TL;DR: I was in charge of event registration for a seated gala with roughly 800-900 attendees. So with 800-900 people checking in for the event within the span of an hour and needing table numbers and auction information and the like, and about 10 volunteers, I decided that we needed to make the jump from a paper guestlist to a digital system for the sake of everyone, guests and staff. I jury-rigged one out of Google docs, which required that I redesign the event check-in process, develop and test a prototype, redesign training, and work with others to create revised documentation. That may seem like the dark ages now, but event apps weren’t as common back in the aughts and I learned a lot that I still use today. (Scroll to the end to see my lessons learned.)
Our organization had a very large event, with approximately 800-900 attendees. When attendees arrived, they would need to check in to get their materials for the event and to find out their assigned table. Since not everyone would receive the same materials, and table assignments often changed up until the last minute, making sure everyone received the right materials and was sent to the right table was challenging. The previous method was essentially a spreadsheet printed out on paper, with volunteers checking off names manually. Any updates or corrections also had to be done manually on every single copy—which is a lot of fun when you have 12 copies of a 20-page list and people are starting to line up at the door! Plus, after the event we had to compile all the lists of checked off names so that we could follow up appropriately based on whether they had actually attended or not. One year, someone didn’t realize we would need to know that information afterwards and tossed the checked off lists at the end of the night!
In the post-event debrief, one of the volunteers suggested using Google Docs as a way to have multiple people working off the same list and to be able to make updates in real time on a single file. She had used this with her friends while planning a group trip and thought that it might also be useful for this event. It sounded great, but…
I had so many questions:
- Would we have the technological capacity and infrastructure needed? (e.g. internet, laptops, electrical outlets, Google accounts)
- How might we need to adjust the standard physical set-up?
- What kind of adjustments might be needed when working directly in the spreadsheet?
- Previously, we had created the list on a large spreadsheet to track all of the information we needed but hid certain columns when printing so that volunteers would only see the information they needed. We had also printed out multiple versions of the list (e.g. alphabetical by last name, by group, groups only, presenters only) depending on how guests might present or information might be requested by staff.
- What changes would we need to make to the check in process, from when a guest first steps up to the desk, to when they’re going off on their way?
- Is information visually ordered/formatted to support the new process?
- How might we need to adjust the volunteer training?
- What would happen if someone accidentally typed over data or made a mistake during data entry?
- What types of changes to the data would volunteers be empowered to make on their own, and what types of changes would need to go through the registration manager? (In this case, I was both the person managing registration volunteers at the event and the one who managed the data before and after the event.)
Another question, in hindsight, might have been:
- If the point was to streamline the process and make things simpler for both the data managers and volunteers, could we do this without volunteers having to learn so many new things that it negated the benefits of saving time and increasing accuracy?
This did not end up being an issue in this particular case, but in general, it is worth asking as it will be difficult to get staff or volunteers to learn a new system or implement a new process if they are taking on the costs (training time, frustration in troubleshooting, etc.) without seeing the benefits (i.e. it doesn’t save them any time or make things easier for people in their roles).
It is always important to remember why you were trying to do this in the first place and determine whether the benefits outweigh the costs (time, resources, etc.). Once you dig a little deeper, you may discover that the benefits don’t outweigh the costs for anyone. Sometimes the simplest answer is the best one.
Here’s how I answered some of those questions:
- We worked with the venue to make sure we would be set up in a space with internet connection and electrical outlets. I asked all the volunteers about access to laptops and Google accounts and made arrangements ahead of time for those who would not. And I sent everyone a calendar appointment to remind them to bring their laptops on the day of the event!
- I decided that we would ask volunteers to use the Find function and provide training on how to use this to find the information needed among all the other data in the spreadsheet.
- I updated the check-in process, and updated the color coding and visual formatting of the spreadsheet accordingly to call out or differentiate key information.
- For the volunteer training, I brought a couple laptops and had them go through the entire process.
- I came up with specific guidelines about the changes volunteers could make to the spreadsheet; anything beyond those would be directed to the registration manager.
