Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Rich Virtual Experience

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.

Jay Smethurst

Jay Smethurst

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!).

InfoGraphic by Karl Gude

InfoGraphic by Karl Gude

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.

Information Graphics – How to get the point across and save those thousand words. Here’s a great blog on infographics as well.

StoryMaps – Rich visual maps of processes, systems or networks of interrelated things (people, ideas, organizations, etc.)

Information Landscapes – envision your data in three dimensions, and then fly your audience over the terrain. Here are a couple of examples: “Fitness Landscapes” , 3D Data Visualizations

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.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Cece Salomon-Lee August 25, 2009 at 9:56 am

Jay, great food for thought on how to take virtual events and environments to the next level. I would like to recommend taking a look at this recent article by VirtualEdge regarding Cisco’s Global Sales Kick-off Meeting.

With Juxt and GPJ providing the design elements and InXpo powering the platform, Cisco is taking advantage of the unique aspects of virtual to develop an “experience” for audiences. This includes “communities around segmentation and team Alternate Reality Game (ARG) for sales teams and technical sales staff.”

I believe that this represents an represents an inflection point in our industry – a move away from pure “replication” to creating an experience.

Director of Marketing, InXpo


Jay Smethurst August 25, 2009 at 10:03 am

@Cece Salomon-Lee, Cece, First, I need to applaud anyone who can make “ARG” into an acronym. Bravo!

I read the Cisco article over the weekend, and yes, they are conceiving of these meetings quite differently. It’s not just broadcasting some of the live event outwards (which is a good place to start, at least), but it’s designing an experience to engage a variety of audiences in a variety of locations. It’s orders of magnitude trickier, but you’re giving each participant an experience designed for THEM.

It’s exciting to see this kind of approach taking hold, and I love the gaming aspect — a close cousin of the simulation idea I described above.

Thank you for the comments!


Michael M McCurry CMP August 25, 2009 at 5:12 pm

@Jay Smethurst,

Wow, you guys are baffling me with this stuff… it is so “outside the box.” I love it.

Cece thanks for your comments and additional shared experience, and Jay just want to give you a shoutout for writing the article…. you went way outside my realm of expertise and it is great to see all these exciting things evolve with events!

I look forward to seeing the additional discussion generated!



Jeff Hurt August 28, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Jay & others:

Ok, I like what Jay & Cece say and I get it. Lots to offer, lots to discuss. Harder to implement.

Jay, can you clarify who your audience is for this post?

I think you were writing to meeting and event organizers but I’m not sure.

IMO, the post addresses three different audiences: event professionals, presenters and the group charged with the visual design of an experience (often the marketing department.) I think this is an important clarification for any meeting professional that works within a corporation or association as the silo structure is often fairly defined. If you’re writing to independent meeting planners, then they may have the ability to make an impact on the areas you define. When you add a virtual experience such as you’re discussing, often that is not the task of the corporation or association meeting planner at all. You’ve added another silo in the mix.

Here’s why I ask. I think seeing the meeting professional as the architect of an experience, virtual or face to face, requires a fundamental shift in tasks crossing corporate silo cultures.

Also, outside of meetings that you facilitate, what’s your experience planning conferences and events that have virtual components and focus on the elements you discuss. I know you have experience as the supplier to an event professional adding the visual elements. I’m just curious on your views from the trenches as the conference organizer.


Jay Smethurst August 28, 2009 at 7:23 pm

@Jeff Hurt, Jeff,
These are great questions and clarifications! As you mentioned, the bulk of my experience is in the facilitation of F2F meetings. Our clients actually asked us to bring the collaborative aspects of our facilitated sessions into their larger conference-style events (leadership meetings, customer conferences etc.) Several of my colleagues come from the instructional design world, with a focus on learning technologies and interface design. As we venture into the meetings & events space, we’re continuously exploring “creative combinations” — how to use tools and methods that are proven in one domain in a new setting.

My post was focused on the user experience of a virtual attendee – it was intended to be a vision for a user experience quite different from the “average” experience today. What your questions highlight is the desperate need for collaboration to make any event successful, especially when there is a vision for something different and innovative to take place. A planner cannot do it alone. A creative team cannot do it alone. A speaker cannot do it alone. And this is exactly the reason it is so difficult for innovation to happen in any industry – not just in meetings & events!

In response to Mike’s request, this post was intended as a vision piece to stimulate thinking, not a practical how-to guide. As a supplier and part of the design team, I have been involved in events that incorporated some of these ideas, but I have not seen this vision implemented whole hog.

I’m not sure I answered all of your questions, but your points are good ones – how can someone interested in this vision actually implement it? Is it even implementable? And by whom? I would love to engage experienced meeting professionals in precisely those conversations. If this is a sufficiently compelling vision, let’s figure out how to execute it! Would this be a dialogue you’d like to pursue further?


Ian McGonnigal September 6, 2009 at 7:20 pm

Jay, This is fantastic.

I like your thoughts around information design.

One very important point. We are all in the relationship business. Regardless of what tool(s) you use to propagate information (virtual, social, face to face or otherwise) its critical we recognize what the purpose of each tool is in the relationship cycle.

As we know, relationships are based on trust, a mutual exchange of value and shared experiences. What you seem to be talking about here are human factors in information design which is a very important component of experiences and can either drive or detract from these experiences. Good information design is one way to drive real engagement, but its just one of the many components that makes our work so complex and enjoyable at the same time.

Thanks for a great post.


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