An approach to learning at conferences

Kathryn Reeves


Whoop whoop! It's conference time here in the Southern Hemisphere. Tomorrow four of our Optimal Workshop crew will be winging our way to sunny, salubrious Sydney for UX Australia for four days of workshoppy, presentationny goodness. The conference is run (and has been since 2009) by Donna Spencer, expert designer and author of three books, including the excellent Card Sorting: Designing Usable Categories (written about a subject we hold dear) and Steve Baty, principle at Meld and a Very Nice Person.  It starts on Tuesday 26 August, so keep an eye out on Twitter by following @uxaustralia. We're keen to get to know people, so if you're going to be there (or you're in Sydney during that time) please tweet us @optimalworkshop and we'll get together for a drink! Here's some thoughts from my pre-conference days...

What I find challenging about conferences

I'm addicted to collecting information. I add at least five web pages or pdfs a day to Evernote, I take long-winded notes on videos and talks I listen to, I have folders full of images, articles, pamphlets, advertisements, sketches, you name it. But just because I collect like a mad thing doesn't mean I get around to properly reading it all, let alone absorbing it. And in the past I've done the same thing at conferences. I've taken home screeds of notes, yet have rarely revisited what I've learnt because I'm too busy collecting something new. So now I treat conferences like I'm completing a mini-degree, and there's one particular approach I've found works for me. I thought I'd share it and you can let me know what you think.

How to make sure you learn something (like, really learn something) from a conference

To make sure you take concrete, actionable stuff from the next conference you attend, have a go at the following:

1. Narrow the learning field

The sheer amount of high-quality content you're presented with at conferences is one reason why it's so hard to take anything in. Our brains come close to having 2.5 petabytes (a million gigabytes) of memory storage capacity (it's true, I read it in Scientific American). But ask me what I remember after a conference and I'm reduced to a few simple anecdotes and a couple of speaker's names. The antidote to this is to narrow your focus. Choose two or three (yes, so few) sessions that you want to not only attend, but prepare for and follow up on. Go for the talks that punch you in the gut when you read about them. Be ruthless.  Pick two or three sessions that you actually want to change you. You'll attend others, of course, but these are the ones you'll commit to absorbing.

2. Find out what you know, what you don't know, and what you think

One theory of education, contextualism, states that knowledge isn't something that's 'out there' for us to reach out and take, but that learning is contextual:

We do not learn isolated facts and theories in some abstract ethereal land of the mind separate from the rest of our lives: we learn in relationship to what else we know, what we believe, our prejudices, and our fears. — Prof. George E Hein

The more we know, the more we can learn. So take the two or three session topics you've chosen and put your study hat on. Find out what you don't know on the subject, and what you do. Skim read the different view points and approaches. Write down questions you have. You don't have to ask them, but having them in your mind will help to focus your attention. And finally, decide what your take on the topic is. Have an opinion (because anything's more engaging if you've got an opinion about it). I try to form an opinion as early as possible while remaining open to changing my view. I find that having an opinion makes me think more carefully about what I'm hearing. Either I form connections to validate my opinion, or my eyebrows work overtime to change my opinion, or I write down questions to ask later because I disagree with what I'm hearing — and none of this happens to the same extent if I don't take a moment to reflect on my opinion first.

3. Do something — be an action bunny

After the conference, do something with what you've learnt. Make sure something you've learnt actually changes an aspect of what you do. Here's some ideas for your Action List:

  • Source and read the books and resources that the speakers suggested you read. Go to the library or visit Amazon the day you get back, or you might forget.
  • Source and start using the tools that speakers suggested you try. Sign up for accounts, read reviews and discussions, and talk to your team about how you could start using the tools straight away.
  • Write a blog or an article about the event itself, or about a topic or theme that's still ringing in your ears. And then share it with the people who attended and the people who spoke. We'll definitely be keen to read it (and tweet about it!).
  • Contact the people you met (and liked). Ask them something meaningful or continue a conversation you already started.
  • Research things that sounded useful for your work environment. If you were jealous of some other work environment or practice, take a step in their direction. Create a space or practice that will make other people jealous at your next conference.
  • Share things with your colleagues. It'd be great if they'd been there too, and the least you can do is offer them a few highlights. Put together main points or insights into a fun presentation to share the love.
  • Have you changed an aspect of what you do? Make a reminder to thank your inspirer a month from now (when you can speak about the impact). Gratitude tastes and sounds great, freshens your breath, grows back immediately, and is good for the environment.

More advice on attending conferences

Here's some gems of wisdom from around the web about attending conferences (and they just happen to be handy lists!)

Kathryn Reeves

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