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New Ideas for the Economist's Ideas Conference, Part 2

frog design recently conducted a day of design research at the Economist’s Human Potential 2010 conference in New York. The research was intended to look closely at the event (and by proxy the Economist’s global series of events called The Ideas Economy: Ideas That Press Forward), and to find ways to enhance attendee experience during the conference. A small team of designers challenged participants at the event to disrupt normal conference-going patterns by engaging in playful micro-collaborations that could challenge their own notions of what a conference was. They created a game called “Playables” consisting of five cards, each of which had their own challenge or task. To learn more about the thinking and execution of the experiment, see this blog post and video. Following are the results of the research, including a presentation slideshow that you can also find on frog design’s Slideshare page.

In the summer of 2010 we began a discussion with a team at the Economist about how to enhance the experience of their new conference series, “The Ideas Economy: Ideas That Press Forward,” and we agreed to conduct a day of design research at their New York event, Human Potential 2010. As part of our preparation for this research, we first looked at what it means to go to a conference these days and then we pushed that through the filter of “human potential.”

Why do we go to conferences? Do we go to consume, to learn, to engage, to network, to get away from our jobs, to eat free food? It's time to reframe what a conference-going experience should be.

To do this we created Playables, a game of small provocations designed to disrupt conventional conference patterns. The goal is to create new opportunities for collaboration and networking. Most of all we just wanted people to have fun.

The game consists of a basic rules system and a five card set, each of which had their own challenge or task. “Dare Cards” urged attendees to talk to a speaker or another attendee. “Profile Cards” helped attendees understand each other. “Buzzword Cards” prompted participants to create and collaborate on new words that might define some of the ideas they heard at the event. “Unexpected Cards” were used to capture the points that resonated with the audience. Lastly, the “Book Jacket” card was an experiment to create a book cover title and subtitle based on the points written on previous cards.

After passing out the game cards in attendees gift bags we started taking notes. In total, about a third of the conference goers participated in the game. One segment of attendees used the cards as an icebreaker, but did not actually pay the game. Another small segment played the game, but they did not turn in the cards.

We noticed that  while the Playables game did not drive everyone to collaborate, those who considered themselves inherently collaborative seized the opportunity to interact with others. As one attendee said, "I tend to be very social anyway. It may have changed how other people have behaved but then again the people who aren't so social would have not used the cards. So what I like about them is that they allow a certain type of person to engage — a person who is more social and values those qualities."

Another attendee told us, "I love the collaboration. To me innovation happens when two ideas collide to make a better idea and the only way they can collide is with interaction between humans and the cards help to facilitate that process."

Some people not only interacted when they wouldn't have, but they created richer interactions than they would have otherwise.

One exciting outcome that emerged came from the content created by attendees using the Buzzword Cards. We asked our own Jan Chipchase to seed his presentation with one of the buzzwords (“Humetrics” — metrics that matter to everyday people). We felt that word represented a deeper thread that was underlining much of the conference discourse. That term was picked up and tweeted numerous times during and after Jan's talk. What’s interesting about this is that one of the generative elements that emerged from our experiment revealed a unique insight. At frog we seek new insights using disruptive techniques. This is where innovation happens and doing in the midst of a highly charged conference atmosphere, using the crowd, we found a new and interesting way of expressing a new phenomenon that researchers and "everyday people" are contending with — in this case, data overload and measuring personal consumption and performance.

Some other winning Buzzwords were:
•    Metabirth — A word used to describe the aggregation of all the startups that can't make it on their own to capitalize on ideas and talent.
•    Folkgeist — A term that means “localized spirit of the times.”
•    Powerdox — A word to describe using paradox as a "power tool" (for overturning thinking).
•    Tribeconomy — A word used to label the facts that define a community economy (Hispanic, African American, Asian, etc.).

In the end, this was a social experiment. Something we were trying to understand was how do we turn the conference experience upside down. How do we make it more disruptive, diverse, generative, and immersive. We think conferences can be more generative (as with the Humetrics example), and that actively disrupting the routine is one way to get there. This was our attempt. The cards were the entry point to this form of engagement.

In the end, this was a social experiment. How could we turn the conference experience upside down? How do we make it more disruptive, diverse, generative, and immersive? We think that by actively disrupting the routine was one way to get there. Most importantly, the game changed initial perceptions about how attendees could participate in the conference as active collaborators as opposed to passive attendees.


View more presentations from frog design.