InfoCamp 2009

An Unconference

Billed as an “unconference about user experience, information architecture, user-centered design, librarianship, information management & related fields,” InfoCamp was a gathering of information professionals of all sorts. Librarians, web designers, software architects, creative professionals and even a few engineers like myself were in attendance. And at only 350 people, the setting was intimate and friendly.

This “unconference” business deserves explanation. Unlike larger, more well-organized (and -funded) conferences, InfoCamp boasts only a basic skeleton of organization. Aside from keynote and plenary addresses kicking off each day of the two-day affair, all the sessions are given by the participants themselves. Some of these are ad hoc, fabricated mere moments before; others are crafted in advance.

The paradox of choice

Upon a wall-sized calendar in the foyer, participants penned themselves in, while the freshman attendees like myself learned quickly the angst of selection from a sea of options.

As I was dryly advised on day one of the con, “life is all about choices.” But oh, it was difficult! I repeatedly despaired to select a talk, for while there were a mere seven timeslots during the conference, each timeslot held up to nine simultaneous presentations. And as you’d expect, usually three or more sounded appealing. After a bit of hand-wringing and process-of-elimination, I confess it usually came to me mumbling “eenie meenie” sotto voce.

Topics were wide and varied. I particularly enjoyed talks on clarity of presentation and diagramming; the use of ‘personas’ in effective web design; and UI feedback and responsiveness. Very few of the talks were engineering-centric, and in fact it was common to gently rib “the engineers” for, well, being engineers. This was never ill-natured and was all in good fun.

“He chose…poorly.”

I didn’t always pick correctly, strove as I did to maximize the value of my seven timeslots. (Hey, when you only get seven of something, I promise you that you’ll treat it like hard currency.) I did change rooms once or twice when I felt selfish about my time; other attendees did this as well. To be fair, nearly every talk I attended was not only fascinating, but a learning experience and a source for many scribbled notes. I’m still parsing and Googling these, mining for nuggets of wisdom to make me a better coder and designer.

Kudos

The InfoCamp staff was made mostly — perhaps entirely — of volunteers. They clearly worked zealously to provide a fun, rewarding experience. Coffee was fresh, hot and always available; snacks were abundant; the days ran flawlessly and on schedule and the attitudes were thoroughly positive. The latter applied to my co-attendees as well: I was thoroughly impressed with how inclusive and open every visitor was to each other and to me. I daresay I saw friendships made both days, and I never lacked a conversation partner even though I arrived knowing no other attendee.

Final thoughts

I only wish that I could have seen all the talks that I wanted. Were I to wave a magic wand and change one thing, it would be for video of every presentation to be put on YouTube for later review. This is, of course, unreasonable given the scope, budget and all-volunteer nature of the conference; nonetheless it’s a lament a number of my co-attendees shared.

I’m eager to attend this conference — excuse me, UNconference — again next year. Now that I know a bit more about how it works I’ll be able to plunge right in without hesitation. And who knows? I might even offer my own ad hoc discussion next time, something from an engineer’s perspective. 😉

For more information I suggest you visit InfoCamp’s website.

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