How to Use Human-Centered Design to Elevate Your Next Event

Meeting planners and event industry innovators should adopt human-centered design (HCD)

The eight-hour workday was a product of the Industrial Revolution, put in place to cut down on the number of hours that workers were doing manual labor on factory floors. While the ways we work have changed immensely since the Industrial Revolution, the timing and general structure of our workdays remain the same. 

Most workers today are expected to put in eight- to 10-hour days with few or no breaks. However, unlike our ancestors, today's workers are also expected to plan and/or attend dozens of meetings each week. More than any other time in history, collaboration and innovation are major priorities in the workplace.

To shift and improve the way we meet with each other, top meeting planners and event industry innovators should adopt human-centered design (HCD) -- an approach traditionally used to create better products -- to more deliberately engineer successful meetings.

Start With the People You're Designing for 

Human-centered design seeks to understand a particular situation by asking the users what they do and why they do it. It is all about building a deep empathy with the people you're designing for, and it ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs. HCD can be employed across products, services, and technologies. 

When applied to meetings, HCD can be quite powerful. It requires an investment of time and a commitment to following the methodology, but it pays off with effective, memorable meetings that achieve important business goals. Here are three HCD principles to bring to your next meeting:

1. Define Your Meeting

Start by defining the purpose and objectives of the meeting. Too many planners focus on tactical elements like group size, budget, and logistics instead of thinking strategically about the meeting's big-picture purpose and goals.

Is it a meeting about sharing predetermined information? Is it about creating something new? What is the role of networking and trust-building, and when is the ideal moment to make time for it? Have you curated the right people to be in the room and weeded out the wrong ones? Would facilitation increase the odds of a successful outcome?

The answers to these questions not only define the meeting's purpose, but they also provide valuable insights for selecting the venue and setting up the meeting space, as well as identifying the most appropriate amenities, tools, and technology to include.

2. Develop an End-to-End Event Strategy

In any instance of HCD, you need to understand your users before moving forward with a plan of action. 

Define every type of guest you have, from sponsors and speakers to participants and press to executives and their assistants. Too often, meeting planners group everyone into one bucket, but your sponsors won't have the same experience as your speakers and as your attendees. Understanding the different individuals at your event and how their experiences will vary is crucial to planning a meeting that meets everyone's needs.

Then, step into their shoes from the moment they receive your invite to the conversation they'll have with their families when they arrive home after your event. Define the moments that matter, write down how you want guests to feel every step of the way, then deliberately deliver your desired outcome.

Ask thoughtful questions: What might frustrate them en route to the event? What's their first impression? When will they be nervous, excited, bothered, bored, or hurried? What is noteworthy enough to snap a picture of or share with family and friends? What are the tangible, actionable things you can do to deliver a great experience?

Ahead of a meeting, one of the most important responsibilities is building a sense of excitement and anticipation. Setting expectations and identifying opportunities for pre-work not only helps get everyone thinking about the meeting in advance, but also inspires attendees to arrive ready and willing to participate.

Once the right people are present, a meeting planner has a host of options available to create a productive and meaningful event. Selecting and deploying technology and tools that facilitate interaction that makes sense with the meeting's goals is key. Equally important is crafting an agenda that balances objectives with the right amount of networking based on a solid understanding of what attendees want.

The feedback loop at the end of an HCD-incorporated meeting is critical. Participants should leave with a clear understanding of what happens next. From there, follow up to not only reinforce key messages, but to also help participants build on relationships established during the meeting. 

Finally, step back and assess the success of the meeting based on the goals established ahead of time, combine that with the feedback received, and debrief on what can be done better next time.

3. Engage Your Participants

Each in-person meeting has the potential to be a memorable experience worthy of an Instagram post or a tweet. Along with the physical aspects of meeting planning such as room decor and design, explore how to retain participants' interests on a deeper, more emotional level when it comes to entertainment, technology, and branded items. Paying close attention to detail helps further engage participants and create a shared space where individuals and ideas can come together.

The ability to innovate, collaborate, and create during the actual meeting can be extremely effective. Meeting agendas and spaces that enable participants to build things rather than just talk about building things are always memorable.

Taking On the Design Challenge

Given the importance of face-to-face meetings in our technology-driven world, taking a deliberate and methodical approach to meeting design is more important than ever. 

Human-centered design requires meeting planners to start the process early, engage the right business partners to define goals and discover unmet needs, and continue to learn as HCD evolves as a practice. In the end, human-centered design helps meeting planners apply a creative, problem-solving approach to ensure meeting time measures up to both business objectives and participant expectations.

Christopher Kelly is the president and cofounder of Convene, which integrates service, culinary, technology, and human-centered design to transform the workplace experience. Convene was named one of Forbes' 100 most promising companies in 2014 and one of Inc.'s fastest-growing companies.