5 Questions

Interaction13 Redux with Suzanne EL-Moursi and Alok Nandi

February 28, 2013          

Episode Summary

The IxDA's sixth annual conference, Interaction13, held in Toronto, Canada, was organized around the theme "Social Innovation with Impact", celebrating 10 years of the Interaction Design Association. In this episode of The Digital Life, we conduct a roundtable discussion with the Chair of Interaction13 and the Chair of the upcoming Interaction14. We explore the purposes and outcomes of that conference, and its bold mandate to inspire designers to make an impact, on the social fabric of their communities, organizations, and the whole of society.

Dirk:
Hi, I’m Dirk and this is the Human Factor. The recently concluded IxDA Conference took me back ten years to when the IxDA, or the Interaction Design Mailing List, as it was at the time, was initially formed. Bruce Tognazzini, an old school software design professional who had been an early Appler and been around for a long time, sort of made a call to action to the community that congealed some of the ideas and ambitions of some people that already existed and brought them together to create what was then the Interaction Design Mailing List. And that list was really the center of conversation for a lot of the more interesting practitioner focus conversations for some number of years before the IxDA was officially formed following a summit in 2005 of maybe 15 or so of the real leaders of that group, and it has just grown steadily and consistently from there. I think this is the fifth or sixth conference that they had this year. Whatever it is, it’s wonderful. I’ve only been to one. That was in 2012 when I was invited to speak and it’s a terrific conference. It’s become the place where the center of conversations within that community happen. I remember when the IA Summit was that and now what’s happened over time is, whereas the IA Summit initially in 2000 was the place where the more interesting and progressive conversations happened among a certain type of web and software professional, that’s now evolved into being more of a stable community of peers who are, I want to say a little bit more specialized, but are more people who fashion themselves as information architects. And, at some point as the IxDA was gaining steam, probably toward the end of the 2000s, a lot of their more progressive conversations moved over there and, at least where practitioners are concerned when it comes to the more front end the more strategic the less craftsman oriented software tasks, the IXDA remains where practitioner, the more interesting practitioner conversations are happening. It’s remarkable to think how far it’s come in ten years and how one blog post rattling the sword from a member of the old guard created all of this momentum to make something that’s really important.

When I was at the IxDA Conference last year and at the IA Summit the year before, what struck me was that I’m not a member of either of those tribes. I think at the IA Summit in particular, the degree of people, the degree of people coming together who had been to these conferences over the years, knew each other for a long time, and having that be a touchpoint moment for them on the professional side; but also really crossing over to being more personal was lovely to see and it made me think about the fact that I don’t really have a tribe, that I’ve sort of skittered between different communities as my interests and curiosity have vacillated and never really grounded myself. You could, you know, I could plant my DNA is any of those places, but I’ve chosen not to put them anywhere. Seeing these groups, people who are putting on one hat or another; I am an information architect, or I am an interaction designer, or I’m not going to label myself but I’m part of this group, that’s, it’s an important part of professional community, and our careers, and frankly our identity. It’s always good to see people enjoying that and appreciating it as I know at IxDA, Erik, who I’m guessing had a segment on this show before this, Erik Dahl, hearing him talk about the people there in that community and seeing how comfortable that is for him, and if this isn’t resonating for you either because you’re too young and you’re just getting started or you haven’t really found your place, it’s really a wonderful thing to have that place, to have that niche where there are people who share your DNA who you have shared history and experience with and see things a similar way and make that investment.

So, when I think of the IxDA Conference in particular, I think of those types of relationships and I think with the IxDA community in particular, what’s really exciting about that is they’ve managed to maintain being the place where the great practitioner conversations are happening. So, for those of you who are focused on some aspect of user experience because I mean let’s be honest, at the end of the day that’s sort of the big church under which all of this is falling under and what the IxDA, the type of people IxDA are drawing in are user experience beyond just interaction design. It’s really the place to continue to be and talk about and learn about the most interesting things. I heard that this year’s conference wasn’t contentwise as strong as some in the past, but be that as it may, I’m not aware of any other communities that are rising up to take the conversation. So, hats off to IxDA on a great ten years of remarkable growth and success and to the people who got it started and the people who are continuing it going. Congratulations and keep up the good work and for those of you who haven’t been to an IxDA Conference, or haven’t gotten involved in the community, if you’re involved in user experience, I would strongly recommend you do so because it’s a good place to be. Thanks and I’ll see you next time.

