Category Archives: Agile

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.