I only learned one thing at UX Australia this year.
No, that’s not a complaint. UX Australia 2011 was one of the conferences I’ve most enjoyed attending, ever. It’s just that I never really learn anything at a conference. Not that I’m all super smart and know it all already, it’s just that learning takes time. If it was your first time at a UX conference, what someone said in 45 minutes on stage may have been a revelation, and the half-day workshops I attended (especially Whitney Quesenbery’s storytelling workshop) introduced me to new and exciting concepts, but to really learn these things, I’ll need to do them, preferably with someone much smarter than me looking over my shoulder.
What I learned, or more accurately was reminded of, is the value of people.
Chats in Bars
The theme of people came up a lot this year.
At the after-party, I spent some time chatting with a young interaction designer from Germany named Susi. She was happy to meet someone who spoke German, and I was amazed she’d come so far for our little Aussie get-together. And she was taken aback by how nice everyone was. She thought there was a bit of an in-crowd, but everyone she got up the courage to speak to (and she knew no one when she arrived) was friendly, interested and welcoming. Her surprise surprised me at first.
On the way to a pub one night, I finally met the charming and funny Joe Sokohl. We discovered we had both lived in Hamburg Germany at the same time (not sure if Susi met him too, but his German’s pretty good) and shared some memories. We got on to how conferences work, and he mentioned how much he enjoyed coming over to Australia. My memory’s not nearly good enough to try and quote him directly, but he said he enjoyed our lack of rockstars; that there are plenty of great UX people in Australia, but that there’s little to none of the ego parading in-crowd mentality here.
The Cool Kids
Every conference has what Robert Hoekman Jr. called a “cool kids table” – that group of people who know each other from speaking at and attending conferences around the world. It’s unavoidable that when a group of people do something together that other people don’t do, that a bit of a clique develops, and we’ve got that in Australia too, of course. I’m more or less part of that group now too. Considering I feel I’m well and truly a part of this community, even though I’ve only been in this country three years, have only ever worked directly with one person in the UX community, and was accepted to speak at the first UX Australia although hardly anyone knew me and no one had ever heard me speak is proof enough that, in Australia, the “cool kids table” is mostly a concept in the heads of those who think they’re on the outside looking in. The cool kids don’t seem to know they are.
As Joe noted, Aussies tend to have their feet on the ground, and have a low tolerance for arrogance. I explained the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” to him: that Aussies tend to tear down anyone they see getting too far above the norm. But on second thought, I don’t think that’s what keeps our UX community grounded. We’re just lucky enough to have so many people who are genuinely friendly, don’t take themselves too seriously, and just want to make stuff that improves people’s lives and have a good time while they’re doing it.
That is worth a lot. Talk to most people about their jobs.
Considering my recent Facebook cull, and compounded by reading “Big Deal” last weekend, I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about friends lately. And it may seem obvious, but that’s what really matters at conferences, and in anything we do: the people. It’s interesting to hear what people are working on and what an awesome process they followed to achieve the result, but the real value is inspiration, and that comes from the chats, usually in bars, where you find out why people really did what they did, what really turns them on and why they do what they do, in work and beyond. I can’t really say that I’m close with that many people in our community, but I’m surprised every time we get together by how many lovely people I’m lucky enough to call colleagues, and I’d really like to come to call more of them friends.
Sappy? Naive? Unprofessional? Well, this is a love letter.
I love you UX Australia.
Generally I’d try and summarise the great presos I saw at a conference, but that’s obviously not what was on my mind this time. Luckily, some smart people have done that for us: