IndustryConf, April 2013

On the 23rd and 24th of April 2013, the first IndustryConf happened, and what an event it was. A great lineup of speakers, a great atmosphere, and despite one or two small (and not so small) hiccups, the event was a resounding, flawless success.

I’d been looking forward to IndustryConf since it was first announced, and snapped up an early bird ticket back in June last year. Originally planned to take place in September, it was decided by the organiser Gavin Elliot (of DIBI and Codeworks fame) that the conference should be postponed until the the new year — April 23rd, to be exact — to avoid any possible conflicts over the busy conference season. As worrying a decision this initially seemed, it proved to be a wise move. Judging by the attendance, the event seemed to be all but sold out. Taking the time out from what at the time was a pretty hectic schedule for me really payed off, as the diverse range of speakers made this day truly worthwhile.

The time, planning and effort that goes into any conference always blows my mind. The logistics of not only assembling a great range of speakers, but also the venue, advertising, sponsorship, catering… not to forget the pre and post-event socials, is altogether no small feat. Gavin and his team of volunteers did a great job of all of this, and should be commended on filling the sizeable CastleGate Turbine Hall — a fantastic venue which incidentally I hadn’t known existed, despite living in Newcastle for most of my life. Good catering (endless coffee, generous lunches, and a sweet shop provided by H&FJ) ensured the attendees were fed, watered and well caffeinated for the day.

Speakers

After the previous day’s two workshops — an HTML5 workshop with Chris Heillmann (replacing John Alsopp – more on that later) and a Windows 8 workshop with Andrew Spooner — the day of the conference itself brought together eight speakers from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines, each with their own story to tell about their place within the industry.

Rachel Andrew

The things we learned while supporting Perch

After a brief introduction by Gavin (you could almost see the relief on his face already, knowing that the event had finally came together), Rachel Andrew kicked off the day’s first talk. Perch is a small, lightweight CMS, aimed at fellow web designers and developers as resellers of the software. Rachel outlined the system and it’s place in the market, before presenting the many support issues faced when selling a licensed software product.

It’s a situation which I’ve seen myself several times – the lack of a practical, scalable support system can cripple a company’s ability to function, and Rachel did a fine job of not only outlining the issues a small software company can and will face, but also the methods in which to deal with such situations. Good support should be manageable by both sides, and Rachel really stressed that email just isn’t the way to offer any kind of support, before demonstrating a few of the methods they use. Backed up by a few interesting statistics, Rachel’s talk gave some real insight into the grey area of product support, and how when done well, can not only benefit the customer, but also help direct the product’s future.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rachelandrew.

Harry Roberts

“Architecting scaleable CSS”

Harry Roberts is a clever man. He’s also very tall. Given his level of skill (his Twitter username is seriously appropriate) I was surprised to find out a little more on how young he is, his career path to date, and how he works his ideals of an object-oriented, SMACCS-influenced methodology into his employment as part of a larger team.

Harry forms part of this larger team at SkyBet, but to me and many others is best known for his work on his own site CSSWizardry as well as his fantastic inuit.css framework. However, as interesting and insightful it is to hear a successful commercial front-end engineer present the ins and outs of how he works, my biggest takeaways from his talk was the value of using CSS preprocessors such as SASS on top of an object-oriented front-end approach — something I’m part-way through getting to grips with (and for the record, absolutely loving).

Harry has been one to listen to for a long time now, and his talk simple reaffirmed his place as one of the web’s most interesting voices. 22, man… I’ve got ten years on this lad, and I can’t don’t even come close to his level of skill and competence. Bravo!

Follow Harry on Twitter: @csswizardry.

Christopher Murphy

We are navigators

Christopher Murphy forms one part of The Standardistas duo, and having not long finished their “Craft of Words” pocket book from Five Simple Steps, could not be more excited for this talk. The Standardistas have long since been an influence on standards-based web design, as evidenced in their 2008 book, and although known as a team, the prospect of seeing Christopher on his own was intriguing.

Kicking off with a five-minute excerpt from the movie Dead Poets Society (trailer), from the outset it was apparent that Christopher’s session would be a little different to the others. After spending a little time myself as a part-time lecturer at Newcastle College, his talk resonated with me in a way that highlighted my own issues with the methods of teaching, particularly in the realms of design and something we once termed “new media”.

