Conference Review: 2011 UPA International Conference

December 19, 2011

The 2011 UPA (Usability Professionals’ Association) International Conference took place from June 21 through June 24, 2011. The conference lived up to its theme, Designing for Social Change, and heralded the 20th anniversary of the UPA Conference. Approximately 600 experienced and novice usability, user experience, and user interface design professionals gathered at the Hyatt Regency, in Atlanta, Georgia. This was my first UPA Conference, and I was fortunate to be an on-site volunteer. My expectations for this conference mirrored my experience of the many other conferences I’ve attended in the past, but this conference wildly exceeded my expectations. There were ample networking opportunities, education in usability, interaction with experienced professionals, and a glimpse of the disciplines’ future.

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With over 300 international volunteers managing submissions of proposals for workshops and sessions, evaluating student projects, selecting the conference venue, and planning the flow of the event, it was obvious why the quality of this conference was so high.

Once the volunteers reviewed the workshop and session proposals, a conference committee selected the final presentations for this UPA Conference. The dedicated cadre of volunteers included the UPA board and officers. All of the volunteers had an interest in creating a high-quality conference experience for all levels of usability professionals. I and the 29 other on-site volunteers had a great time and made amazing connections. I recommend the volunteer experience for students, second-career newbies, and the underemployed.

In Figure 1, I have segmented the conference events into categories to illustrate the balance of the conference schedule.

Figure 1—UPA 2011 conference schedule
UPA 2011 conference schedule

Content and Presenters

There were three tracks of pre-conference tutorials and conference sessions: General, Usability Fundamentals—for those new to the field of usability—and Advanced Practitioners. Thus, level of usability expertise generally determined the division of the conference material into tracks. I have further divided the tracks by facets of the usability discipline. The entire schedule of sessions for the conference is available on the UPA site.

Pre-Conference Tutorials

There were nine full-day and ten half-day tutorials, each having between four and eighty attendees. The tuition for the tutorials could be pricey—full-day tutorials ranged from $250 to $990; half-day tutorials, $125 to $490. Each attendee’s registration date, conference registration, and UPA membership determined the tuition. However, the tutorials’ price did not seem to keep away many registrants. People’s comments to me and the evaluations I saw indicated that attendees were very satisfied with the value of the tutorials. In addition to their slide decks, tutorials included spiral-bound exercises and notes.

On Tuesday, June 21, evening tutorials commenced at 6 pm. These three-hour sessions were priced at $300 and included both encores of some favorite tutorials and new presentations. The presenters were experienced and respected usability professionals.

General Track

Some tutorials on the General track included the following:

  • Agile UX Toolkit”—See review below.
  • Practical Statistics for User Research”—See review below.
  • Designing with the Mind in Mind”—In this half-day tutorial, Jeff Johnson covered material from his well-received primer on cognitive science, of the same name.
  • Mindstorming: Collaborating to Inspire and Effect Social Change”—Dante Murphy’s entire presentation is available on SlideShare.
Agile UX Toolkit

This full-day tutorial about how to integrate user-centered design practices into agile teams, by Desiree Sy and John Schrag, of Autodesk, had the heaviest participant registration. The slides and supporting material are available on the Autodesk blog.

The presenters spent the entire morning on agile UX planning topics and exercises, including the participation of User Experience during iteration zero and iteration planning activities. In the afternoon, they covered differences in how UX professionals work on agile development projects, such as making UX activities more incremental and continuous. Topics included incremental implementation and incremental design. The day ended with a discussion of agile communication modes and best practices for communicating UX issues.

The instructors asked participants to lay out, then adjust a planning board or to consider how to break up a user story that is too big to complete in one iteration. Participants had to consider how to do things incrementally, continuously, iteratively, and collaboratively in the agile process.

