How Matt is making UX New Zealand more awesome

6 min read Optimal Workshop

Did you make it to UX New Zealand 2015? If not, here’s a taste of what you missed:

If you made it, you possibly met Matt, Optimal Workshop’s community manager and chief conference organizer. Or perhaps you saw him buzzing around behind the scenes, or overcoming his own fears of public speaking while nervously MCing the event.

So, how did Matt become the man behind Aotearoa’s biggest and best user experience conference yet? I caught up with Matt to find out how he became involved in UX New Zealand, how things went last year and what’s in store for UX New Zealand 2016.

The evolution of UX New Zealand

What you may not know is that UX New Zealand 2015 was the first conference Matt has ever organized from scratch. We think that he did a pretty good job all round! UX New Zealand was actually first held in 2013, but at the time was organized by Donna Spencer and the team from UX Australia. When it became apparent that it was increasingly complex to continue to run the New Zealand-based event from across the ditch, Donna handed the opportunity to Matt and Optimal Workshop.

Matt is quick to admit that running a conference for the first time was a leap into the unknown. He had a chance to learn a little about what goes into organizing a conference while being the event photographer at UX Australia 2014. Matt also attended Enterprise UX 2014 in San Antonio, Texas as part of Optimal Workshop’s sponsors booth before returning for UX Australia in 2015. Attending these conferences gave Matt the opportunity to connect with UX experts from around the globe, which meant that he already had some great contacts when looking for speakers.

With a solid background working in hospitality and events, Matt was comfortable managing groups of people and attending to the details that make a great experience. So in 2015, he took on the challenge of UX New Zealand.

Bringing all the UX together in one place

Months of planning and preparation later, what was it like standing in front of the crowd on the first day? Matt said that it was an absolute highlight seeing the number of people who had invested and turned up to the event. Aiming for a minimum of 250 attendees, it was a proud moment to see the 300-plus seats filled with attendees from around the country and further afield. This showed that there was strong support for an event that brings together both UX and other professionals, to learn and share experiences across all aspects of the field.

He was also chuffed to have numerous attendees approach him to share positive comments about the event. To top it off, the audience showed their engagement by sharing and tweeting their experiences and insights throughout the event, taking #UXNZ2015 to the top trending hashtag across the Wellington region!

How was UX New Zealand 2015 for you?

Matt confesses that creating a conference experience for UX professionals was a slightly intimidating prospect.

“In general, UXers are an open and casual bunch, but they can have strong opinions for how things should be done,” he explains.

In order to capture as many ideas as possible for improving UX New Zealand 2016, Matt created and distributed a feedback survey to all attendees following the event. The survey included the following questions:

  • Overall, how was UX New Zealand for you?
  • What were some of the highlights for you?
  • What can we do to improve the experience next time?
  • Are there any topics that we missed this year that we can look into next time?
  • Who would you like to see speak at the next UX New Zealand?
  • How likely are you to recommend UX New Zealand to a colleague or friend?
  • Anything else you would like to tell us?

So what did attendees have to say? Over 70 per cent said that they were very likely to recommend the event to a colleague or a friend. Sweet!


In terms of areas for improvement, there were some consistent themes that came up across attendees’ responses.

Food and drink – Matt is working hard to make sure there’s an even greater variation of food and drink options on offer for 2016. He’d love to have an extra coffee cart to shorten the queues for coffee, so if you’d be interested in sponsoring a cart (or two) then get in touch.

Venue and seating – He’s heard loud and clear that attendees weren’t keen on being split across different areas during the breaks (this was an unfortunate last minute surprise for him too). Matt has made it a priority to make sure this year’s venue has space for everyone to mix and mingle together.

Communication – Now that he’s nailed the general logistics of the event, this year Matt will focus on acing all aspects of communication before, during and after the conference. He’s also looking at setting up a Slack channel for all attendees. Last year, he ran a similar channel for the presenters, which was not only a great way for members to answer each other’s questions, but also provided an opportunity for people to connect beforehand and then continue conversations after the event.

Topics and speakers – By far, the most frequent feedback from attendees was around the speakers and the topics on which they presented, however there was considerable variation across attendees as to what they’d like to see for the next event. Below is a snapshot of some of the diverse opinions Matt is looking to manage.

Focused or diverse?


For some attendees, they’d prefer an event with a stricter theme, whereas others appreciate a mixed bag.

“Focus on one aspect of UX. It got a little too abstract and stretched in parts.”

“Some of the talks seemed less relevant/more tangential.”

“Keep the sessions varied, some very topic specific and some that are blue sky and challenging.”

“If you listened to what we wanted, we probably wouldn’t have had Stephen [McDougall]’s great presentation on architecture and how to run a business.”

Expert or novice?


Pitching the content at the right experience level is also a challenge when the audience is made up of more seasoned professionals to people looking to break into the field.

“Maybe a bit more focus on the core fundamentals of UX in a couple of talks.”

“More content for UI/UX newbies.”

“Spend less time on fundamentals — for many it’s a lesson on what we’ve been doing for years.”

Practical or philosophical?


It’s clear that many attendees value practical presentations, with real-life examples, whereas others want to venture away from the practical, project format.

“More talks from practitioners with stories about what happened, what we found out, what we did, what we learned.”

“More about ideas and innovations rather than process or step-by-steps through a project lifecycle.”

Suggested speakers?

Suggestions for potential speakers were as wide-ranging as the requested topics. From homegrown groups doing cool things like Quotient, Empathy Design and Auckland University’s Laboratory for Animate Technologies, to international big players such as IDEO, Spotify and Facebook, the results were varied.

Areas of expertise that attendees would like to hear about ranged from classic UX topics such as information architecture and interface design, to the UX of physical products, and speakers from disciplines outside of UX, who curate great experiences.

Despite the challenges of accommodating this varied feedback, Matt has a defined vision for the next event.

“UX New Zealand 2016 will have a focused theme, so that attendees have a clear idea of what they will learn from the conference, but I’m definitely keen to keep a few curveballs too,” he says.

And what are Matt’s other goals for UX New Zealand 2016? “To make it bigger and more awesome and to have more fun and be less scared!”

Just quietly, I hope that he takes on board my favourite suggestion from the feedback survey:

“Take it to an island; provide cocktails in pineapples!”

UX Rarotonga next year, anyone?