Raising a Glass to CanUX at 10

My CanUX badges: 2010–2019 (and a shoutout to Dragan)

November 27th, 2010. A few us got there early, ignoring the bitter cold outside to stick 11x17 paper posters to the doors and poles outside the building, eagerly awaiting Ottawa’s first UXcamp in the 200-seat Lamoureux Hall amphitheatre at Ottawa U. A few more were getting ready inside, setting up registration tables, testing the A/V system, and trying to figure out the best way to approach wayfinding for the day. Jess McMullin, the former organizer of the CanUX conferences in Banff and the UXcamp events in Edmonton, was here to emcee our inaugural edition. The day’s schedule had one out of town speaker, Toronto’s Tedde van Gelderen. We didn’t really know if anyone would show up. And if some did, we didn’t have a clue exactly who would show up. At a price of CDN$20 per ticket, we assumed many would prefer to avoid leaving the warmth of home for a random UX event they’ve never heard about.

At the time I was a few months into a new gig to lead the UX practice at Shaw Communications, so I flew back to Ottawa for the weekend. I designed the original badges and printed them out on my employer’s colour printer after work hours, and cut them one by one on their cutting table to fit the plastic badge holders I found online. I purchased lanyards from a company in Lethbridge, because in my misguided sense of brand continuity, I wanted them to reproduce the same lanyard style worn by participants at the last UXcamp I attended the year before in Edmonton (the company that provided the original lanyards in 2010 is still the provider of the CanUX lanyards today).

Most names on the badges were not familiar to me. After all, up to that point I’ve never seen more than 35–40 people show up to a UX meetup in Ottawa, and the weather was certainly not helping our cause. A few months earlier I created the @uxcampottawa twitter account and although the event sold out in just a few days and I was doing my best to try to keep promoting it online, we only had about 50 followers ahead of the event.

And yet, as Jess kicked off the festivities at 9am that day, a full house brimming with energy was witnessing a new beginning. It was the first of 10 straight sold out UXcamp/CanUX events and the first time we realized that Ottawa was hiding, amongst its many other mythical suburban secrets, a growing UX community.

And while these 10 editions have been progressing relatively smoothly for the most part, we’ve also had a few close calls. Some were very obvious, like the power blackout in 2013, when Jonathan Snook practically saved us by delivering an amazing a capella talk accompanied only by dim backup lights and the beeping sound of the alarm, and bought us just enough time to make it to an early lunch break. An early lunch which in turn managed to delay the on-stage festivities until the power company restored electricity to the building. Others were less visible, like almost cancelling the event until a generous last minute sponsorship contribution from Adobe ended up being the difference between breaking even and loosing money that year, and consequently keeping the conference afloat. There was also the time when no one else wanted to be a part of putting together a conference for most of the planning cycle, and we lucked out by having a few extra people getting involved to volunteer at the 11th hour.

November 2nd, 2019. After two editions featuring outdoor registration lines at Ottawa U’s Lamoureaux Hall, and a third edition at the Ottawa Little Theatre, we were about to kick off our 7th straight edition in the architecturally stunning surroundings of the Canadian Museum of History (formerly known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization) Theatre.

Live at CanUX 2019

We curated what we felt was truly a stellar program: Bill Buxton. Kim Goodwin. Cyd Harrell. Eva-Lotta Lamm. Amy Ross. Farai Madzima. Lining Yao. Emma Howell. Alastair Somerville. Steve Portigal. Tarek Loubani. Adam Polansky. Bryce Johnson. Seasoned storytellers arguably tackling some the most relevant themes in the world of UX today. Right here, in our own backyard. By 9am the theatre was packed, and our dynamic emcee duo of Rob Woodbridge and Boon Sheridan (making his debut this year as co-emcee) started the festivities with the now instantly recognizable brand of irreverent banter and over-caffeinated energy that is ingrained into the DNA of our CanUX events.

Soon after the event started I ran into Jesse James Garrett at the registration table. After delivering quite possibly the most memorable closing and opening keynotes of CanUX in 2013 and 2018, Jesse was here as an attendee this year. He just wanted to enjoy the event and celebrate with us. The fact that someone who organized and curated UX Week, the gold standard of UX events in San Francisco for so many years and can go to any UX event anywhere in the world has chosen to spend a few days in the cold white North with us again this year speaks so much of who Jesse is and what he’s done to support what we do.

