DonnaM » Conferences


A Camp Grenada catch-up

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Sometimes twitter just doesn’t do it for a good, solid ‘what have I been doing’ catch up post. So here’s one that takes more than 140 characters.

It’s already April and I feel like I haven’t done much work this year. Of course, I have been busy as hell. I’ve done loads of planning and administration for UX Australia, wrote a brand new full-day advanced information architecture workshop, and had plenty of meetings with content authors for a long-running government project.

What I’ve really been doing is teaching. I’ve done five in-house full-day workshops, 2 conference talks, 1 full-day conference workshop and 2 full-day public workshops. So that’s work, and it’s work I love. But it is so fun that I forget that it is actually work, and feel like I haven’t done anything.

But really, the pain of airports and airplanes should make it feel like work. I’ve travelled so much this year that I can visualise the Qantas Club lounge in every Australian city (except Adelaide). I do think I could walk in and make it to the wine bar with my eyes closed. 

But April is looking up. I’m home all month, in my lovely house, with my lovely dog and a brand new bed (mattress arriving Thursday, 1000TC sheets ready in the cupboard). I have a nice pile of client web writing, new book writing (I’m writing an e-book on web content for Rockable press), some wireframes for a favourite client, and more bits and pieces for UX Australia.

I hope that the biggest news for April will be that my card sorting book is published. It is at the printer now, and should be ready in a couple of weeks. I promise I’ll tell you when that happens.

May is also looking like fun. By then I’ll be over my travel fatigue, which is good as I’m going to Philadelphia to talk at the jboye conference (IA workshop and content talk). Just as cool is that I’m going to be around for the IXD/IASummit redux in DC. Going to hire a car, drive from Philly to DC, see some friends. Ahhhh, I’m already getting excited about it.

Then June. OMG June!

In June I’m first going to Denmark to teach an interaction design masterclass (and some community of practice meetings). Then to London to do some touristing with my friend CJ (I’ve never been to London), then two workshops at UX London, then more touristing, then home.

So in late June, I’ll be saying ‘I’m so glad to be home’ and desperately waiting to get away again. I feel like that Camp Grenada song – you know, the one where the kid starts of hating it, then loves it. Me & travel – Camp Grenada.


Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

I woke up feeling strange this morning. No, it wasn’t the three hours sleep – I know what that feels like. And it wasn’t a hangover – I certainly know what those feel like. It was something quite different and it took me a little while to figure it out.

But it needs some backstory. I was at South by Southwest Interactive this weekend. It is an incredible conference, with lots of smart people and interesting talks, and quite famous for its parties. The SXSW film festival is on at the same time so Austin is packed and there is more than plenty of stuff to do.

I was on a panel with the awesome Nick Finck and Michael Angeles, called ‘Wireframes for the Wicked‘. It was fun to work with them and according to twitter our session went pretty well. Lots of people appreciated that we left half of the time for audience questions and that we actually tracked questions asked via twitter (#wickedwire) and answered them at the time and alongside questions from the floor. 

Immediately following our talk was one by Bruce Sterling. His SXSW rants are famous (his SXSW party at his home also used to be famous), and I’m a big fan of his writing, so this was absolutely mandatory for me. I didn’t realise it would be so hilarious. Via a few wandering twists and turns, he spoke about change. It was a serious topic, and delivered seriously in some sections, but right in the middle he had a Bruce party right there, with crisps and beer and awesome cookies. His delivery is amazing and his timing is just perfect – he had the audience roaring with laughter (or was that just me).

With that over, I grabbed my buddy Dan Willis and we went out to dinner. Dan always makes me laugh – I’m still wondering just how mad he really is. But that doesn’t matter because we really can spend a lot of time just talking and laughing.

With the film festival on, we could get into first-showings and Dan suggested we go see ‘Observe and Report‘. I love going to movies without knowing anything about them and that certainly was the case here – I hadn’t heard of the film, the director, the actors and had no idea what it would be about. The lack of expectations can make for an amazing experience and that certainly was the case. This was one of the funniest (and weirdest, and with incredible timing) movies I have seen in a long time. I don’t usually laugh out loud in a theatre but I was laughing and hooting and clapping and so was the rest of the audience. I also don’t usually talk about movies straight after, but Dan and I were laughing and cracking the best lines all the way to the next part of the evening – the Blue Flavor party.

