Conference Booth Do's and Don'ts

Conference season has started up again with a vengeance after the summer break. If you’ve ever staffed or attended a conference, you know that there is always a room (or a hallway, or an out-of-the-way closet) where sponsors can set up more or less elaborate booths and talk to attendees about their offerings.

Staffing a booth is a particular discipline, with significant variations depending on the intersection of which company you represent and which event you are at. Let’s go through some of the factors that go into deciding what goes in a booth – or not.

What is the goal of the sponsorship?

Depending on the company and the event, the goal of an event sponsorship can vary widely. Sometimes you might be there to scan literally every attendee’s badge and get their contact details so that you can follow up later. In this case, you want the flashy giveaway, the must-play game, and in general the fun, look-at-me booth. You also want to make sure that you can process people through pretty quickly; it’s a numbers game.

In other situations – different event audience, or different product and pitch on your part – that is exactly the opposite of what you want. You are aiming for a smaller number of longer and deeper conversations. The sorts of attendees you want will be turned off by queues or flashy displays, and may prefer a sit-down conversation to standing at a demo pod.

Make sure that both sales and marketing agree on the goals! I have personally been involved in events that Marketing considered a great success – "look at how many leads we generated!" – but Sales ignored as a waste of time – "those leads don’t convert". Have that conversation up front, because afterwards it’s too late.

Outside help

At many events, at least some of the booth staffers will be outside contractors, not employees of the company sponsoring the booth. A few years ago "contractor" would have been a euphemism for "booth babe", someone significantly younger than the average conference attendee, generally of the opposite sex to most of the attendees, and wearing significantly less clothing. This kind of contractor is there mainly as eye candy to attract passing traffic.

At least at the sort of conference I go to, the straight-up "booth babe" sort of thing has more or less completely died out – and good riddance to it. Even so, there are still a lot of contractors about, especially at larger events such as Mobile World Congress. They are there to give a pre-rehearsed short pitch and hand out collateral and swag, no more.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using outside help in this way, but it does influence what the typical attendee experience of your booth will be – and therefore what type of leads you will get.

Be in the room

If you’re working a booth, again, know what your goal is. If you want all the leads you can get, go stand out in the hallway with an armful of T-shirts or beer coozies or whatever your giveaway is, and scan everybody in sight. If you’re after more in-depth conversations, stay in your booth perimeter and wait for people to come to you.

Either way, don’t just hang out in the booth, playing with your phone or talking to your colleagues – and definitely don’t get out the laptop and try to work in the booth. You’re there to be available to attendees! If you need to do something urgently, step out of the booth, find a café or whatever, and work from there. There may be a sponsor lounge, or if you’re a speaker there is almost always some sort of green room with WiFi and coffee – and with any luck, a somewhat ergonomic table to work at.

Booth design matters

The booth design is also a factor, and it will change based on your company’s market profile, the event, and once again, your goal for the event. If your company is well-known enough that people will stop by just to see what you’re up to or grab the latest swag, your booth needs to be all about whatever is the newest thing you want to get out there. If you are a startup or a new entrant, you need something eye-catching that explains what your core value proposition is. Either way, keep it simple: nobody reads more than a handful of words on a booth, and they need to be able to do that from a distance, on the move, with a crush of people between them and you.

Different events may also need different designs. If you’re at, say, a Gartner event where most of the attendees are dressed formally, you need to be a bit more grown up too, both in wording and in presentation. Focus on business value and outcomes rather than tech buzzwords. On the other hand, if you’re at a tech-centric event where most people are wearing black T-shirts, you want that checklist, and your benefits need to be couched in technical terms too. This is literally a feeds & speeds crowd, and you should cater to that.

Collateral and handouts

Collateral is a hard one. I have long advocated doing away with take-home collateral entirely, and instead offering to email people about topics they care about – which is an excuse to have a conversation and uncover those topics! You might also consider a row of QR codes on a wall that people can scan to request particular items. This is both more ecological and more practical, since most printed collateral is never read.

