When you and your colleagues are heads-down and hard at it, opportunities can slip by unnoticed.

It’s a risk for any business, but especially for consumer-facing tech companies preoccupied by the race to be first to market with the next big thing.

If that describes you, Mark Connolly and Bob Barlow-Busch have a big heads-up: It’s called Fluxible, and it’s happening in Waterloo Region on Sept. 22-23.

Fluxible is a new conference focused on user experience, a crucial and fast-growing discipline that often makes the difference between a nifty invention sitting on a shelf and flying off it into the hands of eager customers.

Nowhere has interest in UX grown as quickly as it has in Waterloo Region, whose tech ecosystem has expanded well beyond hard technology and into the consumer-facing space in barely a decade.

As local UX pioneers with front-row seats to this happy explosion, Connolly and Barlow-Busch spotted and seized the opportunity to build a world-class event that’s easy and affordable for people here to attend.

I sat down with Mark and Bob for an in-depth chat about Fluxible, and about their own observations of the expanding UX universe in Waterloo Region and beyond. During our talk, they asked me to pass along this little perk: a discount code that will save you $200 on the cost of registration.

Q – What will the user experience be like for attendees of the Fluxible conference?

BBB – Multilayered.

MC – I’m glad you thought of that.

BBB – There is, in fact, an entire musical festival happening at the same time; that’s why I say multilayered. The Festival of Interstitial Music.

MC – It’s happening concurrently in time and space to Fluxible.

BBB – So that’s one way we’re making the experience a little unexpected.

Q – Okay, so . . .

MC – More seriously, it’s an ongoing work in progress. We’re working to achieve a few goals.

The initial reason we wanted to do this was multifold. One is, we just wanted to have a good time; two is, we wanted to speak to the emerging UX community within Waterloo Region and expose that community to the broader world, but also bring the broader world here; and we wanted to learn something and meet new people.

To that extent, we’re working on creating a conference experience that will support those goals. It’ll be mostly fun, because that’s what we want, but there’s also going to be a chance to meet and learn and have a good time.

BBB – I think an important part of that is, it’ll be a reasonably small event. We’re capping it at a maximum of 200 people.

All of our speakers are staying for the entire event as well. I mean, it’s not uncommon for speakers to parachute in, do a talk and then take off, right?

So, one of the great things about the conference experience will be the opportunity to actually hang out with, get to know, talk with, eat with, drink with anybody you want; speakers, fellow conference attendees.

We want it to feel like a party, actually. It’s actually a UX party, disguised as a conference.

MC – Absolutely. That’s our tagline.

Q – How has the local UX community evolved during your time in the field?

MC – It has come to be.

BBB – It’s true; it didn’t exist before. We’ve both been doing this work for nigh on 20 years now, I would say. We’re the old farts of the biz now.

From my perspective, back in 2000 or 2001, I actually looked at starting a local chapter of any one of a few different professional organizations that would cater to the design community.

There was CHI, there was UPA, recently rebranded as UXPA. At the time, I looked into establishing a local chapter of these and did a test event or two, and frankly, there just was not enough interest to support even a regular group of 10 people a month coming out to do it.

I noticed a strong correlation between that lack of interest and the similar lack of interest from local businesses.

It’s been my observation that Waterloo’s roots come far more out of hard technology, embedded technology; it used to be that very few companies in town made products that ended up in the hands of a consumer.

Given that, I think the importance of product design and user experience didn’t really matter so much at the time.

But, fast-forward, and over the last 10 years things have changed so dramatically.

I think it was six years ago now that I helped co-found uxWaterloo, which is the Communitech peer-to-peer, affiliated with the Interaction Design Association.

We did the same thing again – we said ‘Let’s do a couple of test events’ – and it’s like, wow, people came swarming out of the woodwork.

Ever since then, it’s been just a fantastic ride. We have a lot of fun doing it, and I think our biggest turnout was 200 people for an event once, when Scott Berkun came out. We packed the RIM theatre.

So, it’s really changed, and interestingly, you can see the correlation between that interest in design and user experience, and this interest in the field driven by the local companies, because we have so many companies now – not just the startups, but the established ones – who are building products that get into the hands of end consumers.

Suddenly all this stuff really, really matters. It’s strategically so important now.

MC – And I can suavely segue into mentioning our sponsors.

I mean, Google here started out as a small startup, obviously, but now they’re doing major development work here, and it includes doing UX work here. That wasn’t the case even a couple of years ago.

For RIM, obviously, user experience has always been important to them, but has become more visibly important to them in the last few years.

BBB – More competitively critical too, for sure.

MC – Our sponsor Harris, as well, they’re doing design work here for that company’s products.

BBB – Quarry is another sponsor.

MC – And obviously design is a huge part of that organization.

And nForm.

BBB – They’re a boutique design, information architecture agency in Edmonton and Toronto.

The sponsors who have stood up are a great example of how interested people have become in the subject.

So, it became a not-very-difficult decision to host a conference here.

MC – Although we dithered about it for a long time. ‘Well, should we do a conference, Bob? Yeah, let’s talk about that.’

There was a good year of that, and then we just finally decided to pull the trigger.

It wasn’t hard to do, and then people jumped on board really quickly.

Q – How important is it to make this not just a local event, but also a world-facing one, where you bring people in from outside?

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About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy

Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.