Erik:
Hi everybody and welcome to this episode of Five Questions. Today, I’m honored to have the 2013 chair of the Interaction conference, as well as the 2014 chair of the Interaction conference with us today, along with Juhan Sonin from Involution Studios. Welcome everybody.

Suzanne:
Hey there.

Erik:
Suzanne El-Morsi was the chair of the Interaction13 conference that was just held in Toronto. Why don’t you introduce yourself?

Suzanne:
Hello, I’m Suzanne and I chaired the conference for the past almost 2 years and I am an interaction designer by training with 15 years in industry and client-side but most recently I joined the startup realm are about a year ago and currently chief marketing officer for a startup in the energy space in Chicago.

Erik:
Great, welcome.

Suzanne:
Thanks.

Erik:
Alok Nandi is the chair for Interaction14, which will be held in Amsterdam on February 5-8, 2014. Alok, welcome. Can you introduce yourself to our listeners?

Alok:
Hi, my name is Alok Nandi and I am based in Brussels and Paris and I have been in the interaction design field for about 20 years, running from exhibition design using technologies to publishing, so I have covered a number of fields. I will be chairing Interaction14 in Amsterdam and we are in the preparation phase of this conference.

Erik:
Great, and welcome today to our podcast. I want to get started and talk a little bit about general thoughts and reactions now that the conference is about a week, a week and a half in our rearview mirror. Juhan and I were both attendees and speakers of the conference this year and I know both of you were obviously there is well. Suzanne, why don’t you start off with just of with just a few reflections and thoughts about the conference and how it went.

Suzanne:
Sure, it was kind of an interesting question because of course you carry for 19 or 20 months this thing in your head and along the way, you do the best that we could to put on and bring the vision as seen but it’s a totally different experience when you’re there and you actually see it unfold. I think overall the intentions of what we were trying to do were achieved, which is to bring a different kind of dialogue into the conference also with a tenuous celebration around who are we as far as this new breed of architects of the world are as interaction designers. What are the new opportunities that are ahead of us and move the conference a bit to include the conversation of the future as well as continue to have our traditional roots, which is bringing the craft and the methods and the case studies of doing interaction designs, you know the boxes and arrows part. I think as I look at it and we stated at this as our mission early on when I was first interviewed by the board to assume this role and I still very much believe that the field should be moving towards having this conversation. I think from a content perspective we had a good mix of a new variety of content and new ideas but also, like I said, bringing in some of the best in class case studies that people can share that are practical and empower people to take something away and apply it the following week.

Also, I would say that from an experience perspective, we try to do our best and I hope we at least improved on it a little bit more just to drive a bit more of the connections that would happen outside of the content, outside of the sessions and really drive people to meet others that are outside of their proximity. I think overall there probably was a good balance between inspiration and reconnection but tactically I would say also the conference logistics and the reason why people go to expand their network was difficult for us this year because it was a hard year to fund raise and bring in a lot of sponsors that couldn’t make it so that we could give out, in addition to the content, opportunities for people to meet other brands through sponsorship. That was tough for us. I would have loved to see a fuller exhibit hall with companies and studios and agencies, but as I mentioned it was a very tough year to attract firms to come, just given the economic situation.

Erik:
Sure, before we get Alok’s perspective, can you say a little bit more about what specifically that vision was they were trying to achieve, sort of this idea of including this different dialogue? I’m wondering if you could speak a little more specifically around that.

Suzanne:
The vision, I decided to choose a theme this year. It was something that made the board uncomfortable little bit, definitely some of the known names or the founders of the organization felt the theme may be limiting but I feel both as Suzanne as a practitioner and Suzanne as part of the IxD community, I really believe in the idea of themes. Simply stated, the conference will continue this as being the sixth one. We will always attract good case studies and good examples that people can share but I also feel that is a trap for us, because the conference can only deliver that if you keep it wide open and all encompassing, if you will.

The reason the theme was “Social Innovation with Impact” is we tried to use that as, if you will, the narrative that helps us to attract a different kind story, which is stories of inspiration and social entrepreneurship or stories where interaction designers are stepping above and beyond just the practitioner role and doing new endeavors, or stories where interaction designers are actually stumbling upon a new field that they didn’t necessarily “go to school for” or had experience in.

Those three buckets under social innovation with impact came to be designers as the new kind of entrepreneur, number one. Design in the open brand, so interaction designers that are now finding themselves recruited by traditional marketing or advertising agencies and are becoming really valuable in helping build the open brands because companies are increasingly more digital. Thirdly, beyond the idea of big data is the utility of data. The reason Jer Thorp inspired all of us is he was really trying to deliver the point, which is get over this idea that we have a lot of data, so what. Now interaction designers, if we look at what we’re measuring and what we’re doing this data it actually elevates our designs and our innovations a lot further because it is getting to the utility of it.

