SofaConf and Primer after 2 days

This is an aimless ramble about virtual conferences in the age of COVID.

In a surreal twist, lockdown has enabled me to attend 2 conferences at the same time — Primer and SofaConf—remotely. Strangely, intentional or not, the way the sessions are sequenced across the two conferences enabled me to watch them back to back without that much overlap.

That being said, I am finding myself engaging more with SofaConf than Primer, and it has to do with the more-practical content, and engaging Q&A follow-up after. Primer definitely feels more abstract and academic, despite much of the talks focus on important societal issues like racism and global health, which are very important and needed.

Primer’s Emerging Designer VR exhibition was an impressive simulation of a museum-like poster gallery, but I did struggle to read the posters when I was navigating the space. The daily Miro boards also captured the collective spirit, presence and reflectiveness of Primer’s community well.

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Screenshot by @errederruiz

Attending both conferences at the same time has reminded me how much I miss conferences, which is scary because conferences poorly represent the reality of what I actually face on a day-to-day basis. This is not specific to virtual conferences…. but I feel good when I’m there even virtually, and that counts for something.

Conferences are an escape, a place where we can freely moan and pitch our solutions believing that they can answer at least part of our problems, but most importantly be amongst other people who feel the same pain.

But they’re not reality and at the end of the day, I’ve learnt again that I’m responsible for my own actions at work, and I need to believe in my own ability and means to shape the changes I want to see. Even with fresh external perspectives, the road ahead is long and painful, and I need to find my own way to hack through the challenges at work.

Strangely, the fact that conference ticket prices have dropped so much has helped me realise the truer value for what they are—a momentary and effective way to pause, reflect, connect, and smell the UX roses. I think the high price sort of inflates its value a lot, and creates a sort of bubble-idealism effect that can be dangerous and self-perpetuating, a bit like Agile.

I’ve experienced the failures of applying lessons gained from conferences back in the workplace — there’s often a cultural, structural, directional mismatch. I’m definitely guilty of that. Maybe that’s what makes conferences a perpetuating force—we will forever be in need of solution stories because new problems perpetuate out of the solutions themselves. They’re what’s needed to revalidate if we’re crazy, alone, idealistic, on the right track… it’s hard to get this kind of validation at work sometimes. It can be lonely, especially if your head is constantly swimming in conference and UX practice material all the time.

But I digress, virtual conferences have proven they can offer some of the same benefits of physical conferences — the discourse, the learnings, the networking, and even entertainment.

It’s a very different dynamic though — everything is all there in front of you. You can even watch multiple streams across two devices… no, three! And there’s so much time saving when it comes to accessing slides, ML-automated transcripts, videos made available immediately after the presentation, public Miro boards, VR poster spaces….

“Where can I watch this stream?”

*click*

“Can someone post the transcript link?”

*click*

“What’s the name of this song playing in the background feed?”

*click*

It’s bizarre but it really does work.

Instead of furiously sketchnoting every talk like I’ve done for so many years, I’m cutting and pasting stuff into Evernote, downloading materials, and taking copious notes—fearing that after some time, all of the resources will vanish into thin air. For some reason, I don’t feel the same anxiety as I do with physical conferences… “Oh, you’ll upload it in the next 6 months? OK.”

Because everyone around me is getting into it, it sort of does feel like a party. It’s a weird party where I’m only really watching videos of at most, two people talking to each other, and only occasionally scanning the chat stream. But because some UX friends have sort of cajoled ourselves into attending multiple conferences in the same week, it somehow feels like we’re connected, despite never saying a word to each other during any of the events.

And I sort of need a party right now.

Written by

Principal UX designer at Elsevier. IxDA local leader and board alumni. Strategy. Systems. Visual thinking. Design. Has a brain in his stomach.

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