Category Archives: conferences

Slack top tips for #eventprofs!

Many of our participants’ unexpected favourite takeaway from our events is the added bonus of networking. They arrive often alone and leave with many new contacts and friends who may shape the way they work in the future. Making pre and post event networking easier for our participants is something we, as organisers, are always looking at.

We started using Slack (the business collaboration tool) as a company in January 2016, and in the past year it has radically changed the way we communicate as a team. It has freed us up from over-full inboxes, given us visibility into all areas of the business and – as remote workers – it has connected us in a way I didn’t think possible. Basically, it has made us work smarter and feel more connected as a team. So sharing our love of Slack via our events seemed to be a logical step forward.

We trialled Slack this year on our Agile Cambridge and Agile in the City Bristol events, and it has added to the event experience for our participants. It has helped create another way for our participants to collaborate, and made a space in the week or so before and after the event where they can genuinely network so they don’t arrive at events alone.

My top tips from our experience for creating a Slack event channel are:

  • Give people the option to join when they sign up to the event, so you’re not spamming anyone. Most people love Slack, but not everyone!
  • Don’t have too many channels – it creates confusion. We found that using just 5 – Session, Feedback, Random, Who’s here and General – worked pretty well and I think we could even cut that back.
  • Make it welcoming and informative. Pre-seed with speakers, programme committee members and add info that’s of interest. So when people join up, they join in.
  • Use it to share vital event knowledge, eg where the coffee is, when the keynote starts.
  • Track it to get instant feedback and react, eg when a participant says a room is too hot, you up the air conditioning.
  • Add the speaker slides from the event – Slack is a great post event resource.
  • Let it do its thing and evolve from the channel members’ input! But make sure it keeps to the event Code of Conduct.

We felt Slack added to the event experience for participants and the feedback we have received has been pretty great. Whilst we continue to look at ways to help our event community network outside our events, Slack has helped make this easier. We will be using it at our events going forward.

Welcoming your participants – first impressions count!

You know the saying: you can tell in the first 2 minutes if you’re going to get on with someone. Well, I think people make a similar decision at events – are they going to have a great experience, or not? The welcome a participant gets at an event can set the tone for their whole experience.

When someone books a ticket to an event, they get an idea of what to expect from the website/social media coverage and from conversations about past events. They arrive full of excitement and expectation – and as event organisers, we need to meet (or exceed!) their expectations.

This starts with the moment they walk through the front door. First impressions count – so how do you make sure they’re good?

First of all, guide participants through the door. Put up a big sign so they don’t get lost – you know where registration is, but they have no idea. It might be subliminal, but being told where to go and knowing that you’ve got there makes you feel safe and gives you confidence.

As people arrive, do your best to avoid a queue. Try and stagger the arrival time or at least encourage people to arrive early so you don’t get a huge rush 10 minutes before the welcome kicks off. However, if you do have a queue, make sure participants have an idea of how long they’re going to be waiting and let them know exactly what will be required of them at the registration process to speed things up. And give them something to do or look at while they wait – make it part of the experience!

When they get to registration, make sure they are met with a smile. Ensure that the people on registration follow the same dress code as the participants – they shouldn’t be smart if the participants are casual (or vice versa). It sounds simple, but if someone’s dressed in the same way as you, it makes you feel like you’re in the right place.

Sharing information is a vital part of the welcome, too: check that everyone on registration has all the information participants will need. Our golden rule is if someone has to ask a question it’s because we’ve failed to share the information. Participants will need to know some or all of the following:

  • where the toilets are
  • where to get tea/coffee
  • where to find the cloakroom
  • where the opening session is
  • how to log on to the wi-fi
  • where lunch will be held

Of course, if they’ve arrived late they might just want you to take them to the opening talk!

You know the information that you need to share, so share it – and if you do get asked a question on something you’ve missed, write it down on a sticky note and make sure you share that info in future.

Finally – make sure the registration team has time to chat with participants. If someone wants to tell you their journey sucked, or that they are super excited about the day, make time to engage with them – it’s part of providing a great customer experience.

This is a busy, stressful time for the event team – but participants don’t need to know that. What they want to know is that they are welcome and that there are friendly people at the event. It can be pretty stressful for some (most!) people to walk into a full room full of strangers, so if the welcome can relax them even a bit, it makes the whole experience a little easier.

Running great events: how to prepare

At Software Acumen, we divide the timeline of an event into before, during and after stages. Today I’ll talk about everything that happens before an event – and if you want your event to be successful, preparation is important.

You’ll need to think about things like:

  • goals for the event
  • participants and their needs
  • speakers
  • partner organisations
  • the ‘feel’ of your event
  • marketing and PR

Identify your goals

First of all, identify your goals and work out how you’ll measure them. Doing this is vital – you won’t be able to progress otherwise. Make them ‘SMART’ – this stands for:

  • specific
  • measurable
  • achievable
  • relevant
  • time-bound

Examples of good goals could be:

  • selling X number of tickets by a certain date
  • increasing the size of your mailing list by at least 25% within a certain timeframe
  • attracting 3 sponsors by a particular date

Central to your goals are ‘actors’. These are the people, roles and organisations that can help you achieve your goals or impede your success (eg speakers, event participants, partner organisations). They can be from within your organisation or outside it. As you work to define your goals and how they’ll be achieved (or hindered), new actors will emerge.

