A few weeks ago I attended the IxDA11 conference in Boulder, Colorado. For many years the first night of this conference has ended in a very well attended, and well-lubricated, karaoke event. Sadly, despite my ability to play several instruments, I cannot, and should not, sing. In these situations I choose to protect my fellow conference-mates and remain in the audience. Why am I bringing this up? To be honest, while I thoroughly enjoy hanging out with everyone, I’m always a little bummed out that I can’t fully participate.
Fast forward to day two of the conference…and the end of the morning series of keynotes. We’ve just heard four wonderful talks on four wonderful topics - all tied together thematically - and it’s time for questions. Four, maybe five, intrepid individuals approach the microphones and take turns asking their questions. The panel members take turns and generally do a wonderful job answering the questions. There is, however, no chance for a real dialog. With 600 attendees it’s simply a matter of logistics and timing. Again, I’m left with mixed emotions. While the discussion was fantastic, I’m disappointed I can’t fully participate.
Click…and a light bulb flickers to life in my head. My brain frequently hits upon wacky, and not-so-wacky, ideas through mashups; the combination of two unlikely sources into something novel. This time, combining karaoke and panel discussions, I turn to my IxDA partner in crime @pnts and utter the words, “I can’t sing, but I have something to say. We need panel-oke (pronounced “pan-ul-oaky”). Of Andrea’s many awesome qualities, two of my favorites are her enthusiasm and encouragement. She didn’t let me down.
The basic idea is to combine the positive attributes of karaoke and panel discussions; keeping it casual, fluid, rapidly changing and open to everyone and focused on lively discussion instead of singing.
Believing in the idea we started pitching to whoever would listen. Amazingly we didn’t hear anything but support, curiosity and eagerness. It seems the idea touched a nerve and a few short weeks later with the additional support of some wonderful IxDA NYC folks the event was on. Luckily we timed the inaugural event to coincide with my work-related visit to New York for Salesforce.com’s Cloudforce event.
Photo by: Samuel Lee
Name: Panel-oke (IxDA NYC Site)
Date: March 4, 2011
Time: 6:30 - 8:30pm
Hosts: Andrea Mignolo and Ian Swinson
Sponsors: Pivotal Labs, Infinity Plus One (aka Jonathan “Yoni” Knoll), and IxDA NYC
Location: Pivotal Labs’ brand new space on Broadway
We arrived early to set up. Though, to be honest, this is a pretty easy event to organize and set up. The room was generously sized but not overwhelming at about 30 by 75 feet. Against one long wall we place a whiteboard and four chairs. The whiteboard displayed the rules, the hashtag for live tweeting (#paneloke), and the @IxDA_NYC twitter handle. Facing the four chairs we had fifty seats arranged in three rows and forming a slight arch to center the audience on the panel. Pivotal Labs is apparently eager to host events frequently so they were luckily equipped with a two-channel PA system.
In the fridge there was beer and wine (thanks again Yoni!) and near the fridge we had name tags, slips of paper and pens. Since this was primarily intended to be a social networking event the name tags are a given. The paper and pens were for preparing questions in advance of the actual discussions. We allowed folks to either hold onto their questions or drop them in a bag for possible inclusion in a discussion round as a wildcard and anonymous submission.
Shortly after 7pm, when everyone had downed a beer, we asked everyone to take their seats and set up explaining the rules. Here’s what we came up with:
1. Prepare a topic for discussion
This is like choosing which song you’ll sing at karaoke. Choose something commonly known to designers but specific enough to easily explain.
2. Sign up to participate
This is just like signing up at karaoke - your turn will be up in no time. Instead of handing a song title to the DJ you’re handing a question to a facilitator.
3. Your turn? Gather a panel
Get up in front of the group and present your question. This is your chance to sell the crowd on your idea and create a panel. You can ask for volunteers, bring friends, or pick someone from the audience.
4. Panel-oke time!
You’ve got 5 minutes. Discuss! If the conversation fades feel free to call it off, give someone else a turn, or ask for help from the audience.
When the time is up the gong will sound, the audience cheers in appreciation, and a new topic is chosen.
During all of our planning discussions for the event Andrea and I felt we had a handle on all the various pieces - all but one. How are we going to get this thing started? And what if we can’t get it started? With that anxious moment staring us in the face all we could do was plunge forward and ask for volunteers. Once again, the enthusiasm, eagerness and boundless curiosity of the design community did not let us down. Within thirty seconds we had our first volunteer - a minute later we had a panel of four. That’s it, we were off.
