Innovative Meetings

What’s in It for Them?

The User Interface conference pays speakers based on their performance- as part of a commitment to guaranteeing attendees a positive experience.

When Jared Spool and his team at User Interface Engineering (UIE) plan UIE’s annual User Interface & Design conference, they set out to give attendees the best possible experience, period. Part of their blueprint is a system of paying conference presenters based on their performance, a strategy that is almost unheard of in events and meetings.

The idea is simple: If speakers have incentives to give good presentations, they most likely will. In order to ensure that speakers presented the best possible session, UIE implemented a program in the late-1990s under which it compensates them based on how well their performance is received by attendees. Using a system of evaluations that generates about a 75-percent response rate, UIE asks attendees a series of eight quantitative questions (such as how useful their session notes will be once they return to their offices) and five qualitative, essay-style questions about each speaker. UIE weighs these responses as part of a process to give each speaker a performance rating, which determines the “bonus” given.

“We set aside, in each registration, an amount of money for each speaker, and that money is then divvied up based on whether they met numeric goals in those ratings,” Spool said. “The idea is that there’s more money for the really high performers, and sort of average performers get a decent amount of money. They get paid a lot more if they do really well.”

The process is anything but easy. UIE starts out a year ahead of the conference (which this year will be held on Nov. 5-7 at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel), scouting out speakers and researching topics, ranging from designing mobile experiences to leading productive meetings, that will interest attendees. Once speakers are selected, the UIE team spends upwards of seven hours with each one, preparing materials and trying to give him or her a sense of who the audience is and potential angles to address in the presentation.

Organizers also create all the conference’s marketing copy from scratch. “We don’t let the speakers write the marketing copy,” Spool said. “One of the reasons we do that is to make sure that exactly the right people are in the room. Because one of the problems [with presentations] is that if [attendees] come in expecting something different, they’re going to rate the speaker lower. And that’s not really the speaker’s fault; that’s our fault for marketing them wrong.”

A bad rating is just what UIE is trying to avoid, although Spool’s strategy is not designed to penalize speakers. Because the conference is a comparatively expensive event in its industry ($1,349 to $2,249 for the full program), UIE is committed to attendee satisfaction. “Everything we do we guarantee 100 percent, and we keep reminding attendees of that,” Spool said. “That keeps us very much on our toes. When we have an attendee at an event who’s not happy, it’s the first thing we bring up, do you want us to refund your money? It’s something that we think keeps the event as high-quality as it can be, and allows us to charge the prices we do.”

Feedback Mechanism
Speakers at UIE’s conferences aren’t left to wonder how attendees rated them. Just as they do pre-conference, Jared Spool and his team meet with presenters after the fact and go over the evaluations together- whether the results are great or not so good. “We bring up all the data on our screen, and we walk through and talk about what people were commenting,” Spool said. “…No other conference I know of does this.”

More Resources
For more information about UI17- this year’s User Interface conference- visit

Katie Kervin

Katie Kervin was formerly assistant editor of Convene.