Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The unconference

Recently, I ventured into the trendy world of the "unconference," first attending a BayCHI program about unconferences, then a few days later participating in DCamp, an unconference focused on design and user experience.

Hardcore proponents of unconferences argue that conventional conference sessions are boring and of no value compared with the kinds of interaction among attendees that is usually permitted to occur only between conference sessions. They advocate replacing conventional conferences with "unconferences" during which attendees collectively create a conference agenda filled mostly with sessions during which attendees can participate extensively.

Following a conventional presentation about unconferences, attendees of the BayCHI program were asked to separate into small groups to share and analyze their own stories about "a time in your entire conference going experience when you have felt most alive, most inspired, and most proud." Stories from members of the small group I was in emphasized meaningful connections with others and the great feeling of experiencing that one is a part of a community, themes which resonated with others as among the key benefits of unconferences. But what was interesting was that these themes came mostly from experiences of conventional conference sessions, rather than from what occurred between such sessions.

What was also interesting, though probably only to me, was that three of the six stories shared in my group of six were about experiences for which I had been significantly responsible: 1) DUX 2003, which changed this story teller's career path and even prompted him to move to San Francisco; 2) a BayCHI presentation of June 2000, which changed this second story teller's career path as well; 3) and multiple presentations comprised of on-stage interviews of "user experience" luminaries. I was a Program Chair for DUX 2003, the Program Chair for BayCHI back in 2000, and the person who conducted those on-stage interviews.

So, how did DCamp compare with those kinds of experiences? I enjoyed DCamp, and fully participated, leading a session entitled, "Is 'User Experience' Positioned in the Best Place in Your Company?" (see my previous blog entry), and diving into other sessions, including an improv circle (as captured in the embarrassing photo to the lower right). I even joined in the singing of the DCamp song, the existence for which I had given its composer considerable -- albeit good-natured -- grief. (For a scary experience, you can listen to a recording of that singing that is downloadable from the DCamp wiki. ;-))

There were some stimulating sessions at DCamp, including Luke Hohmann's session on innovation games and Steve Portigal's session on designing for the increasing overlap between cultures and between disciplines. Steve told everyone at the closing of DCamp that he particularly valued the times when meaningful connections with others occurred (see the above reference to this theme as it emerged during the BayCHI exercise), but most of those appeared to have occurred between unconference sessions, as he describes in his blog:
"As with most conferences, the hanging-out is lots of fun. People I've never met before, people I've met once or twice before, people who work with or know others I know, people to suggest books, or share their own stories, or to ask me about myself."
Steve also comments on his experience of the unconference sessions, contrasting them with those of a "more traditional event":
"I think the sessions are a mixed bag; the audience is varied and the presenters can't count on an audience having a certain level of experience with their topic. Every session I was in started off with one topic and wandered more or less into something different, or at least a narrow corner of what was brought to us by the presenter - and that was okay - that was the point.

But that means that only one session made my head spin, the rest were comfortable, a bit provocative, a bit interesting, but not challenging or building new ideas or anything. That's probably a reasonable proportion for a short event, consistent with a more traditional event."
As I suggested earlier, achieving stimulating, meaningful professional connections doesn't require unconference sessions, but it isn't likely to happen during sessions of a conventional conference -- or of an unconference -- unless those sessions are well-designed.

What I'd like to see is the integration of elements of unconferences into DUX 2007, to increase the chances of again achieving the magic experienced by the BayCHI storyteller referenced above, as well as by many others, during DUX 2003.