Web Directions 2015

Web Directions 2015There are few professional decisions I’ve made in the last 12 years that have had as profound an effect on my career as hooking up with Web Directions.

For the late arrivals, Web Directions is a conference based in Sydney, with a focus on standards-based web design and development, a commitment to fostering ideas-driven progress using cutting edge techniques, and a habit of bringing to Australia overseas speakers and workshop leaders who really have something to say, the credentials to back it up and the willingness to share it with web professionals in this country.

Web Directions is, in fact, my major annual professional development opportunity. I certainly invest in books, courses, events during the course of my working year, but at WD I immerse myself for a few days in finding ways to drive my own skills forward. Every year, I have emerged with new ideas, perspectives, connections and job opportunities. This year was no different.

As well as two days of speakers on a range of web-related topics, WD offers a few full day workshops for a more intense and interactive exposure to some of the brightest stars in the web firmament. I can’t always make it to a workshop, but this year the ducks all lined up nicely to let me attend a workshop with Vitaly Friedman: editor-in-chief of Smashing Magazine, experienced speaker and author, and a very handy front end developer in his own right.

Masterclass: Responsive Design, State of the Art Techniques

You know it’s going to be an interesting 9am-5pm day when the first thing your workshop leader asks is if anyone has to leave before 7pm. This turned out to be no idle threat – we only wrapped up at 6.30pm because Vitaly was attending a local CSS Meetup.

The approach he used was essentially one of problem solving, by which I mean Vitaly had us solving a series of problems related to responsive design that he put to us, while a 60 second timer wound down. We’d then compare answers and discuss and he would explain the implications. The problems covered were mostly familiar to me – while many of the solutions were not. So that was good value right there (that evening I fixed three issues on client sites – flexbox + margin-top: auto FTW).

It’s a good technique for a group workshop, and it was fun working with my team-mates Helen and Laura. In describing the problems or issues and then leading discussion about them, Vitaly raised topics as diverse as design patterns, site performance, advertising, graphics, testing and user experience – all in the context of delivering content in a seamlessly responsive fashion.

The day flew by, broken up by some excellent catering. Vitaly is extremely engaging as a workshop leader, very funny as a raconteur and is clearly expert in advanced CSS and related skills. He conveys a sense that all of this is something we as web professionals can do, and he isn’t afraid to say when it’s something we should do. Highly recommended.

Web Directions, Day One

The first thing of note about this year’s conference was the venue. An operating funfair and amusement centre on the shores of Sydney Harbour nestled almost under the iconic bridge, with the Opera House just across water, Luna Park turned out to be an inspired choice by John Allsopp. With two tracks of sessions (Design & Product and Engineering & Development), a WD venue needs to efficiently manage the movement of 700 or so people between rooms and around catering tables, as well as seating comfort, sightlines, audibility, temperatures, wifi … the usual conference issues. All of that went very smoothly.

I have to confess a child-like delight at getting a shout-out from John in his welcome, as someone who has attended every Web Directions conference in Sydney. I’m proud of that (and of going to Vancouver for Web Directions North in 2008 – the best of any kind of conference I’ve ever been to).

I’m not going to give detailed descriptions of the sessions I attended, as there are already some finely crafted and beautifully expressed accounts by other attendees, with no doubt more to come. I’ve provided links to three very good ones below. So, briefly, some very selective takeaways and highlights:

Cap Watkins: Be prepared to give ground on issues of little importance to you. Actually quantify it and compare it – using a 0-10 fucks given scale.
Alisa Lemberg: Data presented on a small, personal scale will elicit more empathy than that on an immense scale, even if the impact ought to be much greater – a form of extension neglect.
Mark Dalgleish & Glen Maddern: Mark’s evocation of CSS Zen Garden as an example of old school global control of a webpage’s design had me looking back, while Glen’s demonstration of emojis used as class definitions had me looking forward.
Daniel Burka: Every hotel customer who was informed that their service request was going to be met by a robot coming to their room was very excited, except one guy who was, like, “Whatever, a robot, right”.
Rose Matthews: User-centred design is not a technological concept, it’s about designing for users in context.
Cameron Adams: The best way for people to learn to use something is to use it – make it uncomplicated, inviting and with immediate results.
Nathan McGinness: ICE: ranking the impact of a test, confidence in the results and the ease with which it can be conducted will help you decide whether to test.
Maciej Ceglowski: To prevent webpage bloat, take two specific steps. One: send the user critical data. Two: Stop.