November 3rd, 2019 9:30pm, five and half hours after CanUX 10 wrapped up. Two hosers, Tanya (spydergrrl, my CanUX co-chair for the past 9 years) and I, are having soup in a suburban Tim Hortons, around the corner from the storage unit where we just finishing moving the event’s signage, materials and equipment. We’re dead tired but still smiling, because somehow we survived doing this for 10 years. 10 years of many sleepless nights and early wake up calls. 10 years of learning things about event production that we never would’ve guessed that are actually part of event production. 10 years of asking ourselves how we are going to come up with a better lineup next time around. Of wondering whether people will come back, or whether they will flock to the many UX events popping up all over the country in recent years. Of hoping that our many logistical mishaps will not mean the end of an event that serves as a dose of professional sanity in an industry and a geography where let’s face it, many still don’t see the value of (ux/ix/product/service) design.

Maybe we were still feeling the effects of the last drops of adrenaline from the event, but we believe 2019 was our best one to date. And while it has always been obvious to the two of us, the reason while we’re still here is the support and contributions of all the people who are presently involved and have been previously involved with the event over the past 10 years. It really does take a whole village. It all started with our amazing speakers in the early years (shoutout to Dana Chisnell, who was our first ever international keynote in 2011), who have all agreed to come and speak at a small event North of the Wall that they never heard about, at the request of a dude they’ve never met, and without being paid an honorarium. This includes household names who could’ve simply said ‘No’ to us and our community in those early days, essentially derailing this train before it even left the station. You all know who you are (as much as I’d like to list 161 names here). And even to date, there are some well known speakers who refuse being paid an honorarium, asking us to ‘do good with it’. We hope we make you proud.

The CanUX atrium at the Canadian Museum of History

CanUX also doesn’t happen without the support of the many people who were part of the organizing committee over the years, and have created the experiences that our attendees have been enjoying since 2010. Our corporate supporters also deserve much of the credit for keeping us alive all these years and encouraging us to keep doing what we’re doing even in instances when we doubted ourselves. And to our wide-eyed volunteers, most of whom are students, and are bringing a contagious level of energy and enthusiasm to the event year after year (many of those volunteers have also become organizers in later editions).

Somehow, we’ve made it to 10. And while still recovering from last weekend, we’re frantically trying to figure out what’s next for CanUX. Soon enough, you’ll all find out.

The one thing we do know, to paraphrase Farai’s and Miles Davis’ words, is that it’s gonna be a muthaf*cka.

PS. A big shoutout is in order to the original organizing committee of UXcamp 2010, Jess McMullin, Derek Featherstone, Cornelius Rachieru, Tanya Snook, Barbara Spanton, Kris Aston, Laura Wesley, Mike Atyeo, Simona Ioffe, Engy Sedki and Jeff Parks, the people who have started this movement and without whom CanUX, in its 2019 iteration, would never exist. An acknowledgement of this year’s organizing committee is also in order, as they have worked diligently behind the scenes for months to ensure the success of the event: Jasmine Cianciotta, Phat Chau, Catherine Gosztonyi, Jason Westerlund, Zach Falsetto, Robyn Feres-Cameron, Rubina Haddad, Nico Valenzuela, Alicia Low, Celine Genest and Sercan Kum. To round up the thank yous, we should mention our videographer of many years, Stephane Tourangeau, our live notetaker, Meghan Hellstern, our stage yoga instructor, Sage Cram, our timekeeper, Sammy Lovelace and our DJ at the afterparty, JF Marquez. And last but not least, we need to give a nod to the other co-chairs of this event over the years, Jess McMullin, Gene Smith, Derek Featherstone and Barbara Spanton, who‘ve each made gargantuan contributions to both this event and the Canadian UX community. Your legacy is still part of everything we do today.

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Corneliux

Experience design professional. Troublemaker. Mars Rover. Wanderer. Nomad. Part-time vagabond. Co-chair of @CanUXconf, founder of @ampli2de.