What User Experience Principles Can Teach Event Planners About Human-Centered Design

By Dylan Monorchio
May 24, 2023

As generative AI continues to remove the human hand in everything from content production to customer service, IMEX has chosen Human Nature as its central talking point for this week’s Frankfurt show. In keeping with the theme, we have decided to explore what technology can teach us about human-first events by focusing on the discipline of user experience (UX) design.

This week, IMEX is once again uniting event professionals from around the globe in one of the biggest event industry shows. Among other things, IMEX is known for its annual educational theme. In the wake of the release (and unprecedented adoption) of ChatGPT, this year’s IMEX talking point is Human Nature.

Speaking with MeetingsNet, IMEX CEO Carina Bauer elaborates on just what this means:

“Our team is working with partners to design a show that focuses on many aspects of human nature, tapping into innate and learned behaviors; our diverse needs and goals; what makes us healthy; what inspires us; what makes face-to-face human connections vital; how we learn; and how we remember.”

Designing events that account for human behavior and psychology benefits everyone. Content delivery that accommodates the way we are designed to gather, process, and retain information is easier for attendees to get value from. In turn, it will engender more loyalty and engagement with an event and perpetuate a stronger ROI for its stakeholders.

Moreover, as ChatGPT continues to dominate the public discourse and AI continues to disrupt traditional marketing tactics and workflows, the meeting and event industry will be increasingly important for maintaining human connectivity in business. That is why it is critical that the event industry get it right now as we define its role in the transition from business as usual to whatever comes next. 

The worst thing we can do in this capacity is to take an adversarial approach to technology. We need to figure out how it can empower us. While technology has the potential to undermine the value of human labor in many functions, it also has a lot to teach us about how to ground our event design in natural human tendencies. 

User experience design (UXD) is a field dedicated to incorporating a combination of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and social psychology into the way we use and interact with technology. What lessons can we as an industry use to design events that flow better, resonate more deeply, and deliver better experiences as a whole?

8 User Experience Design Principles for More Human-Centered Events

“A designer who doesn’t understand psychology is going to be no more successful than an architect who doesn’t understand physics.”
Joe Leech, UX Consultant, MRJOE LTD

The following are principles that incorporate elements of psychology, research, and design to inform human-centered interfaces that are easy to use and effective at getting users to take desired actions with minimal friction.

What is it?
Keep it simple. Hick’s Law is the idea that there’s an inverse relationship between the number of options (or stimuli) present and the time it takes for someone to make a decision about them. In a scenario where you need someone to make a series of decisions, especially ones that impact each other sequentially, it’s wise to break the decision-making process down according to an order of operations.

How is it applied in UX design?
For example, on your registration page, this might include asking people to select a breakout track before presenting them with a list of all the sessions. This way, they get a smaller subset of sessions that speaks specifically to their primary interest. Allowing them to make decisions this way not only simplifies the process for them, but could help to speed them down the funnel and toward the checkout.

At your event: Designing your attendee journey with Hick’s Law in mind, you might structure your trade show floor plan by, for example, organizing it thematically according to exhibitor type. Conversely, if you want them to spend more time on the show floor instead of B-lining through their prospect shortlist, you could deliberately spread things out and mix them up. This way, attendees on a mission to find a supplier of a particular type are faced with a lot of other options simultaneously, which might lead to serendipitous meetings and demos that increase the overall level of business and engagement at the event.

What is it?
“Monkey see, monkey do.” People are good at imitation, which is why teaching by example is so effective.

How is it applied in UX design?
Ever logged onto a website or signed up for a service and been shown an image or a video of the cursor moving from one spot to another demonstrating exactly how to perform the actions/next steps needed?

At your event: Think about how you can get people to take desired actions by providing an example at the event. Have members of the event staff go first when there’s an interactive activation to get the ball rolling. In workshops or collaborative breakouts in which people get together to solve a problem, get the speaker to spend the first few minutes pulling in some random audience members to solve a simplified version so everyone gets a sense of the flow and dynamic the speaker is going for.