The feedback from participants on this session was overwhelmingly positive, though a few commented that the amount of content was overwhelming. Positive comments included the following: “Great presenters, with a lot of knowledge about the topic.” “Valuable content and relevant.” “Very thorough, very professional. Funny, too.” “Good anecdotal support.”

Practical Statistics for User Research

The instructors, Jeff Sauro and James Lewis, have impressive experience in statistical analysis and human factors. As a volunteer, I chose this tutorial assignment. Applying statistical analysis techniques to usability can be challenging, so this full-day tutorial provided an opportunity to understand the variables.

The tutorial participants needed notebook computers and Internet access to work on sample exercises. The instructors designed the exercises to cover a range of measurement scenarios. They gave participants a measurement scenario and data, then asked them to identify the appropriate statistical measurement technique, using a branching structure of variables to pinpoint the correct technique. For example, in the case of a big redesign, an iterative testing process, involving a small number of users, could identify the major usability problems with a high confidence level. The same group of users could meaningfully evaluate two prototype interfaces to determine the preferred design. Participants also learned to determine whether a usability test has met or exceeded a goal.

Usability Fundamentals Track

Some excellent tutorials on the Usability Fundamentals track included the following:

  • An In-Depth Introduction to Fieldwork”—Susan Dray, an international luminary in usability and human factors conducted this sold-out, full-day tutorial. Her viewpoint, “If the user can’t use it, it doesn’t work,” is a pillar of usability. The goal of this interactive tutorial was to improve the integration of observational field research into UX design. Group exercises demonstrated four types of field research techniques: naturalistic observation, contextual inquiry, artifact walkthrough, and naturalistic usability evaluation.
  • A Step-by-Step Guide to Online (Unmoderated) Usability Testing”—Bill Albert, Donna Tedesco, and Tom Tullis presented this full-day tutorial on how to plan, design, conduct, and analyze online usability tests. It must have been great. Tom Tullis received a UPA lifetime achievement award for over thirty years of leadership in the field of usability. Tom and the other instructors for this tutorial have written extensively about usability measurement, and I highly recommend their publications.
  • Better Usability Through Visualization”—I attended this three-hour workshop, which was led by Chuck Konfrst, of OneSpring. This brief workshop emphasized the savings one can achieve by using visualizations to improve the requirements elicitation process. Some facts Chuck offered: 30% of project costs are reworks. 70% of reworks result from requirements errors. Therefore, the communication process for determining user needs and tasks is critical to successful design projects. In my opinion, the skills requirements of current job descriptions?overemphasize tool experience rather than expertise in communications with users. Using visualizations can contribute to our avoiding misunderstandings in communicating with users. The workshop included some fun role playing, and we all benefitted from the presenters’ experience. Unfortunately, he highlighted the use of one very expensive, high-fidelity software product during the workshop. However, I believe low-fidelity methods are better for initial requirements discussions.

The Main Conference Sessions

The Main Conference sessions took place Wednesday through Friday morning. The classifier in me felt most comfortable dividing the large amount of subject matter into categories of sessions, creating an overview of the field of usability. These facets include

  • user research foundations
  • user research planning
  • user research techniques
  • user research metrics
  • collaboration with stakeholders and agencies

Designing for Social Change

Paul Adams, formerly of Google and now UX guru at Facebook, presented some intriguing social research. To me the most profound statement he made was that people are increasingly using the Web to interact with other people rather than to consume content. I agree. My own meager research shows, for example, that people with a medical condition are more likely to seek advice, comfort, and knowledge from other afflicted people instead of visiting a clinic or information site.

We have different relationships and online conversations with our various segmented groups of friends. This is the same communication pattern we have had since cave dwellers wrote on caves’ walls. Now, technology provides tools that facilitate these connections. Whether a friend likes something is more important than a thousand strangers’ liking it. Including?true social media influence in design is difficult and relies on types of relationships and content. Paul Adams’ presentation and blog are worth further review by any social media designer or UX strategist.

