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UX STRAT Europe 2017: Amsterdam

January 22, 2018

The experience of a UX conference starts with its mise en place. You won’t find Paul Bryan’s UX STRAT in the nondescript caverns of a Javits Center or amidst the carpeted horrors of your local Marriott. While this is partly a matter of scale—this intimate conference is unlike the massive SXSW—UX STRAT’s organizers have an awareness that the built environment affects the human interactions that foster learning and that these human interactions are of paramount importance.

This single-track conference attracts a tight-knit audience, has a humanistic feel, and provides a bracing alternative to the many à la carte, multitrack, mega-conferences. UX STRAT was one of the first conferences to focus on UX strategy and is the most in-depth conference of its kind—though various others have now copied it with mixed results. There are no perfunctory conversations. Everyone is engaged. The sense of community is powerful. Yet the conference isn’t cliquish.

I’ve made a point of attending every US-based UX STRAT since the very first one because I was hooked on the content, the caliber of the participants, and Paul’s openness. All design leaders were experiencing growing pains back then, and it came through in the Q&A of every presentation. What is User Experience? Do we compete with or complete Product Management or Marketing? Should the conference have separate tracks like most others? Should UX STRAT book glamorous keynote speakers? Five years in, it appears we’ve sorted out our search for identity. Paul has focused his goal for the conference to a pinpoint: “To be the Design Leader’s best resource for discovering the smartest way forward.” There’s no more soul-searching. There have been no more evasive Facebook execs refusing to answer questions or eager Google designers talking about a great video they couldn’t show us. For me, Leah Buley completed this arc and put the matter to rest, with her presentation in Providence, Rhode Island, in September 2016: “How to Speak Strategy.” Compare that talk to her presentation at the first UX STRAT in Atlanta, in 2013.

UX STRAT helped me orient myself within my organizations, clarify whether I wanted to pursue strategy or stay with applied User Experience, and gave me invaluable connections. I’m still grateful to Lis Hubert for her time and advice over coffee in New York, during a particularly bumpy stretch of my start-up UX career. My skillset has grown in parallel with the growth of the conference over five years of workshops, presentations, and happy hours. UX STRAT Europe was in its third year, and I wanted to see how they do User Experience on the other side of the pond, so in June 2017, I went to Amsterdam.

The Experience

My most recent UX STRAT USA, in historic, picturesque Providence, Rhode Island, suddenly felt bucolic as I approached a mass of lanky Europeans dragging on their cigarettes in the alley outside Amsterdam’s Tobacco Theater. There was a red carpet out front. The door guard, who looked like he could moonlight as a model, stopped me from taking my china espresso cup outside because, apparently, there are fines for such impropriety. The theater was packed with a three-generation span of UX professionals, whose demographic trend line would generate a bump around late twenties to late thirties. About half of the attendees were women, which the speaker lineup did not fully reflect. The main room was packed like an airport the day before Thanksgiving—and the chairs were a mite too close together for American sensibilities. Yet there was no shoving. Everyone was eager, polite, and happy to be there.

The venue, like most UX STRAT locations, was inspired. The Tobacco Theater occupies the antique space of a former tobacco factory and comprises multiple rooms that, though tight, had the feel of a hip cocktail party. The space prompts exploration so there was a constant flow of people in, out, and between the rooms and the outside areas. The lingua franca was an English inflected with a multitude of accents that would be dear to a translator’s ear. A lively Slack channel and #UX STRAT hashtag supported the meta layer.

Paul’s young volunteers, in bright orange T-shirts as usual, scurried in and out of the crowd. Tirelessly mastering the ceremonies, Paul was the focal point of a constant feedback loop about the conference vision, sponsors, post-conference drinks, mic logistics, and the ambient temperature, which refused to be fully mastered over the two days we were there.

Paul runs a tight ship, so you get your money’s worth. Talks start on time, as do breaks. Everything is well-oiled, but breaks are long enough for healthy disagreements or the pursuit of at least five different tangents. The things one overheard in the throng! Someone still explaining the difference between UX and UI, though UI with a long u and a long i. There was a gripping exchange about social strategy and how to marry User Experience to Marketing without falling into social engineering. “They were agile. They were committed. They released something every two weeks. And there was no going back.” (This proclamation was particularly memorable because the accompanying hand gestures briefly endangered my coffee cup.) A resigned “she’s too married to A/B testing.” An exasperated “Head of Design who knows nothing about usability—just doesn’t care. All about style.” A definitive “I consider myself an architect.” After almost every presentation, I heard several exclamations that “I think that was the best one so far!”

