Teaming With Success


By Heather O'Neill

Tips for UX teams from the world of conference planning

If you’re involved in the PHP development community (or if you pay attention to Jared Spool‘s calendar of speaking events), you may have heard of a first-time conference held in August called Northeast PHP (NEPHP). You may have heard that it wasn’t very costly ($99.99 to attend); it offered more than just PHP (the UX track was my favorite); and on day one there was a huge catering snafu (lunch was an hour and a half late). Hopefully, you’ve heard how hugely successful it was, despite being pulled together by volunteers with full-time jobs and no conference experience.

As one of the organizers, I saw the conference come together. The organizing team included diverse backgrounds and personalities, not one of us with any experience running a conference. But, just as I’ve seen in the world of UX and product development, the most unlikely of backgrounds came together to create a successful end result.

The key factors that made NEPHP 2012 a success are also critical when approaching a UX design project. With that in mind, here are five tips to consider when planning your next project – whether you’re dealing with a few dozen stakeholders, a few hundred conference attendees, or both.

Success Tip #1: Create a Shared Vision

In a UX consultant’s kick-off meeting, the primary goal is always the same: articulate the vision and achieve team buy-in. Once the overall objective becomes a shared vision, individuals can trust one another not only to work together but also to work independently, completing their tasks in a timely manner and reporting back to the group.

For the NEPHP leadership crew, Michael, the team leader, articulated the vision: an affordable conference for PHP developers, from beginner to advanced, to increase their skill set and expand their knowledge of topics ranging from PHP to Git to UX and more. By the end of our first meeting, we were all on board with this shared goal. Michael led us confidently, so that we shared the same clear articulation of what we were doing and how we wanted to get there. This improved our teamwork and chances of success in many ways:

  • We didn’t need reminders to stay on task. The clarity of the goal gave us focus and a sense of ownership, also reinforcing that we were all in it together and each person needed to do his part.
  • Michael was able to delegate with confidence, having others take on coordination of the venue, sponsors, speakers, and catering while he focused on communications, site creation, and participant registration.
  • We were equally aware of what we were not trying to do: make money, throw together an event haphazardly, or promote any one specific group, organization or software.

Rather than a disparate group of individuals each with her own agenda, we became a coordinated team united by a common purpose.

Success Tip #2: Think Big Picture

Once you have a shared vision, you need to keep tying everything back to it, balancing the details with the high-level goals.

In Above the Fold’s recent eBook of 50 UX best practices, practice #1 highlights the importance of the big picture for UX teams. Every project has a lot of details to get right. Delegating tasks and creating a shared vision provide a good starting point, but there is always the possibility that a team can fall apart by becoming overwhelmed by details, and neglecting the overall objectives.

For the NEPHP conference, the details were delegated early on. Matt focused on obtaining the venue and coordinating the space, using his connection with the folks at the Microsoft NERD center. Brad culled sponsorships and developed relationship with key companies. I spent significant time working out the schedule of speakers and editing talk descriptions. Everyone had an area (or several) that they were managing, but we didn’t want to be caught in our own silos of work. Instead, we tried to keep one eye on the overall goal as we completed the tasks at hand. So we took a page out of Above the Fold’s eBook: “Document the short- and long-term goals early on in the process, and review them daily or weekly to keep them on the team’s mind.”

Michael, as leader and visionary, spent a significant portion of his time documenting our goals and being available to the team, organizing check-ins, and double-checking that every delegated task was aligned with our shared vision. He ensured that every detail fit together to move forward with the overall goal: a successful conference.

Success Tip #3: Communicate (Productively)

Meetings are often considered a waste of time. Even when there is a defined agenda, unless the meeting is relevant and engaging, most people spend meetings waiting for their turn to speak, waiting for the meeting to end, or doing other work. It takes intentional effort to hold a productive meeting, and doing so – for both large kick-offs and daily check-ins – is a skill that UX teams need to master.

Three months before the conference, Michael recommended that we start holding weekly team meetings. We all agreed, but I’m sure many of us had trepidations about giving up a lunch hour each week. However, using the same agenda every week, and prioritizing tasks and to-dos, we were able to use the weekly meeting per its design: as a way to keep the team updated, discuss areas of contention, and make group decisions. Each person gave a brief update of their tasks, brought up points of discussion, and asked for help as needed. After all updates were given, we discussed any outstanding items, and assigned & prioritized them.