Evangelizing Yourself: You Can’t Change the World If No One Knows Your Name

This standing-room-only presentation by Whitney Hess was one of my favorites. The personality of a person who advocates for users is not always wildly confident and assertive. Self-promotion is not a dirty word. Demanding attention for our goals and ourselves determines the resulting impact of our careers. I’ll admit that, as a chemist and information professional, I have to work hard to get out of my comfort zone in promoting myself. Although I’m not a wall hugger, having the positive, assertive posture of an effective UX professional would clearly benefit me. Whitney has been there—she used to be shy—and she describes her own journey to nudge the timid among us. Networks, blogs, and Twitter are all tools she advocates that we use in our journey of self-discovery. Great stuff!

Designing for Social Change: Starting with You!

Bertice Berry—Phd, sociologist, popular lecturer, comedian extraordinaire, and fellow Kent State graduate—presented one of the final conference sessions and had attendees listening in rapt attention. She had obviously researched our profession and understood the orientation of usability professionals. She praised and encouraged our calling of enabling less challenging access and use. Dr. Berry’s signature line is “When you walk in purpose, you collide with destiny.” Her talk included several personal stories and a beautiful a capella song. I was fortunate to receive one of the 75 books she gave to members of the audience. Her talk was inspiring and the perfect way to end a great professional conference experience.

Presentations for Conference Sessions

Where the presenters’ materials are available on SlideShare or the presenters’ blogs, I’ll provide links to them. However, the benefit of merely reading these presentations pales in comparison to actually experiencing the questions that get asked and the stories that get told during the sessions, the conversations that take place during meals, and the climate of affiliation and camaraderie at the conference.

Note—All of these links to presentations go to sites that are external to UXmatters.

User Research Foundations
User Research Planning
User Research Techniques
User Research Metrics
Collaboration, Agency, and Stakeholders

Ignite, Unconference, and Poster Presentations and the Student Competition

The conference’s less traditional sessions included Ignite and Unconference presentations. In Ignite sessions, each presentation comprises 20 slides that advance automatically every 15 seconds. I marveled at the preparation and discipline of the selected speakers. The presentations of the breathless presenters covered an intriguing mix of topics. The following presentations were representative of the hilarity of these Ignite sessions: “Is UX a Cult?,” by Kathi Kaiser; “What Good UX Managers Say,” by Christina York, and “Selling UX,” by Carol Righi. The video “Fun with Error Messages,” by Danielle Cooley, demonstrates the Ignite presentation format. My personal favorite among the Ignite presentations was the twistiness of Mike Beasley’s video “What UXers Can Learn From Cats.”

Conference attendees voted to choose the unconference, or lightning, sessions, which were also timed—although the presenters’ slides did not advance automatically. Presenters received audience-rating rankings. From doing my own ten-minute presentation on “Statistical Measurement of User Experience,” I can say that it’s harder than it looks. I thought the passion the presenters conveyed for their topics was amazing. Just a few of the topics included “Eyetracking Is a Rip-off”;Case Study: When Bad UI/UX Takes Money from Customers—aka @CafePress Steals Money from Cancer Patient—about CafePress’s cruel rip-off of a two-time cancer survivor; and usability to ease world hunger. These unconference sessions provided usability professionals the opportunity to present a usability technique or an issue of personal or professional interest. Both of these non-traditional conference-session formats encouraged more interaction and fostered a common consciousness among attendees. I hope UPA continues to present these types of brief, entertaining, interactive sessions.

The conference also included some more traditional presentations and events such as poster presentations and the International Student Design Competition. Over two days, students presented their inspiring work. These student projects were amazing testimonials to the social awareness of usability professionals.


An electronic version of the proceedings is available directly from UPA—costing $40.00 for members; $90 for non-members. Conference attendees must pay for the proceedings, just as everyone else does, which disappointed me.


