Imagine that you had less than a year to design a completely new conference experience with an all-volunteer team. What would you do?

The UXDC 2015 Conference Committee had 10 months to: develop a new conference brand, expand community participation, establish diverse conference themes, create branded content (blog posts, social media posts, images, videos, presentation decks), launch a new website, establish an ongoing social presence, and heighten volunteer engagement.

We also boosted community engagement and revenue compared to the 2014 UXDC conference and enjoyed:

  • 25% increase in attendees
  • 160% increase in proposal submissions
  • 57% increase in conference revenue

Read on for 3 key design and content lessons from UXDC 2015 that will help you manage your conference or large meetup.

Our Mission for UXDC 2015

Washington, D.C. is home to a unique mix of public, private, nonprofit, and educational organizations that rely on User Experience professionals to create and improve their products and services. The local Washington, D.C. Chapter of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA DC) decided to simultaneously break with tradition for the 2015 conference and expand the group’s reach. Instead of continuing with our traditional and well-respected “User Focus” conference theme, the 2015 Conference Committee and UXPA DC Board chose to highlight the synergies between Washington D.C.’s unique UX environment, UX as a competitive advantage, and the changing field.

Historically, UXPA DC represented a range of UX professionals—Usability & UX Testers, UX & UI Designers, UX Researchers, Information Architects, and Interaction Designers. These days members also come from a diverse range of UX-related fields—Content Strategists, Design Thinkers, Business Analysts, Cognitive Scientists, Service Designers, Developers, Copywriters, Marketers, and more—so we set out to start a conversation about the many ways that diverse areas of expertise are influencing and shaping the field of UX in D.C. and beyond.

1. Do Your Research and Empathize with Your Audience

Designing a successful volunteer-run conference experience begins and ends with empathy for the people involved. User research helped us tune-in to all of our customers. We evaluated survey data from 2014 and interviewed senior and junior level professionals from UX and related fields. Interviewees included past and potential attendees, speakers, sponsors, and volunteers.

Drawing on that research and experience, we began crafting a brand story that would speak to a wider audience, showcase a range of expertise, and attract new participants.

We relied on our Human Centered Design and Content Strategy skills from start to finish. In the first large volunteer meeting with Volunteer Coordinator Christine Williams, we riffed on Jeff Gothelf’s Lean UX framework for creating proto-personas to quickly align volunteer language, energy, and empathy with the primary conference audiences. Volunteers then used proto-personas to inspire and explore different ways to delight 400+ conference attendees, 42 speakers, 27 sponsors, and 100+ volunteers while delivering a valuable conference experience for everyone.

We continued exploring different ways to keep our attendees happy in later workshops as well. A customer journey mapping exercise helped volunteers empathize with different journeys up to and through the Conference, and then focus on the touch-points where thoughtful design could pay off.

We consistently relied on the wisdom in the room and received excellent input on needed content and the conference experience itself. Key contributions from the volunteer workshops included: content for attendee announcements and notifications, Speaker and Sponsor interview planning, session evaluation forms, day-of logistical planning, conference signage ideas, conference decorations, and a community driven session.

2: Plan for Content Governance

Telling a consistent brand story on the new UXDC website and blog, in email communications, on Social Media, and when networking face-to-face was no small task. As our numbers expanded, we had to stay vigilant about the way we talked this new conference into being. Developing the brand story in a small group before creating content guidelines for volunteers helped establish shared understanding and improve communications.

When you leave behind a perfectly good event to take a chance and launch something new, it’s important to be consistent, get the story right, respect past efforts, and make a strong case for what’s next. Communications ran through the Outreach Team who worked to map everything back to the new brand story as the group:

  • requested session proposals
  • developed the website text, a code of conduct, and a privacy policy
  • established @UXDC on Twitter
  • settled on a single event hashtag, #uxdc2015, that can be updated yearly
  • reached out to event partners and sponsors
  • called for volunteers

The Outreach Team also provided written guidance and regular feedback to Volunteer Leads working on: the website/blog, Twitter, visual design, photography, videography, blog editors, and to bloggers.

Meaningful engagement on Social Media mattered before, during, and after the conference. It was important to set clear expectations with our stellar Volunteer Twitter Lead Ali Toblosky (and then get out of her way!). Encouraging everyone to focus on what our audiences would value, regularly sharing useful information, and spreading Twitter love all received great feedback from the community as well.

Tools helped. We established and shared a Google spreadsheet for tweets that Norm E Sun, my incomparable Outreach Team Co-Lead, named “The Tweetbucket.” It streamlined our workflow and we kept it supplied with tweets for volunteers and supporters to dip into as-needed. The Tweetbucket made it easier to adapt to changing deadlines, promote ticket sale cycles, and have supporters confidently share our message in real time.

3. Test, Learn & Iterate

Each phase of design and content work required us to test ideas, learn from the results, and iterate. We regularly gathered feedback from members of our potential audience groups and made sure that our message and content resonated with them. Everything from the conference theme to the marketing communications to the website content to the individual speaker sessions improved as a result. Beginning the conference planning process with interviews and gathering feedback along the way allowed us to pivot and change direction as needed.

When you’re moving fast, it isn’t always possible to touch base with as many people as you’d like each step of the way, so we incorporated representative input. Roleplaying helped empathetic volunteers provide feedback and food for thought about potential audience group concerns.

A hands-on approach to design and content followed directly from our vision and commitment to collaboration. Human Centered Design and Content Strategy; being willing to test, learn, and iterate; and dedicated volunteers were exactly what we needed to make UXDC 2015 a success.

The Author

As a Principal at Chaos To Clarity LLC, Jo Golden consults on projects that benefit from her expertise in combining strategy, Human Centered Design, and communications—collaborating with stakeholders and clients to make experiences with learning, services, and products more meaningful. She was also leader on the UXDC 2015 Organizing Committee.

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