Category Archives: software acumen

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.

Innovative. Bold. Unique! How Auto Trader’s new office supports agile working

Auto Trader first adopted agile ways of working in 2008. The following year it launched its mobile website, developing iPad and Android apps a couple of years after that. By 2013, the final edition of its printed magazine was published, and Auto Trader became a fully digital business. It’s now the biggest motoring digital marketplace in the UK, with over 11 million unique visitors a month.

It wanted an office to support all this so, in 2014, 600 staff working across 5 different locations moved to a state-of-the-art new office in Manchester.

The move would help the company – which had fallen into the trap of working in silos – collaborate more effectively. Existing offices were old and run down (customers were rarely invited there); the biggest site had 3 buildings across 7 floors and working across them was difficult.

Auto Trader wanted its new office to:

  • be fitted out with agile in mind
  • have a good image to support recruitment (unlike previous sites)
  • provide a flexible working space (e.g. for different types and sizes of meetings)

The move was planned quickly and took place within 9 months (often, projects like this can take a couple of years). One person – a senior project manager – had full-time responsibility. Auto Trader wanted to make sure staff felt listened to, so there was a lot of consultation and opportunities for people to get involved. This included:

  • checking mobile phone coverage at the new location to make sure it met people’s needs
  • involving representatives from each team in planning the move
  • equipment trials in a mock office at old locations
  • giving each team the chance to spend a week in the mock office, testing layout, furniture etc. – and then letting people vote on what they liked best
  • moving to hot desking, with directors losing their offices

Some people decided to leave rather than relocate, but the percentage was much lower than expected because of the way the move had been managed: staff felt involved and valued.

Claremont Group Interiors were chosen from an initial shortlist of 7 office outfitters that tendered for the project. They managed the design and fitting of the 60,000 sq ft new office over a 16-week period.

The new office includes hot desking spaces, informal breakout areas, walls that can be written on and ‘war rooms’ for bringing teams together to ‘swarm’ on big problems. Touchscreen media has also been used, and some walls are decorated with graphics from the iconic Haynes manuals, which can be coloured in.

Meeting rooms are named after vehicles:

Meeting rooms are named after vehicles:

The 6th floor of the building is a flexible space used for hosting events (it’s so far been used for hackathons, science fairs, all-staff broadcasts, brown bags and dealer days, as well as various meetups – and can be configured in different ways).

But perhaps the most eye-catching element is a series of 6 iconic vehicles that were chosen to represent different decades in Auto Trader’s 38-year history. Before these were craned into the building, staff were given the chance to drive the vehicles around the old offices as a tribute. Then the engines were removed and the vehicles were coated with special paint allowing them to be written on making them adaptable meeting spaces – both inside and out. 

One of the specially craned-in vehicles

One of the specially craned-in vehicles

The Manchester office design also helped inform the design of the new London office, which is next to Kings Cross station. It’s easy to get to from Manchester, and staff regularly spend time at both locations.

Work friendships have now sprung up across the organisation – teams socialise much more than they did before, and departments are less siloed. There are user research labs where teams can test new product versions, and observe the people using them. Dealers are regularly invited to the office now, too.

The benefits of the move are easy to see: it’s increased the amount of collaboration and interaction between different parts of the company and emphasised that Auto Trader can do things at pace – and in new and different ways.

The Worst PA

How to be the worst PA in the world

I walked into my interview with Mark and Ryan of Software Acumen having done all my interview preparation, researched the company, studied my CV, prepared questions for them and felt quite confident.  The interview was going well and then suddenly there it was – The Killer Question:

“What would make you the worst PA in the world for Mark?”

Well I hadn’t prepared for that one and it wasn’t just a question; I was given a pack of post it notes and a sharpie pen and told that I had 5 minutes to sit in the interview room on my own and come up with as many things as possible that would make me the “worst PA in the world”.

Was this a trick?  What was the reasoning behind this?  Surely I should be selling myself as a great PA and presenting my positive attributes, not showing my interviewers that I know how to be a bad PA.

Coming to work drunk

So off they went and left me too it.  I started writing the obvious things, coming to work drunk, ignoring all my emails,  trawling social media (although now this is a big part of my job so actually that one shouldn’t really count) etc.  The ideas kept on coming and actually I found myself filling 17 post-it notes with things that would make me a bad PA.  So that got me thinking, was that a good thing that I came up with so many in such a short space of time or a bad thing that at a job interview I came up so quickly with 17 ways that made me a bad PA.

The Anti-Problem

Well it turns out that I just got to play a game in my interview!  This was actually an innovation game called the Anti-Problem. The purpose of this generally is to help people look at a problem differently.  By turning the problem around and trying to work out how to solve its opposite, this in turn will help you look at the situation with a new approach and hopefully give you some sort of solution.

This of course gave me an insight into how my boss and the rest of Software Acumen works and a new idea and creative ways to come up with lots of excuses for being the worst PA in the world.

The New Job

So not only did I get to play a game in my interview, show that I know how to be really bad PA, I also got the job. So either Mark wants a really bad PA or he thinks I have what it takes to be a good one… I’ll let you know. Or he will…

The Worst Lightning Talk in the World

It turns out that Mark is a big fan of the anti-problem and uses it in many of the workshops that he facilitates. In fact, he gave a short talk on the technique and how he’s used it, at UX Bristol 2013. For the talk he used the format of the anti-problem to generate ideas for a great lightning talk by, you guessed it, turning that problem around to think about how to give the worst lightning talk in the world.

Mark Dalgarno – The Worst Lightning Talk in the World from Bristol Usability Group on Vimeo.