Designing Usable Conferences

Creating usable conferences means helping attendees achieve two major goals: to learn something new and to meet new business partners. Conferences usually have good content and bring the right people under one roof, and here's what I'd do to make that content more accessible and the networking more effective.


- In case of several concurrent tracks of panels, attendees must choose some of them at the expense of the others. Often, they tend to shop around: pop into one room, listen for a bit, and then head out to see what's across the hall. I would put out TV screens or at least speakers either outside the rooms or in one central location to make the comparison-shopping easier and to give access to people who couldn't get into the overcrowded rooms.

- There's no reason why moderators should run the panels, especially if they are asking pre-canned questions they think would be interesting to the audience. It would be more logical for attendees to post their own questions beforehand, perhaps online, and for moderators to pick the most interesting of those.

- South by Southwest had people to vote for the most interesting panel topics from a list distributed long in advance. Great idea.

- The politburo-style seating of the panelists as well as their number -- usually around five -- sucks. Can you imagine Steve Jobs on a panel? Speakers, if they have something to say, should have all the stage for themselves. Line them up for the Q&A afterwards.
Alternatively, have two people debating a controversial topic.

- If you have to have five people sitting on the stage at the same time with four of them snoozing, sipping water, or picking their noses as the fifth speaks, direct a spotlight at the speaker.

- Nobody can read those name tags on the table so it's hard to put the words in the context unless the speakers are famous enough not to require introduction. I'd put bigger signs with their names and some info behind and above the speakers on some stands.


- Murphy's law of the badges: badges hanging on lanyards will flip backwards. Print on both sides.

- Have a second badge that can be stuck onto the tote bag. It's kind of hard to be discreet while squinting at someone's badge and figuring out whether it's worth to strike a conversation.

- Print names, companies, and services these companies provide in a VERY LARGE FONT. Kill the event's logo -- the tag design should be enough to tell the participants from the outsiders apart. I've seen tags that have the conference dates, venue and description, the point of which remains a mystery.

- Have a better system for color coding. Usually, tags come in five flavors - for organizers, press, speakers, exhibitors, and everybody else. I don't really see a reason for having a special tag for the speakers unless they get better lunch boxes. I'm debating the need for a separate color for the press, but whatever -- if you have to, code these colors into the lanyards. For the tags, I'd create a color system that will indicate whether the attendee is looking to sell or buy something, and what. The tag coding can be done by the users themselves -- simply give them the system, a cheat sheet and a bunch of color stickers. So, if I stick green, yellow and brown, this would mean that I'm looking to sell (green) ad space (yellow) on a blog (brown).

- Have a bulletin board where people can post notes for others. I'd love to see a machine that gives away business cards preloaded by others, and at the very least, by the panelists. And numbered and colored meeting stations, so that people can prearrange meet-ups with someone they don't yet know.

- I'm yet to see a perfectly usable conference bag. Those shoulder/carrier bags are the worst, since people usually already have one in which they carry their laptops, so now they are stuck with two. More usable would be a simple canvass tote bag with five pockets on the outside: a notebook (with a notebook inside), the schedule and map, a pen, my business cards, and business cards I collect. That, plus a pocket for the name tag.
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