Webstock '17: Ice Cream, Mars and One Direction

 

Every year since 2006, the technology industry have gathered in Wellington for two days of talks from experts in all things web related. From usability and accessibility to design and development, people share stories, look at things from other perspectives, keep informed of developments in the industry - and eat extremely good ice cream.

Terabyte is always represented and this year it was my turn. Together with Paul and Charnae, two digital experts from our Studio, I hit the St James Theatre on a beautiful Thursday morning, collected my Webstock swag and settled in for the ride. 

Developers, experts in User Experience, Designers, a NASA Engineer, an Anthropologist and an Industrial Designer were amongst the speakers scheduled. Silicon Valley was well represented and the current US political situation was referenced more than once, often in the context of technology being harnessed to make things better.

Two days, 20 speakers. There’s no way I can distil it all into one piece, so I haven’t covered every speaker here. Webstock publish the videos for their talks after each conference and so we’ll let you know when these are out. The purpose of this piece is to provide a taste of something you might like to investigate further, once the talks are published.

But for now, let’s dive in….

Things kicked off with the charismatic Tim Kadlec, Head of Developer Relations at Synk. Titled “Unseen”, Tim explored the importance of things the average user doesn’t necessarily see – accessibility, security and performance. Reminding us that users 'trust us to get things right - until something goes wrong', Tim maintains that the industry is often poor at understanding other people’s perspectives and cites the 3 second load rule (when a user will drop out of a page if it doesn’t load in that timeframe) as 53%. Fact check: global internet users now stand at 3.5b.

Kim Goodwin, author of ‘Designing for the Digital Age’ took us through her user journey tool, “Scenarios and Storyboards”. But don’t use the word ‘usability’. For Kim, saying a site is ‘usable’ is like saying a restaurant’s menu is ‘edible’. To create an evangelist, you need more than usability. Kim uses character-driven storytelling to get around issues that can occur between process steps / organisational silos or platforms. She suggests leaving the business of mechanisms till later in the process and ask “what’s the ideal experience?” Anything not feasible can be removed later. I liked this example of a great customer journey / UX: the guy who left his hat on the plane, only to be presented with it when he checked in for another flight with the same airline. Airline Evangelist, right there.

Lara Hogan, Engineering Director at Etsy, was all about “Empathy and Performance”. In Lara’s opinion, web design to date has not, in the main, been focused on performance. She took us through several methods for ensuring page performance is optimised without overly compromising aesthetics. (Side note: this is a subject dear to our hearts at Terabyte – we’ve just written a book on mobile optimisation; watch this space).

Katie Dill is with Airbnb in San Francisco and talked about great UX happening offline as well as online. She kicked off with a glowing report on her Air New Zealand experience (a quiet moment of national pride for me) and then went on to explain how Airbnb seek to set the stage and encourage communication with their hosts and guests: a tricky business when you’re not in complete control of the product. Honesty and transparency are key factors in this success. Katie took us through the recently launched Airbnb Experience.

A quick and hilarious history lesson with Marcin Wichary, who took us from the very first machine to calculate figures to a particular Pacman UI issue and the evolution of the mouse pointer. Each presented their own unique user interface issues, proving that UI is no modern matter. Incidentially, Marchin created Google’s HTML5 Pacman logo for its 30th anniversary.

Sacha Judd, the only NZ speaker, discussed diversity in the tech sector via a colourful journey through One Direction fan fiction and conspiracy theories (who knew Harry and Louis were so close?!) Turns out there are a lot of young women doing some pretty cool things with coding and flying completely under the radar as their self-perceived ‘amateur’ status puts them off taking things any further.

Ashley Nelson-Hornstein, an iOS Engineer from San Francisco, presented us with ‘The Cross Section Between Humanities vs Technology’. Ashley discussed her belief that UX should come first, and the technology should follow. Case in point: Apple. How many of us really need or want to know the technical specifications of our phones? She illustrated her point with an ad for Apple: “Misunderstood” followed by an Android ad. Guess which one seemed to go on forever.

Ambiguity Is The Enemy according to Jonathon Colman, UX content strategist at Facebook. Taking us through challenges faced by UX designers solving problems that will last for thousands of years: communicating with aliens, keeping nuclear waste away from humans (fun fact: the half life of Plutonium 239 is 24k years), I began to appreciate the importance of clarity and the potentially dangerous nature of ambiguity. For example, depending on which way you read it, top to bottom or bottom up, this graphic could mean two very different things. Probably not something you want to get wrong:

 

 

Jared Spool, eminent UX designer, is passionate about helping organisations become more intrinsically design-infused. Back in 1997, Disney’s website was pretty terrible. In fact, it was so difficult to navigate that people would arrive in Florida with tickets for the California Disney Resort. If great UX reduces friction, this is an example of massive friction and terrible UX. Now, Disney has launched the MagicBand, a piece of wearable technology that eliminates friction throughout the guests’ visit by becoming a key to your hotel room / ticket to the park / payment method. How did they get there? We were taken through some methods for ensuring an entire organisation has design front and centre.

And so to Mars. Lindsay Aitchison, NASA Space Suit Engineer, explained some of the complexities of designing suits for astronauts inhabiting the International Space Station, which are quite different to the requirements for those considering a trip to Mars in the not-so-distant future. If user experience is important anywhere, it’s here. The process however is universal for UX: build, test, refine, repeat. (Fun fact: if you’re being fitted for a space suit, be aware that there are only 3 shirt sizes but 72 variations in the glove department).

From Deep Space to the US Government in one small step: Janine Gianfredi, ex Google and now with the US Digital Service, took us through her journey with the latter being set up under the Obama administration just like a startup. Using technology to design and reform the Government’s services, the US Digital Service recruited talent from all over the private sector to ensure US cititzens were appropriately served online.

Anil Dash, entrepreneur, blogger and activist, recently appointed CEO of Fog Creek Software, presented us with “Towards Humane Tech”. In his opinion, there is a mindshift from trust in technology to a creeping scepticism. Anil feels strongly that we need to assert ethics in our technology and cited a couple of large organisations where ethics may not be front and centre and who effectively create a ‘false market’. On a more optimistic note, Anil referenced neveragain.tech, set up to record the names of those technology workers who refuse to participate in the creation of databases identifying people based on their race, religion or national origin. Examples of technology being used for activism and to change things for the better are growing by the day.

History, politics, cautious optimism, science and more than a little humour were amongst the themes running through my two days at Webstock. These, I anticipated. But I was surprised to find myself moved to tears at least once (thank God for dark theatres) and realised the theme I was least expecting, and which I enjoyed most, was humanity.

And the ice cream.

 

Keep an eye out for Webstock talks when they’re published. We’ll let you know when they’re up!