The vision of Interaction13 is to introduce new areas for interaction design to essentially own, plan, and shape because we are the architects of the New World, as I said in my kickoff. The theme allowed us to do that because it’s very important. I have never done this before but I found the biggest learning is when you put out something for people to identify or react to, the quality of your submissions during the six week open-admission is actually really, really diverse and I think you elevate that a little bit. We got a bit over 330 submissions. You can predict and I think we did, that you would probably get for every conference a good percentage of that to be your traditional case studies because people always want to share what they are doing. This year we really saw a lot of stories where people wanted to share stories related to these themes, social innovation with impact. Things that aren’t necessarily part of what I’m doing for clients, the things above and beyond and we have found that actually the three areas that I just mentioned were the big draw.

It wasn’t a surprise to me, per se because I think if you follow the industry you are you going to find that interaction designers are finding their inroads in these three areas differently and by putting it out there for the interaction conference, I was happy to see that people actually had stuff to commit to because now the proposal that they are submitting felt relevant to this topic. That was basically the vision that I mentioned both in early 2011 when I was interviewed before the board, by the board for this position and then as we planned for 19 months.

Erik:
Good, Alok did you have any reflections or thoughts about the conference in Toronto?

Alok:
I wanted to congratulate Suzanne for taking I would say a risky thing, if I may say so, compared to the average practice of interaction design. I have been into social innovation for the last 5-6 years, and I consider that as a narrow field, because we still have to do lots. My reading was, you took quite a risky leap, putting that on the table, and it is good she has done that, because it allows us to have our community waking up to issues, which are not everyday business. This being said, it means that expectation needs to be worked differently, and that is where I see the challenge to do this kind of conference with a specific team. We know that we have the last five editions in 2013, a community which is gathering and happy to share conversations. If you come with a specific team then you push a little bit the conversation towards one direction and that is what Suzanne has been testing, which is great because you need to take some risk and put something on the table. I don’t know how Suzanne reacts to the fact that I consider the team being risky. I would be interested to have her reading on that.

Suzanne:
Sure, you are right it is a young theme. It is a hot theme. It is an inspiring theme, and it is a theme that is still being shaped, not only as our profession as interaction designers but other domains of design and even entrepreneurship in general. It took knowledge in general. That is what I see when you say riskier. This is what I translate it to be: that no one owns it but everybody is shaping it. My goal in using that specific theme this year is to essentially do exactly, if you walked away feeling is, be present at the table of interaction designers, be present. Regardless of who you are, interaction designer or a film director or a writer, the reality of it is we are citizens of the world that is changing very differently. What catches our eyes and what catches our attention are the stories that deliver that positive impact. If you drop the word social innovation and in fact in the very early days, the theme was social innovation period, social impact. If you drop the word social innovation and you use only impact, this is what we want to gear toward is are the themes that we are working on, that we are thinking about, that we are solving for, having a positive impact on the people, whether they are citizens of the developed or the developing world. This isn’t about that. It’s about people in general and the citizens of the world.

I personally believe that we, as interaction designers hope to believe when we speak about our value to the world, we are a different kind of hybrid type of design that looks at people and people-centered problems and solve them with the way that we look at the world and bring interaction outside of just digital and space and so forth. If the world around us is changing because there are innovations that affect us in different ways, I felt that it was the time for us to begin a dialogue to say, “Where are we in that? Do we follow or do we lead it in some fashion?” My goal is to not necessarily say we lead 100% or we are followers 100%, but more of opening our eyes to, “You answer that differently.” It could be different for Erik than myself than Alok because it depends where you’re coming from as far as your experience and your interests. The point is social innovation with impact allowed us, if 10% of the contents this year had stories like Design for America or Sara Cantor Aye’s Designing Everything But the Food. If we had 10% of every program focusing on bringing a different lens to our craft that essentially you can say it’s for the most advanced of us of the population. I think that is a natural organic good that is healthy to support the growth of interaction design in general and its value in the marketplace and in the world from a societal perspective. I absolutely, I’m not going to sit and say “No it wasn’t risky, it was the best time.” There was no time for it because of the juvenile nature of the trend but it’s a very relative trend that we have to be aware of. To me, it was a case of awareness and driving it and shaking things up. I never expected, as I said in my closing, I never expected that it’s perfect for all but the intention was to be inspiration and fabulous for the majority.

