Webstock 2010 – Friday

Wow, the second day of Webstock and I’m really needing the free coffee. There’s some really interesting stuff on today.

Speaker (?) on the stage at webstockI hadn’t expected to get much out of Eric Ries’ session on the Lean Startup but there were a couple of things that were really useful. Like everyone else he emphasised the ‘release early and often’ model of continuous deployment – he said that you should measure progress by “validated learning about customers”. That means that you make a change and then closely analyse your customers’ response to that change and the ways they are using your site. Then use that data to direct your next changes (or revert if you really stuffed up). Another tit-bit was the 5 Whys – when something goes wrong ask why five times to get five levels of problems, then fix all the causes not just the immediate one. His blog is startuplessonslearned.com.

Amy Hoy’s session was more a call to action. She pointed out that we affect the “quality of the day” for thousands of people and a single hour of our time refining a design can save many hours of other people’s time. We should read 5 times more about psychology than design. Amy also challenged the design community not to just design the same things in the same way every time but to try something entirely different.

Seb Chan‘s session was as good as I had expected and was basically about collecting and parsing the visitor data available through Google Analytics and a handful of other products. We are currently using Google Analytics on our site as well as Web Trends but are not yet using that data in any consistent or strategic way except that I have been using browser stats for some time to decide to what extent we support older browsers. One of the most interesting tid-bits was the Tynt copy and paste tool which can tell you not just what pages people are using but which exact bits of text people are copying for use in school projects etc. Interestingly all the speakers who were talking about continuous improvement and rapid iteration depend on data to see what people are actually doing with their products so doing this kind of analysis is pretty important.

Adam Greenfield‘s session on networked urbanism was the kind of thing that seems to give some people the willies – but I think that its really exciting. He talked about:

  • instrumenting the city… the continuous collection and parsing of data: by the end of 2012 environmental sensor will account for at least 20% of non-video internet traffic.
  • Everything we do is annotated and uploaded. “Information persists and grows teeth”… “You’ll never escape yourself” (referring to embarrassing photos on facebook) but hopefully we’ll get a bit less uptight about such things.
  • We’ll move from passive consumer to active participant as every product will have data. He used the example of the Nike plus running shoes that log your physical activity which can be uploaded – running became a performance but not as enjoyable.
  • Obvious issues around access to this information – currently only government has access to much of the data that we are creating. This and other legal issues were the source of many questions from the floor.

Jeffrey Veen is one of the big names on the internet and his talk seemed to harken back to last year’s webstock where many speakers started with pre-Internet history, in this case refrigeration. He was talking about how the internet got started, how standards etc get made which was pretty much getting a rough consensus and then running code = doing experiments in public. He said that the “speed of iteration beats the quality of the iteration” and introduced us to the robustness principle “be liberal with what you accept and conservative with what you produce” i.e. tolerant of others’ error.

Springload wallThe final speaker this year was Mark Pesce. During his visit to NZ Mark has been interview by Kim Hill and the NZ Herald. In his webstock talk he talked a bit about the future of the book as well as the networked world that Adam Greenfield was also talking about. Mark has a blog at blog.futurestreetconsulting.com and you can read the full text of his Dense & Thick presentation there. Again its a future that scares a lot of people but I think that they get over-focused on the negative possibilities and fail to see the value of having information themselves.

Every organisation that you interact with from the hospital that you are born in to the crematorium keeps information about you, but you have no control over that information. Getting copies of that info is an arduous process and actually getting it into a usable/portable format even more so. Read what Mark says in Example Three:  Medicine. I recently got a referral from my Doctor and in the medical history bit said on it “father died from lung psoriasis” !! what, no, that should read lung cancer… how long has that been wrongly recorded and with whom has it been shared? Surely I should control who sees how much of my medical history.
So I am looking forward to a “crescendo of innovations that will make the Web revolution look puny in comparison” because I want to be able to interact with my stuff.

Want to get a taste of Webstock? See the past conference sessions (workshops are not recorded). Webstock’s photos on Flickr.

Webstock 2010 – Thursday

Its ALL ON – first conference day is a mad rush to grab tables, expresso, ice cream and get to the right room for the split periods. Your head spins all day and by midday feels like its actually swelling to process all the ideas and possibilities. Because Webstock is a conference about possibilities. Sure there are practical ideas, tips and techniques you can take home and use tomorrow. And that’s great. But what keeps me hyped about my work for six months afterwards, and six months before, is the promise of better tomorrows, whether it’s pot-plants that tweet you when they need watering (check the connected tree) or entirely new ways of imagining data.

The first speaker was Barack Obama’s lead web designer Scott Thomas @simplescott. This was a very interesting session and really very different from most of the others. It was fascinating to hear about the various brands that they created and how they used them in different ways to alter people’s perceptions of the candidate and to get them involved in the campaign. Consistency of design was an important feature, and he also said that designing becomes real easy when you do the research. Actually doing research was a repeating theme at webstock this year and one I’m really keen to follow up on, as was simplification.

Lachlan Hardy’s session was a stand out. He was talking about big concepts of the open web and as he pointed out philosophy is hard so I’m not going to go into it much here. The gist was that more and more technologies are becoming inter-connected allowing us to take our various profiles and freely share them between different services. In order to do this we need to be designing with openness in mind, using open formats and technologies. Several other speakers came back to this, notably Jeffrey Veen on Friday.

