Web Directions North – Days 3 and 4

So after 2 days of workshops on Monday and Tuesday, the official part of the conference started Wednesday.

With conferences like this, with so many interesting topics, it is always hard to decide between two interesting sessions. After all you need to pick one, and the other one will be recorded anyhow and the slides will be put online. So, in fact, you are not missing out that much. So here is a quick summary of the sessions.


Opening Keynote: Return of the King of Web Standards (Jeffrey Zeldman)

I have never seen Jeffrey Zeldman speak, so I figured that this is going to be interesting. Jeffrey gave a quick summary what kind of developments in the past led us to where we are today in terms of Web Standards.

Real World Accessibility for Real World People (Derek Featherstone)

Derek more or less gave the same talk that I have already seen in November at @media Ajax in London (with the same jokes…kind of). But no big deal. It was good hearing again how he tackled the problem that Google Maps is not accessible at all and how he and his team fixed it. And, I believe, it is always good to get a shot or two of accessibility guidelines once in a while cause they tend to be forgotten about in daily business life.

Five Essential Composition Tools for Web Typography (Kimberly Elam)

That talked turned out to be something I was not really expecting. Kimberly is coming from a very print focused background and is Chair of the Graphic & Interactive Communication Department at the Ringling College of Art + Design, Sarasota, Florida. In her talk she explained how she teaches her students what makes typography good typography. I felt that many of these things are highly applicable when it comes to print, but sometimes are kind a hard to translate into the web world (especially with variables like increasing or decreasing font-size, different screen resolutions etc.). But I found her slides very good and I wished we would have had those back at uni.

“Plays Well With Others” (Brian Oberkirch)

In his talk, Brian talked about ways to overcome the huge amount of different social sites and user credentials we need to remember and always have to go through the hassle of setting up a profile, inviting your friends etc. Solutions to that could be OpenID and OAuth.

What makes a design seem intuitive? (Jared Spool)

Jared is just great. Even if you have no clue what Web Usability means, you can just turn up for his talks and leave with an entertained mood. It is just the funny and compelling way that he presents. What he covered was how can a great design be intuitive to the user? It always depends on the target user audience and by knowing about the “knowledge gap” between current knowledge and target knowledge. So bridging what the user currently knows and what he needs to know in order to complete his task.

Better Gmail (Gina Trapani)

Gina, who works for Lifehacker.com, described how she discovered how it is possible for developers to make their favorite web applications better using Greasemonkey and fix issues that the original developers maybe have not thought about. Finally, Google released the Greasemonkey API for Gmail which makes it more easier for developers to add additional functionality on top of Gmail (e.g. keyboard shortcuts for most executed user actions, like ‘delete’, ‘move to inbox’).


What was really nice of the organizers was that they rewarded people who put blogposts on their web site, uploaded photos to Flickr etc. to spread the word about WDN. And the first site John put up on the projector (in the main audience hall with about 300 people), on Thursday morning before the second day started, was mine. I was flattered and felt very happy (although it also reminded me that a redesign might be a good idea). Anyway, so the reward consisted of a very nice WDN 2008 T-shirt and 3 books. Awesome – thanks again for that.

Innovation is Overrated (Indi Young)

In this first session of the day, Indi talked about how innovation does not really happen “overnight”, but rather is a process of years sometimes. She talked about mental models and really emphasized how important it is to think about the problems that people have and – most of all – listen to them. She is also the author of a book called Mental Models:Aligning design strategy with human behavior.

The 3 Stages of Dynamic Systems (Boris Mann)

Boris mainly took his stand point on how the web changed from static to dynamic content – well, in fact there are still a huge load of web sites out there, which are put together using static content. He made a lot of references to Brian Oberkirchs talk yesterday and made a few major points, e.g. don’t reinvent the wheel: rather than develop another CMS, take some of the solutions that are out there. To extend them, use plugins/modules. Much kind of in the spirit of Don’t Repeat Yourself.

Ajax Security (Douglas Crockford)

Douglas – also not inimitable – made some really strong points about how the whole browser model today is broken, with lots of security flaws especially. What developers can do is make their as strong and secure and clean as possible, but in the end, the web still remains broken. He took some extreme points of view but that is just Douglas, and you need to respect and give him credit for that. Like with Joe Clark, it sometimes takes extreme standpoints and opinions to push something and make sure it gets done right the next time.

Where’s your web at? (John Allsopp & Dave Shea)

Dave and John talked about new challenges that await us developers now and in the near future when it comes to how users will visit our sites. Not on a desktop computer in their office, but on any device that is out there which has internet capabilities. They mentioned mobile devices like regular cellphones or the iPhone, but also things like the Wii and Televisions which allow you to browse the web. Dave focussed on the design aspects, whereas John talked about interaction related challenges such as not having a regular keyboard or a mouse at hand to interact with a page.

Very interesting, especially from my perspective, cause the diploma thesis I did about one and a half years ago dealt with those things (amongst others). As John said, they could have continued to talk about this for hours, cause there are just so many aspects to it that are worth researching and thinking about.

The Why and How: UI Case Studies (Daniel Burka)

Daniel is the creative director at Digg, a founder of Pownce, and a founder of the Canadian web firm silverorange. Daniel showed his experiences from (re-)designing certain parts of Digg and his approach when he designed Pownce. He gave insights as to how digg users reacted and gave feedback based on his changes and what it feels like to get emails from angry people who liked the old design better.

The presentation had many interesting topics in it, although unfortunately many of them got kinda lost because of the bad quality of the projector.

Closing Keynote: Movement (Matt Webb)

I had met Matt (try to repeat that quickly, 5 times in a row) briefly after lunch and found out that he also came to Vancouver from London. Very nice chap and I was looking forward to his keynote. What surprised me, but in a positive way, was that he did not give a kind of “hands on” presentation, but rather talked about stuff that makes you think, rather than opening your laptop and start coding.

Honestly, many of the stuff he talked about I had a hard time to figure out how this ties into the internet that we know today, but I believe that what he was trying to convey was that with things like RSS, APIs etc. at hand, we should be able to further enrich the user experience and the applications that we are building today for our user audience. To continue the maturing process of the web,that, as Matt said, started in 2007.

Wrap up

So that’s it. Four days of Web Directions North went by, just like that. And I have to say that it has been better than last year. Some of the talks were not as thrilling as I hoped them to be, but overall I got a lot of input, things to learn and food for my brain to think about and apply in the near future. “Broaden the horizon” is a good term I would say. Also because of the many people I had a chance to meet and talk to. Thanks to Maxine, Dave, Derek and John for doing this again, it has been a pleasure to be here.

Yesterday, there was the closing party, sponsored by (mt) Media Temple, which was fun, and Friday and Saturday some folks are going up to Whistler to have a blast skiing there. Not me this time, but I believe I will find some other interesting stuff to do in Vancouver ;-).

More stuff about the conference