Applying human-centered design to virtual conference planning

By Kristine Glauber, Ben Miller and Christine Ogilvie Hendren

1. Kristine Glauber (biography)
2. Ben Miller (biography)
3. Christine Ogilvie Hendren (biography)

What is needed to envision and create a virtual conference at which attendees have direct agency in execution of customized, richly interactive sessions?

We share three guideposts from a human-centered design framework in recasting the 11th Annual International Science of Team Science Conference from a face-to-face to a virtual meeting after the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Develop your design principle

Develop your goals for the meeting overall and each individual conference element.These can be referenced when making decisions about how to accomplish a particular task. By identifying the specific goals for your event at the beginning, you can tailor the interactions to meet your attendees’ needs.

Our design principle for the 2020 Science of Team Science conference was to host a virtual conference that would create and nurture connections through interactive, easy-to-navigate, and highly customizable conference elements that preserved our invited and accepted speakers’ opportunity to share their work.

We designed the virtual conference program to include a mix of consistent daily synchronous elements with varying interaction levels and flexibility, as well as on-demand asynchronous elements (“Lightning Talks”). To provide interactive discussion conditions and to confer some agency over conversation size, topic, and format, we created two new session formats within the synchronous activities – the Choose Your Own Adventure Break Out Sessions and Coffee Chats.

A summary of the program is shown in the following figure. The unique conference activities, including the lightning talks, choose your own adventure break-out sessions and coffee chats are described in the table at the end of this blog post.

Science of Team Science 2020 Live Program Schedule. Symmetry in conference elements was prioritized to reduce cognitive burden of scheduling and logistics. Source:

Understand your attendees’ wants, needs… and actual behavior

A foundational tenet of human-centered design is knowing the humans who will use your system well enough to understand their needs, desires, and behaviors.

In our case, the Science of Team Science brings together people who study, practice, teach, and support interdisciplinary research carried out by teams, seeking the best approaches for solving complex problems. This nexus of disciplinary, epistemic, and sectoral diversity means that what our attendees want from the conference is very different depending on whether they:

  • study team-based research to better understand how to do it more effectively, and/or
  • implement findings from the field of the science of team science to run their research program more efficiently, and/or
  • teach and prepare researchers to perform team science.

Our design process was iterative and informed by conversations with conference stakeholders and longtime leaders in the Science of Team Science community and our collective experiences at previous Science of Team Science conferences, as well as their formal evaluations. Further, in light of quarantine measures in response to COVID-19, members of our planning team experienced various constraints on their time and attention, influenced by shifting personal and professional responsibilities—such as changes in workloads and schedules, childcare duties, and video conferencing fatigue—and we knew the same would be true of conference attendees.

With these factors in mind, we designed the synchronous and asynchronous elements to make it easy for attendees to consume content on their schedule as much as possible. Our aim was to reduce the emotional burden on our attendees, to minimize the feeling that they’d missed too much by stepping away, and to encourage them to keep coming back for more.

The design attributes of the event that were intended to enable this customizable experience included limiting every session type to no more than 90 minutes, varying the format type and required attention span (from invited panels featuring experts on conference themes, to workshops, to informal discussions), and creating conditions to welcome interested community members into the drivers’ seat for their own and others’ experiences.

Design and implementation of technical platforms: Focus on clarity and simplicity

For a virtual event, the hosts must provide clear, consistent communication about “where to go,” and create a virtual environment that is easy to navigate. This reduces complexity and cognitive burden, allowing attendees to focus their energy on engaging with the content.

We created the conference “Home Base” to serve as a hub for all conference-related information (see table below) and updated it daily to emphasize what attendees needed to know that day.

To guide participants through each day in the absence of a printed program or concierge desk, we created a dedicated landing page for each day of the conference, containing all program details, Zoom links, and other necessary information. We used the Home Base and a daily morning email to direct attendees to these pages.

One technical take-away that emerged from this conference was capturing the energy of the interactions in a way that harnesses the momentum. We all missed being able to meet in person to exchange innovative ideas. However, a pleasant trade-off emerged in the form of live-captured, co-created resources generated in the meetings using Google Docs, Slack and other shared repositories (see “INSciTS Slack Workspace” in the table below).

Indeed, the great connections and ideas that may have dissipated over the logistics of travel home and physical/mental fatigue that accompanies a live conference are instead preserved and teed up for follow-on. This, in addition to recording the live sessions means that attendees can revisit content they missed in real time and that the 2020 Science of Team Science Conference is now preserved as an extensive video library.

Science of Team Science 2020 Conference element descriptions and design rationale (abbreviations: RFP = request for proposals; INSciTS = International Network for the Science of Team Science; SciTS = Science of Team Science) . Source: The authors.

