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Conference Review: UX STRAT 2015, Part 1: Overview

July 26, 2016

UX STRAT USA 2015 convened at the Athens Classic Center in Athens, Georgia, September 8–10, where the UX strategy tribe came together for the best UX STRAT yet. Pre-conference workshops took place on September 8; the main conference, September 9 and 10. This was another another excellent, well curated, and very enjoyable conference.

In this review, I’ll provide an overview of the conference, critiquing its

  • organization
  • content
  • presenters
  • proceedings
  • venue
  • hospitality
  • community

Organization

Organization
Content
Presenters
Proceedings
Venue
Hospitality
Community

This conference runs like a well-oiled machine. Paul Bryan, shown in Figure 1, is the organizer of UX STRAT. He and a team of volunteers, some of whom are shown in Figure 2, ensured everything ran smoothly in Athens. At UX STRAT USA 2015, everything from the speakers and content to the social activities were well thought out. In each successive year, UX STRAT gets progressively better for two reasons:

  1. Paul and his team apply their learnings from the previous year, which they glean by talking with attendees to find out how they’re doing.
  2. They experiment and try new things. Of course, experiments may succeed or fail, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. I commend their taking the risk of trying new things in an unceasing effort to make UX STRAT a better conference.
Figure 1—Paul Bryan, organizer and host of UX STRAT
Paul Bryan, organizer and host of UX STRAT USA 2015
Figure 2—Shane McWhorter and volunteers on the registration desk
Shane McWhorter and volunteers on the registration desk

I’m really glad UX STRAT is sticking with its single-track format. The consistently high quality of the conference’s content makes this format work well. When all attendees have the same conference experience, it fosters conversations about that shared experience and makes it easier for attendees to get to know one another. This is especially important for new attendees.

One experiment in 2015 that I thought was a good idea, but less than fully successful in its execution was breakout sessions—for example, those shown in Figure 3. The breakout sessions weren’t on specific topics, there were’t enough rooms for all of the breakout sessions—some of which had too few participants to ensure a lively discussion—and attendees weren’t allowed to choose which breakout sessions they wanted to attend. Instead, attendees were assigned to specific breakout sessions—for example, session D—one in the mid-morning, another in the mid-afternoon, each day of the conference. Helpful volunteers ensured the breakout sessions stayed on schedule.

Figure 3—A couple of breakout sessions
A couple of breakout sessions

While some people told me they’d participated in well-facilitated, interesting discussions, I happened to land in some poorly facilitated, overly controlled, really boring discussions—at least they were to me. While facilitators who were also presenters were encouraged to ask questions relating to their talk, others were given a list of questions to ask participants in sequence, as follows:

  1. How does your company or agency manage customer touchpoints in terms of experience design?
  2. What are the key components of a customer experience framework?
  3. How are customer experience and user experience organized in your company?
  4. What are the connections or touchpoints between experience strategy and business strategy in your projects or company?
  5. Are there UX Strategists in your company?
  6. What role does analytics or big data play in experience design in your product or service design?

Note the assumption that participants work for a company, which isn’t the case for everyone. Only if these questions didn’t elicit good responses from participants were facilitators then supposed to ask their own questions. On the last day of the conference, Paul asked me to pinch hit for a facilitator who wasn’t able to lead an afternoon session. After my prior experience of the breakout sessions, I didn’t feel inclined to follow the predefined format. Instead, since we were nearing the end of the conference, I asked participants what ideas from the conference would be particularly valuable to them in their own work, and the group became engaged in discussing those ideas.

The problem with not letting attendees choose breakout sessions by topic and/or facilitator is that they may end up in sessions in which the discussion relates to neither their work nor their interests and with people with whom they have little in common. If these breakouts had been birds-of-a feather sessions, they would have provided more opportunities for attendees to meet people with whom they have shared experiences and interests. I wish I’d been able to attend more of the breakout sessions facilitated by presenters—particularly those whose topics paralleled my own interests. At least, then, I would have known the topics of discussion would be engaging.

Content & Presenters

Paul Bryan acted as host throughout the conference. Each day, he welcomed attendees and delivered opening remarks, introduced each speaker, guided attendees through the activities of the day, and offered closing remarks, encouraging attendees to gather together for a happy hour at a nearby watering hole in the evening.

The content at UX STRAT covered a broad range of important UX strategy topics for an audience of UX strategists and leaders. In most cases, the programming committee chose effective presenters who spoke about interesting subject matter. As I’ve come to expect of UX STRAT, most presentations offered in-depth explorations of cutting-edge UX strategy practices and ranged from very good to great.

In upcoming editions of UXmatters, Krispian Emert and I will review the workshops we attended and our favorite conference sessions in detail and share highlights from other sessions.

