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Putting the Lift Conference Under the Design Research Microscope

In these tight economic times, budgets for attending conferences are often one of the first things to get cut. How can conference organizers ensure that their events are seen as high quality, high value, great for networking, and really standing out from the crowd? Unfortunately, the usual feedback mechanisms for finding out how successfully they've met these goals after the event finishes are not very informative. Surveys and suggestion cards completed as people are leaving to get on a plane are typically rushed, rely on self-reporting, and limited in the range of what they can ask about.

The organizers of the well-known Lift conference, held for the last five years in Geneva, wanted to overcome these limitations. They wanted to see if a design research approach based on real-time observation and interviewing of attendees could provide better and richer feedback, allowing them to further improve the already highly regarded event. A team from frog including myself (from San Francisco), Elizabeth Roche and Eleanor Davies (both from frog's Munich studio) were in Geneva last week to do just that: put the Lift conference under the design research microscope.

The intent was pretty straightforward: gain a more nuanced, detailed, and realistic understanding of how people behaved at the conference, what they thought about it, what they liked and didn't like, how the physical space affected their behaviors, how people responded to different types of talks and workshops, and so on.

When you're trying to study a conference with a thousand attendees, dozens of presentations and workshops, hundreds of networking conversations, and many exhibits by start-ups, vendors, artists, and design and engineering students, you need to take a broad approach. There were several methods for understanding how the Lifters (as the attendees call themselves) behaved during the event and what they thought about it as it happened:

  • Observation and interviews: We roved around and both observed and actively interviewed Lifters, video recording and photographing as we went. We had two student volunteers who helped with this who were extremely helpful.
  • Experience diaries: 50 attendees became volunteer "researchers for a day" by filling out diaries that tracked their experience of the conference over time
  • Badge colors: We often design activities which introduce stimuli and provoke thought and reaction relevant to the particular research interest. In this case, we worked with the Lift organizers on using the colors of the badges and encouraging our 50 research assistants to make note of the badge colors of the other people they met. We wanted to see if people began to ascribe meanings to the colors (which were in fact randomly assigned to each Lifter) or if they tended to congregate with like colors
  • Twitter: We tracked what attendees were saying about the conference on Twitter, and set up special hashtags for people to send feedback specifically for us. We also set up a special email address for people to self-document and send photos from their cameraphones.
  • frogThink Workshop: We held a short brainstorming workshop using our frogThink methodology with 15 Lifters, generating new concepts for the conferencebased on a handful of opportunity areas identified through the research methods

At the end of the conference, we did a short presentation of some of our findings and the ideas generated in the frogThink, and in the coming weeks we will be preparing a more detailed set of findings to share with Lift that cover everything from ways to improve the conference check-in process to using food as an enabler of networking.

It was a great experience to collaborate across frog studios and have the opportunity to carry out live design research on the Lift conference. We want to thank the Lift organizers, in particular Laurent Haug and Nicholas Nova, for inviting frog to participate in this experiment. As we finish documenting the findings we hope they'll be useful for planning future Lift events.

AVP of Marketing Strategy Adam Richardson is the author of Innovation X: Why a Company’s Toughest Problems are its Greatest Advantage. His book is the manual for leaders looking for clarity about the emerging challenges facing their businesses. You can follow Adam on Twitter @richardsona.