Thursday, 25 April 2013

IndustryConf

So, I like conferences. Web conferences that is. Yesterday saw IndustryConf come and go with a more civil and respectful audience than you'd normally find, and more accents that you can shake a stick at. Perhaps the two are linked.

My first web conference was @Media in London, organised by the "Web Directions" team, so it was disappointing that John Allsopp was unable to make it for personal reasons, especially since...as Jeremy Keith said in his last talk of the day...John's "A Dao of webdesign" is perhaps more relevant today than it was when it was written 13 years ago.

At the time of that conference I was very much a "newbie" in the web world, and felt like I knew some stuff but needed to know more. The way I go in to conferences these days is a much more self-affirming affair, and IndustryConf was no different. I say self-affirming since I believe that web developers and designers are generally self-critical people, it's like a form of constructive professional depression.


Different people take different things from these events, the beauty is that talks by those like Harry Roberts (not the cop killer) can reach multiple levels of experience. Beginners will no doubt be walking away from hearing his talk thinking more closely about how they go about thinking about structure and reuse in their code, intermediates will no doubt be kicking themselves up the backside to stop doing things the "quick and fast way", and those more experienced (I humbly put myself in this category) go away with that confidence that, actually, we're on the right track...our peers are thinking the same way.

Indeed IndustryConf was perfect for me from a personal and professional perspective. As the lead developer/technical consultant at a marketing agency I am constantly fighting to inject better workflow and processes wherever possible, and it is a fight. There are always legitimate (even if disagreeable) arguments for abandoning process, for taking short cuts. Ultimately, when you are not the final decision maker, trying to evolve the company you work for is a "fight" and that wears you down. These conferences (although other smaller talks, meet ups and discussions online also do the trick to some degree) hit the recharge button.

Listening to Rachel Andrew was a great reaffirmation of the need to plan early, and to really consider the "after-care" for your project. Results matter, and if you're not measuring how your project is working...in Rachel's case through the customer support her company provides...then how can you be sure you're doing things right?

On the flip-side you had Rasika Krishna, a champion for delivering a talk after a 'round the world flight with no sleep I must add, who really hammered home the realities of doing UX properly. In Rasika's case there is a very definite need, the communication with different audiences around the world means that "common sense" has to be the first casualty in the fight for a usable website.

These are two areas that we currently fail at, by and large. Small agencies tend not to invest the resources to keep an eye on projects that have shipped unless the client is paying specifically for it to be done, and the "client is always right" attitude makes challenging bad decision making hard.

For example: I had an experience with a client a while back where there were design decisions made for accessibility. I have an intense dislike for webpages that presume to know what you want to do when you do something more than you do yourself. I hate it, for example, that Twitter disables the middle click on certain links to enforce it's own behaviour on screen. I'll get on to Twitter some more later though, I digress...

The client looked at the site, they'd not been communicated to properly about how and why we were doing things so it felt right to step in and justify what decisions had been made and to get feedback on them from that basis. Once justified a lot of the "problems" went away, but one key one remained...

I think it's going to be better for our users if the links open up in a new window, so that they don't lose their place on the site


The problem, of course, wasn't that the client asked for this. I'm used to being asked for this, and I'm used to giving the usual answer, which is that people know how to use their own browser, usability studies suggest the back button is one of the most recognised navigation methods across all user groups, and they can open their own new tab/window if they want. I could have got stats on this out to show formally, but when the response was...

I understand what you're saying, and what you're saying about the studies...but I feel as a user that it is more helpful to open links in a new window

One of the biggest challenges we face is how to manage the stakeholders in projects on these kinds of issues, and Rasika was entirely right in saying that the option is not to accept that opinion blindly, nor to just stand against it...the question is why they hold that opinion. In this example the reality was that the client feared people navigating off of the website and never coming back...the difficulty with that is the only way to convince them otherwise was yet more stats and studies, clearly something they weren't responsive to. We lost this particular battle; however the outcome is a renewed enthusiasm for getting clarity from our clients, to not ask "What don't you like" but "why don't you like".

As an aside, I want to just highlight this article which talks about some of these UX challenges, and manages to somehow weave Jim Carrey in to it too!

Noah Stokes and Ashley Baxter were both inspirational speakers on the day, it surprised me to learn Ashley hadn't given a talk before this, they speak much more to the personal and the "human"; about what more we can be if we just have faith and take some risks. It is sad that the reality is that for most of us, a week after these talks, we'll have been bogged down in the daily grind and grow more resentful of the people we wish we were thanks to eyes opened by such talks.

The two most interesting talks, for different reasons, were those of (a disappointingly less beardy than his profile picture) Christopher Murphy and Twitter's Josh Brewer.

