Improving the User Experience of (User Experience) Conferences

I’m finishing up work on a talk for An Event Apart Seattle about what happens after the conference is over [update: that presentation is here]. At first this might seem like an odd session to have, but it’s reflective of a fundamental problem of all events: events are intense short term experiences that people attended with the hope of long term effects.But from the moment the last session ends, attendees are basically abandoned, and on their own, left to their own devices for sorting out how to digest and apply what they just experienced.

If you made a chart diagraming the positive energy effects of the event, it would look like this:


Somewhere in the middle of the event, usually at the sponsored reception, is the peak of the community that forms around that event. It’s the moment when:

  • The most people are in attendance
  • people have had half the event to meet and engage with people
  • It’s the easiest socializing,as there’s booze, food and everyone there is there to socialize
  • People can still look forward to the second half of the event

But as time progresses towards the last session, that energy  falls. And when the event is officially over, there’s a user experience cliff where you are instantly returned to being on your own again, sadly divorced from the bonds you just formed, much like a child getting on the bus to take them home from the last day of summer camp.

What I’m wondering is, what can conferences do to make it so the chart looks more like this?


A list of obvious things events can do include:

  • Opt-in mailing list or Facebook group for people to continue the conversation
  • A follow up email the day the event ends, with links to slides and resources
  • A check-in email one month after the event, to see how folks have applied what they learned (there’s good feedback here for the event as well)
  • A happy hour a month after the event to reunite locals (or done in a google+ hangout)

Have you seen smart or well done ideas at events for getting closer to this goal? Or that help attendees get the most value, now that they’ve returned to work, from the event that just ended? Leave a comment.

25 Responses to “Improving the User Experience of (User Experience) Conferences”

  1. ccanny

    I think this is great and so real.

    Too often conferences are about the individual and not the whole.

    ONE way conferences can improve is through better planning by the hosts. By the end there could be massive momentum for each individual to go out and do whatever that conference was about. Instead conferences are often used as platforms for presenters to jockey their ideas and business status—with the workshops or presentations overlapping “the next big thing” or else completely disjointed. It’s no wonder we all leave feeling like we need to process.

    Instead, imagine if the conference facilitators and presenters decide what the end goal will be. Then the whole conference is leading up to that goal, and the reward for doing it. Think “story”, but on a novel’s level (ie conference), not a short story level (ie individual presentation). This would require the planners to vet all the talks, and interact with the trainers/presenters/speakers not only more in advance, but more often, making sure everyone in the conference is part of this massive story.

    1. Scott

      Interesting – sounds like better curation is what you’re after? That all the pieces should fit together into a more cohesive whole?

      Single track events, like AEA, are always preferable to me for this reason. By only having one speaker at a time the organizers are forced to think about the narrative, or at least the pacing, not to mention they’re aware that their choices for speakers matters greatly since attendees will have no choices in the matter.

  2. Todd Greer


    I think one of the keys to this (but is rarely ever done) is building an ongoing community out of the conference attendees. If they have the ability to continue to interact, engage the ideas of the conference (possibly with the presenters), etc. this would propel the energy of the conference into the reality of their organizational experiences.

    Just a thought. Now time to implement it.


    1. Scott

      There are so many tools for community (our endless supply of social media platforms) yet it seems somehow most events fail to use them, or to encourage people to use them. And there’s also the possibility attendees really don’t want to stay connected as much as I’m assuming.

      1. Todd Greer


        I think that is the interesting thing. How much money is spent on training and development in the world yet the reality is the transfer of training is so limited. Why can’t we begin to recognize what has worked for AA meetings, WeightWatchers, CrossFit and so many other organizations – community and accountability are the only way to bring about real change! If we want to keep the buzz, we must invigorate people and engage ideas through community and accountability!


        1. Lois

          I think there is a lot of merit to the buddy system idea.

