Putting Design Empathy Into Conference Practice

9.366: Is 15 pairs enough I ask myself...

Empathy is powerful!

It plays a fundamental role in our connections, our networking, our learning, our problem solving, our innovation and our collaboration with others. According to research, when we are empathetic, we actually enhance our cognitive abilities. (Decety and Ickes, 2011).

Putting ourselves into others shoes helps us improve our thinking. We improve our ability to see contextual clues and put information within context. This helps us understand how things relate to each other both figuratively and literally.

The Staying Power Of Design Empathy

Applying design empathy to conference planning results in staying power. The experience sticks with the attendee because they feel it deep within the soul. The conference then has an impact far beyond its closing general session, final presentation and last attendee leaving the venue.

When applied in the planning and implementation stages of conference development, design empathy creates a unique attendee experience. It emotionally connects with the participant. It results in neurological and chemical reactions in the brain. (Zak 2012).

When a conference experience resonates with a paying registrant, and participants feel as if the sessions were designed just for them, to help them solve their most pressing issues, the brain releases chemicals. That WOW-moment becomes real…and unforgettable.

When attendees witness sessions that increase their feelings of trust, empathy and problem solving, their bodies respond with increased levels of oxytocin, the cuddle hormone. They feel they belong, are cared for and enter into learning more easily. And it balances the amount of cortisol, the stress hormone, found in their bloodstream as well.

Practicing Rival Planning Strategies

Here’s the challenge. Meeting professionals and conference organizers are usually really good at logistics and details. We’ve not practiced design empathy.

Analytical and logistical thinking is the rival of empathetic thinking according to the research of R. E. Jack (Jack et al., 2012).

Our logistical thinking makes decisions based on rational, reasoned thinking. Empathetic thinking makes decisions based on trust and emotions. When logistical thinking strategy is used, empathetic thinking becomes suppressed. And vice versa.

As meeting professionals and conference organizers, most of the time we make decisions based on analytical thinking. We put logistics and rational above designing an experience that connects on an empathetic level.

Practicing Switching Our Thinking

Design Empathy is not about just making emotional decisions. It’s about balancing our conference planning with both empathizing with the attendees’ experience and analyzing its components to paraphrase IDEO’s Empathy On Edge.

Conference organizers and meeting professionals have to develop and practice the habit of switching from logistical thinking to design empathy when planning events. We’ve got to set aside our own opinions and expertise and place ourselves in the shoes of our target market. We’ve got to welcome conflicting thoughts, differing opinions and new mental modes through design empathy.

Too often, conference organizers and meeting professionals have been so buried in the minutia and details that we lose touch with our primary customers. We get so drawn to BEOs, roomsets, registrations processes and venue contracts that it suppresses a desire to embrace and use design empathy.

Implementing design empathy is a counter force to those methodical logistics. It helps us regain a focus on what our target market attendees’ needs are, what they really care about, and how to design programming that addresses their pressing issues.

Ultimately, implementing design thinking in our conference planning is a game changer and competitive force.

What are some practical ways conference organizers can put themselves in the shoes of their customers? What are some ways you’ve been successful at implementing design empathy?

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1 comment
  1. Brilliant! I am looking forward to witnessing much more conference design empathy from the simultaneous interpretation booth. Interpretation into all participating languages is one way multilingual conferences can be customized empathetically. All too often participants are expected to follow proceedings in English while they are simply not proficient enough for comprehension.

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