I’m just back from Edinburgh, where I attended Designing Interactive Systems 2017. It was my first experience of a conference, and it was not what I expected. There was a distinct social aspect to the event that I had not anticipated – I was prepared for a much more dry, cerebral, academic affair. In reality, it resembled something closer to a class reunion, with small circles of chatting people forming and disassembling and drifting around the room over cups of coffee. This made it a more relaxed, enjoyable experience than I had mentally prepared myself for. The harsh criticisms and in-depth analysis of my work that my over-active imagination had envisioned never materialised. That said, I did get some excellent feedback on my work, especially during my poster presentation. Meeting people from so many different backgrounds, from fabrication to fine art to teaching, allowed me to access different perspectives on my work that I would have never otherwise been able to. Attending a workshop, where I had to present on my position paper, was another great opportunity for getting my work out there. Not all of the feedback I received was positive, but it was useful and varied and, most importantly, constructive.
Above: Awkwardly posing with my posters
Aside from learning about my own research and where it fits in the wider design world, I found myself taking mental notes of things I found useful or might do differently at future conferences. The following is a collection of the random thoughts and ideas that floated through my tired and addled brain throughout the conference – most of which, admittedly, was ‘I wish I had some decent tea’ and ‘I am so sick of shortbread’. After editing these out, and collating the useful ones, I ended up with the below list.
Hardback notebook and pen
For taking notes during talks. Much easier with a hardback, as you will have nothing to lean on.
Conferences are thirsty business. At DIS, water was set out in the mornings, but usually tidied away after lunch. I quickly learned to bring my own bottled water.
A big regret of mine was not bringing any business cards with me. I lost count of the amount of times I was asked for my card or my contact details, especially at my poster presentation. Without them, I am relying on the people I met to remember me and my research – a disheartening prospect, considering the amount of people in attendance.
Although food was provided at lunch time, the mornings can feel pretty long when there are only biscuits and tea on offer. Tasty as it is, shortbread starts to look pretty unappetizing after five days in a row. A bag of nuts, fruit, anything to stave off the hunger that can be easily carried in a handbag would be good.
Above: Feeding time at the SV table
Attending any event where you know no one is a daunting prospect. Taking part in the SV program was a perfect way to meet other students and researchers before the conference had even started. It also was a perfect guard against feeling awkward or unsure during the conference itself – I always had a job to keep me busy.
Talking to Everyone
I am not naturally a talker. I could happily spend an entire party talking to two or three people tops, and feel like a social butterfly. So the prospect of networking has always been a daunting one for me. Surprisingly though, I found it incredibly easy to talk to people at DIS. I think there are two reasons for this: one, the fact that everyone is working in somewhat related fields means you are never stuck for a conversation topic, and two, people are there to talk, make connections and discuss their research. I didn’t meet one person who was unwilling to listen to me describe the study I’m working on, or who didn’t want to explain their research topic to me. Add to that the fact that the majority of people are away from home in an unfamiliar city – in the same boat as you – and it’s suddenly unsurprising that conversations spring up regularly and naturally. And aside from the networking aspect of it, it’s just fun to talk to researchers and students from different countries and cultures and backgrounds.
Staying in a Hostel
They are cheap and cheerful, and you get to mix with a bunch of other people who are just passing through. I ended up staying in the same hostel as three other SVs for DIS, which was great – we shared taxis to the venue every day, and hung out in the evenings. It definitely made the whole experience easier to be able to get to know a few people outside of the conference setting.
Because of my weird schedule and early starts (6am most mornings) I often went long periods of time – 7 or 8 hours – without eating more than shortbread biscuits and coffee. This was a horrible decision. Being hangry and tired and attending four talks in a row is not a good mix. In future, I am bringing snacks.
Not Planning My Week
Planning what talks to attend is a really obvious thing to do. I didn’t do it. Between stressing about my poster presentation and planning my position paper talk for the workshop, I had almost forgotten about the huge body of brand spanking new research that was being made available to me. I ended up quickly leafing through the program on the first day, circling sessions that looked interesting. I was more prepared for days two and three – my circling was done the night before, in a less chaotic manner. Like I said, planning ahead for the talks you want to attend is a really obvious thing that I completely forgot to do.
Staying in a Hostel
Yes, I am aware that I put this in the ‘Good Ideas’ section too. I’m still on the fence about whether I would do it again. Cost-saving measures meant that I booked myself into an eight person mixed-sex room. The first two nights I stayed there, there were a bunch of English football fans staying in my room, there for a match, who rolled in at around 4 each morning, drunk and not afraid to show it. They were replaced by a couple of business-men types, who were in bed by 10, which in principle should have been an improvement, but in practice meant drying my hair at night was relegated to the laundry room. Added to that was the difficulty of getting up at 6 am while trying not to wake anyone else – zippers sound deafening in a silent room. I think if I was to stay in a hostel again, I would book a smaller or a private room – eight is just too many.
Long Story Short…
Conferences are more fun than I thought. SVing means late nights and early mornings – pay extra for your own room. Attend as many sessions as you can. ‘Experts’ are less intimidating in person – they are generally happy to give awesome feedback. Eat. Talk. Take notes. Bring business cards. Enjoy it!