The Semi-Permanent conference has been a bit of an eye opener for me. Or rather it has re-enforced in stark detail to me the things that the marketing/graphic design community are good at that we in the user experience community are terrible at and the things that we are good at that they seem to struggle with. It has also re-enforced to me how stupid this gap is, how it makes all of our work much poorer than it should be.
It’s not the content of the talks at this conference that has made this evident to me but the organisation and feeling of the conference itself, as well as the way the attendees interact with it and each other.
The last conference I went to before this one was Webstock. The differences between Webstock and Semi-Permanent are subtle but really telling. Webstock nailed the overall experience, especially in terms of thinking about all the interactions outside of the lecture theater that make up a conference. They twitter stream was well organised and active, instead of tickets they had a round the neck pass with the programs printed on the back and enough information about you on the front (including twitter IDs) to facilitate conversations with people you don’t know but have things to talk about with.
The Semi-Permanent experience was slightly less holistic, more of an experience to be consumed. There was a lot of interaction with the conference, particularly the amazing twitter art project but less conversation facilitated by the conference amongst the attendees. For example they didn’t have a widely known and agreed upon hash tag, at least three being actively in operation before they displayed their preferred one on the big screen in the auditorium making it difficult initially for a back channel conversation to become coherent.
Semi-permanent, once you got in however, once you found the booth you were interested in, once you finally connected with someone, once you settled in for a talk was a little bit dazzling. The booty had a genuinely keepable book of design and art artifacts (including some from the speakers), the whole conference operated at a level of compulsive consumption that a more expansive experience like Webstock doesn’t always match. The production levels were high and they really achieved their goal of a conference focused on inspiration. Many of the speakers had a knack of taking simple ideas and presenting them in a compelling way that made them seem exciting and inspiring. Semi-Permanent made it impossible to resist engaging with ideas that weren’t actually that directly relevant to you. Webstock’s smart but occaisonaly nerdier speakers sometimes made it difficult to engage with subject matter that was directly relevant. Bear in mind I’m generalising, the two conferences have shared at least one speaker I’m aware off and there were a couple of slight fails speaker wise at Semi-Permanent this year. Overall though I would actually recommend Semi-permanent as an enjoyable experience to anyone, not just those involved in creative industries.
Webstock is my favorite of the two, it felt far more attendee orientated and also I relate to nerds. But the Semi-Permanent crowd know how to tell a story.
We all know in the user experience community that there are differences in the strengths and weaknesses of the traditional design world and ours. Webstock and Semi-Permanent embody (conveniently) a lot of those differences.
We sometimes look down on marketing companies for their cluelessness about technology and how people interact with it and how unsuccessful their attempts to use it are. And we know that they often look down at us (or more commonly have no idea we even exist apart from a notion that ‘usability’ is important but boring) and how invisible, dry and un-engaging they perceive the work we produce to be.
This gap is pointless and stupid. We often pay lip service to the importance of story and graphic design but the fact that visual design is often the last stage of our process says a lot about how much we understand the importance of how our work is experienced emotionally. When you consider that user experience is often defined as the emotional experience a user has this gap in our practice is really galling.
And I think the marketing community need to ask themselves how much they really know about how people interact with systems and technology on a psychological and behavioral level, if they know enough to design solutions that are successful when they butt heads with the messy real world with its busy lazy people. The marketing and design world is full of micro sites, Facebook pages and websites that show a shocking understanding of how people engage with technology on a behavioral level, how their interactions contribute to their overall emotional experience.
This frustrating gap was one of the reasons Lulu and I formed Lushai, we wanted to do holistically good work and break out of the silos that are still so strong in new Zealand where things are largely still divided into technology/usability and design/marketing.
A couple of other things
You would hope that Webstock would be better on the web front since that is a web dedicated conference (and to be fair, doesn’t have to tour and is a lot more expensive). But I was surprised at how many classic user experience missteps there were for Semi-Permanent on the web side. Little things like the website made you hover over pictures one by one to see who the speakers were and the program was only available on the website as a downloadable PDF.
One last really interesting difference between the two communities. The conversations in the user experience blogs and twitter streams tends towards the critical and questioning, which helps us to get better but does sometimes feel like being in a room of people all pointing at each shouting ‘Fraud! Charlatan! DEGENERATE!’. The back channel and blogs around Semi-Permanent had a more supportive narrative more along the lines of ‘I love your work. You are are a beautiful human being. Look at that face!’. It was a noticeably uncritical environment.
Which is worse I wonder.