Adtrak at New Adventures Conference 2019

26th March 2019

ten minute read

Related PostAnnouncing ‘BALI Digital in Association with Adtrak’

Two of our web designers, Rich and Becky were lucky enough to attend the New Adventures conference at Nottingham’s Albert Hall back in January, and here you can learn about their findings from the conference, featuring some of the leading lights of the web design world.

Building – Jeremy Keith

Jeremy kicked off the conference with a talk about building for the web; how web development has always drawn inspiration from industries such as print & graphic design and how we use ideas from industries like architecture and engineering. However, the web is its own medium and by borrowing from other mediums we are now being constrained by them.

The majority of Jeremy’s talk was based around Stewart Brand’s concept of “Pace Layers” – How different parts of complex systems change and adapt at different rates. For this he compared the structure of the web to fashion and culture, which can be seen in the diagram below:

Jeremy Keith - Pace Layers

The basic principle is that different layers move at different speeds by design – “Fast gets our attention, slow has all the power”. The image below shows how this has been applied to the web:

Jeremy Keith - Pace Layers

As seen in the diagram, HTTP is designed to move extremely slowly and only really changes once things have filtered down through all of the other layers above whereas “JavaScript is meant to feel overwhelming, it is where we try stuff and see what sticks”. As ideas get tested and accepted they will slowly work their way down through the layers and become less reactive.

“Fast learns, slow remembers”.

How well does it work? How well does it fail?

Jeremy then took this concept further by explaining how these layers can be applied to frameworks and support. If we were to simply use HTTP and JavaScript, then the performance of a site would be completely based on the local support for JavaScript; the site would either “work great” or “not work at all”.

Jeremy Keith - Web Design frameworks

With the multi-tiered layout we know that the support for each layer reduces gradually as you move from HTTP up to JavaScript, meaning that we have a greater chance of the site ‘working’ at some level rather than failing completely. This shows that when building a site you should try to support as many users as possible by using a solution that has greater support where possible, such as using CSS rather than JavaScript.

Jeremy Keith - Web Design Frameworks

An interesting quote from his speech that I feel we can all relate to is: “If you can solve a problem with a simpler solution – you should!

Confessions of an Overnight CEO – Clare Sutcliffe

Clare introduced her talk by asking the question “Should designers learn to code though?”

Her opinion was simply: yes, everyone should learn to code and we should start learning early on so we can build better products.

Clare then went on to tell her inspiring story about how she went from being a UX Designer to the CEO of Code Club (which is now an international after-school club aimed at 9-11 year olds) in the space of 3 months. She spoke about her journey and how the UK alone had 1000 schools signed up by the end of year one, and by the end of year three, 4000 schools internationally had a Code Club!

Demystifying Design – Josh Brewer

Josh spoke mainly about how designers need to overcome their fears – fear of showing their work, fear of what other people think and fear of failure – but to remember that the only real failure is not learning from your failure in the first place.

He also posed the question: how can we, as designers, be taken seriously? And how do we help people understand what we do? The answer being to include others in the workflow as early as possible, as their input can help bring understanding and rationale to the project.

The Future is Cross-Functional – Jessica White

Jessica’s talk was based on being cross-functional and asked “should designers learn to code?”

Instead of everyone being a full stack developer with endless amount of knowledge, we should be looking at how to bring teams of people together with a variety of knowledge and different skill sets to work collaboratively. By working like this we’re open to ideas and input from others which will in turn make the process as simple as possible. We all work in different ways, so why not bring it together and learn from each other?

Idea to Execution and Beyond – Ashley Baxter

Ashley spoke about her experiences setting up With Jack – an insurance company that helps to keep freelancers in business.

She focused on the process of building the platform and how it initially began as a one-page website for collecting relevant information from the customer, which she’d then use to manually provide a quote. From building relationships and making connections, Ashley found that as well as an insurance quote, people would go to her for advice to make sure they’re fully covered for what they needed, and from there on With Jack developed into an insurance company and advice hub.

The message we can take from Ashley’s talk is that the end product is more than likely going to be different from your initial idea, and the most important thing is to just start off with the basic idea and let things evolve over time.

Universal Assembly – Brendan Dawes

Brendan’s talk was certainly a memorable one! Brendan is a great believer in “thinking outside the box” and “doing things you don’t know how to do”. Throughout his talk he encouraged people to make their ideas happen, in whatever form that may be.

Brendan’s talk focused mainly on data and how it doesn’t simply need to be words, numbers and tables. His projects involved processing volumes of data and representing them in exciting visual – and in some cases physical – ways. From a data visualisation wall that could simulate the weather to a pool full of aquatic creatures whose size, shape and colour were based on the number of followers and activity feeds of submitted Twitter profiles, the sheer range was extremely impressive.

Brendan continued to talk through some of his other successful projects, a collection of thought provoking gadgets and social experiments such as ‘The Happiness Machine’ and the uniquely brilliant ‘Plastic Player’.

The main thing I took away from Brendan’s talk was to simply try out your ideas, some will work, some will fail and some may even create “beautiful mistakes” that prove to be better than the original idea.

For more inspiration it is worth visiting Brendan’s website: http://www.brendandawes.com/.

