The Meeting as Experience Design

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I’ve been trying something different at work. I’ve started to spend more and more time prepping for my meetings and being conscious about the experience I create for people who attend them.

Back in September, I got some really good advice from our leadership coach Peter Oropeza on running meetings. Peter, who’s been helping me and Sei-Wook for the past several months as a consultant, sat in on a meeting at Barrel and took notes as I led a group of 10 people through a brainstorming exercise related to our company’s business strategy planning. Afterwards, he provided feedback that made me realize how ill-prepared I was for the meeting. In fact, what I realized was that I just hadn’t put in the time to really think through the entire meeting in terms of its structure, its pacing, and the experience of its attendees. For someone who champions “great user experiences” on the Internet, it was clear that I was oblivious to the shitty experiences I was creating with my meetings.

A meeting without a clear goal is a meeting probably not worth having. Peter explained that it was always helpful to remind people about the goal of a meeting. In fact, he suggested that I write out the goal on the whiteboard for everyone to see at the start of a meeting. Like a good navigation at the top of a website, I think having a clearly articulated goal serves as a stabilizing reminder for both the person leading the meeting and the participants. I also learned that it’s important to thank everyone for being a part of the meeting and to introduce the meeting with its goal. I realized that I had a tendency to jump right into the meat of the meeting without any lead-in, which might have been a jarring experience for others.

The most challenging part of the feedback was on the content. My main takeaway was that creating a few slides or loosely blocking out twenty minute chunks of topics simply wasn’t enough to run a tight meeting. I had to go more in depth and flesh out each segment of the meeting, almost to the point where you could say it was scripted. This might include the exact instructions I give for an exercise or the things I write on the whiteboard. It might also include reminders to call on people who’re quiet or questions to ask to keep the discussion going. If I was going to be prepared, then all possible scenarios, like user flows on a website, should be carefully thought out.

At our next meeting that Peter observed, Sei-Wook and I came in with a meticulous game plan. We had spent about 3-4 hours writing up and rehearsing for our strategy meeting. This time, I thanked everyone for coming, noted that Peter was here to observe (I had neglected to do this before), appointed a time keeper, and stated the goal of the meeting, pointing to what we had already written out on the board for everyone to see. Sticking to the script, we ran our exercises, made sure people got out of their seats to interact, and reinforced the exercises with meeting goal. Participation was strong and evenly distributed among the group, and we could feel the energy level higher than it had been in previous meetings.

Overall, it felt great to run a well-organized meeting. It didn’t feel like a drag on people’s time, and we felt that people left the meeting energized rather than drained. The time invested in preparing for the meeting had truly paid off.

Today, I had the opportunity to run a smaller meeting about an upcoming initiative. It was only a four-person meeting but I decided to put in the prep work, creating a slide deck and printing out calendars to do a scheduling exercise. I followed the template from my lessons learned: I thanked the three others who joined me today, I made sure I introduced the goal of the initiative, and I walked them through four clear sections. We then used the whiteboard to figure out together the best way to schedule all the different activities that would help us complete the initiative. When I saw that we had a bit of extra time, we used it to do a quick UX exercise to move one of the activities forward. We finished right on the dot, not a single minute past the hour we allotted for the meeting. Later on, I followed up with an email to recap the meeting including an Evernote link that had photos of the whiteboard, the Keynote presentation I used, and the key deadlines that we agreed on for the schedule.

My initial thought on preparing so much for a meeting bordered on dread. To see myself spending that much time again and again to run a good meeting just seemed like a ton of work. But when I think of a meeting as a design challenge, it becomes a different animal. It’s no longer something I dread but something that has so many possibilities and so many areas for continual improvement. It’s not only about sharing information or discussing topics but also about setting the tone, providing inspiration, making it interactive, providing context, obtaining feedback, documentation, copywriting, and even information architecture. And if I can run good meetings enough times, I believe I will pick up techniques and exercises that can be used again and again, like a designer who has a strong collection of vector icons or a developer with a vast snippet library.

I feel like I’ve just only begun to understand how well meetings can be run, and I’m excited to further explore this medium.

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