Start Small

I’ve had the privilege of speaking at several professional conferences over the course of my career in user experience. I love it. And I do it because I get a lot out of it: the ability to share my work with colleagues, to force myself to think about how a project fits into a bigger picture, to let people learn from my experiences and mistakes, to be better at public speaking, to travel to places I might not have taken the opportunity to visit otherwise, to give myself an excuse to actually attend the conference, and to provide my boss with an excuse to send me.

But my first presenting experiences weren’t at large professional conferences. They were at local conferences and chapter meetings. When people who haven’t presented before ask me how to get started, I encourage them to do what I did: start small.

How do you get to speak at a conference?

It’s simple. Either you ask to speak, or they ask you to speak. Larger professional conferences are going to be completely curated, open to submissions, or a mix of the two. The curated conferences invite speakers who have previously spoken or written on a topic of interest that fits with the conference’s stated theme. The trick here is that you’re not likely to be asked to present at a curated conference unless you’ve presented your work elsewhere, you’ve written about a topic they’re interested in, or the curators know you and your work.

Open conferences send out a call for participation that anyone can apply to. Just write up your presentation proposal and submit it. Your submission will probably be reviewed by several volunteer reviewers who will provide you with feedback and give the conference organizer a thumbs up or down on your talk. Some conferences may employ a “blind” review process, where the submitter’s name is not associated with the submission. The idea with a blind review is that the reviewers are judging a proposal solely on the merit of the submission, not due to the reputation of the submitter or her employer.

For larger curated or open conferences, you are likely competing with dozens or even hundreds of people for a limited number of slots. But by seeking out smaller venues to present at you may have a better chance of landing a slot. Not only will you have a chance to refine your presentation topic, you have a chance to build your resume, your confidence, and get your name out. By making connections with attendees and conference organizers, you may have a better chance of getting accepted at other, larger conferences later.

How to speak at local events

One of my first speaking experiences was at the one-day local conference held by the Washington DC chapter of the Usability Professionals Association (UPA, now UxPA). I found out about it through a call-for-participation they emailed to members. The submission process was similar to the organization’s national conference, in that it required writing up a description of my talk, who I thought it would appeal to, what attendees should expect to learn, how I would involve the audience in my presentation, what my talk’s AV requirements were and my bio. Since there were only two conference tracks running simultaneously, my talk overlapped with one other presentation. Lots of conferences run three to five tracks, so getting people to show up to yours can be somewhat of a challenge. Fortunately, the room was packed, the attendees appeared to be really engaged, and there was a lively question-and-answer session at the end. Several people approached me to ask more questions after my session was over, which is always a good sign. It was a very satisfying initial attempt at public speaking.

Conferences aren’t the only opportunity for presenting to a roomful of your colleagues. Many professional organizations hold chapter meetings on a regular basis, and they’re always looking for interesting topics to share with their members. The groups I’ve been involved with—like PhillyCHI, the local ACM chapter—make an effort to add new voices to their mix of presenters. Here are some steps you can take to let them know you’re interested in speaking:

  • Attend the chapter meetings
  • Get to know the chapter officers
  • Propose a talk that you think their members would benefit from

And then there are bar camps. At these “unconferences,” you go to the venue, propose a topic by putting it on the schedule and see who shows up to hear you. Many bar camps actually encourage you not to bring a slide deck; the point is for you to simply share what you know with people who want to learn. You may be presenting to a room of three people—that’s happened to me—and that’s okay. It gives you a chance to try out your material with an audience in an informal setting and get immediate feedback.

Don’t get discouraged

The barrier to entry can be high for a first-time presenter, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. You don’t have to start your speaking experience in front of 500 people at SXSW. Try smaller local venues to get your feet wet, work on your presentation, and build your confidence.

To discover professional events and conferences, check out sites like Find UX Events, the Interaction Design Foundation’s calendar of conferences and Lanyrd. Not all of them have open calls for participation, and for many of them the due dates for submission have already passed. But these sites may give you ideas about where to propose a talk in the future.

