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We Are Bringing Back UX Fest!


UX Fest 2018 banner

I have the opportunity to speak with a lot of our current and former clients in my role at Fresh Tilled Soil. I also get to meet a lot of awesome product and design leaders who attend our quarterly workshops and product roundtable breakfasts. Because I’m “the marketing guy,” I inevitably ask “So how did you hear about us?” By far, the three most common responses:

  • “You were referred by [COMPANY/COLLEAGUE].”
  • “I worked with you at my former company.”
  • “I came to UX Fest.”

Similarly, some version of the following question has been asked countless times over the last year+:

“When are you bringing UX Fest back?”

OK, we get it! And we can’t wait to bring it back!

What is UX Fest, and why are we bringing it back? Since I wasn’t here in 2014 (our last “fest”), I decided to sit down with Richard to ask him about how it will be different and even better than the last time. Here are three things we learned from 2014 that we’ve changed for this year’s event.


We learned that trying to do too many things is confusing. So being stewards of good UX, we looked at the data, we looked at the experience, we did some surveys and interviews, and we realized that running two or more (concurrent) tracks was something that we should not do again. We are going to have a single track and a single stage so nobody misses out on anything. #NOFOMO!

No Panels, Please

Raise your hand if you’ve seen a lot of great panels where the moderator, topic, and panelists all crush it. I didn’t think so. You can assemble the most amazing panel filled with incredible industry luminaries who have incredible things to say. But put them together on stage, sitting in a high chair, with people they may not have met until that morning, and you are unlikely to get the results you were hoping for. The conversation can seem forced, people don’t know who is answering which question and in which order, and the moderator spends most of their time trying to keep the conversation engaging while not becoming the focus. Let’s fill those slots with inspiring and motivating speakers!

Diversity Makes Us Awesome

We are going have a great mix of backgrounds, cultures, and gender diversity among our speakers. We don’t want it to just be the white male speaker’s story – not because we feel like we’re being pressured into that, but because we’ve heard so many amazing perspectives from people who don’t always get the opportunity to stand up on stage and talk about it. We are asking them to share their ideas with us because we think that kind of diversity is what makes this industry and this community so awesome.

We’re going to be revealing a lot more details about the conference starting this week – including announcing an awesome list of speakers! You can hear my entire discussion with Richard below.

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Podcast Transcript

Heath: Richard and I are here today to talk about something, actually to announce something. What are we announcing?

Richard: We’re announcing UX fex … Start again.

Heath: I don’t have to say my thing again. You just have to say …

Richard: Oh, we’re announcing that UX Fest is back!

Heath: All right. Cue the applause.

Richard: Back with a vengeance. Yeah.

Heath: Cue the applause. What is UX Fest?

Richard: UX Fest is a gathering of people who care about customer experiences and making those experiences really good. We did this conference for several years in a row, took a break for various logistical reasons, and because so many people have asked us to bring it back, so many people keep asking us why we didn’t do it, and they’re missing it, we’re bringing it back. It’s going to be better than ever because we’ve changed the format. We’ve learned some lessons from the past conferences or summits that we’ve had, and we’ve made some adjustments that will really, really improve the whole experience for everybody.

Heath: I always try to ask our clients, our prospects, the people we mingle with, “How’d you hear about us?” Just about everyone of them will say one of two things, either, Oh, you did work for us in the past, or Oh, I found out about you guys when I went to your, what was it, your fest something? I’m like, Oh yeah, UX Fest, and so I’m struck by 1) how many people came before, 2) how many people remember it, and 3) how many people just remembered it as some fest thing.

Richard: Yeah.

Heath: I think, part of that is because the last time we did it was in 2014, but we are bringing it back because between myself, yourself, I know Dan, many others. I jokingly say we’re tired of people asking us when we’re going to bring it back, so we are, so lay off. We’re coming.

Richard: Yeah, that’s pretty much, yeah. We heard you. We love you, and we’re putting it back on.

Heath: What’s different about UX Fest from other conferences, one day and otherwise. I mean there’s tons of differences from the multi-day conferences, but what’s different about it?

