New Adventures in Web Design 2019

One of the things I really like about working at Human Made is that, if you attend a conference you are expecting to do a write up of it to share with the rest of the company. I like this because it forces me to research the day, see what others write, and pull out the messages or key learning points that are relevant to me.

These reviews are usually only posted internally, but I spent so much time on this one trying to make sure that my write up correctly reflected just how amazing this event was I thought I’d share it here too.

(all photos shamelessly stolen from the official ones on Flickr)


The Albert Hall - Photo Credit: Stefan Nitzsche

Event Name:

New Adventures in Web Design

When was it?

23rd – 25th January 2019.

  • 23rd – Workshop Day – Front End Performance by Harry Roberts (separate write up coming for that)
  • 24th – Conference Day
  • 25th – Fringe Events – I didn’t attend but I heard they were really good.

Location?

Nottingham, UK.

Ticket price

£195.00

Based on your experience, would you recommend this event?

Yes

Link to the event

https://newadventuresconf.com/2019/
https://newadventuresconf.com/2019/coverage/

Link to Twitter Account

Tweets by naconf

What talks did you attend?

I recently heard New Adventures being described as The Glastonbury of web conferences, and I think that sums it up perfectly. Between 2011 – 2013 it became the conference to attend, in the UK, if you worked in the web industry. Tickets would sell out almost as soon as they were made available and people would travel from all over the world. I’ve been to a lot of conferences since then and still many of the standout / most inspiring talks I’ve seen were at New Adventures. So when it was announced that it was back in 2019 there was no question as to whether I would be going. So on January 24th, myself and Rob went along to New Adventures 2019.

This year the theme of the conference was around how the digital experience is evolving and what our roles and responsibilities as part of the web industry should be. This message manifested itself in multiple ways throughout the day.

Building – Jeremy Keith

Jeremy Keith - Photo Credit: Stefan Nitzsche

Jeremy Keith is always an inspiring speaker, and he asked the question, Are we designers, architects, engineers or builders?

He began his talk by looking at how web development has always drawn inspiration from other industries, such as graphic & print design before moving the focus toward Architecture and how we borrow metaphors from that. These metaphors help to inform pattern languages, grid systems and responsive design. He introduced the idea of shearing layers, talking about how buildings learn and what happens after they’re built (with plenty of suggested reading) which led wonderfully into the idea of pace layers – The order of civilization. The fast layers innovate; the slow layers stabilize. The whole combines learning with continuity, how it was influenced by shearing layers and how we could then apply the concept to the modern the web.

TCP/IP would be the bottom layer, moving slowly and stabilizing, moving through HTTP, URLS, HTML, and CSS, each moving a little more quickly than the last until we reach JavaScript at the top, which moves really quickly.

This was then summarised by a quote: “fast gets all the attention, but slow has all the power”. JavaScript does move very fast and is constantly trying new things to see what sticks, Jeremy joked that “2 new javascript libraries have been released while I have been on stage”!. CSS then moves more slowly than Javascript but more stuff sticks and filters down through the technology stack. HTML slower again, down to TCP/IP which is the foundation of the network and therefore although things change very slowly, holds all of the power.

I liked this idea because it can feel overwhelming trying to keep up with everything that is happening in the world of javascript, everyone has felt that at one point or another, but thats ok because you’re not supposed to be able to keep up with everything that is tried, not all of it will stick!

He ended his talk with the key message that we are all builders, builders of the World Wide Web and that our responsibility is for so much more than the little corner of the web we work on; everything we do influences something greater!

If you are interested in any of the topics Jeremy touched upon, he created a reading list here to support this talk.

Confessions of an Overnight CEO – Clare Sutcliffe

Clare Sutcliffe - Photo Credit: Stefan Nitzsche

Clare Sutcliffe is the co-founder of Code Club, – a network of over 10,000 after school coding clubs for children aged 9 – 11. She told her incredible story of how she went from being a relatively junior design to the CEO of what is now a globally recognised social enterprise in the space of 3 months. She also discussed some of the challenges she faced during the journey, especially when Code Club started to branch out into the world. Her story and what Code Club has achieved so far is truly inspirational.