Yes, there were sponsors and advertisers, just as at other conferences, but the way their booths were integrated into the flow of the conference and their small footprint made them low touch and relevant at the same time. The sponsors sent real humans—not just logos, posters, and swag—and their design teams attended the conference. Paul is transparent about introducing them during the course of the proceedings.

Notably, this time there was no scenery-chewing keynoter. All the presentations were on an equal footing and varied only in their length, which the organizers left up to the speakers. The first presentation by Modern Human was about “augmenting the human experience” with embedded technology, and we were off. There were slides quoting Heidegger before I was fully caffeinated! So it was here—in a city where everyone is at least bilingual—that I found my longed for foray into the philosophy of experience design.

UX wisdom can be acquired by osmosis, too. Over the course of the day, small groups gathered, broke up, and reformed elsewhere. During each break, the smokers—who are seemingly more numerous in Europe than back stateside—spilled out into the alley to be greeted by a cacophony of bicycle bells as Amsterdamers passed by. At the break after ING’s presentation about a friendly chatbot, I got into a great brainstorm with a Canadian, a Berliner, and a local from Haarlem—just north of the city—about other chatbots in other places. We formed a small gang over lunch and wandered outside into the city. After lunch, there was Zach Hyman’s case study about Uber engaging in social engineering in Amman. For some reason, I felt flattered that they, too, use InVision in their work.

Nourishment, like other details, was done well—with vegan, gluten-free, and standard options for the unhip. The one thing that all UX STRATs over the world have in common is that the smallest hiccup in the flow of service or bathroom access invariably results in reams of “that’s a usability issue” jokes.

Because we spoke English, heard case studies about global companies, and drank coffee from smaller, but still recognizable cups, US versus EU cultural differences weren’t particularly apparent. That is, until Ronnie Battista’s rollicking UX rock star presentation. While tales of early Lemmy from Motörhead and the lives of the gents from AC/DC, along with relevant music clips at an appropriate volume, had the Providence crowd on their feet back in September, the response in Amsterdam was much more muted. Everyone was a good sport, but it was clear that real hard rock is more an American thing. Culture. Strategy. Breakfast.

Day two continued with high-end brands such as Sony and Adidas talking about high-level topics: ecosystem design, human social networks, design thinking, and complexity. As I read people’s name tags, I noticed that it wasn’t just lone UX professionals lining up for their fifth espresso. Entire teams were there. A gregarious bunch from HSBC. A more streamlined group from ING—presumably to support their boss, Gregory Eck, who talked about that chatbot. USI, Avanade, and Yoox were also represented. One might conclude that EU companies are more generous than those in the States, where the delegations from companies often consist of just one.

But not everything that speakers presented went over unquestioned. This audience, more than US audiences, was unreceptive to excessive marketing pitches, social manipulation, and ethical conflicts—as was apparent from the questions they asked and in the meta-commentary on Twitter. Still, original content from European presenters seemed to be more aligned with the UX STRAT mission that Paul declared when he opened the conference. Some speakers at US conferences—Jet.com, in Providence, being the most recent example—still bring along palpable marketing baggage. I could actually hear the weight of the bottom line dragging on their every word. The social impact of design was the main preoccupation at this conference. American concerns still tend to be operational—especially in the enterprise. The unevenness of delivery that has plagued some sessions in previous years’ conferences was not in evidence here. All speakers were at the top of their game, with an evolved presentation style and compelling slides. Europeans are better than Americans are at PowerPoint, it seems.

Again, the free-ranging conversations during breaks did not disappoint. From BMW’s Martin Kulessa, I learned that most BMWs are silver in the US, black in the EU, and white in Dubai. Evidently, perceived luxury has a color, and it differs by culture. This made me look up speaker titles. I found, most unscientifically, that VPs and Chiefs of Experience are more prevalent among presenters from Europe, while Directors, Heads, Leads, and Practitioners are the titles in America. We may do the same level of work, but our titles don’t yet reflect that. I remember Paul observing last year that Europeans are better collaborators—and wonder if our American individualism might be holding us back where UX work is concerned.

