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Conferences as a UX Research Constraint
“People want to tell their stories. Provide that platform and then they’re totally immersed in the topic. You’ve got them.” — Plaid London
Every year, Atlassian hosts our annual customer conference, Summit.
What began as a tiny conference with a handful of customers has greatly expanded. This year Atlassian Summit had over 4,000 attendees, and was held at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
Thousands of our most enthusiastic product users and administrators came to learn about our upcoming product features; hear the latest on topics like Agile, DevOps, and ITSM; and see our founders dress up like Elvis (yes, this really happened).
From a research point-of-view, Summit presents a unique opportunity to learn from an engaged subset of our customers. But while these customers are extremely passionate, they may only be able to spare 15–20 minutes of their time. Given these constraints, how can we best engage with them?
The Atlassian Research team has tried a variety of approaches at Summit over the years, including 1-to-1 moderated interviews, participatory design stations, and even unmoderated usability testing labs.
Year after year, we’ve seen whiteboard activity walls to be the most engaging and effective in this conference context. The general idea is simple: think of some questions, write them on a whiteboard, and let people respond.
Yet something about the non-conference-y vibe of workshop walls — the color, the hand lettering, the intriguing questions, an atmosphere of fun — always draws attendees in.
Crafting the space
In years past, our workshop wall has been a single, double-sided whiteboard. Imagine a front and a back, which attendees would do a loop around. Researchers would staff the wall, ask attendees follow-up questions, discussions would ensue, and then attendees moved along to the next booth.
Attendee engagement was always high, but I felt we had outgrown the single wall. I wanted to take our space up a notch: creating not just a one-stop booth, but a place with multiple types of activities that attendees might return back to over the course of the conference.
More activities meant we would need more walls. So what could we create with multiple free-standing walls?
This led to thinking of art galleries and museums. Art galleries use walls not to enclose, but to inspire exploration. By dividing large spaces into sections, without doors, they invite curiosity. Visitors are encouraged to meander and make their own path, find nooks, and stay a while. Similarly, we wanted our conference attendees to explore, participate, and maybe even reflect.
Diving further into the museum world, I stumbled across the work of London studio Plaid (who the above quote comes from). Plaid specializes in immersive spatial design, and have created exhibits for museums like the Tate Modern.
I was greatly inspired by Plaid. The way they shape spaces to encourage active visitor participation is nothing short of masterful! With ideas in hand, I reached out to our Summit events designer, Robert Shabazz to help make my dreams a reality.
One key visual principle Robert and I came up together with was “Work in Progress”. Visually, we wanted to signal to customers at the conference: Our company is constantly trying to improve our products. We know they aren’t perfect, and this space isn’t either. We want your help to improve.
This principle led us to use plywood, so the space felt less polished than the rest of the conference. We also re-named the space Research Workshop, to evoke craftiness and that hands-on feeling.
Creating Research Activities
Of course, no matter how good the space looked, the Workshop would only be successful if the research activities themselves were engaging and impactful. A word of advice: coming up with quality activity ideas takes some time.
Don’t go it alone — form a team. Ideally one with a mix of knowledge about your customers (aka conference attendees). I asked a team of researchers, designers, and product managers, with a range of experience working across the Atlassian product suite, for their help.
After much brainstorming, we had heaps of ideas. But how to decide which would make the cut? Based on my experience from previous whiteboard activity walls, I used these guiding principles to make the final call:
- Activities have to bias towards action: they should encourage people to participate immediately on sight. Most should be straightforward enough for someone to do alone. This helps out when the space gets busy, and also make the space more approachable for introverts.
- Activities need to be user-centric (not company-centric). In our case, the questions we ask and the terms we use should reflect participant’s worldview; not how Atlassian thinks or speaks internally. When possible, activities should be able to be done by anyone, from new user to power user. This also allowed us to explore broad topics with attendees (for example: teamwork), not just end up with feature requests.
- Finally, there needed to be a mix of mediums. Whiteboards and dots, but also paper, string, stickers, and more. This made the space look more visually interesting, and hopefully this diversity would encourage participants to do multiple activities.
When we arrived at the Mandalay Bay conference center, our structure was built to spec, but the whiteboards were completely empty. It was up to our team to bring our vision to life. We got down to business drawing, cutting, and even purchased some plants to make the space a bit more inviting.
Then, the moment of truth. Customers arrived, and started engaging with our activities.
A few customer favorites included:
I.T. Quest. Based on our knowledge of I.T. teams and their challenges, we created a scene-scape of elaborate visual puns. We simply asked participants “Does any of this resonate with you?”, and they were off. Our team captured their thoughts with sticky notes.
Democratization of Jira with string. A straightforward matrix survey transformed into a fun hands-on activity with yarn, hooks, and sturdy peg board. Customers loved explaining their answers they did, even debating with fellow customers about their choices.
Atlassian Relationship Therapy. Who knew customers could be so expressive with only a blank piece of paper and craft supplies? We’ve done this a few years now and are always wowed by the thoughtful love letters (and break-up letters) that result.
The data behind the activities
While the resulting walls are colorful and fun to look at, they weren’t actually the goal of our space. These activities (like most research activities) were merely a means of facilitating discussion.
When customers cautiously approached, our team would introduce ourselves, we’d chat a bit, then do a few activities together.
Each interaction typically lasted less than 20 minutes. These activities gave us a platform to quickly engage with customers; learning about them, their teams and their challenges along the way.
It was in these interactions that the valuable data was, not the colorful walls. Each wall was covered in Post-it notes, documenting our customer interactions and learnings throughout the 3 days.
Beyond the conference
In the end, our booth was busy, and customers were enthusiastic about our space. Some customers even returned, to try different activities, or to see what other participants had added.
We learned lots about this subset of our customers, and were able to bring that knowledge back to our product teams.
Even better, every person that stopped by signed up for our Atlassian Research Group. This is the customer panel we rely on for research throughout the rest of the year. So now we can follow up for proper interviews (ones longer than 20 minutes!), usability tests, and more after everyone heads back home.
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Conferences as a Constraint, or Creative Customer Research was originally published in Designing Atlassian on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.