The Inaugural User Experience Awards was a mess.

Executive Summary: The UX Awards was a surprisingly unpolished event for an awards ceremony. It was poorly presented, unfocused, and generally unpleasant experience for the users audience. I came away very inspired but in a negative way, hence this rant.

What follows is my unforgiving assessment of the evening, followed by suggestions on how I think they could make the 2nd Annual UX Awards a better event. I appreciate that the organizers and volunteers worked very, very hard to put this evening together, but the audience paid money to attend. Therefore, I can't pull punches on what I felt was largely a waste of time and money. I apologize in advance for the harshness of this post, it's the result of sitting in the audience and stewing with frustration for over an hour.

The Room

The room was hot, the chairs were uncomfortable. The lights washed out the projector screen. Did it not occur to anyone that at an awards ceremony where all the entries were digital media or apps of some kind that perhaps the computer projection was the most important piece of stage management? It was legible, but it was a glaring oversight that the contest entries couldn't be demonstrated as best as possible. Worse, turning the audience lights down or off would have also cut down on the room temperature, solving two problems at once.

Parsons deserves credit for hosting the event. But for a professional event that people are, again, paying for, a better venue should be found.

The MC

Drawing attention to the fact that an event is starting on time is fine for an informal meeting, not a professional awards ceremony. If the UX Awards is to take itself seriously then starting on time is a matter of course. Beginning this way is is indicative of the unfortunate informality of the event.

For better or worse Alice and I were sitting where we couldn't see the podium, so we had the experience of hearing, not seeing, the MC as well as the award recipients. It's amazing what you pick up in the spoken word when you can't see the speaker. It was clear to me that our MC was largely reading from notes, and was the least confident of all the people to speak at the podium. Lots of "ums" and "ahs". I'm hardly the best public speaker in the world, which is why when I do have to engage an audience I take a page from the musician handbook and rehearse the hell out of what I intend to perform.

The first 30 minutes of the event were taken up by talking about the jurors and sponsors, calling each out by name and giving a too lengthy introduction. I appreciate the need to promote the participants, but this way of starting the evening was long-winded and tiring to listen to. Combined with this was the overhead projection showed a file manager window on a blank Windows desktop with the occasional futzing by the presentation pilot (more on this later).

By the time the actual presentation of the awards started, I was exhausted from listening to the enumeration of the sponsors and jurors. A much better solution would be to have a nice preshow running on the projector before the event calling out the sponsors for their generous support. Also a one page program about the jurors would've been much more instructive about their background and their perspective than a highly structured question-answering session. Finally, if a jurors is asked to introduce themselves and answer a generic question about the topic and they gloss over the question, let it slide. (although it did lead to one of the better quotes of the night: "I think you missed the question" .. "Um, ok then. 'User Experience is Cinema'")

The Jurors

The jurors, along with the contest winners and the entries themselves were one of the brighter points of the event. They were generally smart and on-point. Occasionally funny, and with good comments and instincts about when and when not to engage in discussion. There were a few patronizing comments (we're peers, not students), but in general I would've liked to hear them speak more. If the time wasted at the beginning of the event with introductions had been spread out to allow them more time to talk about the entries the evening wouldn't have felt like such a waste.

One thing I should point out about the jurors and the overall "tone" of the event: please internalize that "user experience" isn't a new thing, having it as a separate field is. Looking at digital technologies from a holistic user-oriented perspective is at least as old as Douglas Engelbart's pioneering work in the 60's. It's true that an expanded vocabulary for the field has been crystallizing in the past few years, and the general philosophy is widespread now amongst people who build technology. If this event had been held 10 years ago, it would've been pretty cutting-edge thinking to draw attention to user experience as something a product or service could excel at. Today it's something that the general public probably understands intuitively, and most technology professionals are familiar with the idea. In other words, when I go to a UX Awards ceremony I expect to be floored and inspired to do great UX work; and the jurors, in what they say and how they say it, should really drive this home.

There is one very serious issue with the jurors that eclipses the above: that two of the seven entries that were shown, including the grand prize winner, were from the same organizations that employ the jurors is unforgivable. A quick mention from one of the jurors that they weren't allowed to vote for one of their own only opened up more questions about the judging criteria. How can an entry be fairly judged if only a portion of the jurors can weigh in on it? How is it possible to meet with your peers and discuss the entries in an unbiased way when one of them is from your colleagues, or worse a team that you are professionally responsible for? It may have been impossible to find jurors entirely unrelated to the entries, but as it stands the conflict of interest here completely undermines the credibility of the event.

The Overall Presentation

Each entry had it's own presentation, so in a sense the event was a presentation-of-presentations. But there was no coherence to the actual showing and discussion the entries besides doing it in prize-winning order. There was little discussion of the entries themselves besides what the winners had to say for themselves, or what the jurors had as followup comments. There was insufficient context provided by the MC (or the jurors) around each entry, particularly before showing the entry itself. It was if there was the assumption that everyone in the room was intimately familiar with every single entry and that no background was needed besides a couple sentences.