When the bar closed and we were all pushed out the door, as happens every morning at 2am in Austin, Dan, myself, Matt Balara and Ola hung around for another hour or so just shooting the crap, talking about everything and nothing and laughing a lot.

So can you pick up the thread here and know why I woke up feeling strange. I spent about 10 hours straight laughing. Laughing in Bruce Sterling’s talk, laughing with Dan, laughing at the movie, standing ’round on the street laughing with friends.

And I still have a big ball of laughter glowing inside me. It feels incredible and amazing and wonderful and I can’t wait to do it some more…

UX Australia: August 2009

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

I’ve been annoying my friends by hinting at a secret project underway. Sorry guys, but I’m glad I’m finally able to tell you.

The big secret is that we (me, Andrew Boyd, Steve & Danielle Baty) have been doing the initial planning for a user experience conference, to be held in late August in Canberra (Australia).

I think it goes without saying that I’m really excited. I’m excited to be involved in conference planning again, and excited to be able to arrange a conference for my community.

One of the things I’m happiest about is that it will be a proposal-based community conference (ie one where anyone can submit a proposal, and the community reviews to help select the program). Don’t get me wrong, I love conferences with professional, high profile speakers; but I also love the homey feeling of a community conference where you get to contribute to who presents what.

The other thing that we are going to be doing, and this will get started later in the year, is running workshops. I haven’t been able to run my own workshops as often as I’d like in Australia, so hope to do that more. And we’ll be inviting other folks to teach practical full-day workshops. If there’s someone you’d like to see, or a topic you’d like to see covered, let me know and we’ll see what we can do.

Anyway, that’s the news. I hope you’re almost as excited as I am!

Conference season

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

For me, the next few months are full of conferences and workshops. My calendar is so packed I don’t know where the work will fit. You can catch me at:

I hope I see you at one or more of these.

And remember, I can teach any of these workshops in-house to your team (see my list of IA, interaction design, usability & content workshops).

10 tips for conference presentations

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Yesterday I attended what I think will be my last conference presentation for the year. And it was a doozy.

I’ve sat through at least 100 conference presentations this year. Some were awesome, some were awful and most were pretty good. But the awesome and awful ones stick with me – when a topic is not of interest to me or is about something I already know, I pay more attention to the presentation style, looking at what works and what doesn’t.

So I’ve compiled my ten tips for presenters. These represent the things that great presenters do well and bad presenters just butcher. Of course, I’m not perfect, and I know I’ve made some of these mistakes, but I’m trying to do silly things less often.

1.  Work to time

In the worst presentation of the year, the speaker got up in front of 500 people and said “I have too much material, so I’m going to go through this quite fast”. Immediate FAIL. Then, 10 minutes before the end he said “I’m almost out of time, I’ll just go a bit quicker through the last points”.

Conference organisers are usually quite clear about how much time you have allocated. If they are paying your airfare, accommodation and a speaker’s fee, not tailoring your presentation to the timeslot is just rude, and doesn’t help you or the audience.

The best presenters know how much time they have to work with, tailor their presentation to fit the time and then keep an eye on the time. One of the best I saw this year was Jeff Veen at Web Directions – with technical problems at the start he lost 15 minutes and still came in almost on time.

And if you are running out of time, stop. Jump past a couple of slides if you need to make one last point. Otherwise you are saying “I’m more important than you, you can wait until I’m finished”.

2. Leave time for questions

A common behaviour for bad presenters is to run right up to, or over, time, then ask ‘any questions’ (in a rushed voice too of course). No-one asks questions, and the speaker thinks they’ve done a great job.

Great presenters run 10 minutes before time, ask ‘any questions’ and get a ton of hands.

This, believe it or not, has nothing to do with the material. It has everything to do with feeling permitted to ask questions. If there is obviously no time for questions (especially right before lunch or coffee break), the person who asks one is holding up the room. We are polite folks and we know how to play the game – we don’t want to hold up everyone just to ask a personal question. But when there is plenty of time, we feel like we are allowed to, so we do.

And questions are a good thing. They give you a chance to elaborate on something that wasn’t clear, or cover the topic that everyone wants to know but you forgot to include. They help the audience feel like you are approachable and a peer.

3. Know what your point is

I attended many presentations that were well-spoken and well timed but never actually made a point.

Yesterday’s presentation was a perfect example. I spent most of it wondering what the speaker’s point was, and finally concluded that he didn’t know what his point was either. Talks like this waffle all over the place and never get anywhere. And listeners walk away feeling stupid.