However, in certain industries and regions people do actually want something to take away with them, so be aware of those preferences and make sure you cater to them.

The one piece of printed collateral I do like to have in a booth is an architecture diagram, because you can pick that up and use it as a visual aid in conversations with people, even if they never take it with them. In smaller situations I’ve also done this with a diagram printed on the wall or even a whiteboard in the booth, but when there are multiple people who might need to use the visual tool, it can get messy. Better to have one each!

I wrote down some more in-depth advice about conference collateral here.

Further reading

Those are my thoughts, but here are some more from Cote. There is some excellent advice here – do read it! You can sign up for his newsletter here – and if you like this sort of thing, his podcast is pretty good too.


🖼️ Photos by Jezael Melgoza and Cami Talpone on Unsplash

Problem Solving

Take intractable problem. Abandon intractable problem. Run errands. Return home. Play with coloured pens for a Pomodoro. Transfer clean copy to iPad while Mac updates itself. Accomplishment.

Two key parts: doing something else to give your brain space to mull on the problem, instead of trying to solve it by head-butting a brick wall into submission. And structure your time working on the problem, breaking it into chunks that feel approachable.

Be Smart, Use Dumb Devices

The latest news in the world of Things Which Are Too "Smart" For Their Users’ Good is that Facebook have released a new device in their Portal range: a video camera that sits on your TV and lets you make video calls via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp (which is also owned by Facebook).

This is both a great idea and a terrible one. I am on the record as wanting a webcam for my AppleTV so that I could make FaceTime calls from there:

In fact, I already do the hacky version of this by mirroring my phone’s screen with AirPlay and then propping it up so the camera has an appropriate view.

Why would I do this? One-word answer: kids. The big screen has a better chance of holding their attention, and a camera with a nice wide field of view would be good too, to capture all the action. Getting everyone to sit on the couch or rug in front of the TV is easier than getting everyone to look into a phone (or even iPad). I’m not sure about the feature where the camera tries to follow the speaker; in these sorts of calls, several people are speaking most of the time, so I can see it getting very confused. It works well in boardroom setups where there is a single conversational thread, but even then, most of the good systems I’ve seen use two cameras, so that the view can switch in software rather than waiting for mechanical rotation.

So much for the "good idea" part. The reason it’s a terrible idea in this case is that it’s from Facebook. Nobody in their right mind would want an always-on device from Facebook in their living room, with a camera pointed at their couch, and listening in on the video calls they make. Facebook have shown time and time and time again that they simply cannot be trusted.

An example of why the problem is Facebook itself, rather than any one product or service, is the hardware switch for turning the device’s camera off. The highlight shows if the switch is in the off position, and a LED illuminates… to show that the camera and microphone are off.

Many people have commented that this setup looks like a classic dark pattern in UX, just implemented in hardware. My personal opinion is that the switch is more interesting as an indicator of Facebook’s corporate attitude to internet services: they are always on, and it’s an anomaly if they are off. In fact, they may even consider the design of this switch to be a positive move towards privacy, by highlighting when the device is in "privacy mode". The worrying aspect is that this design makes privacy an anomaly, a mode that is entered briefly for whatever reason, a bit like Private or Incognito mode in a web browser. If you’re wondering why a reasonable person might be concerned about Facebook’s attitude to user privacy, a quick read of just the "Privacy issues" section of the Wikipedia article on Facebook criticism will probably have you checking your permissions. At a bare minimum, I assume that entering "privacy mode" is itself a tracked event, subject to later analysis…

Trust, But Verify

IoT devices need a high degree of trust anyway because of all the information that they are inherently privy to. Facebook have proven that they will go to any lengths to gather information, including information that was deliberately not shared by users, process it for their own (and their advertising customers’) purposes, and do an utterly inadequate job of protecting it.

The idea of a smart home is attractive, no question – but why do the individual devices need to be smart in their own right? Unnecessary capabilities increase the vulnerability surface for abuse, either by a vendor/operator or by a malicious attacker. Instead, better to focus on devices which have the minimum required functionality to do their job, and no more.

