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?

Gas pump interface showing grade sticker worn out from finger presses with smaller start button to the right

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.

Gas pump interface showing the grade sticker that also functions as the start button

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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1   Mike Smith ~ 17 September 2008

Nice analogy with the gas pumps. I JUST used one like the first one yesterday for the first time in about a year. Some people just don’t get it.

2   Michael Thompson ~ 17 September 2008

Though arguably, the gas pump blunder doesn’t necessarily impact their bottom line.

The customer is already parked and has their car’s fly open, reading for some pump loving. They will hit the wrong button, think, “that’s stupid”, and find the right one.

3   Dennis West ~ 17 September 2008

[michael quote=”They will hit the wrong button, think, “that’s stupid”, and find the right one.”]

True, but gas pumps aren’t equipped with a “back” button that would no doubt be the outlet OUR users use to express their frustration.

4   KC ~ 17 September 2008

Re: Michael Thompson - There may not be an obvious impact to the bottom line, but it’s likely there. Customers get annoyed when they can’t get a machine to work (or think “That’s stupid”), and on a subconscious level, they likely associate that with the business in question.

I know it’s a small thing…but when you scale it, it’s bound to lose you some money in the long run. If nothing else, you don’t want negative association with your brand. Especially when it costs so little to do it right.

Just like training employees who work at the cash register to smile and be friendly arguably helps one’s bottom line - if nothing else, the last thing the person experiences before they leave is positive, and they associate the business with that.

Granted, the tough part is selling that to upper management. But personally, I think of user experience as the ‘customer service’ of the web. That sometimes helps.

5   Cameron Moll ~ 17 September 2008

In my mind, the essence of great design is not only delivering on business objectives but also ridding the experience of the “that’s stupid”s for the user.

6   Michael Thompson ~ 17 September 2008

I agree with the post and the comments above (truly I do!), but I honestly don’t see someone abandoning a gas station just because of “start the show” button location.

Once they’ve learned where it is, they may actually be more inclined to return due senses of accomplishment and familiarity.

Apologies for being a troll.

7   Jason ~ 17 September 2008

When I come across a new innovation in technology or interface design in the real world, I’m more likely to spread that info to my friends. “Go here and use this because it is much easier than the old way.”

8   Michael Sigler ~ 17 September 2008

Great analogy with the gas pump. I’ve seen those worn, faded and scratched stickers over and over and it never occurred to me why they were like that. Seems to make sense.

Add another voice to the choir about attending these events. I attended An Event Apart in San Francisco last year. I had a great time and still refer to many of the presentations today. It was very valuable to me and my team to attend and I feel like I did learn something.

That said, I have been to a few events that weren’t as interesting or valuable but those are fairly easy to avoid if you look at the speaker list and agenda.

9   Barbara Ballard ~ 17 September 2008

Ha! You could have substituted “Design For Mobile” for “An Event Apart”, and otherwise written the same article.

10   Cameron Moll ~ 17 September 2008


11   Andrew Hedges ~ 17 September 2008


While I agree with you on the value of conferences and the “small” benefits that flow through in our work, I don’t think you’ve established a compelling case for the pointy haired boss types who may be blocking their employees from attending.

(I, too, have worked for several U.S. colleges and universities, so I’m very familiar with the resource-starved thinking that often goes on there.)

I don’t necessarily have The Answer, but perhaps a way to approach this would be for the eager employee to ask the boss about her goals for the department. “Doesn’t our mission statement say we will strive to offer the best possible service to the university community? For me to do that, I need to learn from the people at the top of my trade.”

What do you think of something like that approach?


12   Andrew Hedges ~ 17 September 2008

Sorry for the quick follow-on, but to more directly answer the original question, instructional content is an area of the web that could most benefit from the usability and accessibility information imparted at An Event Apart. Most higher ed. institutions state as a goal to make learning opportunities as widely accessible (in a non-web sense) as possible, so it only follows that it is imperative that webbies at colleges and universities know this stuff as well or better than anyone!

