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We Broke the Conference, and It Was Good

By Shoshana Berger, Senior Director of Design for Learning at IDEO,
and David Soo, Chief of Staff at JFF

Back before COVID, conferences were unimaginable without bodies gathered in a physical space. But after seven months of social distancing, it’s hard to imagine clustering around a coffee station, much less — gasp! — sharing an armrest with a stranger.

For organizers of big-tent events, the planning pivot was radical: How do you reproduce not only the programming, but all of the unplanned moments of serendipity, networking, and connection? And once you’ve broken open the old format, wouldn’t you seize the opportunity to design something better?

Jobs for the Future (JFF), a national education and workforce nonprofit, knew its members would expect the organization to raise the bar at its annual conference, JFF Horizons. So, when it became clear in March that the conference couldn’t meet in its usual stomping grounds of New Orleans, JFF teamed up with IDEO to think beyond the bounds of the early virtual conferences they’d attended, which felt unimaginative and over-programmed.

It was an ambitious undertaking — Horizons ran a total of 100 sessions for 4,500 attendees. To meet the urgency of this moment, we looked for new ways to help leaders share bold ideas and collaborate as they work to promote equity and economic advancement for underserved populations.

Here’s what we learned about reimagining the conference for COVID times and a few tips for anyone planning a virtual event:

  1. Start by identifying what you’re designing by asking foundational questions about the gathering: What is a conference? What are the essential outcomes? What do participants expect/hope for? Then consider your constraints: What are people capable of right now? What platform are you using and what are its limitations?
  2. Generate design principles. We did this by talking to those who’d attended JFF Horizons in the past and to those who planned to attend this year. Our interviews turned up insights about what people crave from gatherings of this sort and how that might translate in the virtual world.

Here are the design principles we came up with:

Connect for Action
Create opportunities for people from across public, private, and nonprofit sectors to connect and collaborate. This tends to happen organically in the hallways or at the coffee station at conferences. We created virtual hallway experiences where you could see others in smaller “rooms,” share your thoughts, and do a bit of networking.

Elevate the Collective

Amplify the broader education and workforce community that has come together with a shared purpose for this moment. We held a Design Impact Challenge, which led people through a highly coordinated design sprint, allowing people from across disciplines to collaborate and build something for the greater good.

Build to Flex

Address real-time needs with responsive content. We used micro-surveys to gather quick feedback and active chat boxes that influenced the direction of the conversation.

Blur the Edges
Design for the before, after, and in-between as much as the actual thing. As we’ve learned from Priya Parker, an event begins the moment you send an invitation. To signal that this wouldn’t be your garden variety conference, we had JFF’s CEO Maria Flynn tape a personal invitation from her kitchen.

Break the Monotony
Infuse joy through surprise, delight and the unexpected, reinvigorating participants’ enthusiasm for work that is often challenging, but crucially important, especially now. The Hive, a bespoke digital portal linked to the conference’s landing page, allowed participants to drop location pins on a map, post memorable quotes, and click their responses to talks, causing emojis to bubble up across the screen.

Be a Compassionate Host

Embrace the service component part of hosting an event. Ease the burden for participants at a stressful time by taking care of them and making it possible to engage the content in ways that fit with their lives. We designed everything, even the 3-Day design sprint to be a la carte and join-as-you-can, with the explicit permission to live their lives and tune in when they felt the need to hear how others were coping with a constant flow of hard news.

Embrace the Living Room

Create an experience that fits into people’s lives, wherever they are and however much they can give. Daily wrap emails that filled you in on anything you may have missed and previewed what to tune into the following day were written in the friendly voice of a conference pal who kept you in the know.

Use design principles whenever you’re pressure testing ideas. They help ensure you’re not wasting time and energy on things that don’t reflect the overall feeling and tone you’re trying to set.

The joint team ended up developing four signature experiences in all, including Creative Tensions, a conversation in which you move across the room (or in this case, nudge an icon across the screen) depending on where you stand on an issue; a private Twitter-like feed called “The Hive” that allowed participants to react to mainstage talks and post quotes; an “Impact Design Challenge” where participants spent three days prototyping solutions for workforce recovery and education reform; and an invite-only “Hard Problems Share” where executives shared what was keeping them up at night.

Horizons will return to New Orleans as soon as it’s safe to blow the “super spreader” jazz trumpets again. But the conference won’t look like it looked before. That old model has been broken, and sometimes things that break grow back stronger.

To stay up to date on news about Horizons 2021, and to view highlights from Horizons 2020, visit

Written by

JFF (Jobs for the Future) is a national nonprofit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations in the United States.

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