Final word

What has your experience of planning or participating in virtual conferences been? Do you have other design guidelines – human-centered or other – to share?

For more information on:

Two blog posts from the conference are:

Biography: Kristine Glauber PhD is the Program Director of the Team Science Core with the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA. She served as Co-Chair for the 2020 Science of Team Science Conference. She serves as the Webinar Chair for the Interdisciplinary Integration Research Careers Hub (INTEREACH) Community of Practice and Co-Chairs the INTEREACH Special Interest Group of the International Network for the Science of Team Science. Her interests include design and facilitation of boundary spanning research, especially that which is restorative and equity-building for marginalized entities.

Biography: Ben Miller is a Communications Strategist with the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA. He was the Communications Chair for the 2020 Science of Team Science Conference and is the outgoing Chair of Marketing and Communications for the International Network for the Science of Team Science. His interests include science communication, design and collaboration in resource-constrained communities, and the interface between the humanities and the sciences.

Biography: Christine Ogilvie Hendren PhD is the Director of the Research Institute for Environment, Energy & Economics and a Professor in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, USA. Her work focuses on developing and applying methods, models and human processes to integrate and co-create knowledge across boundaries – disciplinary, sectoral, cultural, geographic – to help research teams address complex global challenges. In collaboration with other SciTS community members, she founded the INTEREACH (Interdisciplinary Integration Research Careers Hub) community of practice in 2016 and currently co-chairs the INTEREACH Special Interest Group of the International Network for the Science of Team Science. She served as Chair of the 2020 Science of Team Science conference.

25 thoughts on “Applying human-centered design to virtual conference planning”

  1. Thank you for this re-visitation Gabriele! It is really interesting to reflect on how these take-aways have continued to hold in my experience. They were originally reflections from a great experience during a large planning pivot at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s been fun to see these tenets hold up in the ensuing couple of years as we all deep-dove into remote work, followed by a return to hybrid as COVID lockdown eased. My own big takeaway reflecting back: how crucial it is to foster a team culture that feeds more than it depletes. We benefit so much in teams that trust each other and show up with excellence but also kindness (and laughter!) during difficult times.

  2. I just wanted to thank you, Christine, Ben, and Kristine, for posting your insights into this unique dilemma! Moving into the second fall of this pandemic, we are once again having to make difficult choices about what sort of conference offerings we can provide to our stakeholders. I am especially impacted by your observation of reflecting on your own difficulties in dealing with the current state of the world, how they impacted your abilities, and reminding oneself that everyone planning to attend will be dealing with those exact same stressors. Too often, I feel, we begin to plan “in a vacuum” when it comes to major events like this, and forget that the frustrations and real-life impacts we feel are also felt by those attending. They’re not a faceless mass of “attendees”–they’re people too!

    Again, I so appreciate your eloquence and detail in explaining the planning of this event, and want to assure you that these insights remain useful a year later 🙂

    • Thank you for your comments, Lauren. I am emboldened that your takes away from this article are the necessity of reflection, empathy and acknowledgement of the entirety of the human beings involved in a project. It’s nice to know that these lessons are still relevant, and even more so beyond the context of virtual conferences.

    • Thanks so much, Lauren! I’m glad our learnings are still relevant, though I admit I hoped they wouldn’t be quite *so* relevant by now. I hope we can all keep people-centered design in focus, no matter what the future holds.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your experience in virtual conference planning, Kristine, Ben and Christine. I attended the 11th InSciTS conference which was the first virtual one for me and which persuaded me that virtual conferences could be productive and fun. Impressive! The Choose Your Own Adventure Break Out Sessions and Coffee Chats raised my curiosity immediately when they were first revealed.

    Great to have the three guideposts from a human-centred design framework. Good ones! I am thinking maybe we could also apply them to virtual workshops and project meetings to a certain degree (though workshops and project meetings probably have more specific goals). For example, for the design of an interdisciplinary research programme kick-off meeting where many members are not familiar with one another, Coffee Chats Sessions similar as you designed could be used to facilitate serendipity virtually and mobilise project members to take drivers’ seat.

    • Thank you so much for your comments and for being a part of the conference! It was a pleasure to share virtual space with you in some of the sessions – I’m particularly remembering the INTEREACH workshop on Tuesday morning. As much work as I know went into the creation of the CYOA Break Out Sessions and Coffee Chats, I’m just as impressed with the stamina exhibited by the conference attendees for all day, online engagement!

      I love your idea of re-purposing the underlying goal of the Coffee Chat sessions for other outlets in order to facilitate interactions within an emergent team! In my experience, when a new research team is forming, it’s important for the prospective team members to identify and articulate their personal research goals and then coalesce to develop a shared vision among the team. Further, this seems to happen for most teams virtually, even when we’re not all under pandemic lockdown, due to geographic and institutional boundaries. Virtual Coffee Chats could be a great tool!