Richard: I think the biggest difference is that we’re focusing on getting people inspired around the topics that really matter. Instead of doing technical focused stuff, which they can probably learn by reading a great article or listening to a technically focused blog, podcast, we’re trying to get people inspired to do the things that really matter, so how to bring the dynamics of their team to the next level, how to bring product leadership to their entire organization, how to apply a lot of the stuff that we take for granted every day to situations that may be a little more challenging.

For example, how do you apply things that start ups take for granted, like lean and design sprints, and apply that to big organizations, big enterprises, where it’s obviously going to be a little bit harder to do that at scale, so those are the kind of topics that we care about. We want to bring people into that conversation because we are having those conversations with our clients every day, and the folks that we invite to speak at the conference are the people that are either dealing with that every single day, and have had some really awesome hands-on with it, or they’ve been authors. They have been writing about it, they’re speaking about it, they’ve done some research and they’ve got some great research and anecdotes to bring to this particular audience.

Heath: I’m the walking data nerd, and the one that actually looked at what we have from 2014. Also, because I wasn’t there and I was curious. Richard tells me we’re going to do this again, what can I do? Well, let me find out what it was like in 2014, so we’ve got some really awesome photographs that we’ll have in the show links from 2014, a great recap video. That was helpful, but from my perspective, I just saw faces and maybe some names, so I looked at the data to see what kind of person, or who comes to UX Fest so I can speak to that from a persona role perspective, and I can say that just over half of the 2014 attendees were in a design role, whether that’s UX design, creative visual, etc., and then interestingly, the remaining half were divided pretty evenly between product, data/engineering, sales and marketing. How would you describe the kind of person who would come to UX Fest, aside from that sort of wonky data nerd person?

Richard: I think the titles that they carry are probably not indicative of what they’re doing every single day. What we noticed by looking at this crowd, and actually tracking them over the years, through friendships and through relationships that we have with them is that, these are people that are very serious about turning their organizations into successful product orgs, so they are leaders, whether that means they carry the title of leadership, or whether it means that they’re just super-influential in their organizations, pushing UX as a concept, pushing design thinking as a concept, and then applying that to their day to day.

You’ll notice that the folks that were there in 2012 and 13, and 14 now have pretty awesome jobs. They may have been a UX designer back then, now they’re probably head of product because they care. They really want their organizations to succeed, and like I said, not all of them have the titles, but they’re all pushing. They’re all demanding a higher standard, and so those are the kind of folks you’ll see back again. We’re inviting all the people that were at those events back, deliberately because they enjoyed themselves and we expect that they’ll enjoy themselves again, but also because we care about seeing their careers evolve and mature, and we want to be part of that. We’ve always been part of that. We’ve always, you know, supported that, and that’s the community karma that we want to spread.

Heath: It’s an awesome segue, it’s almost as if you had the questions I was going to ask you in front of you.

Richard: Well …

Heath: For the 200+ people that came at the last UX Fest, what are some things that we learned from that event that we are looking at changing for this year to improve?

Richard: From a purely structural point of view, we learned that trying to do too many things is confusing, not just for us, it’s obviously a challenge, but it’s confusing for the people who come to those events, so being good UX people, we looked at the data, we looked at the experience, we did some surveys and interviews, and we realized that running two or more tracks, which we had done in the past, was something that we weren’t going to do again. We were going to have a single track, keep everybody focused, that way nobody misses out on anything.

If there’s a workshop going on upstairs, but there’s a really great speaker downstairs and you feel like you’re going to have some kind of FOMO at the end of it, we’ve eradicated that FOMO. You won’t miss anything. You’ll have a single track, the best speakers will be available to everybody, all the time, and we’ve made sure that the speakers are not going to bore you to death by putting a time box around their particular presentation, so learning from other conferences like Ted, for example, keeping them relatively short and sweet, so that they are, the speakers are forced to bring their best to the game, and not waffle on for an hour or more, in some cases, and that way everybody gets to see 12 really, really well curated, thoughtful speakers, who are going to deliver the best possible message, and then if you want to speak to them afterwards and take the conversation further, the conference is intimate enough that you’ll be able to do that.