The Dead Poets Society clip was used to highlight the way in which traditional teaching methods (the “teacher” is termed Sir and nothing else, and the subject matter is instilled almost mechanically to the students) can be disrupted effectively in such a way as to bring out the best in the students; that alternative, unconventional teaching methods can prove to be immeasurably more effective than the traditional classroom methods employed today.

By recollecting his own “master and apprentice” education, Christopher highlighted the importance of tailoring the teaching method to not only the student(s), but also the subject matter. It’s been apparent to me, after working with students of varying backgrounds, abilities and personalities, that the dynamic of teaching needs to be far more accommodating in order to be truly effective; education is not simply about ticking boxes and gaining the next round of funding. We work in this way in our trade — certain clients are more receptive to certain approaches — so why not in education? Christopher’s own experience of the Master & Apprentice method of learning was obviously successful This talk was thought provoking, emotional, and quite profound. When the videos of this day become available, you should watch this talk, seriously. Christopher is a friendly, knowledgable and generous guy, so evident in this talk.

After enjoying this, and The Standardistas’ other presentations, I’m eagerly awaiting the second instalment of their Five Simple Steps series, “The Craft of Words: Microcopy”.

Follow Christopher on Twitter: @fehler.

Ashley Baxter

Changing a stagnant industry

Neither designer nor developer, Ashley Baxter runs a small insurance company called Brokers Direct. Ashley has however, embraced technology in such a way (learning Ruby, HTML, CSS etc.) to improve her business. It’s hard to believe that this was Ashley’s first time speaking at a conference like this – her passion, storytelling style and stage presence made this an absorbing talk indeed.

As Christopher Murphy did with his talk of disrupting traditional educational practices, Ashley made a point of outlining how the insurance industry, and particularly the online aspects of these businesses are fundamentally flawed. While Christopher focussed on mindsets, Ashley targeted technology; in particular the outdated and archaic software used to power the commonplace online quote systems that so many insurers use. Ashley gave a little insight into her new app, Lodger which demonstrated perfectly how she aims to shake up property management, with the help of smart, friendly software.

The general message behind Ashley’s talk was that instead of making do with these outdated systems — standard as they may be — we as designers, developers and creators have the tools and competence to build upon and make these things better. It was also evident that customers aren’t always simply looking for the lowest price possible, and that a greater emphasis on user experience, or straightforward friendliness can go a long, long way.

Follow Ashley on Twitter: @iamashley.

Noah Stokes

$50,000 mistakes

Noah recounted his steps as a design professional, from working at Apple, to Palm (“… Palm is the place where ex-Apple employees go to die”), through to the various iterations of his own design studio. Amusing yet often quite serious, Noah is as knowledgable in his trade as a designer as much as he is as running a successful business, and his talk really reflected the passion in what he does. An interesting story, peppered with mistakes made and lessons learnt.

I’m sure the points raised by Noah resonated with the many business owners in the audience. Taking on (and letting go of) staff, scaling a business, and perhaps most importantly of all, doing the work you want to do, in order to get more of the work you want to do. It sounds pretty obvious, but if you’re working in a specific field or style, then that’s what people will know you for. And if this form of work isn’t what you’re looking for, then it’s time to step back and focus your attention to where you want to be.

Noah’s spoke of how hard work and determination can really pay off, and by not giving up on your goals, then good things will surely come.

Follow Noah on Twitter: @motherfuton.

Rasika Krishna

Cross cultural UX

After flying in from Singapore and making the trek up to Newcastle, Rasika must have been exhausted before taking to the stage. It didn’t show however, as she gave a great insight on the cross-cultural issues surrounding User Experience in web design. Issues raised included the meaning of colour in different cultures, dealing with multiple-language websites, the appropriate use of iconography and many other areas of online communication.

Having such a multi-cultural background herself, and having studied sociology and psychology in relation to communication and the arts, Rasika is very well informed the many considerations of designing and building for truly global audience. What might seem a harmless design decision in one culture, may for example have a radically different meaning in another. Designers are generally well-versed in colour theory, but expanding this knowledge to an understanding of the cross-cultural impact of the use of colour and symbolism opens up a whole new world of design concerns.