We also did not limit our communication to these weekly meetings. To share information between meetings we used Google docs and email, and tabled big discussions until the weekly check-in. This made the meetings themselves more productive and focused, while keeping everyone on the same page throughout the week. With the combination of meetings, email and Google docs, we were able to cover every detail, and involve the whole team. For a team of volunteers ranging from Toronto to Boston, the weekly check-ins prevented us from getting bogged down with flurries of emails or missing critical details.

Success Tip #4: Connect to the Community

Connecting with users is the bread and butter of every UX team. During the conference planning, our “users” were our participants. Connecting with that audience—the PHP community—allowed us to gain value from their insight and support.

Northeast PHP brought together three PHP communities: BostonPHP, Atlantic Canada PHP, and Vermont PHP. Since our team was comprised of the leaders of these groups, we were able to tap into all three communities, to create a conference that truly met the needs of the attendees. When it came time to select speakers, we benefited twofold from our community: many community members volunteered to speak, and others were able to connect us with speakers beyond the PHP community. All the speakers were lauded for being pertinent, helpful, and engaging. Moreover, every speaker volunteered his or her time, which added to the overall sense of community at the conference.

Another tremendous outgrowth of our relationship with the PHP community was the NEPHP website. The framework was originally created by BostonPHP member Andrew Curioso for a previous event that didn’t pan out; Andrew then offered it to the NEPHP team. Built using CakePHP, the project is open-sourced on Github. Michael and Andrew were able to take Andrew’s initial project and turn it into the current conference platform in a matter of weeks. We were even able to enlist help from the community to create both the conference logo (initially designed by Amy Grogan) and a mobile version of the site (developed in PHP by Jonathan Baronville).

As much as we did to make the conference happen, we definitely could not have done it without the help and support of our communities.

Success Tip #5: Anticipate Errors

Even with the best forethought, it’s impossible to anticipate every problem, whether planning an event or designing a software application. Nevertheless, careful planning and consideration ahead of time can minimize potential problems, and decrease the severity of problems that do arise.

To minimize the challenges at NEPHP, we started by listing all the key components we needed for the event: registration, speakers, catering, venue, volunteer help, paper goods, sponsors, giveaways, and so on. For each of these, we then compiled the details involved: costs, benefits, who was responsible, what help was needed, etc. By planning up front, we were able to keep on top of the tasks to be done and things to consider.

Then we asked “What if?” What if we don’t get many sponsors? What if a speaker cancels? Using our lists as guides, we spent time planning for less-than-perfect situations. From putting out a call for volunteers early on to setting up a back up plan for unavailable speakers, we tried to prepare for all possible outcomes.

The final key piece of our effort to anticipate and minimize problems was to keep things simple. For any event, just as for any software application, there are myriad features you can add. We knew that the more we tried to do, the more likely we were to run into trouble, so we always kept in mind the possibility of saying no. Ultimately, our goal was to create a well-run, educational conference, and if an idea was proposed that stretched us too thin, we turned it down.

All this effort didn’t make everything perfect, but it did prepare us for the challenges we might encounter. Case in point: on the first day of the conference, although lunch arrived 90 minutes late, the leadership team kept their cool. We were able to react calmly and efficiently:

  • We frequently updated the participants on the situation
  • We immediately and repeatedly apologized for the inconvenience
  • We let the participants know we had a back up plan: we ordered pizza

The participants were frustrated, but let us know (in person and via Twitter) that they appreciated how we handled the situation.

Obviously we wish the conference had gone off without a hitch, but there’s something very satisfying in knowing that a small team, some of whom met face-to-face for the first time the day before, were able to come together and save a potentially devastating situation. (Have you ever been in a room filled with hungry developers?!)

Bringing it all together

Working with others to accomplish a goal is a challenge in any scenario. For UX consultants, it’s especially prudent to have a solid leadership and planning framework in place. Establishing a shared vision, thinking about the big picture and communicating effectively are the glue that holds teams together. Connecting with the community allows consultants to harness the power of the crowd, and thinking through what-if scenarios ensures that a team plans for the many possible use cases that can make or break a product.

The NEPHP conference planning process has impacted on the way I lead our consulting efforts at Above the Fold; these five tips remain at the front of my mind when we kick off a new engagement. Take the time to consider your own leadership and planning framework; how do you lead your team to success?

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