First, Christopher's talk. Mentoring, and the issue of "Master and apprentice" styles of teaching are very much a regular thought of mine. For me it makes little sense that Web Design or Web Development is a purely academic course, and that taking university organised placement years as part of it isn't a universal given. I feel that those who take "real world" placements achieve more in their year out than they do in the whole time that they're at university.

This isn't to say university is useless, there are theories and basic practices and models that they are best placed to teach, with the time that goes with that educational system to truly explore those issues. However sometimes you need to just get people working on code, or designs, and lots of it.

I've personally mentored, with varying levels of success (Christopher said no-one told him how to be a teacher, the same goes for being a mentor...I kind of just fell in to it out of a sense of wider social duty), 3 students in placement years. I hope to do more of the same in the future. If there is anything that I'll be proud of looking back at my career when I'm old it will likely not be the website that exists in a specific place and time, but the number of people I hope to help on their own journeys.

But the path to helping isn't that easy, and it feels so small. Like washing the graffiti off of your own garden wall, it doesn't clean up the entire neigbourhood. Institutions are slow to react; so far any query that I've made to discuss how we, as a business, can help provide real-world skills for students kind of falls on deaf ears. I hope that it is more for Christophers admission that getting what is "allowed" changed on paper is difficult, but what it means is that there is no formal route for businesses in this area to truly help the next generation of designers and developers.

I'm left pondering, working out if there are voluntary "after work" ways that something could be made to work, I'm especially interested in instilling the idea of shared understanding, where developers, designers, and even project managers, work together for the life of a project with each taking different primary roles as and when it's needed. I'll have to think through it more...

Again, I digress!

The other talk mentioned above was Josh's. Now, I'm no fan of some of Twitter's recent design decisions, and I hate their policies that continue to restrict and kill off the very people/applications that helped make Twitter what it is. I am particularly annoyed that with all of the above in mind, they can't get their UX right!


Where's the navigation on this page, Twitter?!


So with this in mind I listened to Josh with interest as he talked through the design process for #NewNewTwitter, even if I had to grimace through every mention and screengrab of Tweetdeck (R.I.P). I'm glad that this talk was given, as I feel that I can get past my grieving to some degree. Regardless of what I'm about to say and how it may be taken, I also want to be clear that Josh is an extremely engaging speaker and well worth listening to.

Before Josh's talk I didn't know why Twitter was making seemingly poor decisions, perhaps because of a corporate "evil" if I was feeling cynical, after the talk it was clear that Twitter is just the same as every other company making websites out there. Twitter make decisions on their direction, their aims...unfortunately in this case it has a detrimental effect on the likes of Tweetdeck, they also make mistakes as "someone" scrapped the agreed timeline for delivery of the project that caused a host of compromises and half-built impossibilities.

I still don't agree with their choices, but at least I can now respect the decisions made as I understand them. For example I still won't agree that a ubiquitous look for every tweet across all platforms is what is necessary, people owned Tweetdeck because it wasn't twitter, to make the assumption that twitter knows better than it's own users what they want their experience to be is that kind of arrogance I talked about above that I dislike so much. Indeed their decision making process has been one to reduce and simplify for their "core users" that are seemingly devoid of the ability to learn how to use the system.

I should be clear, I think simplifying the interface was a good idea, I just don't understand why removing completely the "power" features or platforms was necessary. If "power" users loved the slide-out drawer that let them skim their timeline whilst also having a single tweet discussion in focus, then why not allow users the option of using it this way? There are business issues that constrain the answer, and I'm not unrealistic on the situation it could cause on maintainability...but in general this attitude that a simpler UI/design/experience without any way to access shortcuts or "power" features is the best option really makes no sense to me.

Love them or hate them, Microsoft have proven over the years with software like Word that you can make something that is absolutely accessible to even the newest computer user, but has layers and layers of complexity that you can use to make your job faster as you get to know your tool. I'd rather we didn't live on a web that decided it's "easier" to just cater for beginners.

If we talk about a responsive web we largely talk about the viewport size; yet we are starting to understand we are also talking about capabilities, about battery life, network connection. What we also need to understand is that if we're being 100% responsive we should be responsive to the user's ability too.

We can't measure this, we can't media query how long a person has been using the web, or our software, but we can respect that people...as with all matter in the universe...try to find the quickest and least resistant route to their intended goal, and that a well designed system can give people the choice towards an experience that gives them that performance. Your core functions must always be intuitive and weigh little in terms of cognitive load, obviously, but this doesn't mean that there is no room for enhancement, right?

Of course, talking about responsive design, Jeremy Keith stepped in for John Allsopp and gave a great (if not familiar given my recent attendance at Responsive Day Out) rant about the realities and simplicities of what the web "is". It's always fun to listen to Jeremy on this subject, and hopefully some of those in the audience that may have still been dubious about the universal appeal of responsive web design have gone away a little converted. If at least no-one left that room thinking that developing a mobile only site is the right way forward then the world will be a little better from today ;)