Finding Your Favorite UX Conference

By Janet M. Six

Published: May 21, 2012

Send your questions to Ask UXmatters and get answers from some of the top professionals in UX.

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts tell you how to choose a UX conference that’s right for you, as well as about their favorite UX conferences.

Every month in Ask UXmatters, our UX experts answer readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: ask.uxmatters@uxmatters.com.

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Carol Barnum—Director and Co-Founder, Usability Center at Southern Polytechnic State University. Author of Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set…Test!
  • Jessica Enders—Principal at Formulate Information Design
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at BMC Software; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Caroline Jarrett—Owner and Director at Effortmark Limited; UXmatters columnist
  • Tobias Komischke—Director of User Experience at Infragistics
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); UXmatters columnist
  • Jim Ross—Principal of Design Research at Electronic Ink; UXmatters columnist

Choosing a Conference

“Find something new that you want to learn, then look for the conference where you can learn it.”—Whitney Quesenbery

“There are three ways to choose a conference,” advises Whitney.

  1. Find something new that you want to learn, then look for the conference where you can learn it. Extend and deepen your skills in your current field of work, or learn something completely new. Decide whether you are looking for training in new skills, insights to help you develop your own ideas, or both. Lately, I’ve been interested in conferences that offer UPA- or CHI-style workshops—small groups working on a topic for from a few hours to a day. They are a great way to explore a topic you are already gaining expertise in.
  2. Go to an awesome—or convenient—location. Some conferences have a personality of their own, but travel to different places each year. Others reflect the personality of their stable location. You can use a conference as a way to learn about a new geographical area, too.
  3. Meet your friends—or find new colleagues. Maybe you live in a place with a strong UX community, but like to use conferences as a way to break out of the local mold. Or maybe you live in a more isolated place and come to conferences to get together with your online friends and colleagues.
“I tend to choose different conferences each year….”—Whitney Quesenbery

“I tend to choose different conferences each year, looking for a mix of all of the above. A few conferences where I have found a great mix include UX Hong Kong, UX Australia, UXLX, and WebVisions. Then there are the usual suspects like UPA, IA Summit, and CHI, plus the local and regional conferences like Boston UPA.

“But I’ve also been stretching out a bit with conferences on agile, plain language, elections, and accessibility.

“For accessible UX, CSUN, the granddaddy of the accessibility conferences, was awesome, and Knowbility’s Access U is a great learning conference.”

UPA: For User Researchers

“The best UX conference to attend depends on your interests and the area of user experience in which you specialize. … Since I am a user researcher, the UPA conference is the most valuable conference for me.”—Jim Ross

“Of course, the best UX conference to attend depends on your interests and the area of user experience in which you specialize,” responds Jim. “So I’ll answer this question from the perspective of someone in user research. Since I am a user researcher, the UPA (Usability Professionals’ Association) conference is the most valuable conference for me. It is geared especially toward practitioners, with very useful and relevant topics. Unlike at other conferences that are a little more theoretical and exploratory, speakers at the UPA conference are practitioners themselves. So the topics are very relatable, and I always take home at least a few new ideas that I can use in my work.

“One of the best things about attending a conference is that it allows you to step outside of your routine to see how other people are doing things. Because UPA attendees are user researchers like me, the conference exposes me to different perspectives and the techniques other people use in their work. You have the opportunity to learn from others, not only through the presentations, but also by networking with other attendees.

“I like the fact that the UPA conference is very inclusive and open to new presenters. Unlike at some other conferences, if you have a well-conceived, interesting, and unique topic, it’s not that difficult to get accepted as a presenter. The reviews of submissions are fair and result in a quality program with many choices for attendees.”

