A user conference gathers management staff, developers, customer service, support, and sales teams for a company together with their clients.
Such events have the potential to build strong, personal connections between a software company and its customers. These relationships mean conversations in both directions- uncovering a feature roadmap through helpful feedback and reciprocal, continued sales.
Typical User Conference Components
- support the company in the promotion of their product line
- offer training
- grant customers access to developers and company management
- show appreciation for the customers
- garner crucial user feedback
- help determine new features based on direct marketplace feedback.
A well-developed conference program will feature these components and will include sessions and labs, roadmap declaration, a social schedule, and well-defined feedback opportunities.
Making a User Conference Magical
Spending money on food, location, and entertainment is essential to show the value of the event. An event professional can assist you in creating a memorable experience. But still, it’s your company’s people and what they share that makes an event meaningful to the value of your company’s revenue.
Unfortunately, the people that are usually in the best position to achieve these goals are not presenters, speakers, or facilitators, and few have experience in making an event shine. Providing a framework in which they can thrive is crucial.
I’ve had the opportunity to attend in-person and virtual user conferences for software companies as a live illustrator- giving me a front-row seat to event programs.
I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. Below are several suggestions to effectively maximize the effort put in by your employees and improve the value of the conference to all stakeholders.
Facilitation Training and Modalities of Scoring User Feedback
The hours you have your client attendees within your space offer an extraordinary yet time-limited opportunity to inform your company’s future. Not utilizing that time effectively is a wasted opportunity.
Asking education attendees, “What do you think?” at the end of a feature presentation is not the best way to get user feedback.
Below, I outline seven methods that you can incorporate into your event sessions to garner more user feedback than you could have imagined. These methods are inviting, effective use of your time, and don’t put attendees on the spot. There are many more methods out there. These are just some of my favorites.
A charette is a collaborative session in which a group of (often diverse) stakeholders draft a solution to a design problem. Usually involving small groups (of 4 to 8 individuals) that report back solutions (conversation results) to a group at large, a successful charette promotes joint ownership of those solutions.
A charette, matched with potential product features, or oh-the-horizon issues can offer outstanding opportunities to learn user needs.
In the software space, a charette can be perceived as dangerous to developers (these customers aren’t UX designers!). System constraints are not necessarily defined, and perceived visions of grandeur may be seen as over the top.
But yet the value to the customer being able to state what they are looking for is huge!
Declaring at the start that ‘we’re not necessarily going to integrate your ideas, however, we will ABSOLUTELY use them as inspiration’ often settles down developers with NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome and fear of scope creep.
Design Thinking Workshop
Design Thinking is a teachable process that helps individuals think like designers, engineers, or architects to solve problems by developing a prototype (a widget, a set of big paper user experiences, etc.). Consider teaching a design thinking workshop as stand-alone and unrelated to your software package. Such a workshop may include an example design thinking session. Idea: use an industry problem (that your software MAY be able to solve) that can be the target of their design thinking prototype.
Non-Linear Feedback and Voting
Sometimes, you just want customers to vote on new features in your pipeline to help determine priorities. Asking about one feature at a time won’t help you prioritize features.
My colleague Muddy Schlegel suggests instead, a full court spread of ideas all at once- scatter new features on the walls of a room and ask attendees to vote (with levels of priority) on each. This method:
- Gets users talking to each other
- Allows features to be prioritized
- Brings users to the level of decision-maker to feel fully involved.
Dish It Out
Sometimes it’s just easier to talk about food. No, really! Use the Dish It Out method to ease event attendees into feedback in a fun way. Working in groups and on a timed basis, task attendees to design and plate a meal representing a product or feature via simple drawings. This methodology allows users to assign value to their favorite software components “the fillet here represents feature ‘X,’ but the Brussels sprouts represent feature ‘Y,’ and I never eat Brussels sprouts”.
Dish It Out can be used in a Focus Group around a specific topic, at lunch (think paper-covered tables and crayons), or as a particular booth complete with a food photographer and edibles!
Users often offer feedback that is complex and nuanced. But they usually do not provide the backstory or the WHY of their feedback. Set time aside in a session for Persona Development- utilizing ‘head shaped’ templates, ask users to offer input or describe a problem with eyes, ears, an appetite, biting teeth, and a conscience. New ways of communicating can provide new points of view.
