How online conference platforms fail attendees
A generative research case study
During the first two years of the pandemic, major academic conferences in numerous fields moved operations to online or hybrid conference platforms. Many users were dissatisfied with these platforms. In this project I conducted generative research to discover pain points of existing conference platforms and develop research insights to drive the design of a better alternative.
Tweet from Nigel Caplan:  Tweet from Jennifer Walsh Marr: "After an exasperating hour of trying to be 'present' for my scheduled #TESOL2022 session that was an exercise in anxiety and frustration, I'm off to join a live @CERLLOISE  webinar with attendees around the world.  Onwards."
Tweet from Jennifer Walsh Marr: After an exasperating hour of trying to be "present" for my scheduled #Tesol2022 session that was an exercise in anxiety and frustration, I'm off to join a live @CERLLOISE webinar with attendees around the world. Onwards.
Online attendees voiced complaints about the online experience of a hybrid conference in March 2022—two years into the pandemic. The TESOL International Convention (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) is the dominant annual conference in the field of English language education and typically attracts thousands of attendees.
• to uncover users’ pain points with existing academic conference platforms
• to develop insights to inform a conference platform design that would facilitate a more usable, useful, equitable, and enjoyable conference experience

My role
UX researcher, UX designer

Core skills
• user interviews
• empathy mapping
• personas
• user stories

Discovering users’ pain points
I interviewed users from multiple user groups (professors, students, and professionals in the field) to learn about their previous experiences of online conferences. Then I used multiple methods to empathize with them and illuminate the pain points they encountered when using conference platforms.
Empathy maps
Based on the user interviews, I created empathy maps that express what participants said, thought, did, and felt when it came to using online conference platforms.
Empathy maps of graduate students, professors, and an international professional show how they talk, think, and feel about online conferences, as well as what they do as conference attendees. (Read empathy maps and personas in PDF form.)
Next, I distilled findings from the user interviews into personas that illustrate the common goals and frustrations of the two main user groups.
A persona of Ellen, a university professor who attends online conferences to share her work and learn about new research. (Read empathy maps and personas in PDF form.)
A persona of Sam, a graduate student who attends online conferences primarily to network with others in her field. (Read empathy maps and personas in PDF form.)

Describing users’ pain points
My analysis of the user interviews revealed four major pain points:
1. Lack of connection
Some users had attended conferences that did not provide a way for attendees to comment on sessions or message each other directly.
2. Too little feedback
Users attended conferences to receive feedback on their research. When platforms did not allow commenting, they were left unsure of how well they had communicated in their sessions.
3. Inadequate search tools
Users described conference platforms that had limited search tools or that did not allow searching or filtering sessions at all.
4. No analytics
Users often lacked information about who had visited their talks, especially on platforms that did not allow commenting.
User stories
The user interviews led to two primary user stories:
• As a scholar and professor, I want to have meaningful interactions with other attendees so that I can participate in scholarly conversations and receive feedback on my research.
• As a graduate student, I want to find talks that interest me so that I can keep up with research in my field and meet potential future colleagues.

Insights and recommendations
I developed three major insights based on the participants’ pain points:
Users attend conferences primarily to connect with other scholars in their field. Online conference platforms need to provide ways for users to connect with other attendees, both synchronously and asynchronously.
• Users want to receive feedback on their research and need to be able to demonstrate the impact of their presentations. Conference platforms need to collect feedback and analytics and share them openly with presenters.
• Inadequate search tools make conference platforms difficult for users to navigate. Conference platforms need to provide robust search tools and multiple options for browsing conference sessions.
Next steps
Having identified users' needs and pain points, I designed a new online conference platform and conducted two phases of usability testing.
Users who tested the high-fidelity prototype called the design simple, clean, and logical. They praised its affordances for facilitating interaction with other conference attendees and appreciated thoughtful touches like the “your session” area of the agenda and analytics in the notification center. One participant said, “This is doing everything I could imagine it needing.”
High-fidelity prototype of the new online conference platform that I designed based on user interviews and usability testing. The design is a simple, more usable platform that better meets users' needs and resolves the pain points I identified. (Explore the embedded prototype or open the prototype in a separate window.)
What I learned
My user interviews revealed that users’ needs are not sufficiently taken into consideration in the design of online platforms for academic conferences. Users suspected that existing platforms cater only to their direct clients, conference organizers. The new design, which was based on insights from my research, shows that it is possible to create a simple, easily navigable platform that makes attending online conferences more enjoyable for users and meets their needs as presenters and attendees.

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