“I currently like UPA conference the most because there are actual practitioners attending and presenting….”
—Tobias Komischke

“I currently like UPA conference the most because there are actual practitioners attending and presenting, and the vendor booths are good, too,” replies Tobias. “The right conference for you obviously depends on what you want to get out of a conference. I personally I want the following:

  • Presenters who are practitioners and actually work on real-world products. I don’t need to see big names. It’s all about the content.
  • Stories about concrete and real-life UX challenges and how people solved them.
  • Trends in products, technology, methods, and processes.
  • Topics like user experience as a consulting business or integrating user experience into a company.
  • Opportunities to chat with other attendees—for example, during informal evening social events.
  • A handout with all of the presenters’ slides—all together on one USB stick.”
“I like UPA for its practicality and focus on UX methods, case studies, and associated design issues.”—Carol Barnum

“I like UPA for its practicality and focus on UX methods, case studies, and associated design issues,” answers Carol. “I have attended pre-conference workshops, which generally concentrate on a single topic and in which like-minded UX professionals participate. I have also attended pre-conference tutorials that have exposed me to areas of UX methodology that I haven’t tried before. As the profession has matured, the UPA conference has designated sessions for advanced practitioners or those who are new to the profession. That’s a good development that addresses people’s needs and helps me to decide which sessions to attend.

“The best part of UPA is the long breaks between sessions, which provide opportunities for an invaluable aspect of conference attendance: networking. I get to talk to lots of people who share my passion for user experience, as well as to meet some people who I know of from either their work or their postings to UX or usability discussions, but haven’t previously met face to face.”

IA Summit: For UX Strategy and Design

“The IA Summit is my favorite of the conferences that are organized by professional associations. It offers diverse, cutting-edge content that covers almost every aspect of user experience.”—Pabini Gabriel-Petit

“As someone whose career has focused primarily on UX strategy and design, I prefer conferences that emphasize those aspects of user experience,” answers Pabini. “Among those conferences, the IA Summit, is my favorite of the conferences that are organized by professional associations. It offers diverse, cutting-edge content that covers almost every aspect of user experience and provides great opportunities for networking with leading UX professionals. And it’s fun! You can read my in-depth reviews of the IA Summit here:

“it’s important to attend a different type of conference every once in a while. Attending a conference that’s slightly outside of your specialty is a good way to see different perspectives.”—Jim Ross

“I also think it’s important to attend a different type of conference every once in a while,” recommends Jim. “Attending a conference that’s slightly outside of your specialty is a good way to see different perspectives. I did that this year by attending and presenting at the IA Summit 2012. Unlike the more research-oriented UPA and CHI conferences that I usually attend, the IA Summit is a more design-oriented conference. It was nice to hear about different topics and meet different people.”

Conference Reviews on UXmatters

UXmatters has published nearly sixty conference reviews—including reviews of major international conferences like CHI, UPA, IA Summit, and Interaction and smaller regional conferences. You’ll find links to all of these reviews under “Conference Reviews.”

Regional and Local Conferences

“These conferences have grown so much that they now attract the same numbers of attendees as the big, international UPA conference.”—Carol Barnum

“I have generally attended the annual UPA conference,” replies Carol, “but I plan to start circulating among the one-day regional conferences such as UPA Boston and UPA Washington. These conferences have grown so much that they now attract the same numbers of attendees as the big, international UPA conference.”

“UX Australia is a fantastic conference with rich, high-quality presentations across all areas of user experience.”
—Jessica Enders

UX Australia is a fantastic conference with rich, high-quality presentations across all areas of user experience,” answers Jessica. “One of the best things about it is that it offers a platform for all professionals working in user experience, not just the more famous among us. This, plus the relaxed, yet professional nature of the event and its focus on actual practice—both what worked and what didn’t—make UX Australia non-intimidating, fresh, and highly informative.”

“UX Bristol is great. ”—Caroline Jarrett

UX Bristol is great,” enthuses Caroline. It’s well organized, short, unpretentious, and cheap, and there are good speakers.”