If you aren’t sure of your point, do the ‘Why, who cares, so what‘ test. Think about what you’re actually trying to convey, think about why someone needs to know it, why they would care about it, and what the consequences are. This is a simple trick that really helps you think about what you should be communicating.

4. Rehearse

The first time you give a talk, especially if you are using slides someone else has prepared, rehearse it.

Really. Yes, I really mean it.

Rehearsing helps because you hear yourself say the words. You can hear your jokes (I think my jokes are hilarious until I say them out loud), practice stories and figure out the pace. Then when you have to perform for real, your brain doesn’t have to figure it out from scratch.

You can rehearse in your bedroom – it feels odd, but works. Or ask a couple of friends to listen to you. Our local IA cocktail hour has been the rehearsal ground for a few people this year, and we are happy to do it.

5. Avoid self talk

This tip came to me via the very awesome Dan Willis.  We were sitting together watching someone who is super-smart and always has really insightful things to say. And Dan said ‘if only he’d stop self-talking, he’d be perfect’.

Self-talking is all the little things speakers say when they are simultaneously trying to deliver a talk and thinking about themselves doing it. Comments about technology, ‘oops, there’s a spelling mistake’, ‘oh, there’s an extra slide’, ‘what does that point mean’. They can subtly undermine your credibility and make you look inexperienced.

Of all the tips I’ve ever learned, this one has been the most helpful to me personally.

6. Understand your audience

The two worst speakers of the year made the mistake of not understanding the audience. But the reason they were the worst went further – they also assumed that the audience didn’t know anything and needed educating. Guess what – audiences can actually pick up on it when you think of them like this.

Before speaking to a group, find out what they already know and where they are up to with your topic. If you think you might need to explain some fundamental concepts, don’t talk down to people. Just say you are going to quickly go over some background so some key points later on make sense.

But really, the trick to this is to genuinely care about your audience. No matter how hard you try, if you think they are beneath you, they’ll pick it up.

7. Talk about what you know

Another difference between great presentations and mediocre is the presenter’s knowledge of their material. A great presenter not only knows what points they are making, but knows why those things are important and what they mean. They can answer a question on the fly, or elaborate on a point as needed.

You might be caught having to give a presentation on a topic that you don’t know thoroughly, or use a presentation someone else has written. If this happens, rehearse it a couple of times, think about each of the points, why they are important and what they mean. Do some background reading, discuss it with colleagues and think up a story for each of the main points. This will increase your understanding of the material and your confidence.

8. Tell stories

Humans don’t learn by listening to strings of facts. We learn from stories and examples.

One of the best things you can do in a presentation is to tell stories. Make a point, then put it into a real situation. It may be something you’ve experienced, something a colleague has, or your opinion about an issue. Your listeners will understand your point better, and you’ll sound more credible. Win-win.

I tell stories in all my presentations. Sometimes I even completely ignore what is on a slide and just tell a story. The thing I have to be most careful with is that I don’t tell a story twice in one session – how embarrassing would that be!

9. Talk in inverted pyramid

Inverted pyramid is a style of writing where you present the most important facts first, then elaborate on them, then elaborate further. The urban myth is that it developed with the introduction of the telegraph and the need to get the facts through before the connection was lost.

Whatever the history, get your point across, and then build up on it. Your audience can then make a decision about whether to listen to you or do something else (think about sex, read twitter, write nasty things about you on twitter). If you build up to your point essay style, chances are you’ll lose part of the audience part way through and they’ll never get the point you are so carefully working up to.

10. Balance imagery and text

If you’ve been attending presentations for a few years like I have, you’ll have noticed that bullet points have almost dissappeared. The current style, at least amongst the user experience and web folks, is gorgeous imagery and a small amount of text.

Some of the worst presentations I saw this year went so too far with imagery – I kept getting distracted trying to figure out how the image and the speaker’s point related, and ended up missing the point entirely.

Don’t be terrified of text and bullet points. They are OK when:

  • the point you want to make isn’t easy to communicate visually
  • visual language is the best way to communicate the idea
  • people need to see the whole idea in order to understand it
  • you are discussing lists of steps or sequences

But if you are going to use bullet points, make them communicate your point. Don’t use them as a memory trigger for what you want to say – that’s what speaker notes are for.