Unlike a huge, big conference where there’s 1,000, or as I just went to another one, 16,000 people, where the chances of you actually speaking to the person on stage is infinitesimally small, this will be the opposite. You’ll have an opportunity to talk to them, get to know them, find out more about what they’re researching or writing about, or working on, and take that conversation to the next level.

Heath: I think you just gave me a hashtag to use.

Richard: Oh really?

Heath: #NOFOMO.

Richard: #NOFOMO, yeah let’s do it.

Heath: #NOFOMO.

Richard: Let’s do it.

Heath: No concurrent sessions, I dig it. No long sessions, nice. How many panels are we going to have?

Richard: Zero.

Heath: What?

Richard: Zero panels.

Heath: The panels.

Richard: Yeah, I’m not anti-panel, #anti-panel.

Heath: Yeah.

Richard: I find that unless everybody’s had an opportunity to really prepare, which a lot of these people won’t have because they’re just so busy. They’re day jobs just keep them so busy, those panelists are going to, I don’t know. They’re just not going to have the depth in the time that we’ve got available for them to really, really give the audience the value they’re looking for, so we’re going to not do the panels, and we’re going to replace those panels, or the slots that we would have ordinarily had for panels, with additional speakers, who are going to be obviously inspiring and motivational, and bring you some awesome knowledge to this.

Heath: Hashtag no panels.

Richard: Yeah.

Heath: Yeah, I find panels, on the surface, they sound like a great idea, but they’re rarely well executed, and I think it’s because of a lot of things. One, you got to have a really good moderator, who is not in it for his or herself.

Richard: Yeah.

Heath: I don’t mean that to sound terrible, but oftentimes they feel this pressure to drive the conversation, and oftentimes they have to because the panelist, and this is my other bugaboo with it is, it’s hard to get three, four people on a stage and expect there to be naturally chemistry, and for them to be able to play off one another, and often times, let’s face it, you get a panel together, what you do is you grab, okay I’m going to get four named people, people that everyone knows, to hear from. They shake hands that morning at registration or best case, maybe they went to dinner the night before.

I’ve been on panels and what happens is they get, and as a view as well, many times over you get pulled aside and the moderator says, Okay, here are the questions I’m thinking about asking you, and every single question that gets asked, the first reaction is all four panelists turn to each other and go, Do you want to go? I’ll take this one.

Richard: Who’s turn is it?

Heath: Right, and it just, it comes off a little clunky and so an idea sounds like a great thing. In practice, rarely pulled off well, so what the hell, let’s just no panels, hashtag.

Richard: Yeah.

Heath: Just have more awesome speakers, so okay.

Richard: Yeah.

Heath: Cool, I dig it. What else do you want to talk about?

Richard: We can talk about some of the themes.

Heath: Ah hah, themes.

Richard: I think, there’s going to be more than one theme, but the general topic that we’re most interested in having our speakers align themselves around is this idea that people who care about the user experience, people who care about delivering value to the customer, need to understand the problem that the customer is facing, more than they need to be obsessing about a particular solution, so I think we’ve got to the point in user experience in general, where most of us think like that. Most of us our thinking, Do we really understand this problem or are we just trying to sell a solution? Are we trying to market a solution that we think is cool to an audience that doesn’t really care about it?

There definitely is a lot of, how should we say, there’s still a hangover. There’s a technology hangover in this space that probably because, you know, we had an engineering driven technology sector for so long. A lot of the product organizations are still trying to orientate themselves around a solution, and not spend enough time on the problem, so we want people to think about that a little bit. We’re going to have a speaker or two, we’re going to bring attention to how to do that, why it’s so important, what they do about that, how much time do you even spend on these thing.

Then, start to use that as a way to balance out things like how do you make sure that you’re giving the customer what they want, even when there are some kind of contradictory market data sources. Does the customer actually break the tie? We want to answer that question. Does the customer’s opinion matter? If you’re a student of Apple, then you might say, Well, the customer doesn’t know what they want. Well, I think the know what they don’t want, and they know that the problem is, so maybe it’s the kind of questions you’re asking them that really, really matters, and it’s not just that they don’t know what they want.