What to Avoid

“What I’m not personally interested in,” declares Tobias:

  • “Fancy professors who present design projects that have no ties whatsoever to real-life user interface design, don’t solve a real challenge, and don’t result in a real user interface. At Interaction12, one guy showed a research project where they gave out cameras to people who crossed a bridge. Then, they looked at what photos people had taken on the bridge. That’s interesting to some extent, but to me, it’s too far away from user interface design.
  • Taking workshops or tutorials. Content-wise, I’ve never felt that they were worth the money. Also, I find that they’re typically too rigid and formal, so I always feel trapped in them.”

Please share your favorite conferences in the comments.

3 Comments

Since I was too idle to answer Janet’s email in time for this column, I’ll add my ramblings on the topic here.

The short version is that I pretty much agree with Whitney. :-)

I pick my conferences based on some combination of what I want to learn, where I want to visit, and who I want to meet.

I also, like Whitney, get a lot of value out of attending non-UX-related conferences. It can be very hard to see the connections between disciplines if you only ever spend your time with people who do the same thing as you do. Go spend time at a developer conference or a marketing conference—you may come away with some great new ideas.

For example, I just had a lovely time at GOTO Copenhagen, which is primarily a developer conference. There was a UX track, but I’ve come away with some great new perspectives and food for thought after attending other sessions on things like software architecture.

The only thing I would add to what others have written is to think about the smaller, more local events, in addition to the larger conferences. For every large conference I attend, I probably go to two or three local BarCamps or other kinds of small meetups.

If I had to make a choice between the large and small events, I’d pick the small ones. You don’t get as many big names. Not all the presentations and sessions may be as polished. The networking opportunities are obviously reduced. However, you often get to hear some ideas first. You get to encounter very smart people before they break through to become well-known smart people. You also end up spending a lot less money because they’re usually a great deal cheaper or even free.

The local events and BarCamps are also a great place to start presenting and speaking yourself. It’s a lot of fun to be a participant, too.

As a conference organizer, I was going to avoid responding to this column when the question was sent around, but I feel the need to redress some statements that come across as unbalanced—in my opinion.

I’m disappointed to see the way in which the Interaction conference, the annual conference of IxDA, is characterized in this piece. The one mention of the conference is under “What to Avoid,” which puts forward a very singular and biased view, which is acknowledged. Tobias’ view of interaction design as akin to user interface design is valid, and yet it represents an increasingly small percentage of modern interaction-design practice. As the Chair of Interaction 12, it is a view that I most strongly do not share, and I programmed the conference to reflect my view.

The presentation to which Tobias refers was intended to explore the boundaries of contemporary interaction design and was never intended to be solely practical. As a whole, we intended the conference—and I believe we successfully achieved our intent—to provide a balance between the inspirational, the curious, and the immediately practical. To write off the entire conference on the basis of this one presentation, rather than the content as a whole, feels unbalanced and unfair. Whether that was Tobias’ intention or not, the way in which the reference is presented has that effect.

I have the same criticism to make of the perfunctory way in which the contributors have written off workshops and tutorials. Attendees consistently report that hands-on workshops are one of the most valuable aspects of the conferences I organize. We pay as much attention to the programming of the pre-conference workshops as we do to the conference proper, and the value of those sessions is reflected by the high percentage of conference attendees who also sign up for workshops.

Regards, Steve Baty

Chair, Interaction 12

Co-Organizer, UX Australia, Service Design, and Agile UX Australia

Adrian and Steve, thank you for your comments. Steve, I wanted to specifically address some of your points. First, I do not see that the entire Interaction Conference is “written off.” In fact, I see Tobias’s comment as against academicians presenting on topics he considers irrelevant, not against Interaction.

Second, workshops and tutorials were not “written off.” In the very first paragraph of this column, these events were specifically highlighted as a good option.

Third, this column had the opinions of only seven people—the entire, large expert panel was consulted, and these were the people who had time to submit their opinion and interest in doing so. This column was intended to spark much conversation—as noted in the last sentence—because there is a multitude of conferences, and some are a good fit for a specific person, while others are not.

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