As you can see, I jumped back and forth between the two tracks, and that’s simply a reflection of what I do and how I do it. That means on the one hand, I’m in heaven because all my areas of focus get covered, and I’m in hell because I can’t get to every session. C’est la vie.

To close out the first day, we were invited to bring our kids into Luna Park to enjoy the amusement park fun to be had: dodgem cars, wild mouse, games, coney island (the hall of mirrors “horrified” in anticipation of Halloween was a hoot). Hazel drove up from Corrimal for the occasion and our 12 and 14 year olds loved it to bits. It was really a masterstroke to balance a day of passionate discussion by geeky nerds of very modern coding and designing techniques with a sunny, old-fashioned fun park entertainment spree. Glorious.

Web Directions, Day Two

Hannah Donovan: Didn’t get the memo about “geeky nerds” – the most glamorous presenter at a web conference ever. Among many delightful points made in talking about content and design, I especially liked, “I design for desires, not needs”. There’s a lot packed into that.
Denise Jacobs: You will only experience imposter syndrome [ “they’ll find out I’m a fraud” ] when you are competent and skilled.
Eric Elliott: Closures are the key to encapsulation in JavaScript. They enable true data privacy for objects, and protect against function side effects.
Brynn Evans: Revisit old problems and ask, “How can this be made better?”
Isabel Brison: And … whoops, we’ve created a keyboard trap. Let’s fix it.
Mike Riethmuller: Be aware of the differences between specified, calculated and used values in CSS.
Kai Brach: Passionate independent operators can force big companies to reconsider their business models.
Tom Loosemore: We, the people in this room, are the luckiest people alive.

These are just soundbites from my notes, and I know they don’t give you much context so I recommend you browse some of the more detailed accounts of the conference proceedings:

Ben Buchanan: http://weblog.200ok.com.au/2015/11/wd15-big-stonking-post.html
Jeremy Nagel: https://medium.com/@jeremynagel/i-was-fortunate-enough-to-get-to-attend-and-speak-at-web-directions-last-week-so-thought-i-d-put-5d729d96ced5#.smdjfqd25
Jess Telford: https://github.com/jesstelford/wd15

John Allsopp closed the conference with the advice that Web Directions as a conference format would cease from next year, replaced by a series of events that focus on design (Respond: Sydney & Melbourne), front end engineering (Code: Sydney & Melbourne) and government services (Transform: Canberra), and a single track two-day conference on the intersection of design and technology (Direction: Sydney). On the face of it, this seems to me a sensible, practical and rather inspiring development by the Web Directions crew.

After a few cold bevvies renewing old friendships and making new ones at the after party, I was fortunate to be invited along to dinner with a group speakers and fellow attendees. There was something very appropriate about a group of web people from around the world eating and chatting in a small Sydney restaurant that served a fusion of Asian, African and Western food. I hadn’t met any of my fellow diners before this conference and yet I felt as comfortable as if I was with lifelong friends – and in a way, I was.

Web Directions does that to me.

As a last note for people reading this who don’t know much about Sydney, take a look at some of the gorgeous photos Dave Perry took during the conference – just stunning: http://daveperryphotos.com/sydney/#jp-carousel-441.

My thanks to John, Rosemary, Peter and the WD volunteers for making this Web Directions yet another hallmark of excellence in professional development for webheads. I look forward to next year’s evolutions.

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