How to Create an Engaging Virtual Conference (and Build Community): Lessons From a First-Time Attendee
Premise: Last weekend I attended UXcamp Europe 2021. First started in 2009, UXCE is an annual unconference / BarCamp. The entire idea of the UXCE is for ALL attendees to be active participants. In this post, I want to share my observations about what makes a successful virtual conference from the perspective of a first-time attendee.
Audience: I am writing this article with the wonderful organizing team of UXCE in mind. However, I hope anyone who is thinking of organizing a virtual conference or even actively participate in one would benefit from what I write here.
I found out about UXCE through social media (either FB or Reddit or maybe even LinkedIn, I honestly don’t even remember). Read the website. Liked the premise of the (un)conference. Signed up to moderate a workshop. Joined the Slack community.
From April to start of June, the only interactions I had with the UXCE was through Slack. I was able to ask questions of the organizers and read the lovely introductions that the different participants wrote about themselves. However, the interactions were sparse, scattered, and sporadic… they certainly were not real conversations. Everyone felt like an internet stranger.
I did spend time working on my workshop. And last week, I finalized my workshop materials, slides, and created a 30-second pitch video (standard for all UXCE sessions). Honestly, I was stressing out about the workshop and was not focusing on keeping up with the increasing volume of Slack messages.
As the conference was approaching my primary concern was finding a time slot for my workshop. I wasn’t quite sure what UXCE will be like. Until Friday, the day before UXCE 2021, I didn’t know what sessions were going to be offered or how I would choose the sessions to attend.
Things became clearer on Friday; I attended a Q&A for session presenters and we walked through the session Miro board where we all scrambled to claim our session slot (and create our shiny sessions posters). It felt beautiful and chaotic. I even had a chance to look through the other posters and start thinking about which sessions I would want to attend. I started to understand the spirit of UXCE.
On Saturday morning (US East Coast time, but early afternoon in Europe), I joined the opening session of UXCE. For a moment I was confused why it was being broadcast on Youtube without any ability to interact with other users, but I quickly figured out that the reactions were happening on Slack. One of the organizers passed the time by playing the guitar and singing a “Welcome to UXcamp Europe” theme song (his own creation of course). I was definitely getting a feeling for what kind of conference this was.
The organizing committee tried to get participants to interact with other participants (by asking you to message and introduce yourself to a random person on the slack community). That attempt was only mildly successful (only 1 person reached out to me, and I reached out to 2 people). My assessment is that it’s hard to have a meaningful conversation without really understanding that the goal is to actually get to know the other person (plus the activity attempted to take my focus, in my mind my attention was on the opening session).
Over the next 24 hours, I participated in about 7 sessions and moderated a two-hour workshop. Some sessions had about 50 attendees and some had as few as three other people. All sessions offered something new and interesting, and some even ended up with a drinking game. But for me, the most rewarding parts of UXCE were the spontaneous, organic, and meaningful conversations I had with other participants. Some of these conversations happened on wonder.me video chat room, some occurred via slack DMs/channels, and some happened during the “right before” and “right after” period of each session.
As the conference ended I tried to assess why and how I was able to feel welcome into this tight-knit community of geeky amazing designers. And likewise, I tried to understand why other session attendees weren’t able to get into the spirit of the conference (and get all the warm and fuzzy that I got). Below is my set of recommendations and observations which I believe would help future events have more engaged participants.
Offer informal spaces. Having a low barrier of entry spaces where users can meet other participants and have real human conversations makes a huge difference. Slack is nice, but it’s a little too asynchronous for a lot of people. Using spaces like wonder.me that create natural “breakout” rooms is incredibly valuable. They create spaces that act as the traditional coffee table, a place where you can just drop in and out… no obligations.
I highly recommend making these informal spaces an explicit part of the event (make it part of the program). I’d even say that it is well worth having a few volunteers always be in those spaces. They would welcome other participants into these spaces (and ensure that they are never empty since an empty video chat room = closing tab).
Communicate. A lot. There is a lot that can be shared ahead of time to set the mindset of the participants to get the most out UXCE (and when they get the most out of it, they also make it better for all other participants).
A conference like UXCE is most enjoyable if the participant is fully engaged, I wish I knew ahead of time that I should have blocked off most of my Saturday (and early Sunday) for the conference.
Also, it must be said, that it’s very easy to sign-up for remote conferences. You need to remind participants that it’s coming up. It’s easy for people who are hosting a session to remember (because they are investing time and energy into preparing for the conference), but others don’t have this “luxury”. They need a little help getting excited. Maybe consider having become more invested in the conference by volunteering for some task. Or maybe give them a sneak peek into a session and ask them to come up with some funny Q&A questions. Or maybe (given that they are designers) give them a design challenge (and compete against other attendees)… I guess it doesn’t matter… get participants excited and invested in the event. That will help them bring their A-game to the next UXCE.
Help people plan. While the community and meeting new people is great a lot of people are still mostly motivated by learning and attending sessions. People want to plan ahead (and not all remote participants are going to dedicate the entire 24 hours to the conference). Nevertheless, they are still valuable potential participants. I believe that if attendees had the session program earlier, more of them would have been able to arrange their schedules and actively participate in the conference.
Think about time zones. An event like UXCE had participants from all around the world. However, the majority of sessions were clearly accomodating the European participants. This was partially due to the fact that most of the presenters were in Europe, but it was also because most of the presenters (even those outside of Europe) wanted to get the maximum number of attendees (and they knew that the largest number of participants would come during European friendly times). All of this created a vicious and ugly cycle that resulted in people in the Western part of the Americas and much of Asia being marginalized.
I think putting an extra effort into asking volunteers to host special sessions (or re-do their existing sessions) during time friendly to other time zones would have done wonders in helping UXCE feel truly global and inclusive.
❤ Good luck with your future virtual conferences. ❤
“Lets build a happy little cloud.
Lets build some happy little trees.”
― Bob Ross