ASAE XDP Experience Insights

Is different better?


So long better sameness! Make way for a new experience.

ASAE took a bold risk launching the Xperience Design Project (XDP) replacing Springtime. When I mentioned to colleagues and clients I was serving as a group facilitator, the number one question was: What is XDP?

Is it a conference? (Sort of)

Is it a learning event? (It could be)

I described it to my small group as a treasure hunt – where we would discover insight nuggets by networking around content together.

Still unclear? Follow me inside for a quick tour and my insights for Association pros.


As a learning experience designer I was particularly interested in the Day 1 Lab where groups convened and rotated among three of five content zones. In the content zones the zone captain presented briefly and then groups worked through exercises together.

Setting the tone: From the marketing copy to the art to the DJ, special attention was devoted to setting the tone: New and different. Instead of registering for a conference, we were invited to get our tickets. Instead of being called attendees or participants, we were named co-creators. The painterly graphic arts aesthetic branding this event was tightly woven through the website, marketing materials, signage, playbook, and presentations. It visually supported the creativity theme, the messiness of molding ideas into new designs. The DJ was pure happiness. There were two conferences at the Gaylord that Tuesday morning. One had a DJ and one did not. Which would you want to go to?! The DJ welcomed co-creators to the Lab and helped manage transitions – a subtle but powerful energy assist. The quick inspirational Pop-Up Talks served a similar purpose, infusing humor and gripping stories during parts of the day when conference attendee energy lags.

How do you set the tone through language, visuals, sound at your events?

Customized journey: As soon as one bought their XDP ticket, ASAE asked “can we get to know you better” with a series of questions about your professional role, content interests, and priorities for the event. These data points were fed into an algorithm that matched people with groups and groups with their content zone rotation schedule for Day 1. The intent was to meet new people, stimulate conversation, and customize the day’s journey. Before the event, co-creators were also invited to customize their name badge. Attendees had the option to jump online into the Hub where one could upload a pro photo plus choose or upload a custom background. No one-size-fits-all perforated name cards at XDP! The name badges resembled a backstage pass – another signal to expect a different experience. As part of the opening keynote, co-creators were invited to customize the cover of their playbook with a simple exercise.

What opportunities could you pursue to personalize your event for attendees?


Five sense design: ASAE did not debrief with us on their design objective(s) for XDP, but reverse engineering from the experience itself, I would guess the Day 1 objective was something like this: Produce a 5-senses live event facilitating colleague and vendor networking around three of five content zones and one of 6 “R” lenses to stimulate design thinking for events. (Zones and “R’s” are listed below) I’d love to hear what others deduce the objective may have been from your experience! The 5-senses design priority was abundantly clear.

Sight: The XDP graphic art, theater in the round space design with alternative furniture sets, countdown clock, playbook, colorful gel pens, impressive multimedia production, whimsical food displays, XDP brand projected on walls around the ballroom color coded to their respective content zones

Sound: DJ transitions throughout the day, accessing zone speakers with earbuds and a radio

Smell/Taste: The food choices were delicious bites at grazing stations, convenient water refill stations kept us hydrated

Touch: The playbook heft and quality, the furniture with nubby pillows and plush blankets

How could you introduce all the senses into your experience design?

ASAE XDP Zone Captains

Space: Immediately upon entering the ballroom on Day 1 participants knew this was going to be something different. We had heard that, but seeing a theater in the round set for 1300 people is an unmistakable signal that we’re in for a new experience. In the center of the room a large circular stage with a suspended circular screen commanded attention. Five lollipop stages extended into each of the content zones which were distinguished by color, furniture set, and graphic art panel displays. Some of the zones featured hotel furniture while others showcased a variety of Steelcase furniture groupings. Each type of furniture grouping nets a different type of conversation and experience. That’s not something we talked about at XDP, but an important takeaway for designers. The space design asked for central focus when experts were speaking and group huddle focus during facilitated interactions.

How can space be your ally designing a particular experience outcome?

Steelcase Sets

Bringing the hallway into the event space: Often I hear colleagues say their best insights gleaned from a conference are developed in hallway conversations. Naturally we bring our ideas and issues, we absorb some content, and when we chat about it – reflecting and refining with peers – brilliant personalized insights pop. My observation is that ASAE was hoping to bring those hallway conversations into the event space by facilitating conversation around content. That was a bold risk. Yes, we absolutely must bring more peer interaction into learning sessions. But the question is out whether the XDP prescribed method of pre-assigned groups, zones, and exercises met the intended mark. Social learning has rich potential, but the danger of focusing upon it as a primary format is that there are no measurable learning objectives. Learning is left in the hands of the participant and is heavily influenced by the parameters of who you’re assigned to spend the day with, who your facilitator is, which zones you’re assigned to visit, who dominates conversation.

How can you meaningfully employ peer interaction to advance learning objectives?


