Reducing Information Overload for Scholars
Designing A Mobile Experience for Academic Conferences
Background
Everyday, scholars are tired to deal with tons of information-heavy materials
Scholars (especially senior scholars) often attend academic conferences to learn new things, meet new people, and also as an escape from their daily routine. However, the current way that academic conferences presenting information is just throwing all the sessions/events information to attendees, leaving them helplessly searching and processing the raw information to make decisions.
Challenge
How can we design a conference mobile app that help users determine their optimal schedule while alleviating information overload?
Solution
A recommender system with a built-in calendar to help users make schedule easier
Design Process
Analysis-Synthesis Bridge Model* as a design methodology
In this project, I utilized Analysis-Synthesis Bridge Model as a design methodology to guide my research, design, and testing.

*Hugh Dubberly, Shelley Evenson, and Rick Robinson, http://www.dubberly.com/articles/interactions-the-analysis-synthesis-bridge-model.html
Introduction
Expanding the Value Chain: Conferency’s New Business Opportunity
Conferency is a startup company that provides digital solutions for academic conferences. Conferency’s current products and services include portal website building, peer-review system, and registration system, etc. After years of collaboration with clients, Conferency has built up its competitive advantages by creating mature data-collection pipelines and machine learning algorithm tailored to the academic conference domain.
Conferency wanted to explore opportunities outside its current business offering and decided to build a mobile informational application. I was consulted by the company to work as a full-stack Product Designer (Consultant) to envision a mobile experience that stands out from our competitors.

My responsibilities include:
- Recruit target users and conduct user interviews
- Determine product strategy; Interaction design, and visual design.
- Conduct user testing and make design iteration
Background Research
Academic conferences have distinct needs than other events
I previously worked as webmaster & customer support at Conferency, and my responsibilities include communicating with clients (conference organizers) then create/update their portal websites. This experience gives me in-depth domain knowledge and insights about academic conferences.

Compared with other events, academic conferences in general…
- have relatively complex programs (events agenda)
- have parallel sessions happening at the same time but in different venues
- have an extra step in attendee journey: paper submission and peer review

Generally, academic conferences have very distinct needs compared with corporate events, small interest group meetup, and marketing events, etc.
Competitive Analysis
However, none of Conferency’s competitors provide tailored digital solutions for academic conferences
I conducted a competitive analysis to understand the current market place. As mentioned above, yet academic conferences have distinct needs, I found out that none of those competitors provide tailored digital solutions for academic conferences in this particular market segment. The solutions they provided are trying to encompassing all types of events while losing the tailored support for academic conferences. This might be Conferency’s opportunity to design a mobile experience to fit closely with its users’ needs and stand out from its competitors.
Internal Stakeholders Interview
Interviewing internal stakeholders to understand internal competence and constraints
I interviewed internal stakeholders (founder of the company, developers, etc) to align project expectation and more importantly, to understand the company’s competence and constraints. So that I can make sure the experience I designed is feasible and usable to the company.

Competence: Conferency has built an established system of collecting data through Conferency’s current business offering. The current data pipelines provide a structured data collection mechanism, and it’s easy to use for our clients. For example, Conferency has developed machine learning algorithms to automatically extract paper abstract and topics from a PDF academic paper.

Constraints: As an early stage startup, the ability to develop a comprehensive mobile application is limited. When talking to internal stakeholders, I was suggested to use leverage existing website functionalities and develop a minimal viable product at first. These two strategies help to reduce cost and to accelerate the development process.
User Interview
Interviewing to observe, understand, and empathize with target users
Based on the background research, I generated a list of research questions to try to understand the typical process of attending an academic conference, what’s the pain point, what’s their motivation, etc. I conducted semi-structured interviews with more than 10+ users from various background.
Research Synthesis
Creating models to solidify research data and define the problem
Once the data has been collected, I created models (such as affinity diagram, user journey map, etc) to help better understand the problem space. These artifacts also allow me to share insights with people outside the design team to collect their feedback.
Narrowing Project Scope
“Scheduling” and “Events Discovery” as a Project Focus
During the research, I found out that there are many elements that contribute to a perfect academic conference experience. Yet we only have limited resources and control over some of it. We decided to focus on “Scheduling” and “Events Discovery” when designing the mobile experience, as this is the intersection of Conferency’s competence and user needs.
Pain Point
Users are experiencing information overload in determining the schedule
Every day, scholars need to deal with tons of text-heavy materials (emails, papers, student’s homework, etc.). Scholars (especially senior scholars) often view academic conferences as an escape from their daily routine. However, the current way that academic conferences presenting information  (whether it’s traditional printed program book, or existing digital web/mobile event management platform) is just throwing all the sessions/events information to attendees, leaving them helplessly searching and processing the raw information to make decisions.

All these lead to information overload, which further causes users’ mental stress in choosing events/sessions and determining a personal schedule. This induces potential risk in attending sessions/events that attendees are not interested in, which ultimately leads to unpleasant academic conference experiences.
Pain Point: Dig Deeper
Why Information Overload Leads to Suboptimal Scheduling?
In a typical decision-making process, users need to intake information and output decisions. In Conferency’s case specifically, scholars need to read the program book or browse the website to read events information, then make decisions of what events they will attend (as illustrated in the above image). This process has already made it difficult for users, and it’s even worse when it comes to mobile.

