Author: Mark Dalgarno

UX can be applied to events, too

If you’re running an event, your users – the participants (including sponsors, speakers and press) – and their needs should be at the forefront of your mind. Seeing your event through their eyes – when you’re planning it, when you’re running it and afterwards when you’re measuring how successful it was – is important. That’s why you have to think about UX (the user experience).

We’ve already blogged about using proto-personas to define and work out how to meet user needs for events.

You are not your user – think about things from the perspective of your participants. Walk through your venue before the event starts and look at things from the user’s point of view. Is the signage clear? Does the registration desk layout make sense? Can you go the extra mile and help with things like arranging taxis, special diets or accommodation emergencies? Are your staff welcoming (and are the venue’s, too)?

Map out user needs for great UX

You should also think about the hierarchy of event needs. This idea is based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a pyramid with people’s most basic needs at the bottom. When one need is fulfilled, people move on to the next, and then the next, until they reach the top of the pyramid.

Applying UX: a pyramid of user needs for an event
How a pyramid of user needs might look for an event

Try this for yourself: draw a pyramid and at the bottom, list basic needs – like catering, toilets and so on. Higher up, you might put things like signage, easily being able to find the sessions you’re interested in, good wifi and so on.  Different people will order things differently.

We try to make our events memorable – going the extra mile to fulfil those needs right at the top of the pyramid. Some of our conferences have included:

  • a mini beer festival with a specially-brewed beer
  • ‘dinner with a stranger’ – people sign up to one of a selection of restaurants and pay for their dinner, but we pay for drinks (this has proved to be a great way for participants to get to know each other and adds depth to the event experience)
  • participant-generated Spotify playlists
  • free massages – we’ve offered 15-minute massages (head, neck and back) in ergonomic chairs at several of our events
  • a bake-off contest – we booked some teaching kitchens, put people in random pairs and they decided what to bake, with everyone getting the chance to taste and vote on their favourites (as well as having a bread-making lesson whilst everything was baking!)

You might find it helpful to think about the anti-problem, too. This is a game that helps people think creatively by getting them to come up with ideas to solve a problem or situation opposite to their own. So think about what would make your event the worst it could possibly be. This can help generate ideas that you can then turn around to make it great instead – and prepare you for when things really do go wrong so that you can respond quickly.

Planning and running events is complicated, but thinking about UX will help make sure you give participants the best possible experience you can. If they’ve enjoyed your event they’ll tell others about it – and hopefully come back.



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.