FAQ: How to convince my boss to let me attend a web conference?
~ 17 September 2008 ~
Q: I am a course developer for a university. I am interested in attending An Event Apart and need to justify to my supervisor why this conference would be really great for me and the university. I have explained that the learning more about standards-based HTML, CSS and accessibility are a must as an employee of a state university, and that some of the best creative minds in the world will be speaking at the conference. However, my boss would like to know how this conference would benefit me and my department in terms of creating instructional websites. I was hoping you might be able to add deeper insight to my case?
A: Conferences such as An Event Apart do indeed bring together some of the best minds in the web world. I remember my first web conference in Seattle seven years ago. I can recall vividly much of the content that was presented, and to this day I can honestly say it has still influenced my work as a designer.
I take a special liking to colleges and universities, having worked with several previously a freelance designer — Michigan State, University of Texas, Hiram College, and a couple others. I understand the opportunities and challenges they and you face.
Your question about how an event such as this would would benefit you and your department is not an uncommon one. Your boss is justified in being concerned about budget and time away from work. Overall, this event (or just about any other) will probably cost you roughly $2500 for flight, hotel, and registration, and you’ll be absent from work at least three days.
On the contrary, look at things from the perspective of your users: the students and faculty. I can recall what it was like to be a student using technology as both a hinderance and an aid to my education. What frustrated me then as a web user/student, and what still frustrates me today are user experiences that are less than optimal or desirable.
Consider the following photo showing a gas pump “interface”. Ever seen and used a pump like this? Sure you have. You know how it works — you pull up, you swipe your credit card, and what’s the next thing you have to do before pumping? Choose a grade or rating. Notice the usage pattern of this pump and where people have tried selecting a grade (“85”) vs. where the actual button (“Push”) is located to start pumping?
Contrast that with this second gas pump. Notice the difference? The grade label and the start button are the same interface element. Imagine the hundreds of people that use a single pump in a given day. Multiply that by the number of the pumps in your city, and you’re in the hundreds of thousands of uses in a single year.
Conferences can teach individuals how to avoid blunders like the first gas pump. It’s all small thing, right? But multiply that by hundreds of users using dozens of pumps each day and your “insignificant” interface deficiency is no longer so insignificant. So for me, the real value in continuing education is not so much in the HTML/CSS instruction — though these things are certainly important — but rather in learning how to creating user experiences that are efficient, meaningful, and pleasant. (Coincidentally, the gas pump example above is one I use in my Good vs. Great Design presentation when speaking about machine efficiency vs. user efficiency.)
In the end, $2500 and three days of missed work seem to me a very small price to pay to help my users enjoy better experiences online.
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