Rasika spent some time dissecting the now-commonplace “hamburger menu icon” — those three stacked lines used to denote some form of navigation, used in the likes Facebook’s mobile app. While this is an appropriate description of this symbol, this term highlights the difference in communication between a designer and the user, and that designers often have to adapt the language used when discussing design, according to the audience. When discussing navigation patterns such as this with our peers, we have the luxury of a “common language”, which allows us to talk about elements such as this in a way that we as designers understand. But outside of our bubble, we have to use terms that allow for level discussion with people who may not be as adept in the language of design, and particularly interaction or interface design. Personally, I think the name “hamburger icon” is ridiculous, but it certainly is appropriate.

Follow Rasika on Twitter: @ras1ka.

Josh Brewer

Redesigning Twitter

Holding probably the most “glamourous” position of the day, Josh Brewer is Principal Designer at Twitter, and gave a great insight into the inner workings of a modern day web phenomenon. A very polished and professional talk, Josh depicted the many challenges the Twitter Design Team faced when developing for and unifying the cross-platform experience that is Twitter. From a disparate group of independent, often remote working designers to a single unified Design Team, Josh brought together many minds and talents at Twitter to form a single internal studio with a shared vision for the future of the application.

Highlighting the importance of working as a team towards a single goal, Josh showed how “new new Twitter” came about, the problems the team set out to address, and the manner in which these problems were solved — or more importantly, how these problems were almost solved.

The practice of gathering design feedback is embraced by the Twitter team in a very old-school manner. Ideas, comps and concepts are printed out, large scale, for scribbling on, scrawling over, to gather as much relevant feedback as possible from not only the team itself, but colleagues from outside the studio, and even people from outside the company. But it’s not the method of how the feedback is gathered, it’s the quality, and speed at which it is collated. Josh noted quite rightly that there’s something tangible in a printout of a screenshot that brings it into the real world, and opens it up for a more immediate, informal form of analysis.

There are countless agencies, designers, freelancers and developers out there all touting their own tried and tested workflow, all singing the praises of this piece of software over that, or this methodology over the other. One of Josh’s tasks was to unify the very tools the team was using, enabling members to pick up and edit each others work easily. A version control system for design assets and comps was established, and the team would work in PhotoShop alone, allowed a much more streamlined workflow that encouraged a more collaborative, agile way of working.

Follow Josh on Twitter: @jbrewer.

Jeremy Keith

What we talk about when we talk about the web

Stepping in for John Allsop last minute, Jeremy Keith provided his talk using the same title, although with an undoubtedly different spin. “What we talk about when we talk about the web” served as a reminder of what the web actually is, how it works, how we interact with it and how it came to be what it is today. Keith is a great knowledgeable speaker, and as much as a shame as it was to not have John Allsop present, Keith was more than a worthy replacement.

Jeremy broke the web down into the various components and basic protocols upon which it is built. His “the web is agreement” statement really hit home, reinforcing the idea that the passing of information, requests, and interactions on the web are all two-way exchanges: as a user, or visitor, I request something from a site, which then in turn responds, choosing to either fulfil my request, or deny it. It’s this most basic interaction that forms the very core of the web.

Jeremy also spoke in depth about the enforced boundaries that we as designers constantly seek, and how this is inherently damaging for the web. Referencing John Allsop’s own A Dao of Web Design”, Jeremy urged us to remember what the web really is, and how at some point we lost our way by enforcing constraints in order to simplify our approach to the work we do. Web design has long been seen as an extension of print design; terms such as web “pages”, designing to fixed dimensions and assumed situations are all traits of print design which simply do not translate well to a medium which is fundamentally fluid. In this current age of responsive web design, where we are understanding vastness of the browser landscape, the message is that we need to step back and look at what the web was in it’s infancy – a completely accessible, inherently fluid medium, unconstrained by physical dimensions, or even screen resolutions.

A great talk, definitely some food for thought, and one which rounded off the day perfectly.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @adactio.

Same again next year?

Gavin and his team deserve a massive congratulations for the work they put in on and leading up to the day. The speakers surpassed my expectations, the venue and catering were great, and the chance to have a natter with some like-minded individuals from far and wide was indispensable. Here’s hoping we can expect the same next year.