Juhan:
This is Juhan speaking. You mentioned the talk on redesigning the cafeteria and food experience for K-6, which I thought was actually one of the better talks, the top three talks at the conference. So rock on. What she began to talk about was — there is some impact there, but also that you have measurement against that. One thing we really need to drive in the future conferences and talks is great, so we talked about the impact on spaceship Earth and coming up with some designs but how do you measure that impact? That was something that I was drooling for. Give me a few of these dials and stats on how that service had an effect on the people that were using it versus anecdotal stuff. I think that was a chasm that we need to bridge as designers is get into the stats, get into what are the metrics? What are all what are the absolute numbers as well, not just sort of qualitative things that are born from it but what are the quantitative results that we’re getting from design?

That is something that is the science part, which I think is still a problem in our community where many people don’t want to touch the engineering side. They are like, “Oh, it’s the third rail for designers” and I think that’s a critical thing. If you don’t know how something is built, you sure as hell should not be designing it and if you don’t understand the consequences of your design, that’s also a problem. I hope that in future conferences, we ratchet up the numerical analysis, the impact in terms of quantified impact so that we really can have some numbers and some of that evidence-based design in our back pocket.

Suzanne:
Yes, absolutely.

Alok:
May I add something, Juhan?

Juhan:
Go ahead.

Alok:
When you are talking about numerical, quantitative, I would go one step further. We need to move beyond and we need to make sure that even on a conceptual level, all the speakers come with grounded and argumented stories, which goes beyond and it anecdotal and this is next to what we have seen in other areas of design and specifically research design where we see that we need to go in a letter of maturity of our discourse, which needs to be worked out within our community and also with other communities. That’s the reason why I think our focus in Amsterdam will be on the how and by how, I mean the languages of interaction design. It is to make sure within our community we seek with rigor. We developed a vocabulary which goes beyond small, nice stories and we are and we are able to share stories which will be understood by engineers and by scientists and we need to develop ourselves in terms of understandings what they are coming with. For me, interaction design is at the intersection of different languages and we need to develop our literacy to be able to be strong at the intersection.

Juhan:
I like it. Does that mean that you’re going to look for speakers that are also outside of the discipline, who are not designers, who are engineers, who are business people who are outside of the typical design community to come in and sort of slap us around a little bit?

Alok:
Absolutely because my focus, if I may still is let’s avoid silos. I have been fighting for 20 years not to be in one frame, so I want to give that impulse to the conference also. Let’s make sure that we have people coming from other disciplines and share their strong vision, which are there to inspire us and if we can steal some ideas from their areas of practice in two hours, we will make our area more sophisticated in terms of language, in terms of practice. If we succeed in doing that then we’re getting into more impactful ideas and implementations and that fits into what Sue was mentioning. If we want to be impactful, we need to make sure that our impact is readable by different people in different points of view and that is quite a challenging job.

Suzanne:
I think this is the point. I’m glad that we as people around the table here are recognizing that. I intended in 2013 to put out the most riskiest, if that’s what we want to label it, of themes so that we can work back and figure out why was it so uncomfortable for us to talk about it? The reality of it is because our language, if we’re looking at 2014 to be that, is not I don’t want to say is not coherent or up to par because we are still very intelligent people and we bring value in different ways but it is missing dimensions, angles and colors are that make us better at the intersection as Alok said. I personally went and worked two years ago on my MBA at University of Chicago, the most quantitative of places on earth where economics and finance started and it was very tough for me, very tough.

Thankfully, I graduated with a pretty good GPA but I will tell you for me to put the quantitative part one what I bring to the table because I want to jump in the entrepreneurial world, forced me to really think I wish every designer can get comparable when you remove the hat of design and think about entrepreneurs and venture capital and private equity and business people and technology people and engineers. The funny thing is that our approach is very similar and has elements of every single one of these people. It’s just that, of course, we package it differently and we call it design thinking and design research and we stay qualitative but the quantitative aspect of did we really provide value and how do we measure it becomes a very important conversation that you need to have if you are moving in the world of business up and up and up on the ladder.

I think you saw at the end of the last day around the UX debate and also in the Redux. Our community of 800 that attended in Toronto naturally brought this question where they were asking the folks on the panels on stage around the role of interaction designers in the business world, the need for us to open up our eyes and broaden our skill set and broaden our language so that we can speak the business language, speak the business acumen and improved story in that way.

