A Ninja and a Novice walk into UXPA 2014….

By: Rick Damaso

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I recently had the opportunity to represent Key Lime Interactive at the UXPA 2014 Conference in London. This was my first official conference representing Key Lime so I was a little apprehensive. I wanted to impress my bosses and contribute in any way I could.  As the new kid on the block I was feeling more than a little responsible for the trust and financial investment in my attendance. Adding to this self-imposed pressure was the fact that I was traveling with a UXPA veteran, self-proclaimed user experience Ninja and VP of Research, Eugenio Santiago.  (You can follow him at @TheLimeNinja).
Whether you are reading this as a UX novice or have 10+ years of experience in the industry, you know the benefits of attending top-notch conferences. Not only do you get industry training, the latest trends, best practice review, and team building exercises; you get those awesome little pastries that seem to be on every dining cart. Ultimately, it’s all about the networking. I’ve learned that the user experience community is a small one. It’s a tight-knit group of professionals with long standing histories and crossed career paths, which can definitely be intimidating to newcomers.  A pleasant surprise for me was the camaraderie and wonderful sense of humor we all share. Everyone is equipped with quick wit and good-natured jokes – most of which are aimed at web developers. Truth be told, I don’t know those jokes. It got me thinking…. What else I could learn before heading to the next conference? What tips could I share with you, the reader, on maximizing your experience at any professional conference? Here’s a few that come to mind:
1. PRE-CONFERENCE PREPARATION IS KEY
As my university professor used to say, ”Failing to prepare is preparing to fail”. Have a list of target companies, vendors, and individuals that you would like to connect with professionally and personally. Most conferences will have a fan page on Facebook or a list of sponsors/attendees on their website prior to the event. Use that information to your advantage. It’s a great way to maximize the short coffee breaks between sessions. You may want to contact people in advance and set up a time and place to rendezvous and talk shop. Be sure to leave time in your schedule to allow for organic conversations. This is particularly true for training sessions where you’ll probably get to know your fellow attendees fairly well in a smaller group.photo
2. HAVE A 140 CHARACTER ELEVATOR PITCH
I wonder if the founders of Twitter ever envisioned their platform being utilized for virtual conference attendance? When used effectively, Twitter is a powerful tool to converse with speaker and other conference attendees, maximize corporate/personal exposure and start new business conversations. You can even schedule some tweets based on your planned itinerary. Be sure to follow the conference hashtag to extend your conversations beyond the conference walls.
3.  DON’T BLEND IN
Don’t be afraid of wearing the “new guy” badge. The organizers will literally put it under your name on your conference badge so you won’t really have a choice anyway. Own it.  There’s no reason to be shy. In fact, your “newness” is a great ice breaker. Everyone will be excited to see a fresh face. This is your opportunity to ask questions, stimulate discussions with panelists, and build equity amongst your peers. My advice for first time attendees, or for any professional looking to learn more about the UX industry, is to start a conversation whenever you find yourself in a crowd. Helpful hint: You are never “off-duty” while at a conference so be aware of who’s in the room during designated social hours. You might meet that industry player who you’ve been hoping to meet.
My theory going into my first big event with Key Lime, was that a novice and a ninja might look at a conference in very different ways. I imagined we would each have different definitions of a successful conference. As it turns out, our success metrics weren’t all that different. We each learned a lot during the five-day event, got some great tips to inform our research back at the office and met some incredibly smart people along the way.
After the closing keynote, I sat down with the ninja for a debrief. We compared notes and talked about some of most exciting takeaways. The ninja nodded at me and confirmed that we both had great experience. He had one piece of final advice for me. I eagerly pulled out my smartphone, ready to capture these final words of wisdom. He was going to give me the inside scoop. I was eager and thrilled to be a part of this secret knowledge. As he motioned me to come a little closer he said  “So rookie, did you hear the one about the web developer walking into a bar…..He didn’t like the table layout”