Consider your participants

We consciously describe our paying ticket holders as ‘participants’ because they have an active role in our events. We contrast this with the passive word ‘attendee’ used by other events.

At Software Acumen, we also strive to make our events a good ‘fit’ for participants. We use the analogy of a Nordstrom suit salesman who will never sell a suit to a customer unless it’s wholly appropriate for that customer [1].

We’ve turned away customers, particularly sponsors, for whom the events would not be a good fit – and they have thanked us for it. It’s in no one’s interests to have a customer at an event that’s a bad fit for them.

Choose your partner organisations carefully

Partner organisations can help spread the word about an event or may take an active role in running the event or delivering event content. Choosing the right partner can help achieve your goals.

Partner identification, negotiation and liaison all take time and need to be factored into your planning.

Get the right speakers

Great keynote speakers are a big draw for participants and help immensely with media interest in an event. But, as with partner organisations, choosing the right or wrong speaker can affect the ‘fit’ for participants and the feel of the event.

The number, type and format of programmed slots is driven by the size of the audience and the feel you want. Decisions like whether you want to pre-invite all speakers or have a mix of pre-invited and openly chosen sessions (after a public call for speakers) are also influenced by the feel you want the event to have.

At one end of the scale are wholly pre-selected speakers and at the other are unconferences – where the programme is invented largely on the day of the event.

We’d recommend making decisions about the event format once you’ve identified your goals. When you’ve agreed a format, you can identify speakers and invite them if necessary. Alternatively, you can build a smaller event around a single speaker with known, limited availability in your city of choice. As with partners, make sure you build in time for identifying, negotiating and liaising with speakers.

Use proto-personas to define and meet user needs

Proto-personas describe a person’s behaviour, needs and demographics. You can create them for participants, partner organisations and speakers to help shape event goals and impacts according to these personas. They can also help refine your goals to ensure they’re aligned with the potential solutions.

Think about your event ‘feel’

We talked earlier about the fit of an event to participants (and partners, speakers etc). The feel of an event influences this fit but is distinct from it.

We all want to feel good about being part of an event – and the feel of the event contributes to this. Are things well-organised? Do conference materials look professional? Are the sessions engaging? Are the other participants interesting? And are our basic needs being met – shelter, food, warmth, free wifi etc?

The desired feel for an event can clearly affect its budget and vice versa. For example, if the budget only allows for a pre-packed sandwich and bag of crisps for lunch then the event feel will be very different from one with a sit down, serviced 3-course lunch and dinner. The cost of an event to the various actors involved can also affect the feel.

The feel of the event also influences:

  • its scale and duration (a 3-day conference for 100 people feels very friendly and intimate compared to a 1-day event for 2000, for example)
  • the venue
  • your choice of catering
  • the speakers you invite
  • the session formats you use

We usually choose a venue with character over a hotel for our events to emphasise that they’re about learning – and also to have a space that’s more visually interesting and characterful (think original Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe prints on the wall at Churchill College, Cambridge). A well-designed space is essential, particularly for our design conferences.

Our Dynamic Earth, venue for UX Scotland
Our Dynamic Earth, a unique venue that’s perfect for UX Scotland

The visual identity of an event and creation of media for it contribute to the event feel. Make sure you consider:

  • graphic design
  • printed materials (before and during the event)
  • special giveaways
  • video and audio (before, during and after the event)

We work with our proto-personas to develop empathy maps for their experience at the event. We focus on the key actors – participants – and map out what we think they are seeing, hearing, saying and feeling at the event. This will give us more insight into what the feel should be.

Empathy mapping
Empathy mapping

Marketing and PR

Once you’ve decided on the feel of your event, you can think about marketing and PR. This includes:

  • advertising
  • press management
  • co-marketing arrangements
  • curation of event content and social media (you can use this to reinforce the brand post-event and help promote future events)
  • an event website and mailing list – if you haven’t got these already

If all of this feels like a lot to prepare – it is. Event organisation and delivery involves a broad range of disciplines and events consist of many moving parts that need to be project managed throughout their life. However, if you put in the groundwork before you’ve even booked the venue or named the date, you’ll see the benefits and meet those goals you identified during – and after – your event.


[1] The Nordstrom Way – we’re constantly looking for inspiration for improving our events from related business domains such as retail, restaurants, hotels and airlines. This book is a good source of such inspiration.

Announcing creativeConf Cambridge

Software Acumen and CamCreatives join forces to launch a practical conference for thinkers and doers in public and private sector organisations

creativeConf Cambridge 2015 will provide participants with the tools needed to develop creative skills in an entertaining and inspirational way

Software Acumen, a company that specialises in running practical conferences for software practitioners, and CamCreatives, a centralized voice for creative people in Cambridgeshire, have joined forces to launch a practical conference to promote the concept of creativity in the workplace and at home.

