearPoint Consultants, Inc. staffing agency, and marveled at the signage and materials Hot Knife Design created for the conference. Louis Rosenfeld and Morgan Kaufmann donated UX books and Clear Point offered a copy of Axure to raffle.
If there were a word to describe how sponsor and vendor support grew this year, that word would be: "up." For the first time sponsors brought tall table-top displays and banners that required intricate assembly and significant head-room. Seeing artful and professional booths with giveaways and raffles highlighted how far this event has come from its earliest days. Yet at the same time the casual and extended conversations attendees had with colleagues and vendors made it clear that the intimate nature of the event had not been lost.
Conference Firsts - Conference iPhone App
This year saw some "firsts" as well: In addition to the printed conference materials, sponsor-members Mad*Pow and Raizlabs teamed up to create an iPhone application: "UPA Boston," which provided logistical support for the day through interactive maps and schedule, presentation abstracts, social media links to the day's presenters, and more. The app is available for download free from the Apple store.
Conference Firsts - Presenter Evaluation Forms
Another first this year was the inclusion of presenter evaluation forms so that attendees could provide feedback to the 32 presenters. Volunteer coordinator Cay Lodine examined existing evaluation forms and ultimately developed this presentation evaluation form, notable for featuring only four short questions. The form's brevity made it straightforward to fill out and easy to later compress into spreadsheets for fast delivery to presenters. Forms were placed on tables in the presentation rooms where attendees could take and return them at their leisure, a no-pressure set up that attendees had positive reactions to.
Conference Firsts – T-Shirt Design Contest
This year also featured UPA Boston's first T-shirt design contest. For years members have requested T-shirts, so this spring, chapter Secretary Michelle Kwasny, ran a contest that asked members to contribute designs and vote for their favorite online. The winner, Laura Segel, was announced at the conference and received two of her "Open to Experience" T-shirts as a prize. You can see her winning design, and the other contenders, on a dedicated CafePress site. Currently the T-shirts are being sold at cost and we're curious to see how they fare!
Conference Firsts – Attendee Gifts
As a "thank you" to the attendees for supporting the event, we also gave out our first conference "swag" in the form of stainless-steel canteens that could be refilled at water coolers located throughout the conference. This "green" gift ended up keeping the attendees from using an estimated 900 individual water bottles throughout the day, safeguarding the environment.
Conference Firsts – Social Media to Promote
Another hallmark of the event was a concerted attempt to use social media to promote the event before, during, and afterwards, through Twitter (@UPABoston), Flickr, and volunteer (and presenter) Tom Tullis, who took hundreds of photos during the day.
Attendees' responses to the event have been uniformly positive, and the organizers are compiling notes in preparation for next year's event. But first: let the World Usability Day planning begin!
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