The Modified Pareto Chart
The Pareto Chart prioritizes certain critical factors above others and often looks like an 80/20 rule visualized. This tool can help developers communicate the effort necessary to enact certain features when applied to a software conference. This tool is best used sparingly but can help developers communicate their constraints to a client base.
Hire or enlist employees to act as a personified version of your software or features. Consider full furry costumes, fanboy and fan girl get-ups, or your own custom signage. Not only will the one dressed as/acting as said item receive feedback (kudos or hard stares), but they could collect feedback onto their costume directly. This personality can be available throughout the conference and attend events and sessions.
Standardize the Message
Clear messaging is imperative to a successful user conference. This importantly includes the current product release schedule.
Often engineers, office staff, C-suite, and the sales team will be mixing for the first time and bringing forward hearsay on timelines, various version release dates, feature inclusion and exclusion discrepancies, and a lot of confusion.
A user conference is at a fixed point in time, and at a fixed point in time, you can present a roadmap IN ITS CURRENT STATE.
PUBLISH A DOCUMENT for your staff that outlines the current release schedule, version numbers, and compatible features; use this document as your single source of truth and remove any concern of version confusion.
This document need not be customer-facing. But if it is, your clients will love you for it.
BONUS: With all of the brainstorming and focus group effort outlined above – Do leave room in your roadmap for features discovered during the conference. Declaring this block of hours in your roadmap justifies and honors user feedback during the meeting.
The very secret sauce of a user conference is live illustration.
What is Live Illustration?
Sessions, keynotes, and discussions are listened to in real time by a skilled live illustrator positioned in the front or the back of the room and experienced in dedicated listening and drawing skills.
The concept is purely analog in nature and stands in stark contrast to shining LCD screens filled with your User Interface and block diagrams.
What this is not:
- Caricatures of the speaker
- Court Reporting chalk drawings
- Predetermined artwork
What this is:
- Created during your sessions
- A mixture of words and images of key points
- Large format, at roughly 16+ square feet per session
- 100% Content Related
What does live illustration provide?
Live illustration is beneficial to user conferences as it crosses over concurrent sessions and present the information an attendee may have missed.
Extend the impact of the educational sessions beyond the conference by presenting a visual reminder (in the form of user-taken photographs of large paper boards or official post-session PDFs).
User Conference attendance can be EASILY justified to a client’s manager when images representing conference sessions can be brought up on the phone and recalled instantly.
While speakers love the attention that live illustration brings to their words, it is a surprise and honor to customers/attendees that offer suggestions. Clients need to be heard- emphasize that point by writing and drawing down their words.
As sessions are completed, boards are gathered in a single location, building a library and pseudo-‘art’ show. (Its sketchnotes, not a Guggenheim exhibit.)
This extra placemaking component allows event attendees to review each ‘graphically recorded’ session and reinforce the educational value of the conference.
Let it not be forgotten that live illustration adds a bit of in-session entertainment and fights boredom. Contact me, Matt Orley, about this.
Software Presentation and Showcase
A good user conference has a dog and pony show. The best new and future features are showcased in settings that allow users to take the wheel and try them out. Here are a few tips to improve your showcase!
While software is typically used while people are sitting down- if you are showcasing a feature intended to reach more than one set of eyes at a time- stand. Standing allows attendees to get the best view they need for their eyesight, allows for mingling by your sales teams, and is easier to join. You don’t want people walking away because there isn’t a seat near the monitor!
Screen Size Matters
Go big. Rent the 65″ display. Make sure everyone can see how excellent your tools are no matter where they are sitting CROSSOUT standing. Showing an app running on a phone? Put a camera on it and enlarge it to a colossal screen size. OR better, mirror your screen to a large display.
Software can be dull. Train your teams to use a tool like Streamlabs OBS with their presentation systems to add sparkle, overlays, lower third text, and more to improve the presentation.
If you are hosting labs, feature previews, or any other name for an educational showcase, promote it.
Call out the particular lab hosts in your plenary sessions by name: talk them up, mention their favorite type of sushi, and showcase their day job.
Adding this little bit of soul and superstar status to a lab will get the attention of attendees.
Bringing it Together with Help from Big Paper Strategy
Cohesion and dedication to the attendee experience with your content is often a process not formalized for a software user conference.
As a live illustrator, budding facilitator, degreed engineer, occasional software developer, salesperson, and marketer, I have an ambidextrous point of view as to what can lead to success. Whether for live illustration, session design, or session facilitation, consider Matt Orley and Big Paper Strategy to take your user feedback and user experience at your next conference to the next level.