Goldfish schedule: There’s a popular myth circulating that people’s average attention is shorter than a goldfish – encouraging planners to build programming around shrinking attention spans. The XDP schedule appeared to be influenced by this philosophy. Content pieces were short, punctuated with music, graphics, and facilitated interactions. Even though we stayed in the same ballroom the entire first day, the pace of the agenda kept things moving constantly. Unfortunately, that pace doesn’t allow for the deep dives that were promised. It facilitates content sampling and inherently drives participants away from deeper dialogue to quick idea harvesting because time is running out. The truth is we are capable of deep, enduring focus. Switching things up every few minutes can be disruptive vs. productive.

How can we experiment with our old agendas to facilitate both deep conversations and quick insightful interactions?


What insights can we glean from XDP?

Novelty is powerful, but not “It”

This event was a kaleidoscope of novelty. So much novelty. For some that novelty is stimulating, disrupting familiar patterns. But did the novelty of the 5-senses design contribute to the objective(s) of the event? Event professionals are forever looking for opportunities to shake up experiences to “wow” their attendees. But the caution is while we experienced many novel ways of doing things differently at XDP, it’s important that each novel element contribute to your overall goals for the event. Novelty itself is not “it.” Which leads to my next insight.

All design elements must stem from your objectives

When designing an experience, keynote Lisa Kay Solomon recommended we ask ourselves “What responses do we want to trigger?” Great advice! That means we must first clearly define our objectives and outcomes for the event – just as in learning design (What are our learning objectives? How will we measure those outcomes?) Every component of your experience design must stem from those objectives. So when considering novel new ideas, we need to be clear about why we’re using them and how they contribute to the overall experience we’re designing.

Algorithm vs. choice

Adult learners are all about choice. Choice and autonomy are powerful engagement triggers. The algorithm assigning participants to groups, content zones and “R” lenses was a logistical necessity for a one-room event. We could argue that co-creators were offered choice when they filled out the pre-conference preferences form, but many confessed they didn’t really understand how those choices would affect their day. The algorithm didn’t work for everyone – potentially because of its forced complexity. Some assigned groups clicked and others fizzled. This tension with structure and choice isn’t new, but something we must carefully consider when designing events for adult learners – especially if learning is an objective.

If it’s a learning event, design for how people learn

Kudos for using conversation to drive ideation – that’s one of the gifts of social learning. Unfortunately, the content at the event was very basic and often not robust enough to drive meaningful conversation. I was really discouraged when the captain of the Learning Zone kept referencing learning styles! Ugh! Neuromyth central! Thin, and sometimes incorrect content, left group facilitators in an awkward position. My group wasn’t interested in hypotheticals, they wanted to solve their real-world problems. Which made it challenging for us to stay in our assigned “R” lane, Reach, because their problems did not all revolve around reach. (We agreed we were OK with this) Was this a learning event? It could be – if you came with an intention, acquired a new way to approach that issue, went back to work and tried that new approach, refining for your own context. This event wasn’t designed to be full cycle learning. It facilitated the possibility of learning. Without learning objectives and learning experiences designed to meet them – you may have an experience but it likely will not lead to new knowledge or skill. If your intention is for participants to learn, those objectives and outcomes must be central to each design choice – aligned with how brains actually learn. (Pro Tip: Use instructional design)

Yes to participant guide and no to slides

Participants don’t want speaker slides. They say they do. Sometimes you may ask for them yourself at events! But do you go home, recline your Lazyboy and flip through a conference worth of slide decks? Nope! Because we don’t want the decks we want that one thing that we want to use: a process, a checklist, best practices, references, job aid, template, tool …. The thing that will help us apply what we’re in the process of learning (because application is part of the learning cycle). The XDP Playbook was not a bound copy of PowerPoint slide handout pages – it contained reflection questions, writing space, exercises, and core concepts presented by the speakers. It was very much like participant guides common to training programs. It’s a personal space for collecting thoughts and connecting ideas. Three cheers for exercises to-go in the back of the Playbook (if co-creators found them) to continue thinking about how to apply design thinking to their events when they return to the office. Do this. Ask your speakers for the “thing” distilled from their slide deck, but not their slide deck. Create participant guides for learning events offering a rich reflection tool for your courses, workshops, leadership programs, etc. This is a best practice to run with. Figure out how it can work for you.

Learning is not an event

Here comes a hard truth: Learning is not an event. Learning is a process. Event-based programming does not facilitate the full learning cycle. Ultimately, because XDP was a stand-alone event, how we collected ideas may have been different because of the format but it achieved the same result as other conferences: Information and ideas, but not transfer support. The take-away for association pros is it’s time to blow it all up. Not just introducing novelty, but introducing learning pathways. Develop relationships with your learners over time with a series of touchpoints (live, online, mobile, print) that culminate in your intended learning objectives. Collecting ideas is not enough. Participants may enjoy an event and sing praises to its creativity, but if they leave and do nothing, they have learned nothing. Which means zero value. Consider all of the learning opportunities you offer throughout the year and how you can weave pathways through them that result in the transformation your learners are clamoring for. That’s the value required to remain relevant.

What did you think? I’m curious about your XDP experience.


Goldfish attention span myth:

Learning styles neuromyth:

Five Zones: Location, Learning, Marketing, Technology, Experience

Six “R” Lenses: Reach, Retention, Relevance, Reputation, Revenue, ROI

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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