Friday, December 09, 2005

The importance of DESIGNING a conference program (session)

A few weeks ago, I reviewed several panel proposals for CHI 2006. And I was impressed by how nicely most of the proposals attended to designing the panels for a stimulating and original audience experience -- a requirement specified in the CFP.

A few years ago, I was a Panels Chair for CHI 2004, and my goal then was to replace several of the series of short talks which typically comprised CHI conference panels with "stimulating and original audience experiences." Previous CHI conference Panel Chairs had encouraged authors of panel proposals to design their panels to this effect, but few authors ever did. So, I and my Panels Co-Chair revised the CHI conference panel CFP considerably, requiring panels to be designed:
"Consider using a combination of different styles of presentations in a panel. Genuinely design your panel for a stimulating and original audience experience. The conference facilities are flexible, so consider creative use of the space. Panels consisting largely of a series of short talks -- a panel format that has become the norm at CHI conferences -- will not be accepted unless the submission adequately justifies that format, explaining how that format is best for the audience experience. All panels must be designed to be especially engaging, and submissions must explain how the panel format will achieve that kind of audience experience."
Additional instructions we developed included examples of engaging formats and elements to inspire panel design.

The two CHI conference panel CFPs written since then have pretty much used the same wording, retaining the requirement that panels be "genuinely designed."

Was this requirement successful? To some extent. Most CHI 2004 panel proposals attempted to meet the requirement, but most attempts tended to be conservative, with the actual "performances" on stage even more conservative -- i.e., more like traditional CHI conference panels -- than promised in the proposals. CHI 2005 panels I witnessed were also conservatively designed, for the most part, and a particularly engaging but appropriate component of a panel proposal I was a part of was deemed too risky by reviewers, suggesting reviewers were still applying somewhat conservative criteria.

Hence, it is nice to see authors of most of the CHI 2006 panel proposals I reviewed do a good job at attending to the design criteria. And I hope that those who choose which CHI 2006 panel proposals to accept will make sure the design requirement has been fulfilled.

Of course, panel sessions are only a small portion of a large, multi-track CHI conference. But panel sessions have been a large portion of the much smaller, single-track DUX conference.

Prior to my work to make CHI conference panels more engaging, I was one of two Program Chairs for the first Designing for User eXperience conference (DUX 2003). For that conference, all submissions requested were case studies or case study variations. No panel proposals were requested in the conference CFP. However, my Program Co-Chair and I decided to make every conference session a panel.

We did this after having read all of the many conference submissions and their reviews as part of our process of "genuinely designing" the conference program. We identified relationships and key differences among submissions that we believed were important to highlight and explicitly address during the conference. And on that basis, we decided to accept alot of submissions, and pack them into a very limited number of sessions, each of which would be a panel that needed to be well-designed in order to engagingly highlight those relationships and differences.

So, we discussed this need (suggesting panel design options derived from our reasons for grouping the accepted submissions as we did) with each of the session chairs we had selected and sent the following message to each accepted submission author:
"Our intent is to have each program session creatively designed into an interactive panel. Hence, your session is unlikely to be a typical panel session featuring a series of short talks, followed by Q&A. While relevant details of each accepted submission will still be presented by their authors, it is important that each submission be addressed in the way that it relates to the overall theme of the panel, as well as tie into a broader statement about what it means to design for user experiences. Precisely what that means for author participation in the session will be worked out with the session chair."
There were some grumblings from some of the authors, as this meant that their presentations could not be designed independently of the presentations of others and that they could not address everything they had addressed in their submissions. But, the resulting panels were well-designed. They were very engaging. They were creative. They compared and contrasted different though related approaches, real-world constraints, etc., providing a unified experience and value for conference attendees of all levels of expertise.

Yes, some of these panels were better designed than others, but they all worked and worked very well. The combination of these panels and the two plenary panels I designed and moderated comprised a well-designed, unified experience. (The only session that didn't work well was an "invited" panel we handed over to another person.)

The conference was a huge success, ending in a standing ovation.

Having successfully programmed so many gatherings (e.g., in addition to being a DUX 2003 Program Chair, I programmed the monthly meetings of BayCHI for 12 years), I decided to shift to being a Conference Chair. I was asked to co-chair CHI 2005, but instead chose to co-chair the second DUX conference (DUX 2005), given my focus on user experience practice and practitioners.

Given the success of the DUX 2003 program, it was not surprising that the DUX 2005 Program Chairs chose to take a similar approach to that I had taken with my DUX 2003 Program Co-Chair. Indeed, I encouraged it!

However, as the conference unfolded, it was much to my dismay that most of the panels had not been designed at all. I had expected them to be, but they were not. Instead, they were mostly a series of short talks prepared independently, with most presenters rushing to talk about as much as they could of what they had addressed in their submissions, though there was far too little time to do so. Significant similarities and differences among submissions of importance to user experience practitioners were not the focus. And I'm still perplexed as to why some very academic submissions were even accepted to be a part of a conference for user experience practitioners.

Some presenters did a wonderful job, recognizing that their presentation time was limited and fitting a focused, informative, and engaging presentation within it. Others oddly fought the time constraints on stage, and in one humorous but wasted presentation, even mocked them. And, of course, the experience of the panels was usually less than a unified whole. And though the conference program included some fabulous components (e.g., the amazing Bill Irwin at the opening plenary), as a whole, of course, it was also less than a unified experience.

So, although the conference has received some glowing praise (e.g., from Elizabeth Bacon), it has also received some knocks (e.g., from Steve Portigal).

Is designing a conference program (session) important? Without question. Hence, whenever you have responsibility for any portion of a conference program (session), see to it that that your portion and the program (session) as a whole is genuinely designed.