So, if you don’t want me sitting in the third row twittering about how terrible you are:

  1. Work to time
  2. Leave time for questions
  3. Know what your point is
  4. Avoid self-talk
  5. Rehearse
  6. Understand the audience
  7. Talk about what you know
  8. Tell stories
  9. Talk in inverted pyramid
  10. Balance imagery and text


If you’d like to improve your presentations, my two favourite resources/books are:

Making decisions about user research

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

Note: I’m going to polish this later, but wanted to get the basics down quickly.

We know that we should do user research for projects. All the user-centred design material says so, we talk about it at conferences, we put it in proposals. We just know that it is a good thing to do.

But when I talk to people about their actual projects, I find that very few people actually do user research. There are many many reasons (no time, no money, already know what users need etc etc etc).

I think that part of the reason it doesn’t happen is also that we don’t have good tools to tell us just how much research to do, and even when it isn’t necessary at all to do research.

In preparing for my Edge of the Web talk, I spent time thinking about that issue, reflecting on some of the projects I’ve worked on in the past and thinking about the factors that led me to push to do research, or to go ahead without.

The factors I came up with are:

  • Importance to the business: Just how important is the project/application in meeting organisational/business goals?
  • Importance to users: What will happen to users if you mess up. Will they be harmed, or will they just go elsewhere?
  • $$: How much is the project going to cost? (i.e. how much will be wasted if you mess up)
  • Profile/politics: What sort of profile does your project have? Is there a political implication? (e.g. is the Minister going to get hauled up in Parliament if you mess up. Will your work reflect badly on your industry?)
  • Convincing others: How much work will you need to do to convince other people that your ideas are good?
  • Existing knowledge: How much (real) knowledge do you have about your users?
  • Ability to iterate: Can you make changes quickly if you make a mistake, or is it a one-shot deal?
  • Feedback: How easy is it to collect feedback from your users?

Given each of these is a continuum, we can do this:

Each of the above factors, plotted with low and high ends

And then we can think about our projects, and plot where we fall on the dimensions…

Example 1: A personal blog

Example 2: A conference website

Example 3: An e-commerce shopping cart

Example 4: An enterprise-wide core business application

Is the Australian IA community a clique?

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

I’ve just been away for a week at two of my favourite conferences - OzIA and Web Directions.But this post isn’t quite about that…

I read some of the feedback from OzIA on the weekend. And one comment stuck out and worried me a bit. The comment was along the lines that my talk seemed silly (which I can deal with) and cliquey (which worries me).

Now I know that a couple of times I mentioned folks in the audience by name. I know that I know a decent proportion of the crowd. And there definitely is a group of IA folks in both Canberra and Sydney who see each other regularly, hang out together, eat together and even do non-IA stuff together.

But it worries me that it may be seen as a clique. Something that has an in-crowd and an out-crowd. I worry that it might look like there is an in-crowd that doesn’t want to involve other people, because that’s just not the case.

Those of us who do hang out together do so partly because we have gotten involved in something. We’ve been to conferences together, attended IA meet-ups together and volunteered together. We’ve discussed the future of IA and what it all means over drinks. That crowd has built up over time and changes over time. There is no membership and no secret handshake. It is just a bunch of folks with a shared interest.

So, please. If it looks to you like there is an IA clique that you are not involved in, just get involved. Here’s how:

We aren’t an exclusive clique and we really do love getting to know other people who do IA.

Oz-IA: Student rates

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

Just announced: Student rates for Oz-IA. Full conference rates are only $198 and workshop rate is $77. That’s fantastic pricing and a great incentive to help students attend!

Workshops galore (with discount codes)

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

I’m doing an awful lot of talking in the next three months – workshops and conference talks. So in case you are thikning about doing some IA or interaction design learning, I thought I should get them all in one post, along with their discount codes!

Oh no – looking at it like that – I think I need to go do some writing!

    Oz-IA: Get your proposal in

    Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

    Oz-IA, one of my favourite Australian conferences, has announced a call for proposals.

    And they’ve made it super-easy – it is a call for expressions of interest, rather than full, detailed proposals. But the hitch is that they need to be in soon (25 July). So if you have an idea for a talk about IA, or of interest to IA folks, please submit. And if you would like me to look over your idea, let me know!!!!

    Web directions UX: Getting content right

    Monday, May 19th, 2008

    Here’s my presentation from Web Directions User Experience, titled ‘Getting content right’.

    The description for it was:

    “We all know that great content is a core part of the website user experience. So why is it so hard to find content that isn’t dull, lifeless and uninteresting – blah, blah, blah?