The point is I’m glad that 2013, I did not want it to be status quo. I did not want the sixth conference to be like the other fantastic five. If we are really going to own the shaping of this organization to benefit us in the long run, it requires at some point some interjection, which I hope 2013 was, to essentially bring the foreign into our world and realize how to react to that. The foreign here is our crafts, our language. If it is really the hottest thing right now is quantitative and data, then let’s embrace it. How can we start equipping the folks that belong in this organization in our future conferences to learn something more and something different.

Erik:
What’s interesting is … I like this talk around exploring and opening up as interaction designers and I think within the interaction design community, I think more so than other design communities there is a lot of talk about designing from a place of humility. I think that there is a disconnect though because when we start to talk about understanding these other disciplines and understanding data or understanding business, I think a lot of designers for various reasons expect to walk in and have a seat at the table and not design from a place of humility when it comes to that. What that means to me is that we as designers need to be humble and say, “I don’t expect you to come to me. I’m going to understand what your language is. How do you talk? How do you see the world? What is your world-view? Let me understand your perspective so that I can come in and talk business. I can come in and talk engineering. I can come in and talk technology and all of these other disciplines outside of what has traditionally been the purview of interaction design.”

Suzanne:
That is a very true statement. Does that mean or weak arrogant in our ways? That’s a very personal thing and of course, you can imagine if we claim that not everybody designs with humility, I think what we’re saying is ask yourself, as I was closing the conference, what kind of impact do you have? How can you increase that? If it requires you to have more humility in the way you approach a problem, if it requires that you get out of your comfort zone and understand the other languages around you, do it. In the end, it makes you a better value adding force, if you will, at the table. I think at the end, everybody would want that for themselves and for their careers.

Alok:
What I would like to add is ingenuity.

Erik:
Ingenuity.

Alok:
The complement of humility. The challenge is how do we get the trust of business people or technologies when we come up with ingenuity-based questions? That is where I see an interesting challenge.

Erik:
Yes, I think from my perspective I think it’s the same way we get trust from everyone, right? It’s the producing little when’s, demonstrate productivity, demonstrate knowledge of and demonstrate performance through small experiment and through those small experiment, demonstrate that we understand. We are meeting them halfway and this trust isn’t based on words alone but the trust then develops over action and us performing and doing and making and then they can see that yes, we are making an effort to meet them and speak their language. Obviously there are lots of routes to trust but I think that’s the most straightforward when we start crossing these disciplines.

Alok:
Just for the sake of anecdote, I was in a research project with 18 engineers. I was the only one representing design. For the 17 engineers we had eight months of meetings to be able to have the same language within all these engineering disciplines, like signal transmission, like intelligent agent, artificial intelligence, hardware and so forth. I would say the issue of language is not only here, we need hardcore technical quantitative people. Many of them are so specialized that they don’t understand each other. I am not worried about discrepancies. What we need is to work quickly on prototype and make stuff so it connects to what you are mentioning, Erik is let’s make stuff and then people will understand where we tend or we try to go. The position we have as interaction design to my view is that we are obsessed by making or trying to make stuff happen and that brings momentum or should bring momentum and if things do not happen as a prototype, then as a designer we are missing the boat. That is a question not only of craft; it’s also a question of attitude and the combination of craft and attitude can make trust. That is a way of looking at systems.

Erik:
I like that idea of a combination of craft and attitude and I think you’re right. I think by prototyping it, by making and by producing, not only do we create a common shared language but also we create these boundary objects for critique, right? People can tell us when we aren’t right and we can have these conversations around things that aren’t correct and we can, of course correct.

Alok:
The challenge, if I may is I was in my very previous life in a big corporation, Proctor and Gamble. That was my first professional experience and in management and especially U.S. management system, here is this big corporation business or coming with prototype, coming with a good attitude is something painful because they want 20 times a written memo explaining your recommendation and your implementation and you reason why. We, as designers need to see how to bend this 50-year business attitude where they’re hiding themselves behind quantitative and memos and that is where I want to be provocative. I say, “Okay, you come with data, I’m ready to crunch data but let’s make stuff happen.” Do you see what I mean?

Erik:
I think it’s interesting. I want to change gears a little bit and bring it back to the idea of the conference and we talk about interaction designers as makers by nature but then we come to a conference and yes, we have workshops on the first day but the majority of the conference is us sitting in a room listening to people talk or up at a lecturer with slides and am wondering is that really the best way to communicate and to inspire and to engage the community? I’m not saying we need to turn the conference upside down completely but I’m wondering if there are other opportunities for innovation within the conference format as well.

