Some quick thoughts from UX Camp Brighton 2016

March 20th, 2016

With a proliferation of digital companies and video game developers, Brighton is uniquely positioned on the UK tech scene. In particular, Brighton is rapidly becoming a mecca for user experience, boasting renowned agencies with industry pioneers, a dedicated Masters course, and not one but two community groups organising talks and events around the subject.

Yesterday, UX Camp Brighton (one of those two groups) hosted their fifth annual ‘unconference’ with dozens of sessions lined up, and I decided to jot down some quick thoughts from my second time attending.

What’s an unconference anyway?

The event takes place over one day and invites anyone interested to sign up as a session host and deliver 20 minutes of content. This may be in the form of traditional talk or workshop, but is also open to discussions, games, activities and so on. With several dozen hosts signing up this year, there is a great variety of people talking about a great variety of things. Eschewing the traditional conference format, there are no particular themes unifying the talks, and the sessions could end up going either way – though I’ve yet to see a bad one. This of course all adds to the gleefully chaotic atmosphere.

There are several timeslots throughout the day with several sessions in each slot so the first activity of the day is the grid scramble. Here, all session hosts card up the titles of their talks and then add them to a grid of times and rooms, so you’ve got to be quick to get the spot you want.

With the sessions added to the grid, you listen to a pitch from the hosts and decide which one sounds most interesting. Last year the talks ranged from a jam-packed Psychology talk with people squeezing into every corner, to an eye-tracking demo delivered to a more intimate audience.

The sessions

One of the coolest things about an event like this is the breadth of sessions on offer which vary in the content and structure. For instance, the first talk I attended was a brief presentation and then lengthy discussion focusing specifically around user onboarding and what tips and tricks we could share; a later talk gave a more high-level overview of iOS accessibility guidelines.

With so many smart people talking about varied topics, it makes the event accessible to anyone with any level of UX knowledge, and perhaps that's the great hook. Seasoned UX pros, students, and even those with a passing interest in user experience are all likely to have a different, but equally rewarding, experience. This in turn allows for thoughtful discussions and different perspectives, as well as interesting people to chat to in between the sessions themselves.

From a personal perspective, the session from Chris How on "Getting better answers from asking better questions" was a real highlight, offering a great mix of practical advice and fun. The session ended with a “Shit Question Bingo” where we used what we learnt to identify some shockingly bad question-asking skills from a BBC sports commentator who won’t be named.

This year’s event boasted more talks than ever before, and more attendees – so many, in fact, that it was moved to a bigger venue! As there were so many sessions it did mean that there would often be several talks at the same time that sounded interesting. Indeed, five different talks that I had wanted to attend all ended up in the first slot of the day. The upshot of this is that I went to talks I maybe wouldn’t have otherwise, most of which turned out to be really good.

The other stuff

Traditionally UX Camp Brighton ends with a lighthearted UX quiz and this year was no different. In a bit of a twist, teams were randomly assigned to even the playing field a bit. This created a great opportunity to mingle with some new people. The winning team got to help themselves to some UX goodies and while my team narrowly missed out (we came second #humblebrag), we did end up guessing how many daily matches Tinder makes – a whopping 26 million! – to also win some other prizes. Not a bad day at the office, eh?

It's also worth mentioning that UX Camp is run not-for-profit which means ticket prices end up being very reasonable. Much of the event is subsidised by sponsors, so breakfast, lunch (including the Simpsons donut pictured above) and even the after party are covered in the cost.

Same time next year?

UX Camp is billed as being an intense day of talks. With more people than ever attending, there was plenty of running up and down stairs, people sitting Indian-style in the middle of crowded rooms, and technology refusing to cooperate at times. Really though, that just adds to the atmosphere.

In the end I learnt loads of things I didn’t know, talked to some interesting people and walked away with pockets full of swag. The organisers and volunteers obviously put in a lot of work into this kind of thing, and it couldn’t exist without hosts willing to share their knowledge. It’s definitely a must-do and great experience for anyone remotely interested in UX, and I’m counting down the days until the next one – I may even try running a session.

Portrait of Charlie Butler, UX Designer and Researcher

Written by Charlie Butler

User Experience Designer