Volume 5, Issue 3 
September 2003

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Shopping for Ideas at UPA Idea Markets

By: Dana Chisnell

Ever feel that the best part of a conference happens between sessions? Ulf Andersson did. So, in the 1970s, he created a format for conference sessions called an “Idea Market.” Attendees are free to roam from one idea station to the next, until they find a topic that grabs their attention. “Activators" at each station stir up lively discourse on a variety of subjects in an interactive, fluid session.

I had attended Idea Markets at other conferences and thought that they might be perfectly suited to UPA conferences because of the potential for getting practitioners buzzing about a variety of topics. So, I submitted a proposal to conduct an Idea Market at UPA in 2002 as a special type of "panel" session. The reviewers had a tough time grasping the concept. Fortunately, the panel co-chairs went with it, and the first-ever Idea Market launched successfully.

Better than reality TV

It worked so well that we did it again in 2003 at The Phoenician. In spite of moving the location of the session at the last minute, the Market was very well attended. It seemed as if people came away pretty excited about the experience.

"This is an exceptional session - it is a great idea. I loved the opportunity to wander from conversation to conversation on my own time, and those who lead good discussions were amazing! This is the best session at UPA!"

- Evaluation submitter, 2003 UPA conference

Going forward, Idea Markets will be a permanent feature of UPA conference. Look for it in the Call for Participation for UPA 2004 .

How it all started

Andersson, the originator of Idea Markets (and UPA member), created the session format after attending a conference during which he realized that the most interesting and useful discussions often happened between sessions. He wanted "a way to arrange a conference consisting of an entire, long break," a format in which attendees could easily find the people they were most interested in talking with about the topics they were most interested in discussing. Andersson's solution, Idea Markets, creates an environment in which people from different backgrounds not only learn from the experience of others but also generate new ideas.

All audience participation, all the time

An Idea Market uses an open street market as a metaphor. It takes place in a large meeting room with no chairs. Rather than vendors selling vegetables or other wares from stalls, there are up to 10 idea stations--each with a presenter serving as an activator and using flipcharts for visuals.

Each activator leads a discussion around a chosen topic. Idea Market attendees roam around the room, shopping for ideas until they find a topic or discussion that they are interested in. They're welcome to stay at one station during the session or move around as they like, which makes for varied and dynamic discussion. Attendees can "choose to have a dialogue or... a multilogue (where there is more than on discussion going on in the group)," Andersson says .

Inspiring, intense, enlightening

A goal of the Idea Market is for activators to learn something about a “burning question.” At each of the stations, the activator begins with a high-level (burning) question and drills down to what are known as “starter questions.” At UPA 2003 for example, a burning question was “Where does usability fit in the development life cycle?” Starter questions included:

  • What are the key phases and related usability tasks in a development life cycle?
  • When in a schedule crunch, which tasks are “must completes” and which will get dropped?
  • How do you communicate the usability priorities in each phase to management?
  • When do you start each task in relation to the overall development effort?

Based on the evaluations from UPA 2003, it looks like nearly everyone came away energized. The main deliverable from Idea Markets is a summary on each topic, published after the conference. Those "after thoughts" from UPA 2003 are published on the post-conference page . Check them out. And submit your proposal for an Idea Market topic by January 30, 2004 .

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