There has been a huge amount of creative activity in Leeds this last week. The LSx09 Leeds Web Festival, curated by local technology/design advocate Imran Ali was underway and I managed to get myself to a couple of events. This one was undoubtedly my most anticipated.
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Bagging Carsonified's Future of Web Apps tour was quite a coup for Leeds, and I was very excited at the prospect of hearing some notable industry figures pointing towards uncharted territory.
This expectation was initially dampened in the three morning sessions, which essentially comprised three sales pitches, from different companies offering their approaches to cloud computing solutions (Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and Salesforce). All three sessions were geared towards the technically-minded, and I'm sure I'm not the only one whose attention drifted towards their laptop. From talking with others afterwards, even those who understood every word felt a little short-changed by the use of the morning session.
"Knowing Your Audience" - Simon Collison
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Still, the afternoon was the 'paid-for' part of the event, and things kicked off well with a very engaging presentation from Simon Collison of Erskine Design. The basis of his talk was to take the audience through a project Erskine undertook a couple of years ago, which was an unmitigated disaster. This was an entertaining approach to a cautionary tale of letting the client dictate and pre-empt the customer experience of a service while avoiding customer research. This was a valuable warning to attendees that "if you build it, they won't necessarily come".
Simon then took us through Erskine's ideal project approach which, like all agencies worth their salt, isn't set in stone. Essentially a fluid combination of research, collaborative brainstorming, agile development and prototyping, this probably gave much food for thought to those in attendance who are either bedroom coders, furiously plugging away at their pet project, or people from large organisations, mostly accustomed to the 'waterfall' project approach. As someone already taking this kind of approach to projects, it was heartening to hear it espoused by someone else.
Going back over my notes, Simon packed a huge amount of information and insight into 30 minutes. However, I was left with the nagging feeling that there was nothing actually 'futuristic' about the presentation.
"Making Your Interface Invisible" - Dan Rubin
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The audience was much more enthused by this point, following Simon's talk, and Dan Rubin from Sidebar Creative in the U.S. maintained this momentum. His assertion that a good web interface is invisible (i.e., people don't notice something when it just works), struck a real chord with the attendees. Citing the likes of Jared Spool ("The better the design, the more invisible it becomes"), Dan encouraged people to strip away as much as possible from their interfaces, to make as streamlined and 'invisible' a user experience as possible. He urged people to take inspiration from the real world in order to harness people's existing knowledge of how to interact with things.
It was a very successful and enjoyable talk, even though I don't necessarily agree with his points 100%. Sometimes it's important to imbue a series of interactions with the personality or brand you are representing, which may affect how an interface will turn out. Sometimes, making things more 'visible' can engender an emotional involvement, which wouldn't necessarily occur if a purely 'invisible' interface were employed. I'll be explaining my thoughts in this further in a future blog post; stay tuned!
"Architecting Web Services" - Lorna Mitchell
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Next up was local coding guru Lorna Mitchell. I honestly cannot comment on the content of her presentation, as it very much covered the 'back end' of things, which goes over my head completely. Despite this, her delivery was confident and the talk well received. It was good to see someone hold their own, having to follow Dan Rubin's hugely successful talk, and preceding Ryan Carson's headlining slot. An unenviable position, certainly, but Lorna was unphased.
"Lessons Learned from selling Dropsend" - Ryan Carson
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Of course, it was down to Ryan Carson himself to bring the talks to a close. Like Simon Collison, he wasn't afraid to point out where things hadn't gone so well. He opined that marketing has changed, and while it used to be all about branding and careful control of a product's perception, it was now about conversation and empowerment. This is important information, but I had the feeling Ryan was preaching to the converted in this context. His emphasis on the importance of honesty and openness had lots of heads nodding, and I would have been interested to see how well such a talk would have gone down in a room full of staunch marketing directors.
His 'The Basics' list of things to do to measure the success of your site (Google analytics, A/B testing, using less pushy language, etc) was all completely valid, but nothing anyone who has attended a usability testing session in the last five or six years wouldn't have already heard.
Again, it was a confident rallying cry to listen to one's audiences and harness the gargantuan power of the social web in order to market your business successfully. But, like the rest of the sessions, where was the FUTURE in all of this? To my mind, this felt more like the Current State of Web Apps, rather than the future. I came away from the event, having enjoyed the afternoon session, but without knowing a great deal that I hadn't already considered. There were no exciting or controversial predictions of where the industry is headed; no demonstrations of cool new apps or APIs which we could all begin experimenting with, which the title of the event seems to suggest.
If the overall theme of the afternoon was to listen to your customers and meet their expectations, then this is certainly something Carsonified need to do before putting together the programme for next year's event.