Called creativeConf Cambridge 2015, this hands-on event is taking place at Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, Cambridge CB1 1PT on the 24th October. Early bird tickets are available from the creativeConf Cambridge website

creativeConf Cambridge will examine what the term “creativity” means and will help participants discover their own creative skills and ideas by participating in a variety of practical and interactive sessions.

Sessions will be led by a variety of creative thinkers including Dr Stephanie Taylor, a Social psychologist from the Open University and co-author of a book titled Contemporary Identities of Creativity and Creative Work (Ashgate, 2012), Simon Jack from Creative Encounters training company and Vaiva Kalnikaite from Dovetailed, a UX studio and innovation lab that has developed a 3D printer that can make edible fruit.

creativeConf Cambridge is not only for those who are actively involved in creativity on a daily basis, it is particularly intended for individuals who do not consider themselves to be naturally creative. At the event participants will find out how creativity can be used to encourage team building, overcome communications barriers and solve problems in a fun and entertaining way.

Participants will also learn how to apply creative principles to their own personal circumstances and will leave the event feeling entertained and inspired.

“We are all subconsciously creative,” says Mark Dalgarno, Owner of Software Acumen. “Writing, coding, cooking – all requires creativity. We wanted to host an event that covers all the creative disciplines and give individuals an opportunity to discover and develop creative ideas that can be put to use in a practical way.”

creativeConf Cambridge 2015 is being sponsored by Creative Front, an initiative led by Anglia Ruskin University to stimulate, incubate and grow further the creative industries in Cambridge and the surrounding area.

Maps, Shoes and UX Scotland 2014

A review by Vicky Teinaki

It was fitting that UX Scotland took place in a stunning piece of architecture housing new ways to help people understand the world around them. Over two balmy days in Edinburgh, Our Dynamic Earth held host to both local and international UXers (as far as I found out, the furtherest travelled award went to Sebastian Mitchell of Nairobi-based disaster management platform Ushahidi).

Over the course of the two days, several themes emerged:

Challenge the stakeholders, and use research to help your case

Several speakers talked of challenging briefs and stakeholders. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all came from kick off keynote speaker Eewei Chen, who challenged the current state of computing and design “making us stupider” and instead encouraged designers to consider mindfulness, creativity, and context.
Also, I really liked his conference call in real life video.

Paul-Jervis Heath suggested that “if you’ve already got a brief, it’s too late”. It’s actually not dissimilar to people losing all their bargaining chips the second they accept a job offer. There were several mentions of Jess McMullan’s UX maturity model, which helps designers consider at what level they can enact change.

Several speakers explained how they’d battled internal differences of opinion until they could verify their hunches with testing. Alex Humphry-Baker from social shopping app Mallzee ran guerilla usability tests to prove a feature, and Lorraine and Mike from investments firm Royal London (formerly Scottish Life) had to wait a long time to get to customer tests …that showed that their proposed new UI was exactly what they wanted. Abi Reynolds also provided a wonderfully in-depth explanation of different ways to carry out UX research based on her work at Paddy Power.

Start from the user needs out rather than channel or accessibility.

Two speakers highlighted how accessibility should be considered at the core. Joshua Marshall showed how if can take accessibility to its core, so can other sites. David Sloan continued this with his workshop that explained that by the time people ask for accessibility reviews, it’s usually far too late.

More broadly, Alberta Soranzo spoke of the changing nature of the web and how it affects our content: as we go mobile, and multi-channel, we need to be thinking about goals rather than channels. I also liked her quote of “content shouldn’t be king, it should be queen… since the king isn’t really that powerful in chess”.

Look outward to learn inward.

Several speakers looked at other disciplines in order to help enrich what we do in UX. Richard Ingram looked at how we could use maps in UX, and had a key point to remember: maps are political, and say as much in what they leave out and what they put in. (Look at the map of seemingly perfect 1700s London that pointedly left out all the impoverished areas). That said, they can also be used to surface relationships you wouldn’t have been aware of beforehand (he used the example of a corporate CMS to show how a previously unnoticed workflow bottleneck could be discovered and resolved).

Tin Kadoic (who I interviewed before the conference) took on the journals and rules of famed Noma chef Rene Redzepi to see how his rules of creativity could be applied to interaction design. Redzepi’s story is similar to that of artists such as Paul Simon who felt they were becoming stale creatively and needed some new way to explore. For Simon, that meant going to South Africa and starting work on Graceland. For Redzepi, this meant creating journals.

Think global, hear from the locals

As silly as it might sound, I always appreciate a good conference for making its local talent known. I hadn’t been aware that both UX company Uservision and successful shoe retailer Schuh were based in Edinburgh, and was impressed to hear about the (yep, Scottish) Scottish Life, even if it was now becoming part of Royal London.

For more on the conference, check out: