Thoughts on DCamp

This past weekend was DCamp

DCamp, an unconference focused on design and user experience, is open to everyone interested in the topic: designers, usability practitioners, developers, marketers, entrepreneurs, and others.

Unlike traditional conferences, there is no program created by conference organizers. What happens at DCamp depends on you.

It was interesting to be involved in a do-it-yourself grassroots type of event. I’ll admit to some anxiety as the event approached, specifically because I had offered to give a talk. What kind of environment would we be in? Did I need a projector, or should I just “wing it”?

I’ll say that the anxiety decreased over time, and my overall enjoyment/value from the event increased over time. By the end, I was pretty into the whole thing, but it’s an adjustment of expectations from a more traditional top-down event.

As with most conferences, the hanging-out is lots of fun. People I’ve never met before, people I’ve met once or twice before, people who work with or know others I know, people to suggest books, or share their own stories, or to ask me about myself. It’s a workout for the introvert (and I came home and crashed pretty hard, I must admit), but lots of fun.

I think the sessions are a mixed bag; the audience is varied and the presenters can’t count on an audience having a certain level of experience with their topic. Every session I was in started off with one topic and wandered more or less into something different, or at least a narrow corner of what was brought to us by the presenter – and that was okay – that was the point.

But that means that only one session made my head spin, the rest were comfortable, a bit provocative, a bit interesting, but not challenging or building new ideas or anything. That’s probably a reasonable proportion for a short event, consistent with a more traditional event.

DCamp – 92.jpg, originally uploaded by chrisheuer.

I think those of us who lead sessions need to learn how to handle a more open-ended type of event, but also participants need to think of the group dynamic or what kind of questions or comments will move it along versus stall it. And that is not something that’s natural, especially with a new group of people getting together.

The event was held in the offices of wiki startup Socialtext, and we totally took over their space. There was stuff everywhere – food, ice, beer, DCamp t-shirts, water, paper, people, laptops. The vibe was good, but sometimes it felt a bit cult-like with lots of walls covered with tree-drawings that were for planning future events, or photos of attendees, or DCamp slogans. See the flickr pics here.

The cost was $10. Sponsors took care of the facility, food brought in, and two lavish meals at nearby restaurants. It was quite wonderful.

Oh, and it was indeed a “camp.” If you brought a sleeping bag (or if you didn’t, even) you could sleep over.

And in an interesting-sign-of-our-accelerated times, there is already a reunion planned. For Monday.

Introductions, originally uploaded by niallkennedy.

We were asked to give our name, and three words. I offered “seize the day” (since carpe diem is only two, yes?)

P1010803, originally uploaded by Fred M Jacobson.

DSCN0279, originally uploaded by blue_j.
Here’s Dirk and some others looking in on my session. There’s me in my lawn chair in the middle right of the pic.

DSCN0274, originally uploaded by blue_j.

I did the traditional slideshow thing, but I whizzed through it and tried to get people talking. It was the first session of the whole event, and I don’t know that everyone was clear what session this was, what room the various sessions were in, etc. And so there was a reasonable amount of awkward silence. The room was rather weird, too. I was sitting in the middle of the room around a low table, with a few folks at that table, and then the rest of the room was ringed with people, so in terms of maintaining eye contact with each other, it was pretty tough.

Of course, I’m obviously a harsh critic of myself, and of experiences like this – the feedback I did get was really good; I even heard some of the concepts I was asking people to think about (briefly – the value of the space between defined opposites) emerge in subsequent sessions.

DSCN0277, originally uploaded by blue_j.

The talk and discussion was being recorded for podcast, so I’ll post when that goes online. Update: Arthur has posted the notes here (they are also on the Dcamp wiki but that requires registration, I believe). This was great of the folks from AOL to bring the gear and set it up for each session and so on, but we’ve got a long way to go with that. People aren’t comfortable talking into microphones, and in this case, there was no amplification, so whatever use model we bring to using a microphone, this broke. You were asked to place it very very close to your mouth, far closer than I am in this picture. And rather than have a free-flowing conversation, we had to pass this device back and forth to people – who did not want to use it. And typically they’d hold it about a foot from their face, so someone would interrupt as they were starting to talk “Put it right up to your mouth!” Which just served to make them more self-conscious. I would rather privilege the experience in the room over any documentation for others, and just have spoken more normally. In one session, a dude sat there with a handheld recorder and just point it at people, leaving us to talk normally. It felt much more comfortable.

Good experience, overall, good to see people, and have some conversation. I’d probably go to another one, and even mused to myself about organizing a similar event that is a little closer to my areas of professional interest than this one was.


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