The hotel associates were exceptional. Unfortunately, the conference venue itself was less than perfect. Construction at the hotel was noisy and very inconvenient. The rooms at the Hyatt Regency were two star, and the facility lacked accessibility and sustainability policies. The conference area was not accessible, which I found ironic. I did not see anything in the conference materials about access or assistive devices for the disabled. If an association, conference, or venue does not consider accessibility, we all lose valuable input from attendees and presenters who require accessibility.


The cost of the conference—minus the workshops—was very reasonable, considering its inclusion of meals. The food and refreshments were really exceptional. A generous continental breakfast, snacks at breaks, lunch, and a vendors’ reception in the evening were outstanding dining by all standards. The organizers planned meals and breaks to create the best networking opportunities. At predetermined times, attendees migrated to the Grand Hall, where there were dozens of round tables, each seating eight. I never sat with the same people twice, and the atmosphere at the tables was very collegial and inclusive.

At the outside perimeter of the Grand Hall was an array of bulletin boards that displayed student presentations, poster presentations, idea markets, unconference proposals, and a brimming jobs board. There were also about 23 vendors offering ample swag. Returning home to Ohio, my backpack—which the UPA had supplied—was stuffed with a laser pointer, designer water bottles, software, and other miscellaneous swag. The design of the conference hall and the fact that there were relatively few vendors made discussions with vendors painless and pleasant. The vendor presence included three UX recruiting firms. The rumor is that staffing agencies are now unable to meet the demand!

Tuesday evening, June 21, attendees attended a reception, enjoying many hearty, scrumptious appetizers and liquid refreshments.

On the evening of Thursday, June 23, a wonderful awards dinner included entertainment and the UPA President’s address. The awards recognized international chapters; influential individuals who, over many years, have built the foundation of usability worldwide; and the three best international student projects. UPA president, Silvia C. Zimmermann, presented the awards for the student competition. Leigh Rubin, the comic and cartoonist, entertained with many Rubes that pointed to usability challenges.


There was a strong international contingent and an atmosphere of inclusion and warmth. I personally met attendees from the UK, Canada, Germany, Japan, Brazil, and China. Professionals just starting in user experience, international students, seasoned practitioners, and grizzled academics shared their usability expertise with each other. Almost half of UPA members are in North America, with the remainder spread worldwide. UPA’s international makeup highlights the unique cultural needs and contributions of global UX practitioners. Last years’ UPA International Conference was held in Zurich, Switzerland. Twenty years ago, the association started with just 36 usability professionals. Currently the UPA has over 10,000 members in 44 countries. Each of the regional conferences in North America, Asia, and Europe attracts hundreds of attendees.

The community and camaraderie were like nothing I have experienced. As another attendee noted, there was a “lot of hugging going on.” Many people ran out of cards to exchange. By the end of the conference, I had added twenty to thirty people to my LinkedIn network. There was a “whole lot of tweeting going on,” too—before, during, and after the conference—among volunteers, presenters, and the UPA faithful in attendance. A centrally positioned, large, flat-screen monitor displayed the tweets in real time.


I enjoyed the conference. It was fun, and I benefitted professionally by being there. Usability professionals are altruistic by definition, and the attendees’ concern for others was apparent. They had a strong sense of community and social identity. There is a palpable commitment to advancing the usability profession. Did I mention that over 300 UPA members had volunteered their contributions in building this successful International UPA conference? Happy 20th anniversary, UPA! In 2012, the UPA International Conference will be in Las Vegas, June 5th–8th, and I am going! 

Independent User Experience Consultant

Canton, Ohio, USA

Sharon HarperAs a consultant, Sharon focuses on the information architecture aspect of user experience design. She is passionate about the information-seeking success of users across a range online platforms. Sharon holds an M.S. in Information Architecture & Knowledge Management—now User Experience Design—and an M.L.S. from Kent State University, and is an active member of several online UX and usability groups and the Northeast Ohio chapter of UPA. She writes about UX education, the usability landscape, and the structure and design of information.  Read More

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