There's a wonderful, unique sequence in Kim Stanley Robinson's hard sci-fi book, Green Mars, where one of the characters - the mad scientist Sax - attends a conference.
Sax is portrayed as an intelligent, deeply academic, pro-terraforming geologist/physicist/chemist; in many ways, he's a caricature of the professor "on the spectrum", socially awkward and profoundly enmeshed in his work. Green Mars is book 2 in KSR's often-sublime, sometimes-dragging Martian Trilogy. And this digression - essentially a really long chapter about a guy going to a conference - is, oddly, one of the better bits.
Because the way Sax attends the conference, the way KSR writes it, is - weirdly, mundanely, inspiringly - fascinating. He flits from lecture to lecture, soaking it all in. And it's a feast. The chapter is a funny little celebration of that Platonic ideal of good conferences: the kinds that get your brain fizzing.
It's pretty hard to actually go to one of those. But I have been! So far, the best conference I've been to remains OpenVis Conf 2016. I've been to a lot of mediocre ones in the meantime, but I will not name names. However, I'd like to talk about how to run a good conference. Since I think some small design nudges can really improve things and, as designers always say, spark delight.
Put the schedule and WiFi password on the back of the lanyard thingie
(also, have a WiFi option...)
Put the damn schedule on the damn stupid thing I'm wearing. That piece of plastic is useless, an enormous eco-waste, and it could really serve more than its singular function of "Hello, I am a conference attendee, let me into this auditorium".
Make a conference Slack
Bocoup - the web design firm that organizes OpenVis Conf - makes a Slack for their conference each year. This is perfect. You can comment on talks as they're happening. You can post your job opportunities on a
#jobs channel. You can DM the presenters with questions or kudos, or people you met over coffee.
Don't only offer men's shirts and treat them as "unisex"
Instead, buy women's shirts and treat THOSE as "unisex"
This is one of the most insidious, pet peevey, absurd, annoying things for me. I mean, egregious harassment at tech conferences should be averted by having a Code of Conduct and, you know, EYEBALLS AND A BRAIN. But tech sexism isn't always so over the top. It can also be exhaustingly petty. Wasting money on shirts that essentially fit only men is one of those things.
Outlets, outlets, outlets
Childcare, childcare, childcare
And other, better ways to spend a budget
You're providing free food, endless coffee, maybe hotel shuttles and maybe a social thing with booze. That's nice. But all of this assumes a certain set of behaviors: that I'm at that hotel, that I drink coffee and alcohol, that I want to socialize in that way.
I mean, I usually want to have a glass of orange juice and a nap at the end of a big conference day. I know I'm not the only decaf-drinking introvert out there. Clojure/conj 2017 was pretty nice about this - they had a catered board game bonanza as their social night.
I'd much rather they spend the conference budget on childcare given that, again, women at tech conferences is kind of a thing (a "not enough of them" thing) and, again, why are we privileging beer > babies in the budget? What's the message here? Let's give parents a leg-up here. Women are often the "primary" parent, responsible for figuring out baby stuff. Help them out.
Most conferences are pretty good at this: getting the talks up on YouTube soon-ish after they happen. The best, by far, was Clojure/conj 2017, which achieved miraculous speeds and sometimes had conference talks up the very same day. This was great because, at a good conference, you'll often have multiple talks you want to see that are unfortunately simultaneous.
Ruthlessness towards mic-hogs
There's always one or two abysmal questions at the end; blow-hards wanting to show off, people looking for a platform. The best ways to control for this behavior, I'd say, are (a) a pre-Q&A warning that questions should be questions, and (b) training the speaker to deftly and diplomatically cut people off. It can be done!