Suzanne:
Just briefly, obviously I think obviously that’s the next level of innovation. If we open the gates, if you will to have conversations around some of these ideas we just mentioned, the next level would be in the format as well and thinking about how can you create new formats where people see themselves able to contribute with their story still. Actually, we have introduced two different new formats this year, one of which is the Idea Markets as a way to break exactly what you mentioned, Erik, the sit in a room and just be spoken at for a while and it’s interesting because we thought, not only did we bring in a new theme but we also brought in a new session type and Idea Market takes from its roots and its nature a very entrepreneurial making and show-and-tell type of session so that we can attract a lot of the different designers who are working on things and have made prototypes of things and they want to share it out with the world in a very interactive way versus just doing the slides.

Again, I think as all new things, it needs nurturing because the reality of it is we as leaders right here can envision and write out and detail out the conference of the future and it could be fantastic but also the people that you asked to apply, they are the real ones that have to understand that they can fit in that and be able to contribute and hence, submit. There is a fine balance between how much you can changes in any given time and it’s effect on submission quality and submission numbers. The reality of it is because there is almost a new chair every single time and I think this is one of the things that we have to start, as an organization stabilizing. I think this year with bringing in Brenda and starting to stabilize a back office, you can change the chairs every year but there has to be some documentation of how things work over time so that in five years time, we are really changing the conference because from one year to the next even logistically to plan on session types and formats takes a lot just for us to bring Idea Markets as a brand-new session type and planning for it and the physical space. We had to support a lot of questions that were coming in from the community on what exactly is this. How does it flow out? What were the materials and props they had to produce it so that they can support this session type?

It was an experiment of sorts. We did two sessions. We hope we can do more and slowly, not necessarily walk away from instructor-led type of session but I think we can find a good balance between two to five years from now where you can be 50-50, maybe the first two days of the conference is completely hands on and more collaborative and then maybe a day of readouts of some sort or. It requires, as I mentioned a continuum in the leadership to some level so that we can capture how the experiment is going.

Juhan:
Actually, that’s a pretty interesting little tidbit there is what you see as, when you say continue out of the leadership, is that like if I was a public official, am I elected into my position for four years? You see other conferences, whether it’s the Ted Meds, the Projects of the World. There’s a reason why they are so good is because they have been doing it for 10 years. They have a congealed singular voice for N years. I actually think that’s a fabulous idea because then you have time. One, you understand the logistics of putting on a conference, which I feel sorry for both of you guys having to learn it from scratch and just reinvent it in some ways, right? If you had four-year tenure, let’s say as the conference chair, you can learn over time and then it would be a well-oiled machine. Is there any kind of thought that in bringing that kind of stability to the yearly conference?

Suzanne:
I hope so. That’s where the board comes in. I am not a member of the board. I will tell you that I was the first chair that is not a board member so really I and my team are the guinea pigs. I think now Alok will have, all along when we were doing things I kept in mind IxD14 and I would mention let’s do it this way so that it’s ready for ’14. The platform is ready for ‘14. It was a continuous theme. When I came in 2011, there was no back office. Brenda, our Executive Director didn’t come in until May of 2012 and yes, we had support of the board who were previous chairs but there was not a full-time permanent structure institution that you could always lean on. We are humans. We have a history of the memory, the conference memories week and it’s because it’s a young organization. The memory lies among multiple people. I have been involved in the UPA conference and the UPA organization, which has become UXPA and in that organization, you actually have to do at least two years.

The two-year requirement, the reason for that is that you stay on for one year to essentially also mentor the new chairs that come in. I do think a downfall in general of conference platforms is like having a president for 12 months only. How effective can you be to try and change things?

Alok:
Just to complement what you’re telling similarly, we have seen for this last 10 years and specifically the sixth conferences, an organization where lots of activities happened. And now we are at a delicate moment where we see that we have initiatives like the conference, the hours, the student competition and we need to make sure all that all of these are coordinated. It’s a part of infrastructure. It’s a part of front end, like talking to sponsors and companies and partners. They need to understand what is this IxDA body. The conference to come back to Erik’s question, what is the role of the conference within our community is one of the questions I’m looking into carefully.

For me, it’s a moment in a year where we have 800 people out of the community of about 70,000 who are gathering and they are there for knowledge exchange, they are there for social connections, they are there for some definition of who they are and how they can practice and how they can position within the business world or within the social innovation world and so forth. In French, I used a metaphor, which in English it would be a song box. At a certain moment we want to make sure that the right song is happening during these three days so that it propagates the rest of the year. That is for me the metaphor of four days of conference on what it should be, a kind of inspiration place.

