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The Naughty and Nice of UX Conferences

During my UX design career, I’ve had several opportunities to move between academia and industry.

Each world is fascinating in its own way. Whilst there is overlap with regard to the people involved—particularly when it comes to human computer interaction (HCI) and ethnography—at times the worlds seem very far apart.

The differences between the two become particularly obvious with regard to conferences. Earlier this year, Andy Budd wrote a blog post criticising academics for not making their research accessible to practitioners by presenting at industry conferences, publishing books or writing blog posts. My response was that academics are furthering their research in their own ways as well as juggling their teaching load. To Budd’s credit, he did attend SIGCHI (commonly known as CHI, and arguably the SXSW of HCI academic conferences) to experience a conference for himself.

In the comments on Andy’s post, Sebastian Deterding showed that many interaction researchers are, in fact, prolific in their sharing. He also pointed out that the question could be asked as to why industry wasn’t making an effort to be present at academic conferences. 

Today, I’ll share my thoughts on each of the conferences types. Perhaps you will be inspired to attend a conference on the other side of the fence—one that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of attending.

Santa giving a keynote presentation

Academic Conferences: Savoury and Nourishing

It’s become fashionable to bash big academic conferences such as CHI for being stale and out of touch. From my experience of academic conferences, I think the statement is unfair.  At their best, an academic conference can be as nourishing and tasty as a well-cooked Sunday dinner, particularly when businesses with research departments such as Philips and Microsoft Research are represented.

Academic conferences involve people putting in papers, which are peer-reviewed and the best accepted. Papers usually involve multiple authors but at least one is expected to go to the conference to present it. This process means that there’s the expectation of rigour and originality. It’s also required that a list of articles be provided for those attendees who don’t see all the talks.

Conference facilitators often organise the talks to bring out connections. For example, three speakers may present in succession and then the facilitator recaps common threads on the talks and asks the speakers to elaborate.

There is also a whole ecosystem of workshops and symposia. Workshops are fascinating in that a set of researchers will make the call for a workshop and effectively audition participants through having to submit papers. The group will then spend anywhere from half a day to two full days not only presenting their research, but also finding means of furthering the research and/or facilitating connections between the participants’ work through activities.

The downside of all this savoury is that it can be dry or tough. Occasionally presentations can be as academic as the stereotypes suggest, although the keynote speakers are usually top-notch. Whilst the cost of attending these events is usually not exorbitant, you are still required to pay full price, even if you are a presenter. Often, universities will pay for their staff and students to attend, as conferences are a means to validate their research.

Industry Conferences: Sweet and Easily Digestible

Industry conferences can be a veritable feast for the eyes and the ears. Presentations are carefully prepared to incorporate full-scale images and minimal text. They might not be at TED level but many of them are close.

Some regular presenters are renowned for paving the way for upcoming trends—for example Jeremy Keith for JavaScript, Luke Wroblewski for mobile—and you can find new ways of describing trends and concepts such as "tuning experiences" or "UX cupcakes."

Presentations can range from being entirely selected by the organisers to a community call for talks through short abstracts and/or videos. If you are accepted, you may get anywhere from a discounted ticket to free pass, hotel, and travel dispensation.

Perhaps due to UX being a recent and somewhat informal field, there’s a sense of community at these conferences. People who might be the only UXer in their company or freelancers get to be amongst like-minded people, and, let’s face it, the parties around the various events are usually amazing.

However, sometimes talks can leave you feeling as unsatisfied and guilty as if you had spent the day snacking on sweets. At least one UXer has decried the occasional "I’ve read the book and I’ve done a talk about it" presentation.

We mentioned UX cupcakes but sometimes we just need a little more meat.

A delicious looking Christmas pudding cupcake

Balancing Savoury and Sweet

While it’s often worth going to the different types of conferences for the respective types of information, some conferences spring to mind as managing to balance the two strands.

On the industry side, my two picks from those that I’ve attended* would be Euro IA and UX Australia. Both put an emphasis on case studies and solid research, meaning that you’re likely to find talks from local people you’ve never heard of but will quickly start googling in excitement once you’ve heard their talk. On the academic side, DesForM and Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) combine rigorous research methods with interesting studies and well designed products and processes in their own right, from gesture activated lighting to mobile health in third world countries.

Manage your Palate

I'm not saying all conferences have to be like this. In fact Lis Hubert has already noted in an earlier UXmas post that there’s a need for more targeted and niche types of user experience conference. However, I do suggest you find ways to balance your conference palate.

Whilst the big academic and industry conferences are often expensive and involve travel, there are smaller ones which are often not as expensive, for example UX meetups or academic symposia. I would be keen to hear stories from other folks who, like Andy, have tried the other side—whether they are practitioners braving academic conferences or academic researchers hitting the industry ones. Share your experiences in the comments!

*I’ve had ancillary roles at some of these conferences—either as a reporter or student volunteer—but no leading roles in any of them. I’ve also heard great things about conferences such as DPPI, Frontiers of Interaction, and, despite the naysayers, CHI, but have yet to attend any of them.

Illustrations by Matthew Magain

Vicky Teinaki

Vicky Teinaki

Vicky Teinaki is a Kiwi designer and researcher based in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. By day she is a UX designer at the digital agency Orange Bus. In the early morning and weekends she is a PhD student at Northumbria University investigating design methods. By evening, she is a regular documenter and occasional presenter at various design and development events—usually with a power plug and aging black Macbook.

She is a former editor of the online interaction design magazine Johnny Holland and holds a degree in product design and a masters in design, both from Unitec New Zealand.

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