The user experience of NN/Group’s Usability Week

We sent Jennifer Weng and Amanda Bremner to NN/Group's Usability Week recently. How usable was usability week? Let's find out...

As UX Designers, we are naturally attuned to identify usability wins and fails, along with their sources. These are by no means limited to our digital experiences, but apply to our real-world experiences as well. Our recent adventures to the Nielsen Norman Group Usability Week, a week-long workshop style conference held across the world several times throughout the year, provided some great examples of good usability and service design (I mean, they DO research and practice usability!), but also some insight into areas for improvement. Let’s see how a usability conference fared in its usability!

Pre-conference period

Ten days before the conference, we received one concise email with conference itinerary, hotel logistics, and attendee details. It was the attendee details that we felt brought them above and beyond; they included not only the appropriate dress attire, but also a thoughtful reminder to dress warmly, as conference rooms have a tendency to be cold (and somehow we never learn). It also specified that the course material and seminar slides would be provided digitally and encouraged us to bring a laptop or tablet if we wanted to access them. We were also informed that WIFI would be complimentary in all the meeting spaces as well as our hotel rooms. The content was tailored to us, the user.

Not only was the content helpful and thoughtful, but the timing was optimal. The email was sent not too early that the information was not useful yet, but not too late for us to prepare. The timing and extra effort to include personal details improved the user experience and set our expectations for the conference.

Providing relevant and thoughtful information to the user at the right time can help set expectations and prepare them for success.

Conference period

Hallway with Nielsen Norman Group banners

The morning of the conference, coming out of the elevator, we were disappointed to find that there were no visible signs indicating where to go for registration. After getting directions from the front desk, we were able to find the large sign at the back corner of the foyer, leading attendees through a smaller hall and then into a ballroom, where registration was. The signage would have been perfect for people entering through the hotel front doors, but for guests staying at the hotel and coming from the elevators, this was not plainly visible.

It is important to make sure the placement of signage is optimized for users coming from all main entrances.

At registration, we were given USBs that contained the course slides for our workshops. The file needed to be unlocked with a password provided on the plastic pouches the USB came in. The password, in comparison to the WIFI password, was significantly more complicated. The string of characters were an assortment of capital letters, lowercase letters, and numbers. There was also no meaning associated to it. They had put their business needs for security over the user needs for convenience.

Interestingly, they did a great job in selecting the password for WIFI.

Making passwords simple to remember and easy to input greatly improves the user experience of the task. Ensuring that the ease of use of the password on various devices is also important, as mobile device input methods are error prone.

Nielsen Norman Group Usability Week banner in hallway
Throughout the conference, there was consistency in all of the conference signage. They all sported the same large and prominent logo that made it easy to spot and to identify the rooms and areas of the hotel that was part of the conference. This is important for hotels hosting more than one conference at a time.

Consistency in the signage creates confidence when way finding.

Consistency also helps to add a sense of credibility and professionalism, which in turn provided confidence in the information being presented at the conference.

During one of our workshops, in the beginning of the week, we experienced technical difficulties with the USBs. The PDF file could not be unlocked.

Dry runs can help to ensure that all technology is working prior to the conference.

The workshops were great, but like all great things, they need to come to an end. And like at all good conferences, feedback needs to be collected. Paper surveys were handed out for the workshop and the conference itself. The drop-off box for the forms was outside the conference room, while the rest of us were inside. Along with poor proximity, there was a lack of clear instructions and communication on how to they wanted us to proceed.

A well-designed system should be explicit in its requirements and provide users with all the tools they need to complete a task.

The timing of the feedback for the course was less than optimal. We were asked to provide insightful feedback right after a long, but amazing day and after providing insightful feedback for the course. By this point we were exhausted and the motivation to fill out two full sheets of feedback was not particularly high.

Feedback for workshops can be filled out at the end of the day while thoughts are still fresh in the mind, but the experiences of the conference as a whole stays with you longer, and can thus be evaluated at a later time (via an email survey).

Post conference

After coming home, we have yet to receive a follow-up email from the conference. We were surprised to see that they didn’t use this opportunity to promote further engagement with their company after the conference, or to try to create some community within their wide pool of attendees.

Engaging attendees after conferences leverages the chance to connect people in the field and generate communities for information sharing.

Overall, it was a fantastic conference and we did feel focus on user-centred design in the usability conference. User experience and service design principles are not restricted to just the digital space, but can be leveraged to improve experiences across our real-world interactions too.