The distinction between "Silver" and "Gold" winners makes sense if you have only one winner for bronze, silver, and gold, as well as actual categories for judging (such as the Olympics). In the format that the prizes were presented the categories should've been "Honorable Mentions", "Finalists", and "Winner" (or "Grand Prize Winner" if you prefer). I wouldn't mention this except that there was genuine confusion between my wife and I about the fact that there were "silver" and "gold", but no categories.

The technical presentation was terrible. Having someone pull up PDF's (not even full-screened), half-blind surfing around in Chrome, navigating folders named "1", "2", "3", etc. It was all far too informal.

On that note, I'd like to call out a particularly shameful moment in the evening when the lead of the Bookify team started his discussion about the context of the entry and what it meant for them when he was rudely cut off by the technician starting the blaring demonstration movie mid-sentence. It was disrespectful and should've been immediately rectified. But the speaker was gracious enough to let the movie play through and resume his speech afterwards.

I suggest that next year you approach the entire event as a large meta-presentation with each team's entry presentation embedded within it. Transition slides, the whole nine yards. Dropping to a bare desktop or webpage, navigating the filesystem to pull up presentation materials, fussing with the technology; these should all be reserved for emergency management or the presenters temporarily going on a demonstration tangent. Of all the disciplines that make up the technology field, no one should understand the value of not showing "the man behind the curtain" better than UX professionals.

My Suggestions

I am sure I had more to write on this seconds after the event was over, and there's lots of tiny and annoying details that I'm purposefully overlooking to avoid petty griping. And I need to wrap this up. I'm not a professional event planner (hell, I don't even call myself a UX professional!), but I was in the audience, so here's my checklist for making the 2nd Annual User Experience Awards more pleasant:

  • Better venue with more appropriate A/V and lighting. This year sold out, so it looks like they have the draw for a larger space, provided that this year didn't drive everyone away.

  • Treat the entire event as a meta-presentation. It's particularly glaring that the UX Awards happened on the same day as an Apple WWDC keynote. Not that I expect that an independent professional organization could produce an event with the level of polish as a multi-billion dollar company, but there's a lot to be learned from the stage management, flow, and organization of an Apple product launch. The audience will almost certainly be familiar with those events and will be subconsciously comparing the two.

  • Go formal, and I don't mean dress code. This should be the event of the year for UX professionals, where they feel important and recognized. The event tonight felt like a company-wide status meeting, with judges.

  • From before the beginning until after the end, and from one moment to the next, the whole event should feel seamless (like any great user experience). The signs pointing us to the auditorium, the preshow on the projector, the tickets, the program, etc. should all scream "detail-oriented". Breaking the illusion (such as jumping into a browser window on the projector during a presentation) should be a moment of fun, like a great inside joke. Constant reminders that we're witnessing the result of hard work is against the spirit of the event. If this seems unfair to the organizers and volunteers, remember that we are professionals who do broadly comparable work on a daily basis. If the whole thing runs smoothly, we'll understand how hard it was to achieve and will be proportionately appreciative and thankful.

  • Feel free to call out sponsors and volunteers for their hard work, but don't waste the audience's time. If we wanted a third of our time taken up with advertisements we'd stay home and watch TV. It's a fine line, of course, but there's much better ways to promote the interests of the various supporters than simply talking about them.

  • The jurors should be chosen carefully to avoid conflict of interest. This cannot be overstated. Not that I think there was any favoritism in the process, but considering the makeup of the panel it's hard to take tonight's results seriously. The unsettling overlap between jurors and entrants makes the field look petty and small, as if UX people just got together and swapped prizes.

  • Blow me away. I've done similar work for many years, as have most of the audience. Half of the entries were inspiring (in a good way), and I thought that the others would've been if they had actually been presented properly. But that's the most I could salvage from the night. This is supposed to be the best of the best! I should come home dizzy from the experience! Instead, I felt like there were better fireworks earlier in the day at Apple's WWDC keynote.

  • Tell your professional photographer to turn off his or her flash. It's distracting and most modern DSLR's can handle the lighting that was in the room. If not, have him or her choose their flash moments carefully as it really disrupts the moment.

  • Critically review the recording of tonight, multiple times. It's excruciating to bear witness to yourself performing, but it's important for the process of improvement.

  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. At least as much as possible considering the time constraints and the need for secrecy. Unpredictable things will always go wrong, so it's important to have the predictable things down cold so that you have the cognitive bandwidth to handle the unexpected gracefully.

  • Finally, in looking up information on the event to make sure I had my details correct, I was floored to find out how bad the event's website is. How can I view the list of submissions? They presented 7 winners. How may entries did they have? 7? (Incidentally, the nav bar entries wrap under at least Firefox, Chrome, and Safari on MacOS. Bleck.)