Demystifying the black box of proposals

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

For a quick how-to list, go to the last section of this article.

Earlier this year, my coworkers and I submitted a talk proposal to Radical Summit, and with baited breath waited for a response to come back.


For the coming Radical Research Summit, we would like to propose a talk we are passionate about. We put the description below and also attached it as a document.

Please let us know if you have any questions.

It’s a surreal feeling to have submitted a talk proposal. Did the topic of choice, backed by our collective experiences, add value to the UX community?

We hoped so. A month of work and careful thought had been poured into crafting the proposal. Lo and behold,

Hi Veronika, Kathryn and Jennifer,

We are so excited about your talk, Skip the Actionable Insight: Get Straight to the Action, it has been . You will have 30 minutes to give your talk.

Not only had our talk been accepted, we had secured a coveted 30 minute time slot. Within weeks, the talk proposal was posted on the website along with our photos and bios. An exciting new step in all of our careers was about to unfold.

What, then, happened in the weeks prior that contributed to our success?

Finding conferences which are soliciting entries

The first step is looking for conferences who want talk submissions. While a keynote speaker is often recruited, conferences still need many more talks to fill an exciting lineup of speakers each day.

We considered Radical Research Summit (Vancouver, BC) and Seattle Interactive (Seattle, WA), in part because our UX research team attended both conferences the year prior. Both were a blast. Radical Research offers a one-track day focused on UX research, while Seattle Interactive has a dazzling array of UX, marketing, engineering, and creative talks.

Because the Radical Research talk proposal deadline was first — about a month away at the time— we decided to focus our efforts there first. (We did not submit a talk to Seattle Interactive. Another year, perhaps!)

Deciding on a topic together

We had one month to identify the topic of the talk. Radical Research helpfully called out four topic areas of interest: emerging tech, ethics, building research in organizations, and compelling case studies.

We quickly agreed upon building research in organizations, our area of expertise. Each of us had been the first embedded researchers on our respective teams — Veronika on B2B, Jennifer on the member website, myself on the iOS & Android teams. Building research presence was our domain. What could we say collectively?

On a Wednesday like any other, we sat down in a small conference room and shut the door. We traded stories about working with our teams. I talked about the highs — we all did — and sung praises for insights the others produced that made impactful change at our company. As the weeks continued, we slowly let our guard down and shared stories that had ups and downs, and also the times when we felt like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the mountain of user experience.

Talking openly about our breadth of experiences made an unexpected pattern emerge. With the help of post it notes and a whiteboard, we pieced together the puzzle that formed our collective experience in a way that we couldn’t do alone. All of our encounters could be thought of in terms of a spectrum of team trust and engagement. Here the basis of our framework — here was our topic!

Regardless of whether our talk proposal was accepted or not, the framework immediately had a positive impact on our own work. I saw myself naturally taking a step back, dispassionately identifying a situation, and then using strategies we identified to improve trust and increase engagement.

Writing the talk proposal

We had spent weeks understanding our own experiences, and then defining the core mission of our talk. The deadline for submission was fast approaching, and through we had an excellent idea of what the talk would contain, we had not yet put a pen to paper. What could we do with two days left?

The proposal needed to be under 150 words, and we needed a title. (We did not need to submit a full deck, luckily.) Two UX researchers who I respect greatly had a talk recently been accepted, so we drew our inspiration from their UXPA 2018 proposal. Through a mixture of writing sentences out and talking through our thoughts, we had a draft and a handful of passable talk titles.

Later that evening we all mulled it over. We bounced ideas off our boss, and what resonated with him we decided to go with. With a snappy title and 3 short paragraphs written, we were in surprisingly good shape. Veronika polished our draft into the final proposal and attached it to our email to the committee:

Skip the actionable insight: get straight to the action

Stakeholders want “actionable insights” from UX research, but what they really need is help making expedient, smart decisions… in other words, they need ACTION. Depending on a stakeholder’s trust and engagement, they see UX research as an asset, an ally, or an obstacle in your organization. With low trust and engagement, “actionable insights” will sit on the shelf forever, overlooked when the customer needs them the most.

Our team developed a 2×2 model that describes the relationship between researchers and stakeholders so that you can develop the right strategies to drive the team to action.

In this talk, you will learn how to elevate the level of trust and stakeholder involvement. Leading design research at a Pacific Northwest health insurance company, our team has used this new framework to increase collaboration and empower better outcomes for our customers.

We identified a problem, and found a solution that worked well for us and our company. It tackles the prompt “how to successfully build research in organizations” and augments the impact of UX research findings.

Recap: the 4 phases of submitting a successful UX talk proposal

Our process, as detailed above, is a single example of a what preparing a talk summary can look like.

Conference talks take all shapes and sizes: keynotes, long talks, lighting talks, panels; solo talks and multi-presenter talks; talks with decks, pecha kuchas, and interactive talks.

If you’re interested in speaking, don’t let the seeming ambiguity of how to get your content onto the stage hold you back. We need new voices in our conferences — including yours.

Let’s review the steps:

  1. Select which conference(s) at which you are interested in speaking. Conferences typically accept proposals 3–6 months in advance. Check conference websites for more details.
  2. Decide on your topic. Make sure it aligns with the type of submission the conference is seeking for the year. It could be a passion you are committed to sharing with the UX community, something you prepare by reflecting on your experiences (such as what my colleagues and I did), an interesting case study… the list goes on!
  3. Write the proposal. Check out what has been accepted before — here is a collection of talk proposals I’ve compiled from UX conferences. Note the different levels of polish that authors give their proposals.
  4. Submit — on time. Nothing like following directions to make your proposal stand out.

After that, it’s up to the conference committee and a pinch of luck.

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