- After testing, I felt comfortable that most of the volunteers would be able to learn the new process, especially since they’d all worked in similar programs like Excel before.
Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3
- I built a prototype of the spreadsheet in Google Docs using the previous year’s event information.
- I wrote up a new process.
- I drafted some of our most seasoned volunteers (who had seen the widest range of situations) to put the new process and Google Docs spreadsheet through the wringer.
- I adjusted the spreadsheet and the process.
- I tested again.
- I made the final adjustments and prepared to train the volunteers.
- After the basic event overview, I explained why we were making the change in order to answer the question of “so what?” for returning volunteers. In addition to providing more accurate and up-to-date information, I explained that the new process/system should make the process faster and easier for everyone—from staff/volunteers to guests.
- Our graphic designer (also the volunteer assigned to event registration who suggested this in the first place) created a flow chart/decision-tree to keep it simple and help volunteers visualize the new process and how to handle different situations.
- We walked through the new process verbally.
- Then it was time to practice! I created a mock registration spreadsheet in Google Docs using the information from the previous year. I scripted various scenarios and had volunteers take turns role playing to get comfortable with the technology and the process, and to get a sense of the different ways a guest might present and how to handle those.
- To make the training fun, I also took advantage of the inherent awkwardness of role playing and came up with some ridiculous scenarios involving celebrity couples and TV characters. Some people decided to show off their various accents as well…
- Some volunteers were fine with the flow chart/decision tree and the verbal walk-through. Some practiced with extra scenarios. Volunteers needed varying levels of support during the event. One volunteer tried it out that year and then asked for a different assignment in the future. Everyone learns differently and sometimes, in spite of everyone’s best attempts, not everyone is necessarily a good fit or comfortable with the new system.
Here are the front and back of the guide handed out to volunteers:
Of course, there were some last minute hiccups (a.k.a. the Murphy’s Law of events or anything tech-related)…
- We learned that the wireless internet would be shut down during the event and would need to hardwire the internet connection for each laptop.
- We talked to the venue to ensure this was possible. Then I asked everybody who was providing a laptop whether they had an Ethernet cable. And then I searched every cabinet in the office.
- A few hours before the event, I discovered that the final spreadsheet file was too large to import into Google Docs.
- After trying to reformat the file, panicking, and sheer banging my head into the same wall multiple times, I finally resorted to copying and pasting the spreadsheet in chunks (the technical term, I’m sure) of about a hundred rows at a time. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked! (Back to that point about Occam’s Razor and the simplest solution…)
- During the event, Google Docs appeared to freeze or act up for some of the volunteers.
- We discussed this during the post-event debrief and realized that certain browsers were not fully compatible and that, in the future, we would need to ensure that every laptop used for the event had a compatible browser.
- Try as many ways as you can to “break” the technology, system, or process, in field conditions, and preferably with whoever is in the field or has that experience. There will always be something unexpected, but you can probably test out most common situations and come up with contingencies.
- Don’t be afraid to tear it all down and start from scratch. Sometimes it can be easier (and less confusing) to build a comprehensive process incorporating all the new (and relevant existing) pieces than to try to shoehorn the old process into a new system or vice versa.
- The best way to learn is by doing (and prototyping). It can be a scary moment of truth, but better that you discover any kinks during training than when rolling out a new technology or system live!
- Frontline feedback is crucial! In this case, it brought about a change that was a significant improvement, and it was helpful in figuring out what worked or did not work the first time and making things easier for the next event.
- The more you empower frontline staff, the easier it will be for everyone involved. There will always be some decisions that need to be made centrally or with consideration for factors beyond what frontline staff can see, but if you’re clear about the parameters, you might be surprised at the solutions people come up with on their own.
- Sometimes the simplest solution is the best one. It can be tempting to think that just because technology can do something, that it is the best way to do something in this particular situation. For many smaller and less complex events, pen and paper is still the easiest and quickest way to handle registration.
Tools + Methods
- Process improvement
- Usability testing
- Training and documentation
- Technology rollout