Suzanne:
The other thing I look to is that you are also in a time where a lot of different types, you can call them the un-conference are happening around us, at least in the United States and I’m sure the same for Europe. There are two questions. There is what’s the role of the conference in any organization, as the time once a year as you mentioned where people reconnect and rekindle and other than the role is the nature of the conference which I think is the second question. Both of these are very important questions but they are very different. The role and how works out are very different things because if you do one, the first question well, which is its role to be the connective tissue again for people when people arrive 800 out of 70,000, as you mentioned, then they are there and they were really experiencing something. The trend of the un-conference is something that I think we have to understand because designers and people of all different types want to shape their experiences in different ways.

How are we innovating on the format and what people do when they arrive so that the first question, the role of the conference as being the connective tissue is really successful and one of the things the other session with the Redux, the Redux Live was important in my mind because I do want to capture or contribute to the memory of the organization. You saw that the Redux was, in my mind we have not ever done it before and we have never done it live but we also have this other arm of IxDA, which is local chapters and if 800 out of 70,000 comes, what happens to that other 69,000 that’s outside? Redux is a way for us to curate content if we keep it where we can both remind ourselves of what we have been exposed to so both the people that are there and also, not regulate how the others that are outside get to know but really give them quality content for them to understand what was the pulse? What were the big reactions and so forth.

The other type of Redux is to kind of say, “Okay, you may come to the conference and be able to stay the entire time or maybe not.” Maybe people get ill, a few folks unfortunately were ill and it couldn’t attend all the sessions that they wanted her or you have client meetings and you are pulled. The other value you have to think about is the conference beyond walls, so if you weren’t there or if you were there and you couldn’t experience it fully, how are we also supporting that? That is of value to say this is why I continue to be part of IxDA and this is why I spent $950 to attend. There is a timeless factor to evaluate it.

Juhan:
Suzanne I’m going to ask you and Alok both what the design was around having multi verses single track conference. We have seen it in the past couple of years where I’d say it’s sort of splitting the focus. My own vibe on this is that you and something you’ve been talking about is a shared purpose, a shared group experience, right? Where all these people have this increased value on impact because they are all sitting through it and when you split into 1000 flowers blooming, the trajectory, this fracturing has an effect on the quality of the presentation and the shared experience volume and also you have this vision that you have been talking about, this agenda that gets pushed a bit. What’s the field for having a shared versus a single track conference? I know it’s hard sometimes when you have a huge cattle call of 800 people.

Suzanne:
Right. I think it’s a very achievable vision to have a single versus multi-track experience. What we have to make sure we plan for and strategically think through its submissions and what I refer to as the juice in the pipeline. What I mean by that is we open call for submissions and we basically are waiting for people to apply right there. You are hoping that you have laid out a strategy and a vision for the program, which is the reason why people come. You hope that you have laid out well enough that people can understand it, identify with it and take the time to put together a proposal that they submit in what is going to be a general track or specific track. I think in the long run, we can get to that. What I find was difficult and that is something, again if we have to have continuum in the leadership, we understand why. You have to risk of certain tracks being dry or, if you will, have a low turnout of submissions and it would be more difficult for us to curate the same quality across all the tracks in richness and in variety of what is submitted.

There is a, I think a handle with care or in the sense that I thought about why don’t we reach out to some of the known brands, companies, or agencies that are working within healthcare and we curate and we build this experience on health care, for example to be a combination from coming from the community’s but also understanding what are some of the great case studies or work that happened in healthcare that has been published, if you will? If you take the same model and think about financial services, think about telecommunications, think about all of the different industry verticals that are out there and we open it for six weeks the call for submissions and at some point you will get an understanding of what you getting? We got over 330 submissions that were all labeled “This is a healthcare talk. This is these financial services talk. This is an automotive talk”, whatever it was. You have to start to funnel them into and be able to say, “Is this good enough to build a full day? Is this good enough to build a two-day? What are we receiving?” Regardless of whether you’re going to take the direction of making it multiple tracks, one track, two days, one day, one week all of this doesn’t matter because you accept people and we wait and we hope that the people you have accepted deliver the value that you envision.

That was a big theme when I was there and closing out the conference. Were we happy with the quality of the sessions? We cannot micro-manage and guarantee to the level of the presenter. We asked for videos to be submitted with every presentation so that we can validate that whether this person is submitting is actually valuable and fits into our program. I think the next layer of it is that is all of it good enough for this specific track that you’re building? I think that is another new thing we can explore that will require a little bit more of understanding. In case it doesn’t, if you don’t get a not richness and depth, if we don’t get enough variety in a specific pillar, what is our strategy to still be able to deliver? Essentially people are going to come out and say this is a really strong healthcare track, for example. I want to be there to listen to all the speakers. How do we ensure that the quality moves from what’s on the submissions all the way to the actual event. I do think the first challenge of it is who is owning that for a couple of years to make sure that it’s nurtured? We get to that point maybe in 2016 or something.