A perfect example of this latter approach is IKEA’s collaboration with Sonos. The Symfonisk speakers are not "smart" in the sense that they have Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant on board. They also do not connect directly to the Internet or to any one particular service. Instead, they rely on the owner’s smartphone to do all the hard work, whether that is running Spotify or interrogating Alexa. The speaker just plays music.

I would love a simple camera that perched on top of the TV, either as a peripheral to the AppleTV, or extending AirPlay to be able to use video sources as well. However, as long as doing this requires a full device from Facebook1 – or worse, plugging directly into a smart TV2 – I’ll keep on propping my phone up awkwardly and sharing the view to the TV.


  1. Or Google or Amazon – they’re not much better. 

  2. Sure, let my TV watch everything that is displayed and upload it for creepy "analysis".3 

  3. To be clear, I’m not wearing a tinfoil hat over here. I have no problem simply adding a "+1" to the viewer count for The Expanse or whatever, but there’s a lot more that goes on my TV screen: photos of my kids, the content of my video calls, and so on and so forth. I would not be okay with sharing the entire video buffer with unknown third parties. This sort of nonsense is why my TV has never been connected to the WiFi. It went online once, using an Ethernet cable, to get a firmware update – and then I unplugged the cable. 

New York, New York

This has been a great week in New York City. I was in town for New Hire Technical Training, or NHTT to its friends, which means pretty intense ten-hour days on top of the weeks of prerequisites to even get to this point – but it’s New York Freaking City, so I still took time to wander around. One day I got a step count in the 20ks!

Anyway, here are some shots from the week.

Discoverability

As more and more devices around us sprout microphones and "smart" assistant software that listens for commands, various problems are emerging. Much attention is lavished on the Big Brother aspects of what amounts to always-on ambient surveillance, and that is indeed a development that is worth examining. However, today I would like to focus on another aspect of voice-controlled user interfaces: when a system has no easy way of telling you what its capabilities are – how do you know what to ask it?

The answer to this question entails discoverability, and I would like to illustrate this somewhat abstract concept with a picture of a tap. This particular tap lives in my employers’ newly refurbished London office, and I challenge you to work out how to get sparkling water from it.

The answer is that you press both taps – and now that I’ve told you, you may perhaps notice the pattern of bubbles along the bottom of the two taps. However, without the hint, I doubt you would ever have worked it out.

Siri, Alexa, Cortana1, and their ilk suffer from the same problem – which is why most people tend to use them for the same scant handful of tasks: setting timers, creating reminders, and playing music. Some users are willing to experiment with asking them to do various things, but most of us have enough going on in our lives that we can’t take the time to talk to very stupid robots unless we have a reasonable certainty of our requests being understood and acted upon.

Worse, even as existing capabilities improve and new ones are added, users generally stick to their first impressions. If they tried something a couple of years ago and it didn’t work then, as far as they’re concerned it doesn’t work, even if that particular capability has been added in the meantime.

I generally find out about new Siri features from Apple-centric blogs or podcasts, but that’s only because I’m the sort of person who goes looking for that kind of thing. I use Siri a fair amount, especially while driving, although AirPods have made me somewhat more willing to speak commands into thin air, so I do actually take advantage of new features and improved recognition. For most people, though, Siri remains the butt of jokes, no matter how much effort Apple puts into it.

This is not a competitive issue, either; almost everyone I know with an Alexa just treats it as a radio, never using any other skills beyond the first week or so of ownership.

The problem is discoverability: short of Siri or Alexa interrupting you ("excuse me, have you heard the good news?"), there isn’t any way for users to know what they can do.

This is why I am extremely sceptical of the claims that voice assistants are the next frontier. Even beyond the particular issues of people in an open-plan office all shouting at their phones, and assuming perfect recognition by the AIs2 themselves, voice is an extremely low-bandwidth channel. If my hands and eyes are available, those are far better input and output channels than voice can ever be. Plus, graphical user interfaces are far better able to guide users to discover their capabilities, without degenerating into phone menu trees.