      • Thanks Kristine. The INTEREACH workshop on Tuesday morning was phenomenal! I am sharing this blog and my experience in attending the InSciTS conference to several colleagues who are struggling to organise virtual workshops. Again thanks for this helpful blog post!

    • Thanks for your kind words! I was pleasantly surprised by how successful the Coffee Chats were. Once people understood the mechanism, they made it their own and self-organized. I think it’s a model that could be useful in any number of virtual settings. As you point out, they create an opportunity for anyone involved to take a leadership role spontaneously for at least that session, so more voices can be heard beyond just those designated as leaders in advance.

      • Indeed! I shared this Coffee Chats format last week with a retired teaching director who started organising virtual international alumini workshops this year instead of in-person ones. He will give the Coffee Chats a try in the next workshop and encourage attendees to take a leadership role. Thanks again Ben.

  4. This conference was incredibly well-done and the amount of thought that went into the design was obvious to attendees. I bookmarked it as a model I would revisit when I have to plan multi-day virtual events so I especially appreciate having the design principles and thought process spelled out in this article. Thank you!

    • Thank you so much for this comment! And for being a part of the conference. One of the most rewarding aspects of the conference was realizing, as it started to unfold in real time, that all the attendees and their interactions with the conference elements played a major role in making the event what it was in the end. The community of creative and engaged people within INSciTS was perfectly poised to make this experiment a fun success.

  5. Hi Colleagues,

    I just finished hosting this online conference on Public Engagement with Science:

    We made sure of several things:

    1) Lots of content pre and post loaded for asynchronous interaction (we have statements on how they view success in their work from each of the speakers, the posters are up online with audio introductions weeks before the poster session, and the webinars are all posted on YouTube after the event ).

    2) No webinars longer than 90 minutes because of Zoom fatigue.

    3) At least 30 minute breaks between events because of Zoom fatigue.

    4) No more than 2 webinars per day because of Zoom fatigue. Online events mean that one can really spread out the events over days and weeks, because there is no need to pack them in to a few short days— we aren’t traveling!

    5) Lots of attention to time zone constraints among participants, so we made sure we had events at different times.

    6) We also used an app called Spatial Chat, which while not free, allowed both speakers and attendees to informally self-organize into small groups and have conversations— providing one of the most important aspects of conferences.

    • Thank you for the great comment. These are excellent guidelines! I completely agree with the importance of breaks long enough to mentally recharge and attend to other obligations, as well as limitations on the sessions to 90 minutes max. Great to hear about your asynchronous/synchronous mixture and thoughtfulness about multiple time zones as well.

      The Spatial Chat app sounds very interesting! I’d love to know if you found conference goers utilized it highly, and did you get any feedback about its ease and functionality? Finding ways to recreate some of the organic conversations and individual agency of attendees was a fun challenge for us, and while we were happy with our event we all had the sense that there was so much potential to improve these aspects as we have more and more virtual events.

      • Spatial Chat was super intuitive for people– indeed almost too intuitive, so some people thought “it can’t be that simple”. It did allow people to self cluster and chat informally, and I heard from participants that it gave them the feel of a conference reception that is so often missing from online events. It was not utilized as heavily as we thought– we built it for up to 250 people, but never had more than 30 come. For those who came, they stayed for long conversations in many cases. It was good wind down time for all of the organizing team as well.

  6. As a member of the INSciTS Board I want to let readers know the authors managed to make the shift from an in-person to a virtual format in (brutally) short time. The organization is much in their debt for an excellent model, enhanced by the brilliant Home Base feature and availability of tech support before and during the meeting. Furthermore, we experienced the largest attendance figure ever for a SCiTS conference and unexpected revenue. I continue to applaud your accomplishment.

    If I may please ask a question of the authors, did you feel any features you designed into the model were conducive to interdisciplinary exchange in particular, especially given participation of such a wide range of individuals rather than a single disciplinary/professional community? Following suit, do you have additional thoughts about future designs to accommodate crossdisciplinary needs and interests?

    Julie Thompson Klein

    • Thank you for the supportive commentary! In response I should first mention that a critical ingredient to success of our team was the complete support of the INSciTS Board and President. This came in the form of enabling us to make quick decisions with as much autonomy as possible, time spent co-thinking about good solutions, and for some members, jumping in to share heavy lifting of the planning and execution. Readers should know that these aspects were paramount in the event success.