Erik:
Great, I know having to run Midwest UX, which is a regional IxDA conference for the last two years, how difficult it is to actually get submissions in and figure out how to program that and how to create a rhythm and pacing and sort of plan for shared experience, whether you’re doing a multi-track or single track, either way. It’s a lot of work that goes into crafting…

Suzanne:
Sorry, but for me part of it too is to require in the recruitment of the planning committee because as you know, all of us did this based on volunteer. Instead of having one program director, we actually recruit a few and give them the task of seeing a lens, which is the healthcare or telecom or consumer package or whatever it is to give emphasis around depth versus breadth. These are the logistical things just coming off of two years of planning this. Internally, you would have to account for it and then externally we would have to set the vision and communicate it in a way so “build it and they will come” kind of motto where people actually take the time and submit quality submissions for your conference.

Juhan:
Or you go after people, you as a curator take the model where you are like “No, no, no, that behavior guy from Stanford is great. I know we need him and his conference or I know I need X person or Y” and you go after them like a rabid raccoon, right?

Suzanne:
Yes.

Juhan:
You build a conference both ways from submissions and from you recruiting from your network and other people’s networks of that you have to have this person speak because they have something to say.

Suzanne:
Yes, I think you are or you may have lost me when I was explaining that her but that’s exactly how I would approach it is to do both, the curate from the community and invited speakers, which is also the model a lot of conferences are taking so you can track the big names. To do a multi-track, I think it has to be 50-50 and not just based on submissions. If you base it only on submissions, everything that I just mentioned is essentially the reality and the concerns. If you take the approach of doing it curated both from internal and external by invite then you actually hopefully are mitigating that risk.

Erik:
Obviously, I think we could talk about this for hours and hours but I want to be respectful for our podcast listeners to not run this on too long. I know there are thousands of details we could get into in terms of conference planning and details about whether it was Toronto or just conferences in general. I want to try to wrap this up. If anyone has any sort of final thoughts or last thoughts that they want to get out before we end.

Alok:
Yes, I like the word which is based on what we heard here is one of the challenges in composing, like being in a restaurant. I’ll use a food metaphor. We know that we have to cater for different types of designers and we need to make sure that we have a variety of food for all of our different types of designers. That is where we have the challenge. That’s the way I am looking at my work for 2014. Let’s make sure that we have diversity as well as try to make the experience meaningful, being an expert, being a newcomer, being a non-interaction designer how to make sure that they get food out of this three or four days of interaction conference.

Juhan:
I think ultimately from my standpoint obviously, we listen to the community and understand but it’s just as when you’re organizing a conference, just as a designer designing a product, you understand who you are designing it for but ultimately we as designers have a voice and we need to make interpretations and we need to make decisions and I think that sometimes means taking a lot of risks and that might mean pissing people off. You can’t please everybody, right? I think going forward, have a voice as a designer, have a voice as a conference organizer and put yourself out there and make a statement and try to move the ball forward for the industry. I think that’s part of the value of these conferences is that it’s not just a reflection of what exists in reality but it’s also aspirational in saying, “This is where we need to be going and these are the people that are pushing things forwards and moving this discipline in the direction that we believe it should be going.”

Juhan:
Amen.

Suzanne:
I agree with that and you had said that Sarah Wallace and myself, Sarah Wallace was co-chair and I believe and I really said this from the beginning is that if we get a conference where everybody just claps and thinks it’s a wonderful, then we did something absolutely wrong because you can’t would work towards improvement if it’s absolutely appetizing to everybody in one way. I would probably say that we have a lot more friction from the very beginning until even the last day of the conference because it did introduce different things that other people liked or didn’t like it but you won’t know if they liked it or didn’t like it without trying. In the same token, so many people came up and they said this was different this year and I liked it. It just was new and I get it. It just may be that you have a smaller percentage of what you consume that you liked because there was also a new stuff that you had to react to. I think if we continue that then we are moving as an organization in the right direction.

Erik:
Great, thanks Suzanne, thank you Alok for joining me. Juhan, thanks for joining as well. You can find more information about Interaction14 in Amsterdam. I think the website is live right now and we will have the link and the show notes. Thank you again everybody for joining us today. I appreciate your time.

Alok:
Thanks, thank you to you all.

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