Otherwise, you have to rely on the sorts of power users who really want sparkling water and are willing to spend some time and effort on figuring out how to get it. Meanwhile, everyone else is going to moan and gripe, or bypass the tap entirely and head for the bottled water.


  1. I find it significant that autocorrect knows the first two, but not the third. As good an indication as any of their relative market penetration. 

  2. Not actually AI. 

Don't Blame The User

It would be easy to write a blog post about every single XKCD strip, so I try not to – but the latest one drives at something very interesting in infosec.

Some of the default infosec advice that is always given out is to avoid reusing passwords on different sites. This is good advice as far as it goes, but it misses one key aspect. Too many sites force people to create accounts for no good reason ("create an account to use our free wifi"), and so people use throwaway passwords, and reuse them across many of these low-risk sites. In the XKCD example above, if someone cracks the Smash Mouth message boards, maybe they get to reuse the password to gain access to the Limp Bizkit boards, but ideally they won’t get access to Venmo, because that not only has a different, higher-grade password, but is also secured by 2FA1.

The good news is that it’s becoming easier than ever to generate secure passwords and avoid reusing them. If you’re an Apple user, the iCloud Keychain is built right into both iOS and macOS, and will generate and remember secure passwords for you, securing them with FaceID or TouchID. There are of course any number of third-party options as well, but the point is that security needs to be easy. People who care about security will sign up for Have I Been Pwned; general users just trying to get through their day will not.

The first priority is making it work at all, the second is making it usable; regrettable as it may be, security comes after those primary concerns. The easier it is for users to do the right thing, the more likely it is that they will do it. Browbeating them after a breach because they didn’t jump through precisely the right hoops in exactly the right sequence is not helpful. What will help is putting the effort into helping them up front, including in the service design itself.

Previously, previously.


  1. Note, I have no idea whether Venmo actually supports 2FA; not being in the US, I don’t / can’t use it. For "Venmo", read "online banking" or whatever other high-security example. 

Once More On Privacy

Facebook is in court yet again over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and one of their lawyers made a most revealing assertion :

There is no invasion of privacy at all, because there is no privacy

Now on one level, this is literally true. Facebook's lawyer went on to say that:

Facebook was nothing more than a "digital town square" where users voluntarily give up their private information

The issue is a mismatch in expectations. Users have the option to disclose information as fully public, or variously restricted: only to their friends, or to members of certain groups. The fact that something is said in the public street does not mean that the user would be comfortable having it published in a newspaper, especially if they were whispering into a friend’s ear at the time.

Legally, Facebook may well be in the right (IANAL, nor do I play one on the Internet), but in terms of users’ expectations, they are undoubtedly in the wrong. However, for once I do not lay all the blame on Facebook.

Mechanisation and automation are rapidly subverting common-sense expectations in a number of fields, and consequences can be wide-reaching. Privacy is one obvious example, whether it is Facebook’s or Google’s analysis of our supposedly private conversations, or facial recognition in public places.

For an example of the reaction to the deployment of these technologies, the city of San Francisco, generally expected to be an early adopter of technological solutions, recently banned the use of facial recognition technology. While the benefits for law enforcement of ubiquitous automated facial recognition are obvious, the adoption of this technology also subverts long-standing expectations of privacy – even in undoubtedly public spaces. While it is true that I can be seen and possibly recognised by anyone who is in the street at the same time as me, the human expectation is that I am not creating a permanent, searchable record of my presence in the street at that time, nor that such a record would be widely available.

To make the example concrete, let’s talk for a moment about numberplate recognition. Cars and other motor vehicles have number plates to make them recognisable, including for law enforcement purposes. As technology developed, automated reading of license plates became possible, and is now widely adopted for speed limit enforcement. Around here things have gone a step further, with average speeds measured over long distances.

Who could object to enforcing the law?