      2. Alfred Lua

        I feel that having an online community after the conference is good too but there needs to be a strategy and continuous effort to encourage discussions. I attended a conference last year and everyone was so hyped that we decided to create an online community ourselves (and invited the organisers). However, after a few months, the discussions died down and people were just spamming links to their new ideas to get coverage.

        I think having physical meet ups will be better but similarly, if it is just once off, the effect goes away quickly. For the same conference, those in London decided to meet up for drinks which was great as we kept the conversations going. However, no one wanted to organise the next one and the momentum ended after the first one.

        Just sharing from my experience (:

        1. Todd


          Great point. I think you are very correct about setting and keeping real goals at the forefront of such a group. Maybe it is possible rather than having large groups, that small mastermind-style clusters are formed for people that are seeking after similar outcomes?

          The fact that few are trying this only seems to show that the potential for tinkering with this idea and growing it is an untapped opportunity.

  3. Lois

    I agree that single-track conferences can be great. On the other hand, there is a benefit to having experimental or first-time speakers too, even if they are likely to appeal to only a small segment of the conference goers. I’m not quite sure how to handle divergent or niche presentations with single-track conferences, and I know that it’s not always necessary to do that either.

  4. Amy Hoy

    We did a few things at BaconBizConf:

    1. We had TONS of breaks, so more attendees got to know each other and
    2. 16 out of 53 total attendees gave at least a lightning talk.

    It may not be obvious how this is related to post-conf experience, but most confs, even when you meet lots of folks, the structure is very top-down, “Tell me what’s on offer and I’ll show up.” BBConf was very much more a group of likeminded people teaching each other.

    Which led to…

    3. Attendees made connections and kept in touch. They asked me to do it but I told them it was their job :) And they did do it, something like 20% of the attendees still being in touch on their own forum.

    4. Before we closed down the conf, Alex and I gave a very brief guided intro to the type of goal that actually gets done, and we gave attendees time (and official BBConf notebooks) to write down 10 goals to apply what they’d learned after the conf is over.

    Also, we had zero wifi and no place to hide if you weren’t paying attention. I’m pretty sure that one of the major causes of inaction is people aren’t actually paying attention in the first place, leaving them with a vague feeling that they ought to be doing something but who the hell knows what!

    1. Scott

      Hi Amy! Thanks for stopping by.

      It’s an old but true saying that the best thing to do as an attendee is to present, as it puts you in the middle of things, and lightening talks are a great way to lower the barrier to entry, without confusing anyone’s expectations.

      Another good one is 99 second presentations which is even more community oriented.

      I agree that many of the things you did naturally afford what I’m after – and are good general recommendations for events that want a stronger connection between attendees.

      Zero wifi is fascinating. I love forcing tradeoffs and this is a huge one for tech events. Most are far too afraid to try it right now. But as you suggest, half the problem of events feeing disconnected is from the beginning attendees are only half-present.

      But shy of changing the format itself, which for many events would be an improvement, I’m after things any event can choose to do on the tail end. Perhaps there aren’t many, but that’s the task I have at hand.

      1. Amy Hoy

        Try our #4 then! Teach folks how to set “crispy” goals and have them set their to-do’s for the next week before they leave the conf. Easy peasy. I think it really helped folks. That, and the only conf schwag we offered were high quality spiral notebooks (unlined, heavy paper) and stickers.

      2. Amy Hoy

        That said, if conf organizers who are reading this want to go no-wifi but are afraid… DO IT. It’s great. Set the expectation up front, of course. Everybody has smartphones and data plans at this point and you can have emergency wifi in case somebody’s server goes down. But most importantly, people will thrive on feeling engaged. (And if they just want to sit in the talk and “work”? That’s a drain on everybody.)

        I also told every speaker they had to have an actionable talk, e.g. I learned this, and that, and you can go home and try it.

        1. Lois

          At the BIL conference last weekend, only the speakers got wifi (because of building limitations).

          1. Scott

            What effects did this have, positive/negative?