What is it?
400 milliseconds. Research shows that computer response times that consistently fall under 1 second will keep users engaged, and under 400 milliseconds have the potential to become “addicting.”

In his paper, “Response time in man-computer conversational transactions,” Robert B. Miller goes further to describe the costs of failing to adhere to consistently short response times. These include dissatisfaction, disengagement, and a lack of productivity. The reason? When you have to wait, you disengage, which entails a mental time cost to get your head back into what you were doing.

Author’s note: The few seconds that the paper took to load cost me a 20-minute distraction of absent-minded scrolling on LinkedIn.

How is it applied in UX design?
Website optimization often involves reducing the size of multimedia assets to enhance performance speed because marketers know that even a few moments of waiting can derail a prospect’s journey through the funnel. This is also why most websites only load part of the content at a time, and load the rest as you scroll and it becomes visible.

At your event: This principle has some obvious applications for virtual events and on-demand event content, but it can also be applied to events onsite. Audio-visual hiccups, technical problems, or even just inefficiencies around content delivery can exacerbate audience members’ sense of show floor FOMO and impact their ability to pay attention to session content.

While some pauses during a program are an intentional part of pacing, event organizers and speakers should be conscientious of lulls – especially where the audience is meant to participate more actively. Work with speakers to ensure their content is concise. Many audience members will be actively fighting the urge to look at their phones, and any excuse to indulge the distraction will take people out of the session.

This is another reason to follow sessions promptly with a point of feedback if you’re collecting things like an NPS score or even a simple binary assessment on every session. Ride the attention momentum as a lull will give attendees an opportunity to mentally pivot to the next item on their agendas.

4. Priming

What is it?
Set the mental stage. Priming is about putting someone in the right mood or mindset for being more receptive to a particular action or piece of information, and is often effective in facilitating quicker decision-making. As such, it is employed extensively in marketing and advertising.

How is it applied in UX design?
This could be as simple as setting the mood on a website using a particular color palette or playing a friendly or heartfelt video clip to introduce your brand before diving into the main content.

At your event: Be conscientious about the environment you’re setting. The mentality attendees have when they walk into the venue will be impacted by how their day has gone up until that point. An irritating exchange with an Uber driver, a battle with the kids before dropping them off at childcare – or even something as simple as running behind – can increase stress and prevail on their receptivity to instructions, disposition to be critical of inefficiencies, and tolerance of any perceived friction at the event.

Design a welcome to your event that helps them reset. Provide calming music at the entrance. Have food and beverage stands nearby. Start your opening keynote session with a short group meditation exercise.

5. The Peak-end Rule

What is it?
We remember how things make us feel. This theory states that people weigh the emotional peaks and the end of an experience more heavily than all the other moments (or the sum of them) within a user journey.

How is it applied in UX design?
Laws of UX describes how MailChimp takes this principle into account when designing the confirmation of a mass email send by replacing a standard confirmation message with a “high five” congratulation for having accomplished something. “By infusing a touch of brand character through illustration, subtle animation, and humor, the tool defuses what could potentially be a stressful moment.”

At your event: It might be tempting to fixate on every point in the attendee journey, but it’s important to bear in mind the critical moments of value delivery in order to make them as emotionally impactful as possible. These might be the keynote or a central activation during a conference, or the welcome address or team-building workshop during a corporate event.

And when it comes to putting out fires, rather than spreading yourself and your resources thin at every point of interaction with event participants, concentrate on moments where people are the most emotionally vulnerable, like moments of heightened stress or exhaustion, like immediately after a long session.

For example, if you plan a show floor activation too close in time to a high-interest session without enough buffer time between them, the stress of having to navigate from the show floor to the session hall might create an emotional peak you’d rather attendees not hang onto.