    Web content can be vibrant, interesting and fun. It can draw you in, fill your head and make you learn without having to think. And it’s not really hard to write. Three simple tricks can turn poor content into a great experience – remember that readers care more about themselves than you; write in real words with authentic voice; play show and tell.

    This presentation will discuss these principles, with plenty of funny and not-so-funny examples. You’ll go away with practical steps to make your writing kick-ass. And you won’t even have to think.”

    I think it went well. Good questions at the end, and a number of people commented that the tips actually were things they could do (which was the aim).
    (Lots of car references in there too…)

    New IA Summit speakers

    Sunday, April 13th, 2008

    I had an IA Summit epiphany today…

    When I looked at the program this year, I was a bit disappointed that some of my favourite and noisiest IA folks weren’t speaking. It felt a bit odd to see a program with loads of names I didn’t know (back story – I’ve been on the organising committee and closely involved in the previous 4 summits). It didn’t bother me, and would never stop me from attending, but did feel a bit strange.

    But then I was hanging out in the hallways in a break today and spotted lots of people with ‘speaker’ ribbons that I didn’t know. And I felt something I thought was interesting. I felt glad that there were loads of new-to-summit folks who had gotten their stuff through a tough review process; and glad that there was a venue for the same folks to communicate their ideas to peers.

    It really felt quite strange, and reminded me of why summit is my favourite conference, by far, for the year.

    Andy Clarke is an information architect

    Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

    Who knew? I always thought Andy Clarke was a great visual designer and CSS dude. But what I didn’t know was that he’s a closet information architect.

    I attended his workshop today at Web Directions. In this, and in his book (Transcending CSS), he spent a big chunk of time talking about meaning and structure – about identifying meaningful content chunks, using semantic naming for pieces of content and using microformats to make small pieces of content more usable.

    I know this isn’t usually considered to be information architecture, but I personally think it is. What is more IA than analysing content, finding meaning and creating macro and micro-structures? That sounds like IA to me.

    Andy talked about the idea that ‘designers’ should be involved in the development (or at least planning) of code structures. I think this is a perfect place for IA folks to also be involved (if they are involved in a project) – to best figure out how detailed content chunks can be used. But I don’t think this is only an IA role – it is important that everyone thinks at the broad level of communication design and the detailed level of communication execution.

    And it was a fantastic workshop, wonderfully supported by The Jam & Paul Weller.

    Oz-IA wrap-up

    Monday, September 24th, 2007

    Oz-IA finished yesterday. For me the best part is catching up with smart colleagues I don’t see enough of (and smart friends I see often). And I certainly got to do a lot of that. I hardly stopped talking!

    There were a couple of outstanding presentations (especially Matt’s semantic analysis preso which never fails to stun me). There were some good, solid, interesting case studies (my favourites were the news website redesign, user research in secondlife and the mentoring case study). There were some good theory presentations (Steve’s statistics, Iain’s page length).

    There were a few disappointing presentations*. I won’t name them – that would hardly be professional ;) . But there were a couple of presentations that were content-poor, impractical or overly general. There was one that I found quite condescending (without sufficient rigor to back up particular criticisms).

    I mention this as I know we can do better. I know a large proportion of the IA folks in Australia and I know that you have the skills and the content. So I would like to encourage the organisers to focus on presentation quality next year – get the call for proposals out earlier, involve the community in choosing and be more transparent. And I would like to encourage all you smart folks to put in a proposal.

    [* Who am I to criticise, after the most disastrous start to a presentation ever. It was bad enough that I had a screaming backache and forgot to grab my water and notes, but then the lapel mic battery died - I hate using handheld mics - if I can't talk with my hands, I can't express myself.]

    Free pass to Oz-IA 2007

    Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

    Oz-IA 2007 is on in less than a month. As a sponsor and speaker I have two passes to the conference (and there’s only me in my company, so I only need one).

    So I’d like to give one away to someone. I’d prefer to give it to someone who would like to go, but the registration fee is difficult to manage (whether it is personally hard, or organisationally).

    If this sounds like you, email me (maadmob at gmail dot com) and explain why you want to attend the conference.

    I’ll keep a record of everyone who contacts me and decide on 9 September. I won’t write here who I gave it to, and won’t tell anyone else – i.e. it will be private.

    Don’t email if you work for a government department, large company or consultancy – I’m unlikely to believe you can’t manage $550 ;)