On the last day, once all the presentations were over, we gathered into groups to consider our learnings, focusing on six topics that were crowdsourced during the conference via the Slack channel. Discussions dealt with user research, customer versus business metrics, speed versus strategy, design-organization structure, artificial intelligence (AI) and ethics, plus the roles and responsibilities of designers as digital and physical products converge. The groups were informal, with chairs arranged in a circle and a sharpie marker serving as the talking stick. The friendly, Socratic chat did not devolve into bitching about developers—as one group did back in Athens, Georgia. The session I was in touched on AI for self-driving cars, the challenges of programming such a hive mind and, more importantly, programming it to be paranoid so it can stay secure. Yet, to my disappointment, no one made a “Paranoid Android” joke.

Many people were still around at 4pm on the last day, chatting over the tea and ice cream that Deutsche Telekom had contributed. Paul’s new approach of having the workshops last—instead of the day before the main conference—seemed to stem the sort of mass exodus from which US conferences have suffered, as attendees left for the airport. There’s something to be said for doing experience testing on UX conferences. Many stayed to continue conversations over beer and wine. I chatted with K., who was duly impressed with his first UX STRAT. We swapped critiques and favorite sessions, then went over to Ronnie’s table for a quick chat. Yes, the speakers were all still present and accessible. At UX STRAT, speakers don’t jet in for a keynote, then duck out right after. They stay, mingle, and answer questions.

What I had been yearning for since attending my first UX STRAT and finally got a glimpse of in Amsterdam was a philosophy of User Experience. Once disciplines mature, they tend to pause the hustle and step back to question themselves, their motivations, and their place relative to the world. This is what User Experience is now doing. While our discipline isn’t fully baked yet, our new introspection manifests as a growing awareness of the weight of our responsibility to users and the debt User Experience owes to other disciplines—particularly anthropology and sociology. As you can see on the United Nations Global Pulse Blog, humanitarians are leveraging User Experience to address questions of both human life and death, as Chris Van Der Walt articulated in this definition: “UX design prioritizes human values and relationships in the development of technology to derive maximum value from our interactions with it.” It was heartening to see humanists at UX STRAT express this same sentiment, thereby helping to increase the standing of even enterprise User Experience, which is no longer a handmaiden of DevOps or beholden to Marketing or even to Product Management, but a discipline that can temper and humanize all three.

I left with my brain full, a notebook full of tangents to pursue, and one unanswered question: was that painting in the sitting room, which is shown in Figure 1, of Keith Richards?

Figure 1—Keith Richards?
Keith Richards?

Why Attend UX STRAT EU?

So why go to UX STRAT at all—and why to this one in Europe? UX STRAT is less workaday than comparable conferences I’ve attended—or at which I’ve presented. If you’re still at the point in your career where you need workshops of the fundamentals, to get your foot in the door, understand the lay of the field, or simply to network, by all means, attend UXPA or IxDA local meetups or conferences. If your focus is on the design side, An Event Apart might be more your speed. The right conference for you ultimately depends on your objectives. For local networking, go to a conference close to where you are or want to work. But for the 65% of us in User Experience who are self-taught—so says the UXPin Enterprise UX Industry Report—and can journey map in our sleep, UX STRAT is the next level.

This is where you should go to grok business metrics, learn to collaborate with Product, build a UX roadmap, operationalize and scale in-house design, and convince the C-suite to let you pull up a chair to the boardroom table. One benefit of UX STRAT is that you will experience the whole conference in tandem with everyone else—and won’t be sidelined into multiple tracks. The main program is for everyone. If you want to dive into how-to information, attend the workshops the day before—or after, as the case may be. This conference is also human scale. You have a solid chance of running into someone you’ve talked to before or catching up to a colleague without a 30-minute meander through a maze of closed rooms.

Above all, attend UX STRAT for the camaraderie, the expertise and approachability of the well-vetted presenters, the wildly global variety of attendees, and for Paul himself, who is a leader in this field and is now onto AR and VR. All in all, I went for the experience. I wanted to get a global perspective and a sense of how they do User Experience in Europe. Crossing the pond to UX STRAT Amsterdam was an invaluable experience, as travel to places where your expectations are off center with reality often is. It forces you into new problem-solving paths and new experiences. 

Experience Manager at Limelight Networks

Seattle, Washington, USA

Joanna ProulxJoanna is a humanist, experience designer, and translator—and has been building digital metaphors since 1999. Currently managing User Experience at Limelight Networks, she is reimagining their customer portal and product experience. She translates poetry in her copious spare time. Joanna holds a Master of Arts in International Studies and Literary Translation.  Read More

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