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Come On In, The Water’s Fine

I love industry conferences.

Maybe it’s because the craft of user experience is so new that meeting other people who do what you do is so exciting. Maybe it’s because at a UX conference you can explain what you do for a living without being met by blank, unknowing stares. Maybe it’s the thrill of being able to meet and share a drink or karaoke microphone with people whose books you’ve bought and articles you’ve read.

Maybe it’s being part of a community interested in solving problems, in sharing their successes and failures with anyone who’ll listen, in debating how best to do this with people who are as invested as they are.

Maybe it’s having a platform to present lessons you’ve learned the hard way to people who care enough to listen, to challenge you, to apply and even extend your work.

Whatever it is, I’m hooked. And I got hooked pretty early in my career. Soon after the very first usability study I got paid to do, I found myself presenting a case study on the project to a roomful of folks at the Web Development Institute held at Salisbury University in 2003.  I don’t recall how I found out about the conference or what prompted me to send a proposal or why I thought anybody might be interested in what I had to say. But I did it and I loved it. I’m sure I must have felt extremely stressed out about creating and giving the presentation–I do every time. Every single time–but I always seem to forget about that part when I find myself submitting another conference presentation proposal.

I’ve had always had a positive experience at every industry conference I’ve attended. If you’re looking for venues to present your work–and you should absolutely use conference presentations as a way to stretch yourself professionally–the fine folks responsible for putting together the following conferences and presentations have succeeded in creating a supportive, nurturing environment for me as a presenter and attendee:

I won’t lie to you. Presenting can be a nerve-wracking, time-consuming endeavor. Stage fright is an absolute bitch. Your audience can–and probably will–include people who just don’t buy your argument or feel threatened by your ideas. They may challenge you, vigorously. The best advice I have to offer is to listen to them, really listen. Because if your argument isn’t convincing to an audience of your peers, it probably won’t be to your clients either. Hard as it may be to hear, your work will be the stronger for it.

What have I gotten out of presenting? Making professional contacts and meeting great people is at the top of the list. But I’ve also been interviewed for podcasts, published articles, and been asked to contribute to two books as a direct result of my conference participation. Most of all, I’m a better practitioner because of it.

Take the plunge. You’ll be so glad you did.

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Scarcity and Accessibility

Not everyone has free unlimited wireless internet access.

And when you don’t have free unlimited wireless internet access, you learn that things like page weight (in other words, the file sizes of all the elements on a web page: images, audio, video, style sheets, etc.) become very, very important to you.

I learned this lesson when I visited South Africa to present at the Content Strategy Forum in Cape Town. If you’ve ever been to a web-related conference before, you’ll know that attendees put a pretty heavy demand on wi-fi access. The hotel next to the venue—the conference center on the grounds of the Spier winery, a gorgeous facility—had an interesting way of providing wireless internet access to their guests: they rationed it.

Each hotel guest was given a voucher for 100mb with a unique username and password. When you ran out, you went to the front desk to get a new voucher. If you needed more than your daily allotment of 100mb, you could pay for more access.

Here’s a photo of the voucher:

100 Rand is equivalent to about $11.50 or £7

One of the conference sponsors, Skyrove, also gave out free 40mb vouchers to all attendees.

While I was in South Africa, Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the United States, where I live. Communicating with my family, the travel agent, getting updates on airport closures and train service became extremely important. But a lot of the sites that I used had pretty hefty page weights.

  • search results page: 2.7mb
  • Google maps directions page: 2.6 mb
  • Twitter feed: 1.3 mb

That’ll eat up a 40mb wi-fi voucher very, very quickly.

My solution to making the vouchers last as long as possible was to turn off images. That worked well on the sites that provide alt text for images. But not every site does this well (when they do it at all.) Turning off javascript would have lightened the page weight as well.

Accessibility is extremely important for people with physical limitations. But don’t forget that accessibility may be crucial for people facing situational limitations as well.


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