Beyond Conferences: the Heart of UPA's Secret Power
Chris Hass is a Senior Vice President of Experience Design at Mad*Pow where he directs human factors research and user interface design activities for the development of innovative user experience products and programs. Chris has unique expertise conducting accessibility research with persons who have physical and cognitive disabilities, and designing information architecture and interaction designs for consumer, medical, professional, and human service products. Chris is the President of the Usability Professionals' Association (UPA) Boston Chapter, and an Advisory Board member of UPA International.
I'm standing on the edges of the UPA International annual conference exhibit hall in Munich watching nearly seven hundred UX professionals, researchers, designers, developers, students, presenters, and sales personnel gently jostle their way to the exhibit booths, snag coffee cups from central tables, and encounter each other. Hellos are exuberant and handshakes are exchanged. Europeans air-kiss Americans who blush awkwardly. In nearly every case when two people shake hands, their other hand touches their colleague's shoulder, arm, or grasps a wrist warmly. Conversations seem magnetic: Two people will stop, talk for a moment, then one of the two will spot someone passing by and invite them to join the discussion. Within minutes a couple becomes a trio, a quartet, a quintet, until the room is nearly impassable with energetic conversations. Happy voices grow louder and the room is almost unbearably full of sound.
A trio of student members of Germany UPA enters the room from the registration area and quickly sidesteps into a corner. They seem shy and uncertain how to traverse the room. They confer among themselves and turn to leave. Suddenly, a UPA member from London moves to intercept them. He holds out a friendly hand and shakes each of theirs in turn. Introductions are swift. The students smile and relax. The Londoner asks a few quick questions, listens to the students' responses, then turns to survey the crowd. He brightens, singles out someone of relevance to the trio, and reels in someone the trio has been hoping to meet. Introductions are made and the trio is at once part of the room.
Throughout the conference I will see this scenario played out again and again. People who do not know each other find themselves engaged in conversation and quickly build friendships and camaraderie that will last years. Lunch groups begin with a handful of persons who each invite others that they would like to sit with until the groups swell to fifty, sixty, seventy persons. It becomes an in-joke that UPA groups traverse the streets of Munich like giant amorphous amoebas– alternatively elongated and squashed as conversations shift and streets are crossed. Again and again I will hear attendees marvel that "it's the networking" that makes the conference special. That coming to a UPA event is "like 'old-home week.'" After sessions the hotel lobby is full of groups waiting for "just one more person" before heading out into the night to sample the city.
I leave my vantage point on the edges of the exhibit hall and make my way to the tables at the far end where pitchers of water have been set up. Getting a glass of water is, I know, a hopeless task.
My inability to cross a room at a UPA event has become a running joke between my colleagues and I. What generally happens is that I enter the room and encounter someone I know or have wanted to meet. We talk. After a few minutes the currents of the room pull us apart and I take another step forward, only to encounter a person or group I haven't seen or spoken to in some number of months. We talk. Minutes later I take another step. And so on. At nearly every UPA event I find myself an hour (or even two hours) later only a few feet from where I started. On rare occasions where I manage to cross a room I accomplish this feat only when the gathering is ending.
Far from a complaint, it's a wonder.
What is it about UPA events that inspire such instantaneous and heartfelt connections? Other conferences are not like this. In a few days time I will leave the conference genuinely heartbroken that my friends will once again have scattered to the corners of the globe. Many of them "friends" I have known only for a few days or hours. Why is the flight home so sad?
Is it that our cadres of usability professionals are highly practiced interviewers? We're trained to draw people out of their shells and to encourage them to talk about themselves. It makes us easy conversationalists, and trains us to look for value in our interactions. Professionally we seek out meaning in otherwise meaningless pleasantries. Why should it be different in our social lives?
Or is it that we greatly enjoy talking about the techniques we employ and their variations? Mention "focus group" and the conversation instantly turns to newly minted versions of established techniques. Experiences and lessons-learned tumble from our lips with ease.
Is it the stories? The practitioners among us interact with the public to a significant degree. As a result we are full of funny, poignant, frightening, or powerful tales of quirky participants, unusual discoveries, and corporate culture gone awry.
Could it be the "inside scoop?" Our members are on the teams of major corporations and organizations, seeing trends emerge and furthering them through tight-knit networks of colleagues and collaborators. Conferences are an opportunity to piece together the larger picture or just marvel good-naturedly at the times when our clients just can't seem to get it right.
Then there's the productive discourse: the UX professionals who have earned the respect of their organization share tips and techniques for gaining a foothold for usability within large, intractable organizations. Students illuminate emerging social media trends to interested practitioners. Eye-tracking aficionados swap statistical techniques with enthusiasm. Consultants compare pricing, market penetration, and consider ways to collaborate across continents.
Or is it that we see the world the same way? Usability techniques have many variations, but at their heart they are the same in Singapore as they are in Sweden. From Oklahoma to Okinawa we speak the same professional language. Does that accelerate our conversations past polite banalities into the realm of genuine friendship?
Are we lonely? For all the hundreds who will attend this UPA conference, and the ones before and after it, usability is widely considered a "small field" where "everyone knows everyone else." Do we simply recognize ourselves in each other?
Before my eyes in the exhibit hall newcomers are greeted as old friends and old friends are greeted as family. This is unique and precious among professional gatherings. There is no anonymity of the crowd. There is no sense of the isolation professionals can feel when far from home in an unfamiliar city.
Perhaps it is all of these. But whatever it is, it is the essential, often unspoken, secret power of UPA events: That they are the confluence of whom we are as people AND what we do professionally. UPA conferences are more than just intellectual inspiration and education. They are about recognizing with our minds and hearts that the world's boundaries are variations on a theme and that theme is humanity.
Every day we see with our "usability eye" all the ways the world is fractured. We prove again and again that products are flawed, that practices could be better. But when we come together, we embrace each other instantly with an inherent optimism that says "by seeing and sharing we repair the world. Make it better. We are the seers, the fixers, and we are the same."
So yes, I will be very sad on the flight home. I will miss my UPA friends. But it's a good, inspiring sadness that I find wholly unique. I wouldn't give it up for anything.
Thank you UPA. See you next year!
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