. The Importance of Empathy in Event User-Experience Design | Northstar Meetings Group

The Importance of Empathy in Event User-Experience Design

Examining the event-attendee experience should go beyond feedback surveys, says Beth Surmont of 360 Live Media.


WILMI (Women In Leadership Meetings & Incentives) is Northstar Meetings Group's exclusive conference for executive-level women in the industry. At WILMI, leading female meetings and incentives buyers and suppliers will join together to network, engage in dialogue and opportunities, and plan to do business together. WILMI 2020 takes place March 18-20 at the Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C. Qualified buyers are fully hosted and can register here.

"Empathy" might not be the first word planners think of as they start to design an event, but it should be a foundational component of successful user-experience (UX) design for every meeting. While attending PCMA's 2020 Convening Leaders conference in San Francisco earlier this month, Beth Surmont, CMP, CAE, director of experience design for 360 Live Media and a speaker at Northstar Meetings Group's upcoming Women in Leadership Meetings & Incentives, expected to hear the term referenced in event-design sessions. "To my surprise, empathy was also discussed on the main stage," she recalls.

Empathic event design starts with the planner walking in the participants' shoes, but Surmont stresses that it's more than just that. "It's really about analyzing and understanding attendee needs so that you can anticipate, deliver, and surprise and delight them. It's about creating a UX design that attendees didn't even realize they needed."

Understanding UX Design at Events

To better understand empathic user experience and its role in events, Surmont says you have to start paying deeper attention. "I like to stand in places and just observe -- to get a feel for how a group moves and interacts," she explains. "I might stand in the back of a meeting room, the side of the lunchroom or across from the registration desk. All I am meant to do is just watch. I try to observe how people are figuring out where to go and determining what their next step will be." This practice helps you identify any areas of friction that exist in the meeting space. 

A few questions Surmont asks herself while observing are:

  • Are attendees hesitating before approaching the registration desk? 
  • Do they look around, confused, after stepping away from registration?
  • How are attendees entering the general session? Are there any key indicators expressed through their body language?
  • How are attendees exiting the general session?
  • Do attendees appear to step confidently in the direction they want to go?
  • Do attendees have to pull out their programs to decide what is next?

By really observing these behaviors, you can make more educated decisions that can be used to help participants navigate your event and enhance its UX design. 

Persona Empathy Mapping

Attendees' small, unconscious behaviors tell you much more about than than a typical satisfaction survey or other attendee-satisfaction scores. Listening, watching and taking part in an empathy-mapping exercise can help you anticipate their needs and present a meeting design that empowers your participants, Surmont explains. 

According to software company HubSpot, an empathy map is a tool used when collecting attendee data to better understand your target attendee base. Empathy maps visualize attendee needs, condense data, and help you consider what attendees want -- not what you think they want.

To create an empathy persona, HubSpot suggests determining what attendees think and feel during the conference experience, what they hear, what they see, what they say and what they do. Find out where frustrations and stresses crop up at your meeting, and what risks and threats they face. Also investigate the tools they will need to be successful and how they will be able to measure their indivdual successes throughout your event. 

An effective empathy map should not be overflowing with information. You want it to be clear, concise and readable. "Even if you come up with 40 items that your attendees see, choose the top 10 that seem most relevant," suggests HubSpot.  

Your empathy map will be complete once it has an equal and valid number of items for each category. You can use this empathy map to tailor the UX design of your event for your target attendee.

Journey Mapping an Experience

Another route to take is to create a "journey map," says Surmont. According to Neilsen Norman, a research-based UX group, a journey map is a visualization of the process that a person (e.g. an attendee) goes through in order to accomplish a goal (e.g. navigate the conference). Describing the process in "Journey Mapping 101," Neilsen Norman says, "In its most basic form, journey mapping starts by compiling a series of user actions into a timeline. Next, the timeline is fleshed out with user thoughts and emotions in order to create a narrative."

The narrative is condensed into what ultimately becomes a visualization guide that each attendee would use while navigating your event, charting out a tailored event experience for an attendee, says Surmong. "We like to create [multiple] personas and let people self-select the persona that best represents them," she adds. For example, she says, the "thinker persona" is guided toward the technical sessions of the meeting; the "networker" is recommended to go to collaborative sessions and happy hour; the "inventor" has the most cutting-edge conference sessions on their agenda; and the map suggests that the "experimenter" try a little bit of everything.

"Journey mapping is a simple way to make your event attendees work a little less hard, and enjoy their experience a lot more," Surmont explains.  

Innovation at Work

Innovation plays a sizable role in the development of UX design, yet everyone seems to talk about innovation like it’s a skill to acquire. In reality, it's a daily practice of many small things that enhance your creativity and spur ideas that can be implemented into all aspects of the planning process.

At Women in Leadership Meetings & Incentives (WILMI), taking place March 18-20 in Washington, D.C., Beth Surmont will talk with top women in the industry and offer ways to reveal your most creative thinking. Surmont's session will foster a culture that celebrates innovation within WILMI attendees' teams. 

About WILMI: Hosted by Northstar Meetings Group, WILMI is an exclusive conference for executive-level women in the industry. It is a conference created by women, for women. At WILMI 2020, leading female meetings and incentives buyers and suppliers will join together in the nation's capital to network, engage in dialogue on present and future challenges and opportunities, and plan to do business together. WILMI is a fully hosted event for top-qualified buyers. Register to attend here.

Beth Surmont will meet with women industry leaders at WILMI 2020.

Beth Surmont, CMP, CAE, is the director of experience design at 360 Live Media. As an event planner for more than 19 years, she is a project manager, experience designer, content curator, storyteller, motivator, leader, behind-the-scenes cheerleader, logistics director, contract negotiator, researcher, trend analyzer, innovator, visionary, partner, builder, thinker, problem-solver, entrepreneur, and customer service specialist. Surmont has been a CMP since 2008, a CAE since 2016, and served as chair of the ASAE Meeting & Exposition Council from 2016 to 2018. She will speak at WILMI in Washington, D.C., on March 19.