What is it?
How to leave a lasting impression. This theory is actually more of a collection of principles that impact how long it takes for people to absorb things well enough to retain them, and how to best present information for short and long-term memory storage using visual engagement, repetition, context, ease-of-use/consumption, and emotional connection.

How is it applied in UX design?
Websites designed with these principles in mind are visually striking but simple and easy to navigate. They present one clear call to action at various points along with core value propositions that speak in layman’s terms to the audience’s burdens and challenges.

At your event: This can be especially useful for a sales event where there is often a clear message or set of value propositions that attendees are meant to absorb, and a single action they can focus on taking as a next step. 

Take the element of repetition for example. Presenting information in familiar patterns and formats will help attendees process and retain it for a longer time. For example, using a floor plan layout that is similar to other shows or previous iterations of the same show will give users a basis for being better able to navigate it.

The same principle can be applied to choosing event technology that offers networking, messaging, and video conferencing capabilities that mimic systems we are all already used to, like Zoom, WhatsApp, or Messenger.

Couching your messaging in simple, emotionally resonant visuals at regular intervals and creating contextually relevant moments to introduce them will also help attendees and other stakeholders to internalize it.

7. Progressive Disclosure

What is it?
Baby steps and bite-sized learnings. This is just a fancy way to describe giving people instructions one step at a time, or in bite sizes, so they don’t get overwhelmed by the information.

How is it applied in UX design?
For example, when signing up for a service like Netflix, the UX designers often break up the process into steps, possibly with an indication of progress at the top. First they’ll have you select a package. Then, in the next screen, they’ll have you enter your email address and create a password. That will lead to a form where you’ll fill out limited personal information, and then the last step is to enter your payment information. This prevents confronting the user with a wall of fields and information, and risking that they’ll feel overwhelmed and put it off until later (or never).

At your event: You can bring this to bear on a number of event elements. Most organizers already do this during registration, and tech providers have built this wisdom into their offerings. But you can also do this with session information, training, etc.

Break up large training or educational sessions into smaller, bite-sized takeaways that are punctuated with a break that gives attendees an opportunity to absorb and apply what they’ve learned. Collaborative exercises that progress a project or challenge over the course of a workshop are a great way to do this.

What is it?
Help people fill in the blanks. Similar to the concept of repetition above, “schema” is a term coined by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget to describe, essentially, the way people gather, process, and categorize information based on past experience in order to get a big picture view of a concept or situation from a small amount of information.

Basically, it’s about the way our brains “fill in the blanks” with what we would expect to see based on the information we do have in order to understand things more quickly. It’s why you can see people coming out of a building en masse, hear fire trucks in the distance, and understand that you shouldn’t go inside (and why).

How is it applied in UX design?
Per the International Design Foundation, users interacting with a website for the first time bring “a wealth of knowledge and experience with them” that creates “expectations and deep-rooted ideas of how things should look, feel, and behave in response to their interactions.” As such, designers who want to make the process easier and more intuitive for users will account for these when introducing new products or interfaces.

At your event: Events organizers often incorporate schemas and follow established paradigms to make their own lives easier. They do this to avoid reinventing the wheel as much as they do it to make things easier on attendees, but it’s still important to remember the value for event-goers.

In practical terms, this means following standard wayfinding protocols and signage, observing standard norms around networking, and over-communicating whenever you want to test a new process or attendee flow at your event.

This is particularly important now as the industry continues to amble back from the pandemic and other market factors like supply and staffing shortages, increased costs, the Metaverse and AI continue to throw wrenches in the recovery. The pressure to experiment with new formats, business models, and value propositions is high.

As event organizers attempt to experiment with more compelling event experiences that are increasingly high-tech, it’s important to remember to use familiar signposts so that people still understand how they’re meant to get value. One practical way to do this is just to test all your tech from the user perspective before you release it to your attendees. If it doesn’t seem familiar and intuitive based on your experience with similar products and services, it might not be the right tech to give your attendees and other event stakeholders.