Originally we’d planned on limiting the discussions to 5 minutes but the first panel was just too darned interesting and it ran well over 10 minutes. The participant who proposed the question kicked off the topic (recommended but not mandatory by any means) and from there the momentum carried the discussion easily. When it was time to move onto a new topic we banged a small chinese gong (thanks again Pivotal Labs). This introduced another concern. Once we stopped a topic would we be able to start again with a new topic?
When I asked folks what they thought we should do next - continue on with the existing topic or start fresh - Josh Knowles (from Pivotal) shouted from the back, “Give us a new song!” He couldn’t have been more right. That was the whole point of the event - variety! So, onto the next topic it was. Once again, the anxiety was unnecessary as a new leader and topic appeared instantly. And that’s how it continued for the remainder of the evening.
Panel 1: What do folks mean when they say “Agile UX”?
Panel 2: Accessibility (Section 508 compliance) is increasingly becoming a concern for designers. How and when, if at all, do you incorporate it into your design process?
Panel 3: How do you convince your clients to do the right thing? Can you share some horror stories and/or success stories from working with clients.
Panel 4: What is the role of visual design in the product design process? As an interaction designer do you need to work closely with the visual designers and incorporate them into your process?
Number of topics: Four
Number of attendees: 50?
Number of participants: Each panel started with four but there was some fluidity. In the end we had 18+ panel participants and more than a half-dozen audience members chiming in.
Total duration: Just over an hour. We wanted to save some time at the end for a mini retrospective and time to socialize.
Tweets: 13. Given the number of heavy tweeters in the audience, the live tweeting was minimal. We’re taking this as a good sign. One participant said, “I wanted to tweet but I was too engaged and didn’t want to lose the thread of the discussion.”
There were fantastic insights, observations and suggestions from the audience participants. Here’s a few highlights.
Rearrange the seats. Instead of having the room split into two sides - the audience and the panel - arrange everyone in a large circle.
Summarize. Once a panel has been gonged have someone, a facilitator or the topic owner, summarize the highlights from the discussion.
Topic timing. Keep the discussions shorter. Under ten minutes seems to be the sweet spot.
Individual timing. Taking a cue from political debates, structure the discussion and give each panelist a limited amount of time to make their initial points. Thirty seconds was suggested.
Topic tracking. Capture additional questions the panels progress. Write them on the whiteboard or paste them on a wall. When it’s time for a new topic let folks grab a newly generated topic.
The gong. Get a bigger gong. One with some bass!
Beverages. Beer is good. Wine is good. Both is gooder!
Event timing. Friday is great because the event is a great way to wrap up a busy week, socialize and let off some steam. Friday is bad because at the end of the week some folks are fried and don’t have the energy to participate.
Variety. Everyone loved the variety of the topics.
Democratization. Everyone’s an expert, everyone’s allowed to participate, no topic*, as long as it’s related to design, is out of bounds. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Freshman in college or a multi-decade, grey-haired veteran, everyone can be a panelist.
Reinvent the classroom. Most teaching environments consist of a teacher (expert) at the front of the room and and class (the audience) obediently listening. How about breaking down this structure and making the classroom more interactive, collaborative, fluid and embrace all the “experts” and “panelists” in the room?
Should we do it again? Would we do it again? Given the number of folks who asked when the next one would be held…absolutely! Would we make changes? Yep, but surprisingly few. Was it a great experience? In the words of one tweeter - “It was off the hook!”
Can’t sing…but have something to say? Panel-oke!
Ian Swinson (@iswinson) is a design director, cyclist, pattern librarian, and typophile. Currently Senior Manager of Platform and Analytics User Experience at Salesforce.com, Ian has been designing user interfaces and experiences for going on 20 years. He is also the inventor of Postcard Patterns, an agile UI pattern creation process that makes pattern libraries more manageable and readable (http://www.slideshare.net/iswinson/ixda09-postcard-patterns).
Andrea Mignolo (@pnts) is a interaction, interface, and visual designer with an interest in urban spaces and telepresence. She is a local leader for the New York chapter of the Interaction Design Association, Creative Director at Nabewise.com, and Senior Designer at Eastmedia.
* Fish Bowl: Yes, we know all about Fish Bowl exercises but wanted to increase the pace and diversity of topics by periodically switching both panels and topics.
** The Rick Roll Question: Under no circumstances are you allowed to ask any variant of the following question, “What should be call ourselves?” If you want to get into a fruitless, and endless, discussion about job titles and spend your evenings combining words like user, experience, interaction, design, architect(ure), interface, information, engagement, practitioner, etc…be my guest but don’t get upset when I run screaming from the room or blow a vuvuzela with all the power my lungs can muster.