Party at the museumShelley Bernstein from the Brooklyn Museum discussed how they had used the web to connect with their community and more importantly allowed their community to connect with them. Its always interesting to hear from similar cultural institutions such as museums, archives and art galleries. There was so much gold in this talk that it will be worth re-watching once the video is posted but for now here are some points I wrote down:

  • give up control: let people take photos of the art and have a pool on Flickr – allowed them to see how people interact with the pieces, created a game around tagging and allowed the community to moderate the 3% of anonymous taggers from which most problem tags came,
  • ask & listen,
  • infuse content with life: the personal voice makes a difference – tweeters & bloggers were able to take their audience with them on their journeys,
  • adapt and learn,
  • contribute to the communities that you are in – don’t just be present.

Jeff Atwood talked mostly about stackoverflow, a collaboratively edited question and answer site for programmers. Its quite a unique community and they have some really interesting ways of engaging that community. Users gain reputation by having their comments voted up and reputation gets you more  control, so users with the highest reputation can delete posts etc: ‘revolutionary trust’.

The last session was with spoken word artist / poet Rives – which I will sum up as “weird things happen on the web”. Check out his website shopliftwindchimes.com to find out more.

Want to get a taste of Webstock? See the past conference sessions (workshops are not recorded).

Webstock 2010 – Interaction design Wednesday

Most of what I do these days is what gets called front-end development so the sessions on Wednesday that I am doing are both about user interfaces. The first one is “Creating Simple: Techniques for simplifying your UI and your CSS/HTML” with Daniel Burka. The description says that “This workshop will examine and explain techniques that make complex interactions feel simpler and how to make your web applications more intuitive at the same time.” Making things simple, intuitive and usable is the holy grail of web development. Generally we’re trying to help our customers do more and more complex tasks online while making them appear simple.

Daniel used a lot of examples to get his point across and the first half or so was quite lecturey but I still thought that it was pretty good. He dropped some gems on us: “either invest the time to make it a great feature or kill it”, “validate the idea first, then follow your users”. There was a lot of ideas like focus on the one or two key features and make those work really really well. Then look to see how your users using your site/app and look for ways that you can make it easier for them or enhance what they are already trying to do with it: pave the cow paths.

I also liked his points about showing, not telling. He used a game analogy… where some games expect you to go through a tedious tutorial before play, a better way is to give you simple quests to go on that both ‘educate’ and involve you in the game at the same time. He is working on an online game called glitch.

Finally in the last half hour we got down to some practical stuff and he showed us how he uses logic (PHP) in his CSS files to simplify writing and maintaining complex CSS and some cool stuff with CSS3 that we can start using now. Things which will enhance our sites for users with modern browsers and won’t interfere with other users. Daniels website is deltatangobravo.com.

Actually I began feeling very sick at lunch so didn’t make it to the second session on Wednesday. “Inclusive Design: Accessible User Experiences on the Web” with Lisa Herrod.  I’ve done many accessibility sessions at Webstock over the last few years and they have all been very enlightening. A couple of years ago we covered the new W3C accessibility guidelines which have been somewhat contentious. I find that a lot of people talk about accessibility but don’t really know what the issues are. One of the most interesting sessions on accessibility was Darren Fittler’s in 2006.

Want to get a taste of Webstock? See the past conference sessions (workshops are not recorded).

Webstock 2010 – jQuery Tuesday

This is actually Webstock day two but I didn’t do any workshops yesterday – my first Webstock workshop this year is John Resig’s Introduction to jQuery. This is probably the workshop that I’m looking forward to the most because late last year we decided that we were going to start using jQuery for interaction on our websites. JQuery is a javascript library – a way of writing javascript using pre-packaged commands and methods. Basically it takes writing javascript another step away from programming, which is great for my non-programming brain. It seems that I can handle html and css but scripting quickly gets away from me.

Another great thing about the jQuery javascript library is that it handles all the cross-browser compatibility issues so you don’t have to write script in two ways to account for the different ways that web browsers work, especially (as usual) Internet Explorer. Another advantage is that jQuery is used very widely and there are thousands of tutorials and plug-ins (pre-written code that you can just drop into a page to do a specific task) available.

In typical Webstock go-to-the-top manner the Webstock team has managed to get THE jQuery guy to take this workshop. John Resig is the creator of jQuery and its chief developer.

The bag, the T and other schwagThis session was everything that I had hoped it would be. I was really glad to have done a bit of jQuery already and I think was probably at just the right spot for it – knowing enough to keep up, but still getting heaps out of it. I’m really excited about the possibilities for enhancing the usability of our web sites, especially in terms of navigation and form design. So today’s session was great for the How, tomorrow is more about the What with an am session on UI (User Interaction) design and a PM one on Accessibility.

Want to get a taste of Webstock? See the past conference sessions (workshops are not recorded).

TWiT 144 – orphan works, copyright and library book scanning

If you’ve been awake for the last few years you should be aware that Google, and now Microsoft, have been engaging with selected libraries to scan and OCR library books en masse. This week’s This Week in Tech podcast has a fascinating discussion with Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive about these projects and the future of libraries and the web in general. I thoroughly recommend having a listen if you have time. It occupies the first half hour of the podcast.

If you’re interested in podcasting (and CCL is tentatively beginning to go in that direction) This Week in Tech is a great one to start with – its certainly one of the major technology podcasts, comes out weekly and is generally pretty engaging. It does tend to be quite long – usually well over an hour – this could be a plus or a minus depending on your perspective. We’ll be launching a podcasting page real soon, keep an eye on what’s new on the website.