  5. Amy Hoy

    Sorry so hyper, 3rd reply, but 99 Second Presentations sounds AWESOME. How would you describe the experience/outcome? (Not included in that post.)

    1. Scott

      Hyper is fun! I did it at least twice and the result was great both times. The trick is having 4 or 5 of the right people to volunteer. If they have fun with it and are provocotive, it’s amazing who is willing to get out of the audience and get up there. The lack of slides helps this.

      I think the first time I did it I had a plant in the audience who came up after we started to help break the ice.

      Just like Lightening talks, the overhead and risk is low. If you do it during a quieter time in the event, or even at night at a more social thing, there possible wins far outweigh any risk. Worst case, it ends! It’s always great when a session no one is enjoying ends early, which is guaranteed here.

      1. Amy Hoy

        Love this idea. Thanks for the tips. I think we’re definitely going to try it this May at the next BaconBizConf!

  6. Scott

    On Twitter Cyd suggested:

    “we do a bunch of this with the @codeforamerica Summit -3rd day is unconference so we send out session summaries & thanks to start.”

    Which I take to mean having the last sessions be communal and community driven, given everyone a chance to act or build on what they heard earlier in the event. It’s an interesting idea.

  7. John Collins

    My immediate thought was “Yeah, the conferences I’ve been to provide videos of the sessions.” That is valuable for showing a good session to colleagues to help make a point or get them excited about something. I’ve NEVER (to this point) gone back and watched sessions that I didn’t attend (one of the selling points for the videos), so the value of the recordings could be questioned.

    As for community (and maybe no-wifi), my last conference was my first as a Twitter users (I’m slow sometimes). The Twitter conversation during the conference was fun and helpful, almost a conference within a conference. It also really helped me with my networking.

    A month later, I’m still in contact with many of those Twitter contacts and LinkedIn contacts too. I’m tempted to credit those tools with the ongoing contact, but I should also mention that this conference was a little smaller and more intimate … to the point that presenters were calling audience members by name during Q&A sessions, so that may have to do with the continued post-conference contact.

    I think a post-conference forum is an interesting idea. Maybe that’s something that Lanyrd could add.

    Oh, and the swag. I use the notebooks and pens and wear the t-shirts after a conference.

  8. Michael Bender

    First, let me say that I really enjoyed your book, Confessions of a Public Speaker. It was given to me by Rick Claus at Microsoft, and has been helpful in my professional speaking world.

    On the topic above, myself along with others have grown what you speak of. I’m president of The Krewe Users Group (or The Krewe of TechEd or just The Krewe) that was built around fostering community from relationships started at Microsoft TechEd (and hopefully other conferences in the future). While many of us gather at TechEd every year, we maintain strong ties throughout the year on facebook and twitter. In fact, many of our members have worked along with the conference time to improve the overall conference experience over the years. It’s a great group of some of the smartest people on the planet IMHO:)

    If you’d be interested in learning more about our group, feel free to check out our website at or email me at mike AT iamkrewe DOT org.


  9. Sean Crawford

    My, such a productive thought-experiment post.

    My own speculations are more negative. I think post-conference interactions would require having things in common, or interpersonal connections, (or both) rather than being propped onto a foundation of “excitement.”

    The metaphor that comes to mind is how “they say” that professor-student affairs are embedded in the excitement of learning, saying the affairs don’t last much longer than school.

    “Things in common” would mean structuring the post meetings of near strangers around a guest speaker/interactive workshop. “Connections” would be harder.

    As a campus toastmaster chairman I found myself a couple of times (by coincidence) with a meeting of mostly newcomers. I modified the usual agenda to have people break into pairs (no time for fours as well) to meet and then introduce each other. Results? Nil. There were not enough “connections” made for people to return next week. (But there would be lots of regulars next week)

  10. Decorating Ideas

    Thanks for finally writing about >Improving the Userr Experience of (User
    Experience) Conferences | Scott Berkun <Liked it!



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