Proceedings

At previous UX STRAT conferences, attendees had received some handy cards that outlined each day’s schedule. In 2015, we had to rely on the online program and posters like that shown in Figure 4 to check the schedule. Perhaps the thought was that, for a single-track conference, attendees didn’t really need a schedule, but I’m glad the cards will be back at this year’s conference. It’s always nice to know what’s coming up when.

Figure 4—A conference schedule
A conference schedule

The UX STRAT team is doing a great job of maintaining historical information about the conference on their Web site. If you scroll down toward the bottom of the site’s home page, you’ll find links to some video highlights, many UX STRAT presentations on SlideShare, and photos from some of the earlier UX STRAT conferences. You’ll find links to the programs for previous conferences on the Europe and USA conference program pages, which include links to information about each presenter. Plus, most of the UX STRAT USA 2015 presenters have posted their presentations on SlideShare.

Venue

Athens was quite a drive from the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, but I enjoyed seeing the rolling countryside along the way and loved Athens. The Classic Center, shown in Figure 5, was the perfect venue for UX STRAT. It was just a short walk from the conference hotel, Hotel Indigo. The conference center was spacious, but compactly laid out, so it was easy to move between the main conference room and the breakout sessions. There were large rooms for the workshops and plenty of spaces where people could hang out and chat.

Figure 5—The Classic Center
The Classic Center

The main hall in which the conference took place, the Athena Ballroom, accommodated comfortable seating at long, white linen–covered tables, making it easy for people to take notes on their computer, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6—The Athena Ballroom
The Athena Ballroom

I’m not sure how comfortable the setup was for some speakers though. As a vertically challenged person myself, I noticed that the podium was way too tall for some of them, and all we could see above the podium was a speaker’s head.

Hospitality

The modern, comfortable Hotel Indigo, shown in Figure 7, was the official conference hotel. I usually prefer to stay at the official conference hotel. Because the conference organizers and speakers and the majority of attendees are staying there, there are many opportunities for serendipitous meetups with other people hanging out in the hotel lobby, bar, or restaurant, as was the case here.

Figure 7—Hotel Indigo lobby
Hotel Indigo lobby

There were coffee breaks at the beginning of each day and in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon. The first day of the conference, UX STRAT hosted lunch at The Classic Center; the other days, we were free to go out to lunch and explore Athens, which has many great restaurants—even for a vegan like myself. Local volunteers at the registration desk provided information about nearby restaurants and bars, as well as a map showing the locations of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops in downtown Athens, which is shown in Figure 8. I particularly enjoyed dining at the Heirloom Cafe and The National. The food at the renowned vegetarian restaurant The Grit, whose landlord is R.E.M.’s lead singer, Michael Stipe, was disappointing.

Figure 8—Map of downtown Athens
Map of downtown Athens

Paul Bryan did a great job of coordinating activities throughout each day and evening. Evening activities are particularly important to fostering new acquaintances and building the relationships that are so important to making an annual conference a success. The first evening, after the pre-conference workshops, UX STRAT attendees took over the upstairs bar at the Allgood Lounge on Clayton Street, shown in Figure 9, in the heart of downtown Athens. Immediately following the first day of the main conference, attendees gathered for a happy hour at The Foundry, shown in Figure 10, which is conveniently situated near both The Classic Center and Hotel Indigo. After the close of the conference, those of us who weren’t leaving Athens until the next day again gathered at the Allgood Lounge, stretching out the conference experience just a little longer. These daily evening activities were a big part of what made UX STRAT USA 2015 such a resounding success. It’s all about building community.

Figure 9—Allgood Lounge
Allgood Lounge
Figure 10—The Foundry
The Foundry

Community

UX STRAT attracts a great community of UX leaders and other senior UX strategy professionals from around the world—even though Europe now has its own UX STRAT. I hope I get to attend UX STRAT Europe someday, so I can see friends who are no longer making the trip to the USA conference.

Many presenters and attendees at UX STRAT are thought leaders in UX strategy who are defining what the practice means. It’s great to have the opportunity to discuss the challenges we confront in our work with our peers in a community of like-minded professionals. Experiencing the UX strategy community is one of the best things about UX STRAT. I always enjoy forming new friendships with people who share my passion for UX strategy and renewing the friendships I’ve made in previous years at UX STRAT.

Conclusion

UX STRAT USA 2015 was another great conference! I enjoyed the conference’s excellent content, visiting Athens, Georgia, and spending time with my favorite UX community.

If UX strategy is your passion, this is the conference for you! I highly recommend that you attend UX STRAT USA 2016, which will take place in Providence, Rhode Island, September 14–16. You won’t be disappointed.

Look for detailed reviews of UX STRAT USA 2015 workshops and conference sessions in upcoming editions of UXmatters

Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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