Whose Design is it Anyway? – Helen Joy

Helen’s talk was based on the importance of the end user and who we’re designing for.

“We know what we want people to do; what actions we want them to take. But do we really know who these people are? Do we take the time to find out, or are we building products and services based on our own assumptions and biases?”

During her talk she introduced some interesting facts which are worth bearing in mind!

  • 4.3 million adults in the UK have basic digital skills
  • 76% are retired and over the age of 65
  • 20% are age 45-64
  • 4% under 45

Since technology develops so fast, we’re in danger of leaving people behind. With this in mind, Helen expressed the importance of considering that people may not be able to use things the same way we do and to bear in mind the big gap between us as experts and them as users.

Diverse Design: How We Build For People – Naz Hamid

Naz focused on the importance of diversity in design and ensuring that everyone is involved in the design process.

He began by mentioning his experiences living in different countries and described himself as a “Third Culture Kid” who’s now a “Third Culture Adult”. He even said “diversity and inclusion is a perspective and a mindset I was built with”, showing that his experiences have given him a unique perspective which allow him to see things from different points of view.

One of the key points that Naz raised was that design needs a “seat at the table” so we can understand all of the perspectives involved in a project and use this knowledge to influence our design.

Below are some of the things Naz mentioned to consider when designing a project:

  • Involve a variety of people
  • Champion others and don’t dominate conversations and meetings
  • Get everyone in the company involved (e.g. coffee mornings)
  • Understand your position and power
  • Know your audience
  • Design by inclusion AND design for inclusion

A final point raised was “progress over perfection”. Sometimes it’s better to let parts of a project go in order to keep it moving forward. These can always be revisited later outside the initial project restraints like time or budget.

It can sometimes be better to release a stripped down, yet solid project that can be added to at a later date, than to try and deliver the world and simply produce an unusable mess or – in some cases – nothing at all.

The World-Wide Work – Ethan Marcotte

For anyone in the industry, Ethan Marcotte is likely a familiar name as he is responsible for the concept of responsive web design.

These days, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The tech industry is facing a veritable raft of ethical, moral, and political crises. Automation and industrialisation are reshaping our world. And sitting in the middle of all that? You and me. We’re digital designers, we’re developers, we’re product owners. But each day, our work is changing—more quickly than it ever has before.

Here’s the question we have to ask ourselves: what do we want that change to be? In this talk, we’ll look at some of the challenges facing our industry, and ask ourselves: what kind of work do we want to do?

Ethan began speaking about drop caps in web design and how different methods can be used to produce the desired effect, but also how each of them came with their own flaws such as browser compatibility.

The main issue he raised here was that almost every basic method breaks on ‘text to audio’ as it separates out the first letter and treats it like its own word. The point in this introduction was to show how easy it can be to design something that excludes a user. To bring home this point, he explained how Robert Moses is considered the ‘master builder of New York’ while at the same time he was an avowed racist who designed some bridges to be extremely low to prevent buses from passing underneath them, meaning only the wealthy who could afford their own cars could use them (who at this time would have been predominantly white).

The next topic that he touched on was how easily technology could be abused, raising the recent topics of Facebook data breaches as well as Google and Amazon’s AI and face recognition software that could have potentially disastrous ramifications. To a lesser extent he then discussed how Netflix uses facial detection analysis software (AVA) to generate the cover art for a show. This is so that it most closely matches your viewing history to try and make it look more appealing (e.g. if you watch a lot of romantic films then the software will look for romantic scenes in shows and then display those frames as the cover art).

Ethan’s ‘Three Stages of Technology’

The ‘three stages of technology’ was one of the most interesting parts of Ethan’s talk. The ‘stages’ are:

  1. Advocacy – Excitement and promises (these initial promises are never fulfilled)
  2. Adoption – Acceptance, growth and standardisation
  3. Institutionalisation – Economic consolidation and stagnation

The example that Ethan used to explain these stages was the sewing machine. When the sewing machine was first developed it was advertised as an invention to liberate women and end poverty. As more people began using sewing machines the focus (as well as the advertising) shifted away from liberty and ending poverty and instead switched to efficiency and speed. The final stage was that the entire sewing process then began to be increasingly automated, leading to increased productivity at the expense of jobs, causing increased poverty and exploitation.

As previous world changing advances the web is following the same three stages, and is becoming industrialised in the same way that sewing was. To quote Ethan “I do not want to deny the Web’s potential, but I think it’s worth asking ourselves if that was the promise of the Web then where do we stand? Has that promise been fulfilled?”

Finally, Ethan shared a quote from Dr Cornel West: “Never confuse hope with optimism, hope is participatory” and explained that in light of this there is still hope; if we as an industry work together to help stop exploitation and the misuse of technology, then the Web can still be used as it was originally intended – for the benefit of everyone.

Our Favourite Talks

Becky: My favourite talk at New Adventures was Helen Joy’s, as it’s the one I think all designers can relate to. I found it interesting to see the statistics of adults in the UK with basic digital skills and it’s made me more aware of bearing this in mind when designing sites for clients.

Rich: Overall, I think that my favourite talks were both Jeremy Keith and Ethan Marcotte. They were both extremely passionate speakers and both raised excellent points that made me consider how I approach my work and the industry as a whole.

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