Opinion: User Groups must avoid ever increasing depth

I've attended a lot of user groups over the years. They've been data-related, developer-related, and all sorts of other topics. I've also organized a lot of user groups over the years. One problem that I fell into early on, and that I see many others falling into, is the problem of increasing depth.

User group leaders often have a very skewed view of the content that's been presented at their groups. That's because they've often seen almost every single presentation that's ever been given.

Apart from a few potential user group stalwarts, almost no-one else has done this.

Increasing Depth

So when you're trying to work out what to have presented at your group, it's really important to avoid the "seen that, seen that…" response. Otherwise, what ends up happening, is that apart from a few new topics that appear from time to time, the result is increasing specialisation. The group can easily slide further and further into deeper and deeper coverage of a narrow range of topics.

That's great for the handful of people that are always there, but imagine what happens when a new person attends.

They can quickly form an impression that the group's discussions are way over their heads. If you want to grow your group over time, you really have to avoid this.

Even if a topic has been presented a while back, a new presenter (or even the same presenter) will often have a new outlook on it.

What to do?

One option is to split your meetings into two parts, say 1/3 intro topics and 2/3 deeper topics. That way, anyone who comes/attends will probably get value from the meeting.

You'll be surprised how many of your old hands will learn something from the intro section of the meeting. Not only that, it's a low-impact way to try to develop new speakers. "Come and talk for 20 minutes on an intro-level topic" is a way easier ask for a new speaker than "Come and talk for an hour on something hard".



Building a Great User Group – Part 1 – Don’t Lose Newcomers

Back in 2007, I wrote a book called Building Technical Communities. It was widely distributed at the time, and I've always been pleased with the feedback that I received on it.

For some time, I've been thinking about updating it. Recently, our MVP and RD lead Shiva has encouraged me to put my ideas somewhere they can be seen, so I've decided to add a blog post series that covers what I currently think about this. This is the first article. I've love to get your feedback.

Part 1: Don’t Lose Newcomers

Think back to the first time you attended any particular user group. You’d heard about it, then decided to commit to coming along, rearranged your life a bit to make that possible, and got yourself to the venue.

What happened next though?

For far too many people, this is what they do:

  • arrive at the venue feeling quite timid (even if they’re normally outgoing)
  • don’t know anyone else
  • stand around against a wall or seat, trying to not make eye contact with anyone
  • listen to the session
  • don't really get involved in any after-session activities
  • leave.

Note that if they are part of a minority within your community, they are even more likely to have this experience.

They may well never return, particularly if they didn’t find the content compelling.

As a user group leader, it’s your job to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Now I understand that just before a session starts, that you might be running around in circles, fixing audio/video issues, dealing with presenter issues, helping presenters that are lost find the venue, or even urgently replacing presenters who haven’t shown up. You don’t have time to run around a make new friends of these newcomers.

However, if you look around a room before a session, it’s often really easy to spot these people. They’re uncomfortable, and they really need to be welcomed properly.

Volunteers to the rescue

While not every member of your group is going to come to all (or even most) of your meetings, there are almost always a few people who will. These are the real stalwarts. And while they might not push themselves forward, they really want to help you make the group succeed. I strongly suggest that you seek out these people, and let them know that a critical role that they can play in the group’s success is to spot newcomers and make them feel really welcome. Get them to stick around with the newcomer, find out more about them, and help them to get to know others that they think will be relevant to them.

Remember that by the time a newcomer has arrived at your group, so many things have to have gone right, yet it’s so easy to lose them on day one.