The Conference Platform We Use For Our Online Events: Hopin

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Amanda Annandale is an event producer who comes from a background in NYC theater and production. When not producing events or stage managing theater, you can … More about Amanda ↬

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At the beginning of 2020, the SmashingConf team was ready for a new year. We had so many things that excited us. New speakers, new workshops, new cities, new attendees, new experiences. And as we all know, 2020 had other ideas. With so many people working from home, we thought we would bring our Smashing workshops from our home offices to yours — but how?

When the Smashing team first heard of COVID-19, we didn’t know what to think. On a Monday, we began making alterations to our event, adding space, cleaning stations, rules, etc. But that Friday we knew this would change the scope of our year.

From there, began new discussions throughout Smashing. What is the heart of “SmashingConf?” We didn’t want to just publish talks. Smashing is about togetherness, community, and learning from one another — through struggles, failures, and achievements. How would we communicate that while each of us joined from around the globe?

This discussion continued as we looked into the many concepts and abilities coming from each platform. With so many options, what factors were most important? It was then we were pointed to a new platform, Hopin.

With so many conferences around the world being canceled, the Smashing team went on a quest to find a platform that would enable the fun and interactivity of an in-person SmashingConf. We wanted to have sidetracks, games, places to ask questions of our speakers, all along with main stage content. Hopin felt just right.

Why Hopin?

From there, a few months of trial, experimenting, and playing brought us together. Hopin’s Session Rooms gave us a way to bring intimacy to our Q&A sessions. Attendees are able to share their video and audio, ask questions, and have a full conversation with the speakers. But, we have taken that further. Some of the speakers were kind enough to hold audit sessions for us. Here people could share their audio, video, and screen, and get instant feedback on their website — useful information ranging from accessibility, performance, and design.

Vitaly Friedman and Sara Soueidan lead a warm up discussion, a continuation of “The Pizza Show,” during the first day of SmashingConf San Francisco Online 2020. (Large preview)

And it wouldn’t be SmashingConf without one of our Smashing parties. Our dearest colleagues, Charis and Jarijn, donned some virtual costumes and hosted a quiz show to end all quiz shows. Attendees either joined on screen or just in the chat, and competed for a range of prizes. From questions to dance parties, there was a feeling of togetherness from those sessions.

No SmashingConf would be complete without DJ Tobi playing his incredible tunes, and adding his speaker mixes to the stage! (Large preview)

Now, I don’t know about you, but one of the best aspects of going to a conference is the people you meet throughout the week. And in person, there are so many ways to do that. From taking a workshop together to just standing in line behind someone for a coffee.

In Hopin, a feature we’re still trying to embrace as much as deserved is “Networking”. Here, you decide when you’re “ready” and the platform pairs you with another person to chat for 3 minutes. Sounds daunting? What if there’s a challenge? Smashing is all about the challenges, and at our Holiday Meets event, the attendees had a set of Bingo cards, and had to chat to other attendees to solve the clues!

Hopin’s Sessions, allows you to bring people together, like Henri Helvetica, Yiying Lu, and Vitaly Friedman, for a more dynamic Q&A. Here, you can also invite guests to come onscreen and ask their questions live, and participate in the conversation. (Large preview)

But of course, some people would prefer not to share their video — and that’s totally fine, of course. But we did have a bit of a challenge there. While Hopin offers multiple chat options (including a DM feature that you can enable or disable), we wanted to share photos and emoji. Here we brought in a new Slack channel (yes, another one). As Hopin progresses, they are aiming to bring their own emoji deck, but we’ve been able to use Get Emoji to copy and paste in, as well as the native Mac emoji keyboard to add reactions, bringing a more varied set of reactions.

As our community is the most important factor, our biggest concern was accessibility. From what we’ve learned in conversations with the Hopin crew, they have had accessibility at the forefront of their minds since the beginning. However, these things take time to get right. While we were concerned about a new platform, we also knew that we had to go with a company that was willing to put the time and energy into it.

Just because we’ve moved online, doesn’t mean the SmashingTeam isn’t prepared with some awesome party ideas. (Large preview)

While Hopin now has full keyboard integration and we have great reports of how it works with a screen reader, the missing ingredient has been captioning. The community has been told repeatedly closed captioning is coming, and the team has confirmed it’s currently in development. In the meantime, it is possible to integrate captions to the mainstage if using the RTMP streaming function, but the rest is still a little bit off.