There’s a lot of challenges in like how do you balance out your grand vision with the stuff that you learn every day? You’ve got this vision. You’re going forward. You’re pushing with your product vision, and then suddenly you figure out that you have to pivot because the customer actually wants something different. How do you balance that stuff? How do you stay true to the vision while also balancing the feedback that you’re getting, the data that you’re getting, and that’s also understanding the problem more than it is understanding the solution. That’s the big theme, problem versus solution. We’re going to have speakers who do well at balancing that in their product organizations.

One of the things that we’ve done with this UX Fest, which we have done in the past, where we’ve gone to great depths to make sure that we’ve got a lot of diversity, diversity of backgrounds, diversity of cultures, obviously diversity in terms of gender and stuff like that, but we don’t want it just to be the white male speaker’s story, not because we feel like we’re being pressured into that, but because we’ve heard so many amazing perspectives from people who don’t normally get the opportunity to stand up on stage and talk about it.

We’ve gone to great lengths to find those people, take them out of their comfort zones in some respect, and because they might be introverts, and ask them to share their ideas with us because we think that kind of diversity is what makes this industry and this community so awesome, and giving those people, giving them an opportunity to talk about it is going to make a big difference to everybody else.

Heath: You’re not going to fill the stage with a bunch of white dudes?

Richard: Pretty much, hashtag no white dudes, yeah.

Heath: Yeah.

Richard: There might be a couple.

Heath: Well, and I think a lot of the conversation in product and design circles is naturally gravitated toward that, certainly within the last year. I mean if you just look at who we’ve had on the dirt this year. I spoke with the founders of Boston Women Product. I really engaged in discussion with them. Spoke with one of the board members from The Smarter in the City, and it’s a little surprising that it didn’t seem like that was a bigger topic until recent times because it only makes sense that unless you are making a product that is only sold to middle aged white dudes, how could you possibly know whether or not, and how you’re solving problems for all of your users, and furthermore, when I spoke with a board member from Smarter in the City, his interesting point was, it’s not only figuring out how to solve the problem for diverse user base, but you don’t even discover problems if you don’t have that experience of being in their environment.

Richard: Right.

Heath: There are problems in need of a solution that you would never encounter, nor could you or would you.

Richard: Exactly.

Heath: It only makes sense that diversity is a natural fit for the product sphere.

Richard: Yeah, I’m always delighted by the perspectives that we get from, not just diversity in terms of gender and race, but diversity in background. People who’ve had interesting experiences or come through a different path than what’s traditional. They’re not necessarily engineers or designers. They’ve come through a different part. They’ve experienced the world in a different way, and they’ve got crazy educations, crazy stories to provide us with perspective, and that’s what we need, more perspective. 

Heath: I mean if I weren’t at Fresh Tilled Soil, how would anyone know about the life of a redneck, right?

Richard: That’s right.

Heath: This need to have that experience, to understand what a redneck’s needs are.

Richard: Right.

Heath: I bring that to the table, and that’s about all I can say.

Richard: The elegy of a redneck.

Heath: Exactly, hillbilly elegy and live and in the flesh, so all right.

Richard: Yeah, I actually met that guy.

Heath: Did you?

Richard: Yeah, at Silicon Slopes, he was one of the speakers.

Heath: I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read the book yet. It’s on my list for this year, is to read that book.

Richard: Yeah.

Heath: I’ve heard really good things about it. Mainly because I feel like I grew up and lived that, so I’m intrigued to see what I discover that I didn’t know from growing up there.

Richard: Listen, if you think you grew up in the deep south, you should see where we came from.

Heath: That’s South Africa.

Richard: That’s so deep, man. That’s deepest, darkest south.

Heath: Yeah, okay. All right, well cool, Richard. I’m looking forward to it. Much, much more to come, and hope I’ll see you there.

Richard: Cool.

Heath: I should probably mention when it is, obviously we’ll put that in the show notes, but Monday, June 4th, 2018, this year. We’ve got several speakers already locked in, but we’re not going to tell you. We’re going to roll those out, get you hyped up, excited, so more on that to come, more on the sessions as well. I’ll put the website, both the registration and website itself, in the show notes, and looking forward to seeing everyone.


Author Heath Umbach

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