Mike McCurry’s recent Hybrid Events post sparked an interesting exchange about the virtual versus face-to-face meeting experience. Mike asked me to write a guest post on his blog to add some substance to my pithy comments.
The virtual side of hybrid meetings offers us a tremendous opportunity. Will virtual meetings completely replace in-person meetings? No. There are some aspects of the face-to-face experience than can never be replicated online. (Now, designers of F2F experiences also need to do a much better job of leveraging and emphasizing those distinctive aspects, but that’s not our focus here.)
By the same token, however, virtual tools and technologies offer options for online experiences that can’t be generated in person. A shift is happening out there – we are starting to realize the virtual experience should not be designed as a pale replica of the in-person experience. We can design virtual experiences much more powerful than those today, and even stronger (in some respects) than their in-person counterparts.
[A quick disclaimer here: I’m a face-to-face believer. I’ve been facilitating face-to-face collaborative design sessions for over a decade. But I believe the tools being developed enable us to rethink both the in-person AND online experiences from scratch.]
How could the online experience be different? First of all, stop reading for a moment, and view your screen. How much information is available to you at this very instant? You can probably see the time and date or which applications are open. You may be receiving pings signaling updates arriving at your various social media applications or a stock ticker or news feed streaming somewhere. You might even have some instant messages flickering at you.
The human mind has the ability to process a staggering amount of visual information. CNN has figured this out, and you can barely see the reporters anymore for all of the tickers and sidebars. This has long been one of the criticisms of the virtual conference experience – by not being IN the room, you miss out on far too much of the visual stimuli of the event.
But that may be because of what we’ve chosen to share with our online attendees. Most presenters have been trained to show no more than three bullet points per slide. We’ve been taught this “maximizes retention.” So when we broadcast our meetings virtually, we feel compelled to show these three bullet points to our online audience – an audience which is accustomed to an extremely information-rich desktop experience. No wonder the virtual experience feels attenuated – it doesn’t even measure up to the visual interest of our email program!
There are dozens of tools out there that could spice up the virtual conference experience. Some are being experimented with. I will describe two that I feel deserve more attention: simulations and information architecture.
In his 1995 book Out of Control, Kevin Kelly described a 1991 conference in which the audience plays a game of Pong – one half of the audience versus the other half – by holding up paddles that are green on one side, red on the other. The percentage of green sides vs. red sides in your group determined how you moved your controller to hit the ball. No one person had a very big influence on whether the controller went up or down, but the two halves of the audience quickly became adept at hitting the Pong back and forth. Shortly thereafter, they flew an airplane together. Here is the complete story.
This was a simulation that a face-to-face audience participated in. In 1991. The purpose of the simulation was to give the audience a visceral experience of “flocking rules” – of the emergent behavior of a group of people making very independent decisions. This could have been a very dry and academic discourse. Instead, Kelly uses words like “shouts”, “squeals”, and “standing ovation”.
Dry content + simulation. Standing ovation.
The virtual meeting experience is begging for the more active use of simulations. Yes, this requires presenters to do a lot more work than just throw together some PowerPoint bullets. But a simulation about the topic of your presentation can be far more powerful that a standard lecture – give people an experience of the problem or solution!
The Beer Game is a classic example of a simulation. It is NOT the kind of game you’re thinking. It is a supply chain simulation, and you can play it here. You can be a beer retailer, wholesaler, distributor, or manufacturer. Based on the information you receive from your customer, you simply have to decide how much beer to order from your supplier. Simple enough. What players discover is that even short time lags in a system can cause the system to go haywire, especially if there is little communication within the system. Again, a fuller description of the game can be found here.
So imagine the focus of your conference were a new business process, or a new set of best practices in your industry. It would certainly be informative to tell people about this new approach. It would be infinitely more powerful to give them an experience of the new approach. Design a simulation that either demonstrates the difficulty of the old approach, the benefits of the new approach, or, ideally both! Then invite virtual attendees to participate in the simulation from their computers. In a hybrid event, your f2f attendees could either participate themselves, or serve as observers to the high-level patterns and trends of the virtual attendees’ decisions in the simulation. The presenter could commentate during the simulation, or save the remarks and discussion until the simulations are finished. With a Twitter back-channel, a really good presenter could ask the virtual attendees for specific kinds of feedback on the simulation experience, and then pull out the key points or lessons of the simulation from the Twitter feed. The presenter could ask the audience for a different kind of feedback if they had served as observers of the simulation. Then both sides would provide useful insights for each other.
Simulations, by the way, are not new. The Beer Game was developed at MIT in the 1960s. iThink software is an excellent tool for developing systems dynamics simulations like the Beer Game… although it takes a bit of time to learn.
The Visual Display of Information
The other tool that would benefit virtual attendees is “information architecture”. Edward Tufte has written extensively and beautifully on the visual display of information. Richard Saul Wurman, in addition to founding the TED Conferences, published a phenomenal book called Information Architects. These and many others can help us create a much richer visual experience for virtual attendees (and again, for in-person attendees as well!).
Again, most presenters at conferences use PowerPoint to emphasize a very few key ideas. For the online viewer, these slides are visual agony. The eye wants richness, beauty and elegant complexity, not dull, uniform, static simplicity. Tufte and many others have developed great examples of information-rich visuals. I’ll mention just a few here.
StoryMaps – Rich visual maps of processes, systems or networks of interrelated things (people, ideas, organizations, etc.)
The tools are out there to create very dynamic, engaging and visually interesting experiences for virtual attendees. They will take some work to incorporate into our virtual and hybrid events, but once we develop a familiarity with these tools (or with this new set of suppliers), the amount of work required should not be significantly different than it is today.
It’s a learning curve, to be sure, and a period of experimentation. But remember what you’re up against. The online audience will compare your virtual event not only to other in-person events they’ve attended, but also to all of the other media experiences they have on their computer screens.
Content is still king, but creating an experience of that content which is only available through online tools will make virtual attendance uniquely valuable.