The problem with automated enforcement is that it is only as good as it is programmed to be. It is true that hardly anybody breaks the speed limit on the monitored stretches of motorway any more – or at least, not more than once. However, there are also a number of negative consequences. Lane discipline has fallen entirely by the wayside since the automated systems were introduced, with slow vehicles cruising in the middle or even outside lanes, with empty lanes on the inside. The automated enforcement has also removed any pressure to consider what is an appropriate speed for the conditions, with many drivers continuing to drive at or near the speed limit even in weather or traffic conditions where that speed is totally unsafe. Finally, there is no recognition that, at 4am with nobody on the roads, there is no need to enforce the same speed limit that applies at rush hour.

Human-powered on-the-spot enforcement – the traffic cop flagging down individual motorists – had the option to modulate the law, turning a blind eye to safe speed and punishing driving that might be inside the speed limit but unsafe in other ways. Instead, automated enforcement is dumb (it is, after all, binary) and only considers the single metric it was designed to consider.

There are of course any number of problems with a human-powered approach as well; members of ethnic or social minorities all have stories involving the police looking for something – anything – to book them for. I’m a straight white cis-het guy, and still once managed to fall foul of the proverbial bored cops, who took my entire car apart looking for drugs (that weren’t there) and then left me by the side of the road to put everything back together. However, automated enforcement makes all of these problems worse.

Facial recognition has documented issues with accuracy when it comes to ethnic minorities and women – basically anyone but the white male programmers who created the systems. If police start relying on such systems, people are going to have serious difficulties trying to prove that they are not the person in the WANTED poster – because the computer says they are a match. And that’s if they don’t just get gunned down, of course.

It is notoriously hard to opt out of these systems when they are used for advertising, but when they are used for law enforcement, it becomes entirely impossible to opt out, as a London man found when he was arrested for covering his face during a facial recognition trial on public streets. A faulty system is even worse than a functional one, as its failure modes are unpredictable.

Systems rely on data, and data storage is also problematic. I recently had to get a government-issued electronic ID. Normally this should be a simple online application, but I kept getting weird errors, so I went to the office with my (physical) ID instead. There, we realised that the problem was with my place of birth. I was born in what was then Strathclyde, but this is no longer an option in up-to-date systems, since the region was abolished in 1996. However, different databases were disagreeing, and we were unable to move forward. In the end, the official effectively helped me to lie to the computer, picking an acceptable jurisdiction in order to move forwards in the process – and thereby of course creating even more inaccuracies and inconsistency. So much for "the computer is always right"… Remember, kids: Garbage In, Garbage Out!

What, Me Worry?

The final argument comes down, as it always does with privacy, to the objection that "there’s nothing to fear if you haven’t done anything wrong". Leaving aside the issues we just discussed around the possibility of running into problems even when you really haven’t done anything wrong, the issue is with the definition of "wrong". Social change is often driven by movement in the grey areas of the law, as well as selective enforcement of those laws. First gay sex is criminalised, so underground gay communities spring up. Then attitudes change, but the laws are still on the books; they just aren’t enforced. Finally the law catches up. If algorithms actually are watching all of our activity and are able to infer when we might be doing something that’s frowned upon by some1, that changes the dynamic very significantly, in ways which we have not properly considered as a society.

And that’s without even considering where else these technologies might be applied, beyond our pleasant Western bubble. What about China, busy turning Xinjiang into an open-air prison for the Uyghur minority? Or "Saudi" Arabia, distributing smartphone apps to enable husbands to deny their wives permission to travel?

Expectations of privacy are being subverted by scale and automation, without a real conversation about what that means. Advertisers and the government stick to the letter of the law, but there is no recognition of the material difference between surveillance that is human-powered, and what happens when the same surveillance is automated.


Photo by Glen Carrie and Bryan Hansonvia Unsplash


  1. And remember, the algorithms may not even be analysing your own data, which you carefully secured and locked down. They may have access to data for one of your friends or acquaintances, and then the algorithm spots a correlation in patterns of communication, and associates you with them. Congratulations, you now have a shadow profile. And what if you are just really unlucky in your choice of local boozer, so now the government thinks you are affiliated with the IRA offshoot du jour, when all you were after was a decent pint of Guinness?