      My first answer is that I believe it was the mix of modes and formats that sparked people’s productive interactions, with some sessions designed around content or discussions prepared by select experts, and others designed for more organic ideation among participants. If I had to choose one element though, I think the Choose Your Own Adventure sessions balanced structure and forethought for how the time would be used with broadly inclusive community leadership (any attendee could submit a proposed session to lead, but it had to be ~3 weeks ahead so they could be selected and included in the program). Additional thoughts we have discussed since include guidance for this distributed leadership that would help set the conditions for harnessing optimal output: guidance for articulating a clear mission for a session in addition to the topic itself, Googledoc templates for live-capturing the discussions and suggested references. We realized as it was happening how rich the co-created resources were throughout the conference and only then did we put together the “Adventure Log” as a kind of landing page for all the linked notes. Our guess is that streamlining that capture aspect would be easy and fruitful.

      Christine Ogilvie Hendren

      • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Christine. I’m struck by the theme of balance in it. A professional organization has a mission that local hosts need to recognize, but local hosts are on the frontline of grappling with contingencies and in the case of a pandemic changing parameters that require they have autonomy to move quickly. Balance also arises in the mix of modes and formats. It allows for both traditional plenary events, fostering a common experience, and other forums that participants can select, allowing them to tailor their personal experience of a conference. And, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” format allowed subgroups to deepen their particular interests, an important activity when trying to determine the balance of a professional organization’s overarching purpose and the subgroups that deepen and expand it. So, kudos again!

  7. This seems like it was a great event. I’m interested to know how much the workload for the organisers changed due to the switch to online format. Those who are moving academic teaching from face-to-face to online seem to find it increases the time taken for preparation etc, so I’m wondering if a similar burden arose. Also would be interesting to know what appetite there is to return to in person gatherings following this experience.

    • Hi Hannah – yes, the switch to a virtual format had a huge impact on the workload. Essentially we ended up designing two full conferences within a 12 month span! Almost every element of the conference had to be re-thought, especially our program of submitted abstracts and the opportunities we would create for spontaneous discussion. The keynote and plenary panels were perhaps a little more straightforward to transfer, but still required a lot of logistical prep. I think it’s a lot like online teaching vs. face-to-face. You can’t just do what you would do in person, online – it’s a completely different medium that needs a different approach. Thanks for reading!

    • This is a wise question! I am not sure we have an answer that would be generalizable for future events, just given the crisis mode in which we were operating to shift 2.5 months out from in-person to virtual. Because of this, we really planned two conferences, and there was much to be done undoing the old plan as well as designing all new processes and platforms. Having planned prior conferences, I believe that if we were to have always planned on the virtual event, this would have been less work than a face to face event. However, the way it unfolded it was significantly more and compressed, taking the three co-authors of this post nearly full-time effort for nearly two months.

      Going forward: personally, I miss seeing people face to face but always grapple with the time and carbon footprint of international meetings. I’d love to see hybrid options, or consider meeting in person only every few years. Honestly, I find it difficult to envision how things will be when COVID-19 passes so I will be curious what others think on this aspect.

      • Also echoing Ben’s reply about a different kind of environment, I too miss face-to-face interactions. However, you’re absolutely right about the negatives of time and carbon footprints. Some organizations only meet in person once every two years. I personally believe more online interactions between annual meetings are needed. They sustain momentum and, in the case of special interest groups that took advantage of the Choose Your Own Adventure option, are resulting in spin-off meetings throughout the year. All to the good ….

        • I agree with you and think we may have an opportunity, now that all of us have been participating in experiments of virtual connection, to reimagine not only the mode but the frequency of our communities’ gatherings. Great thoughts!

  8. Thanks for these valuable insights, all – and for organizing a great online conference! Indeed, ‘thanks’ to corona I was now able to follow parts of the SciTS conference which usually I can’t as it is in the midst of our teaching semester. I did enjoy the Slack Workspace which allowed some delayed interaction as well, suitable for interactions across time zones. I’m hoping that the conference will in the future be hybrid, allowing to continue with online participation as well. That will certainly create new challenges but you seem to be in a good place to cope with those.

    • Hi Machiel – so glad you enjoyed SciTS 2020! I definitely think there is a lot of interest in hybrid conferences going forward. As you point out, it opens up more opportunities for people to participate who wouldn’t be able to otherwise. One of our key design principles was making it easy to leave and re-join the conference as necessary, and I think people really like that flexibility.

    • Thanks Machiel! It was such a pleasure in so many ways, despite the impetus for virtualization, especially for the reason that you cite: namely, the massively extended circle of participation to our colleagues outside of the contiguous US. As you also point out, the virtual event in which attendees can join as they are available lowers the barrier to participation, allowing for a more level playing field for competing priorities. From my experience on the leadership team, I was pleasantly surprised by the level engagement from the SciTS community, which may fortell success in future hybrid conferences. We certainly have some insights to share from addressing a diverse set of challenges that arose from having to plan two conferences in one year!


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