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Fail Fast, Fail Often- How User Experience can Shape Event Success

I used to work for an event technology startup for about two years.  It was the best job I've ever had (next to The Event Nerd of course) and one of the most eye-opening times in my life.  I'd previously spent years working on the production side of events focusing on how to make events come together logistically- how to make sure the speakers got flown and the lighting got turned on.  In short, I was focused on getting stuff done, regardless of whether or not it was best for the attendee. For me, the focus was on the most efficient way to do the events, not whether the way we were doing events was best for the guest.  Working at the start up changed all that.

If you've never worked on a technology project (I hadn't up until that point), then words like "sprints," "hack-a-thons," and "development cycle" are probably completely foreign. For me, they became an almost daily part of conversation. It was the first time/place I'd ever seen people so focused on how to make the user of the product happy, and not just focused on how to make the product better, fancier, or a sexier version of the last. It was the first time I saw people focus on asking lots of questions about how products were being used and adapting them, as opposed to creating the products and attempting to tell people that this newer version was better for them. If only events worked the same way.

For years, many of us in the events industry have been focused on creating experiences for our clients that they enjoy, or putting the coolest and the best tools into our clients' events so that their guests will have a good time, or we'll raise more money, or raise awareness about whatever the cause is. The one thing we've historically failed to do as an industry- ask the guest what they want and how they want to experience to unfold. 

User Experience or UX involves the study of a person's behaviors, attitudes, and emotions about using a particular productsystem or service." There are people whose whole life is dedicated to studying it, and I think it's something the evens industry could benefit from.  Here are a few first steps to incorporating UX into your events:

1. Ask the attendee

et's start simple. Let's just ask people what they want. I'm talking about something as simple as a post event survey, but one that asks better questions than, "did you find the conference experience enjoyable?" or "how did this year compare to last year?" Let's ask questions that can shape the way events unfold and give us insight into the mind of our attendees. We're dealing with one of the most savvy groups of event attendees in recent history who are continually bombarded by information, and just about everything they come into contact with is designed to pique their interest. They know what they like, or at least what they don't like and asking them might be the first step to getting in their heads. Not everything will be usable (and let's be clear- some will just complain or rant), but if you start to see a trend that people want shorter sessions at your conference- it may be something to seriously consider.  Instead of just focusing on how to add more pizazz to the opening general session or make the speakers for the hour long breakouts better known, maybe there are different ways to engage them.

2. Dig deep

Instead of focusing our efforts on just meeting with our clients and asking them what they want to see for the next event, what if we took time to get to know their guests? What if we did more than just ask how many people attended last year, and how many they were expecting this year? How would our events be impacted if we got to know the people the event is ultimately serving? We were taught how to dig for information in grade school- the who, what, when, where, why, and how of it all- and need to bring that back into our discovery process about events. It's more than just knowing where people come from, how old attendees are, or what they like to eat- it's about knowing their personas, their likes and dislikes, the emotion behind their decisions and so much more. It's those decisions that will help make our events more impactful, and ultimately make our clients more satisfied with their spend, because the guest truly experiences something unique to them and associates it with the client.

3. Watch and Learn

Have some of your team stand around and do nothing. Ok, well maybe not nothing, but have some people focused on strictly observing your attendees. How long does the registration process take? What direction do guests walk in once they enter the building or room? Where seem to be the biggest points of connection (and contention) for attendees? Those are all things that are pretty obvious, but what about things like- How many people left early? At what point did most of them leave? Where did they exit (i.e. were they sneaking out)? How many of them actually stopped by the silent auction, or actually went to the breakout session they signed up for? Did they come/leave with a group or fly solo? All of these can provide valuable insights into attendee behavior, and are just as important (and I would argue more important) than whether or not the line at the buffet was too long. If people are engaged in something they're passionate about, time can become irrelevant. It's why parents will wait for hours at Disney World to ride Magic Mountain- because they're invested in their kids' happiness. Train your team to be observers of human behavior and not just programmers of the perceived experience.

4. Stick and Move

Nothing impedes progress in technology more than unnecessarily long development cycles. Having an idea come about for a product improvement, and then getting bogged down in 15 rounds of vetting and approval before it being implemented is one of the fastest ways to ensure the product is quickly obsolete. Savvy technology companies know how to make decisions quickly and implement them just as quickly. A popular adage is "fail fast, fail often" and that saying can be applied to our events. We should push our clients to try new things based on our data and observation and allow ourselves to be the agents of event evolution not just the keepers of event history. At the same time, we need to know what will work and what won't- not just implementing the new because it is new, but because it makes sense to our guests and clients.

In all, there's a lot we can learn about how to host better and more engaging events by observing the trials and successes of the software and hardware development world. It's time we looked outside of our own industry for inspiration and allowed our clients to benefit from our study of the world around us.  You might be surprised with what that nerdy guy across the aisle at Starbucks has to teach you.