dConstruct, the self-styled ‘thinking man’s web conference’ curated by Brighton-based UX evangelists Clearleft returned to the Brighton Dome for another year of conceptual talks and big ideas. Unlike most conferences aimed at web designers and developers, dConstruct aims to make you think big. Arrive expecting to learn the latest grid-layouts, CSS tricks or trending social-media topics and you will leave disappointed. Instead, arrive with an open mind and you will leave full of fantastic ideas and inspired to think big on your next project.
This year was my first attending with the Makemedia team, and my second time at the event. Our Director of Digital Media, Ben Dykes, remembers attending the inaugural dConstruct of 2005; a modest affair compared to today’s packed Dome. While trying to discover the location of that first conference I spotted a more youthful picture of Mr Dykes amongst some reportage of that first event (on the left; http://www.andybudd.com/archives/images/audience2.jpg). Sorry Ben! Enough about the past, this year’s conference focussed on ‘Designing for Tomorrow’, and brought together a dynamic mix of speakers for what was sure to be an enlightening day.
This year’s dConstruct kicked off with a fascinating glimpse of the near future from Adam Greenfield. What a difference 12 months makes; Steven Johnson’s opening talk at last year’s event covered geo-tagged location-aware devices, and the aggregation of reviews and feedback from cities in the US giving power to the neighbourhood. This year Greenfield moved the discussion forward lightyears and in compelling fashion. Talk of a digital future in which every object around us forms a node in the global network, allowing the city to react to feedback through these microscopic devices painted a vision of a future completely controlled and immersed in constant feedback; compelling and concerning in equal measure. Greenfield balanced his vision of networked urbanism with the negative (a city which loses its innate character, a community monitored at every level) and positive (improved infrastructures and fascinating API’s). An inspiring and thought-provoking start.
Next up were Michal Migurski and Ben Cerveny of Stamen with ‘Let’s See What We Can See (Everybody Online and Looking Good). Covering information visualization using their past work collating weather pattern data (specifically hurricane movements), this was an insight into how vast amounts of data spanning tens (or hundreds) of years can be graphically represented and manipulated by the user. What is the best way to navigate these patterns? How will the user best comprehend the passing of time and movement? Although a relevant example of how user experience is paramount when communicating data graphically, there was little to be taken away from this ‘show and tell’ style. A more enlightening presentation could have shown what didn’t work and how it was improved upon.
If any talk today was going to have a real relevance to the direction the web is moving, then Brian Fling’s presentation outlining how mobile is changing design would prove a valuable lesson in taking the small screen seriously. As if we didn’t already know that our perceptions of the browser were changing as users choose smaller devices to deliver information, our understanding of the users expectations of mobile content were brought further into focus. One example used Fling’s daughter, who instinctively reaches out to touch interfaces having been brought up at a time when we navigate using a pinch or a flick. Fling suggests changes in the expectations of ‘generation z’ (a term Fling coins to refer to the youngest generation born into the iPhone, our future users) will bring about a seismic shift in design, and who can doubt him.
After a series of talks looking at technical visions of the future, we glimpsed light-years ahead by delving into the cinematic past with Nathan Shedroff and Chris Noessel’s ‘Make it So: learning from Sci-Fi interfaces’. A light-hearted and extremely well executed look into how the interfaces we see on film (dating as far back as Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent movie classic, Metropolis) have influenced and echoed the interfaces of today. Sometimes ridiculous (Unix-based fakery in Jurassic Park) and occasionally closer to reality than was realised at production (Minority Report’s touch screen drag/drop interfaces), the presenters managed to match Hollywood make-believe to relevant real world examples. Their delivery was fast paced and enlightening, punctuated with undoubtedly the best slides of the day.
Next up was Robin Hunike, a game designer and producer of obvious talent having worked with the likes of Steven Spielberg on recent Wii cult hit ‘Demolitious Block Party’. Her talk today aimed to encourage the gamer in all of us to love our user with ‘Juicy feedback’. When I first saw the line-up for this year’s event I was surprised to see another speaker from the video games industry on the bill; presentations about game design at web conferences often feel shoehorned into the line-up as if there must be a correlation between these two digital industries. We have plenty in common for sure (design, user experiences and social networking for example) but this presentation failed to bring anything inspiring or new to the waiting crowd. Juicy feedback refers to the mechanisms in gaming that make you want to play on, a factor of obvious importantance when considering the design or development of any online application. The subject had potential, but unfortunately the delivery on this occasion failed to create any cohesion with the audience. At times cringey (overly cute and quirky delivery) and others downright irritating (a spoiler for the recently released movie ‘Moon’) – this felt like an opportunity missed. Luckily our next speaker brought things right back on track.
August de los Reyes is a Microsoft employee who has been involved in projects as diverse as the design of the Windows key on your humble keyboard (only 6 months work) and the latest Microsoft ‘touch’ interactive tables, which were available to play with today at the back of the Dome. Fast-paced and not afraid to have to odd joke at Microsoft’s expense (a sure-fire winner with a crowd sporting an unhealthy number of Apple products) meant he went down extremely well from slide one. Discussing the emotional engagement of advanced interfaces of the future, August ended his talk with a very Microsoft vision of the future in which every surface becomes interactive. Your (still foldable) newspaper is now a digital device delivering your news on a familiar material format (until it crashes), and your mobile device comes in two pieces; one section to scan your environment and the other to communicate (just try not to lose one of them). A little self indulgent maybe, but the latest augmented reality applications for Apple’s iPhone suggest this may not be as far off as we think. Undoubtedly one of the best talks of the day.
The afternoon lunch break gave the Makemedia team time to discuss the day’s events, and one topic came up regularly; where are all the Brits? The day so far had consisted exclusively of speakers from across the pond, much to the bemusement of some (me included). I’m happy to pay to listen to anyone with great ideas, leaders in their field with something to offer (be they American or otherwise), but I cannot help but think the balance should be towards promoting some more home-grown talent. A glance around the crowd showed plenty of high-profile Blighty-based talent in attendance, members of the Brit-pack who would undoubtedly go down well here (with their conceptual caps on). Even the Clearlefties would be more than welcome at their own event; especially as Jeremy Keith ended last year’s event in fantastic style (Have a listen – http://dconstruct.s3.amazonaws.com/2008/podcast/dConstruct2008-Keith.mp3). It was with great relief then that our final speaker was representing the UK, and what a way to wrap up the day!
Russell Davies talk was a hilarious and inspiring look at how we can allow the diverse data online to escape the confines of the screen, with the subheading ‘What I learned from printing the internet out’. Russell mentioned the Doppler presentation of last year’s dConstruct at the top of his presentation and he comes across in the same warm, funny and passionate way as the two Matt’s last year. Far from just sending blog posts to your nearest Epson or Hewlett Packard (although this was the starting point), Davies explored ways in which the constant stream of API’s and user feedback can interact with the physical. How about a bubble machine that gets excited every time it hears its name on Twitter? Who doesnt like bubbles! We like Kinder Eggs too, and were treated to a random shower of chocolate half way through the talk (that’s how to win over a crowd). The crux of Davies’ presentation focused on the production of a newspaper entitled ‘Thing our friends have written on the internet ‘. Originally a Christmas present for friends and family, this collection of articles from the across the web quickly gathered a following as surplus copies were distributed to anyone who cared enough to get in touch with the author. Davies is now taking to concept further, helping others to get their work onto good old-fashioned paper (apparently cheaper than you think). Punctuated with jokes, videos and chocolate, this was a fantastic end to a diverse and enlightening day in at the Dome.