Thoughts on my first AEA –CES’s Emily Ayers

Last month, I attended the American Evaluation Association (AEA) conference in Atlanta, GA. This was my first opportunity to attend this annual conference. Conferences like these can be both exhilarating and overwhelming, as you try your hardest to pack as many sessions into your day as possible.

This year’s conference theme was Evaluation + Design, a theme chosen by current AEA president, John Gargani. This got me thinking about the way design is incorporated into our everyday lives when working in evaluation. We design every day; we design evaluations, we design our reports, our data visualizations, data collection measures, etc. Design is something that is present in your everyday life whether or not you realize, and no matter what field you may work in.

Over the course of the conference, we attended a wide variety of sessions surrounding different types of design. We had an opportunity to learn from the experts on how design is incorporated into their everyday lives in evaluation. This conference expanded my mind to really think about evaluation through a different lens.

As a new evaluator, I firmly believe that design can have a large effect on the way evaluation is received. During one workshop, data viz guru Stephanie Evergreen took us through an evaluation report layout (design) checklist. As a group, the audience was tasked with assessing two very different pages from an evaluation report; one of which was obviously designed well; the other, poorly. While going through the checklist, it became apparent that the use of good design may really affect the likelihood of an evaluation report being used. While that was Stephanie Evergreen’s hypothesis (she conducted a sort of meta-analysis of evaluation reports, rated them on their level of design and then compared findings with their use), she found that good design was not associated with increased use.

Although the study didn’t show any association between good design and increased use, I feel that when you really stop to think about all the intricacies of life in which design is interwoven, good design does support use. I use an apple computer because in my opinion, the design of the operating system makes it much easier to use. I’m more likely to look at an infographic for quick points on a topic than to read a 20-page journal article. Good design makes information more accessible, that makes the information more likely to be used and that’s why it is important in Evaluation.