13   Chris Hall ~ 18 September 2008

Great post, Cameron. I was recently interested in attending a flash conference (Flash on Tap) and used what proved to be an effective method for convincing my superiors to approve the trip. I created a short presentation in which I showed a few impressive specific applications of techniques that I would learn at the conference, and then showed how those skills could be applied to projects we were working on. When the management team was able to actually see and interact with the end result of what they were paying for, they got excited about it. The only downside is that I actually have to go to the conference instead of playing around in Boston all week. You can see the presentation I made here

14   Dennis West ~ 18 September 2008

When I went to my first conference (Thunderlizard Web Design World 98, actually) I wrote up a proposal to my boss indicating some of the sessions that I found interesting and how I could see using the knowledge that I got from those to help develop our new website that I was working on. When I came back and implemented some of the things I learned, they really saw the benefit and didn’t hesitate to send me the following year.

On another note, I wouldn’t encourage people to go to the same conference every year, but to mix it up a bit. I went to Thunderlizard two years in a row and there was quite a bit of repetition the second year. Then I went again 5 years later and there was a ton of new stuff. So maybe if you want to go twice, get some time in between and do some other stuff.

15   Dennis West ~ 18 September 2008

By the way…. 2.66 for a gallon of Mid grade gas!? it’s sad to say it, but those were the days!

16   Shane ~ 18 September 2008

Well said, I was just finally able to convince my employer to send me to SXSW this year, it was a bit easier because I live in Austin, now convincing him to send me out of State is seeming much more difficult, but maybe sending him a link to this article might make it a little bit easier.

17   John ~ 18 September 2008

I (and another coworker) just returned from Photoshop World in Las Vegas. It’s pretty refreshing when your employer believes in you enough to invest in helping one hone in on their craft and improve it. Though continuing ed programs at my company are not mandatory, they’re encouraged…

18   Adrian Turner ~ 19 September 2008

Awesome analogy. We easily convinced our boss of the importance of all the Front-End Developers attending AEA problem is though they still want us to create pages like the first pump. Why because it works. I mean a lighter puts out fire but I don’t see any glass blowers using lighters.

19   Jeff Barry ~ 24 September 2008

I used to manage IT for a university library and routinely had to deny this type of travel request. Why?

University budgets for travel are just not very extensive, sometimes no more than $1,000 per year per professional. The registration cost alone for tech events eats up almost all the travel budget for an academic. Unfortunately there’s often not much (if any) discount for attendees from academic institutions. Why is that? (Most conferences focused solely on higher ed have much lower registration rates than tech conferences).

Spending $2,500 on travel on one person/one event is just not realistic for most universities.

What a developer employed by a univ can do is to offer to pay their own air fare and hotel (using priceline for the lowest rates) and skip the per diem so that the univ only covers registration and provides days off with pay (i.e., administrative leave; the 3 days away from work is never the problem). (That’s the strategy I often had to do myself). It’s sad but education just does not have the funding for these types of events and no amount of persuasive talk about mission statements is going to work to fully cover travel expenses to pricey conferences.

20   Paul Stanton ~ 25 September 2008

I echo the comments by Jeff Barry, being a conference-going university employee I routinely pay my own way, but am able to take the 2/3 days as paid administration leave.

It’s not an ideal situation, but better than nothing I suppose.

21   Patrick Haney ~ 25 September 2008

As someone who both goes to a lot of conferences, and who’s been working in academia for 5 years now, I can attest to the fact that it’s tough to get signoff on these sorts of things. In that time, I’ve only had 3 conferences paid for (along with paid time off) out of the numerous trips I’ve made (and one of those was a local AEA, which only required a registration fee). Even when I’ve decided to send myself to a conference by spending my own money, I end up having to take vacation time to do so, and that just doesn’t seem right.

It’s not easy to convince the people in charge that a conference or two a year will have a good return on your company’s investment (of time off and money). I like to stress the importance of idea sharing, not only in the conference sessions but also in the discussions between attendees afterwards. Nothing recharges and motivates me to get things done at work like spending some well earned time away with other like-minded folks. I think a lot of supervisors miss this point entirely.

At the same time, I still can’t believe that budgets for employee training are so low, especially at universities (is it ironic that an educational institution refuses to send employees to educational training sessions more than once a year?). How many opportunities do you get to keep your employees happy and educate them so they can do a better job for you?

22   Internetagentur München ~ 24 December 2008

I like the analogy with the gas pumps! Although I do not like them personally - because I sometimes take the wrong one by instance.

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