Notably, users encounter the following pain points when using a mobile application to browse academic conference events:

⚠️ Plain view, not optimized for academic conferences or mobile
The current solution of displaying mobile programs is just like cramping large pdf and excel files into a small mobile screen. It's hard to read and to find information.

⚠️ Rely on out-of-context tools, such as external calendars
Currently, users rely on external calendars to create their own conference schedule. Users reported that it's out-of-context and thus make it difficult to make decisions.
Envisioning an Ideal Future (conceptual design)
A Recommender System Combined with Tailored Mobile Programs and Calendar
From the above analysis, I started to envision what Conferency can bring to the table. After several rounds of ideation and conversations with the founder of the company, I landed on one direction that I believe can leverage Conferency’s expertise to fulfill user needs: to build a recommender system combined with tailored mobile programs and calendar to help pre-process information and help users make decisions.
Validating Ideal Future
Finding a Balance between User Control and Efficiency
A recommender system is a very rough direction, there are a lot of details needed to be filled in. Also, every new concept needs to be validated by the user, especially when the academic conferences attendees have relatively lower trust in technologies (recommendation algorithm). I decided to use storyboards to rapidly validate different concept ideas and find a balance between user control and efficiency. After presenting storyboards in speed dating sessions, user’s comfort zone was discovered: suggest events and allow users to make the call (not algorithm).
Finalizing Features
Prioritize features to build the first MVP
A recommender system won’t fill the complete picture of an academic conference management product. There are a lot more features that I ideated to fulfill the whole user journey. Together with the development team and the founder of the company, we prioritize features using the value-difficulty matrix to pick out the most important features for the first Minimum Viable Product.
Agile Prototyping
Sketching the ideal future
After finalizing features, I started the agile prototyping process by first quickly sketching out ideas/screens/user-flow on papers. It’s preferable to test paper prototypes before moving to mid-fi digital prototypes. However, the key problem that I am trying to solve here is the information overload. With relatively lower data/content fidelity, paper prototypes cannot paint the whole pictures for users and thus I cannot get valuable insights from users. I decided to push another round of iteration based on internal stakeholders feedback and build the mid-fi digital interactive prototype.
User Testing
Testing Mid-Fidelity Prototypes Reveals Multiple Problems
With mid-fi prototypes, I conducted a think-aloud + semi-structured interview with target users to collect both the quantitative and qualitative feedback. I built the prototype using maze.design (a very powerful user testing tool, BTW) and it contained seven user tasks. The quantitative testing results revealed multiple problems. Users finished some of the tasks at a significantly longer duration than expected. Task No.2 even has a 100% miss-click rate. Luckily enough, the qualitative think-aloud and interview notes reveal the mismatch between users’ mental model and mine. This feedback helped me propel the design further.
Iteration and Pushing Perfect Pixels
Iteration 1: Refining Information Hierarchy for “Suggested For You” Feature
From the user testing, I found out that when users are exploring different events, the primary considerations are “topic” and “Session type”. “Time” and “Venue” are a later concern. Based on this insight, I refined the information hierarchy for the “Suggested For You” feature. I front-loaded “topic” for users to assess it without clicking.
Iteration and Pushing Perfect Pixels
Iteration 2: Cancel “Front-loading Information” Feature in On-boarding
In the mid-fi prototype, I front-loaded conferences for users to choose in the onboarding. However, users reported that it’s a bit overwhelmed and they usually go for search directly. The reason behind using search is because academic conferences are usually identifiable by simple abbreviation, such as “CHI2019” or “CSWIM2018”, etc. So in this iteration, I canceled “Front-loading Information” feature and also simplified the onboarding experiences. Now, the whole onboarding experience takes more screens to finish, but each screen will display less information and also take less effort to finish. This further reduces information overload.
Iteration and Pushing Perfect Pixels
Iteration 3: Crafting A More Intuitive Layout for “Parallel Session”
Parallel sessions are a unique part of academic conferences. In the mid-fi prototype, considering the limited size of mobile phone screens, parallel sessions are displayed in linear order but with text explanation. However, users reported that they still perceived these sessions to happen in linear order. In this iteration, I crafted a more intuitive layout for “Parallel Session”, users can swipe to see more parallel sessions if they are interested. This also further reduces information overload.
Interaction and Visual Design
Final Deliverables
Next Step
Next Step If I Have More Time/Resources:
- Testing hi-fi interactive prototype with multiple stakeholders (such as conference organizers)
- Having co-design sessions with conference organizers to consider edge cases (e.g. long names)
- Developing Android version and stick to platform’s guidelines
Retrospection
Things Learned:
- It’s absolutely worthy to spend time on making sure we are solving the right problem (needs validation)
- When the ideal target users group is hard to reach, we can always find proxy to gather data (better than having no research)
- Aligning internal constraints and competence earlier can boost the design process