#13: Programming is Curation and Design

A conference program isn’t just a bunch of talks. It must also connect them, and sequence them so they build upon each other and create the momentum that drives the event forward.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of a well-curated and scheduled programme versus an ad hoc collection of talks. It takes just a few minutes to draw up a schedule, but can take a few days to get the flow, tempo, and structure right. The bigger the programme (days, tracks) the more time it can take. And the more worthwhile the investment.

— Steve Baty (UX Australia/Interaction)

Try to craft a narrative throughout the day. It’s amazing how many conferences feel like they’ve been thrown together in no discernible order.

— Andy Budd (UX London)

In effect, like any other content, conference programs have information architectures that you must design. Which leads to the next point from Jeffrey Zeldman

A good conference is a designed experience. I don’t mean a visually over-designed brandgasm. I mean an educational and emotionally considered narrative. The ideal conference for me offers a single track, so that all attendees (and all speakers) share the same intense experience over one or more days.

The content of each presentation should be discussed with the organizer far in advance of the show, just as the content of an issue of a magazine gets reviewed with editors long before the issue is published. Too many conferences focus on the mechanics and skimp on the up-front editorial strategizing, shaping, and planning. It is not enough to simply hire people because they are respected in the industry, or because they are in demand, or because their name sells tickets, or because they are available. The order in which sessions take place is critical; there should be music to the ebb and flow; related ideas should be presented in blocks that help attendees see connections across sessions and topics.

A great conference is like a great playlist or LP; every song should contribute, and the order in which they are heard should matter. Inviting well-known consultants to speak is child’s play. Conference planners should constantly seek new talent and new ideas. Even more, they should strive to create an environment in which speakers actually want to sit and listen to other speakers, thus further improving the editorial flow and the conscious interplay of related ideas. To put together great editorial content requires deep and broad knowledge of your discipline, and of the people who contribute to it.

— Jeffrey Zeldman (An Event Apart)

Kevin Hoffman suggests that good program design also supports easy transition from one mode or “layer” (i.e., attending a session) to other modes (say, partaking in a discussion):

The best conferences I’ve designed, spoken at, or attended have created multiple layers of experience, and make it easy to transition from a one layer to the next (lighter to deeper, or vice versa). For example, I might decide last minute to be social, so it should be easy for me to jump into something, but there shouldn’t be a lot of awkwardness in jumping out of something if I need to.

Multi-track conferences tend to assume people will jump from talk to talk, but they rarely accommodate what people what to do when they want to jump out of talks entirely — is there a place where they can go to process and discuss? To respond to e-mail? To NOT talk about their practice, but instead have fun?

— Kevin M. Hoffman (IA-Summit)