While we wait for more integration, Smashing has been thrilled to partner with two wonderful companies to help us with our captioning needs:

  • White Coat Captioning
    This tool uses a human transcriber, live, who inputs the text to StreamText, a platform that lets your audience read a live transcript in a separate window, removing the need to integrate captions. For those interested, this is a more expensive option, but you pay for human accuracy.
  • Thisten
    An AI program that also uses a remote transcribing program. This also allows your audience to follow along, as well as an option to let selected users or team members edit words, allowing the AI to learn as it goes. While this is a much more cost-friendly option, it is an AI program and still learning.

Now when it comes to broadcasting, Hopin caught our eye early on. With a dedicated backstage, you are given the option to stream from the platform — no other pieces of technology necessary. But, if you are more technically minded, there’s a streamless RTMP feature that allows you to use programs like Open Broadcaster Software to create and integrate multiple screens, captioning, and so on.

In the beginning, the streaming quality from Hopin did leave a bit to be desired. As the program is not app-based and only in the browser, it works best only on Chrome or Firefox. In addition, the bandwidth that’s needed (paired with the CPU it can take), made it a bit restrictive.

However, this year, Hopin held its 2021 Kickoff with some exciting updates. At the end of 2020, a dynamic streaming platform called StreamYard has joined the Hopin family. StreamYard is a favorite amongst Twitch streamers and event producers alike. With enhanced production qualities, there are ways to incorporate titles, lower thirds, enhancements, questions from the audiences, and other labels. This also allows for more personalization, as well as more locations to stream.

Note: Hopin has prepared a guide on how to host a virtual event in 2021 — I recommend checking it out.

Behind the scenes at SmashingConf, each team member has their own ideal setup. But, no matter where they are based, from the UK to Hong Kong back to Germany, all of us love our multiple screens! (Large preview)

Another addition that we’re thrilled about is the integration of Miro. If you haven’t used it before, Miro is a remote whiteboard app that lets users create ideas together. Vitaly Friedman first brought it to our attention as we were developing new ways to engage people in online events and workshops. From here, he developed a set of challenges and competitions where teams of attendees could create and storyboard their new ideas of design and code together. Now, Hopin has brought the ability to integrate this within Hopin. No need to exit and work in multiple places. Plus, as there is a free option for Miro, there is no added cost — just added benefit.

But most excitingly, Hopin announced their app for hybrid events. The in-person attendees will be able to join their fellow attendees online and join in on the conversation. Vendors will be able to present in person, but also talk to those who are online whilst widening their reach. If an attendee needed to miss part of a talk, or head outside, a live stream would still be available. If an attendee’s company is headed in person, but personal reasons restrict their travel, they can still join in with the company from the comfort of their own home, and not miss a beat of the discussion.

What’s Next For Smashing Events?

As we are all hoping to get back to what life was like before (especially in terms of in-person events), there are many reasons some will be reluctant or restricted from traveling in the future. And we must say, there are some great benefits to online events. Our team has been able to study and learn remotely and enhance their abilities. Smashing has been able to bring forth their own workshops, bringing the experts to your home office, And most importantly, we have met some wonderful people this year who would not have been able to travel previously. While Smashing can’t wait to get back to in-person events, hybrid may be the future.

Remote, live, interactive and practical. That’s Smashing Workshops.

If you’re like us and can’t wait to jump into our next Hopin event, be sure to see what our Membership team has to offer! With links to all videos of our previous events — including our Smashing Meets series — you’ll experience Hopin’s great platform and all of the Smashing content you can handle!

Off Hopin, we’re thrilled to continue to connect with you and continually find ways to learn together. If you haven’t already, take a moment to see what online workshops Smashing has to offer. All the energy and education of our in-person sessions, split up over a few days, giving you time to digest and explore.

Have to miss a session? No problem! Videos are available as soon as possible after the workshop — with many being uploaded the next day! Worried about joining on Zoom? We have a moderator in each session to help with any technical issues, so no one is left behind, and no class comes to a halt because of a connection issue. There are sessions for every discipline available — with more being added every day.

Smashing Editorial (vf, il)