The main messages to come from her talk were to dream big, and use your position to help make the web a better place.

Demystifying Design – Josh Brewer

Josh Brewer - Photo Credit: Stefan Nitzsche

Josh Brewer had a small slot before the first break, he talked predominantly about how designers need to overcome their fears. Fear of showing their work and fear of failure. Instead they need to learn to include others in their processes and workflows early, because other people’s input can help mould and inform the design of the experience, and that the only real failure is not learning from your failure.

The Future is Cross-Functional – Jessica White

Jessica White - Photo Credit: Stefan Nitzsche

The topic of being Cross-Functional is not really new, but is one that is still a “hot button” topic. After all should designers learn how to code? Should Javascript developers be writing CSS code inside their framework?

Jess approached this from a different angle. Instead of suggesting everyone should be a full-stack developer with an infinite amount of knowledge around UX best practices and design principles, she suggested we should be looking at how to bring teams of people together to work more closely. and collaboratively.

By changing your work flow and being more open to opposing points of view, we start to understand, not just the user, but also our team members perspectives better as well. Allowing us to work more collaboratively and begin to break down what was termed “Waterfall as hell” processes and ultimately do better work.

Idea to Execution and Beyond – Ashley Baxter

Ashley Baxter - Photo Credit: Stefan Nitzsche

Ashely’s talk focussed on her experiences of setting up With Jack, an insurance company specifically designed with freelancers in mind. Insurance is in one of the most heavily regulated industries there is, and her story of trying to break into the market and compete with the big names (affectionately called “Arseholes” in a very broad Scottish accent), was again, inspirational!

Overall Ashley’s message was around not over engineering things. Build what people want, start small, make personal connections and allow things to evolve. This was evidenced in her description of starting out by wanting to revolutionise the experience of getting insurance quotes online. Initially she had a web page and a get a quote button and she collated all of the information needed and created a quote for every request she received manually.

But what turned out to be really important was that although her client list was steadily increasing, by building personal connections with her clients she was able to identify that people were not coming to her just for an insurance quote, it was because they knew they would get the right business advice to make sure they were covered for what they needed. This shift in focus allowed her to evolve her business to become a hub for small business advice that also sells insurance, rather than the revolutionary quoting system she first thought it would be.

Universal Assembly – Brendan Dawes

Brendan Dawes - Photo Credit: Stefan Nitzsche

Brendan Dawes went through his back catalogue of work to encourage us “to try things you don’t know how to do” and understand that those things are never finished and should be continually refined. A theme already introduced earlier in the day by Josh Brewer and re-iterated through later talks as well.

Of all the work Brendan showcased, I loved the Happiness Machine and how that evolved into an installation called Local Murmurs for AirBnB at the Sundance Film Festival. As an intro to this work he suggested that we “Let naivety seep into your process a bit”, and this work could definitely have been misused, but I love the idea of people putting positive messages and feelings out into the world for others to read. 🙂

Whose Design is it Anyway? – Helen Joy

Helen Joy - Photo Credit: Stefan Nitzsche

As a UX researcher, Helen was able to offer some valuable insights into how we should be thinking more about the end user and step out of the filter bubble we find ourselves in more often.

She offered some interesting stats around the number of people with differing basic computer skill levels. 4.3 million adults in the UK have zero basic digital skills and as a result are blocked from participation in society.

She then went on to draw a direct comparison between her entry point to the internet and a mechanic, that she had visited for UX research purposes, whose computer was running Windows 95 still and shoved into the corner of the garage, not even in an office.

Helen’s message for the day was summed up extremely eloquently in her slides when she quoted the Microsoft Inclusive Design manual:

Every decision we make can raise or lower barriers to participation in society.

It’s our collective responsibility to lower these barriers through inclusive products, services. environments, and experiences.

Diverse Design: How We Build for People – Naz Hamid

Naz Hamid - Photo Credit: Stefan Nitzsche

Naz Hamid is the founder of an extremely accomplished design studio called Weightshift, based in San Francisco (seriously go check out his site for a list of projects he’s been a part of, it is incredible!).

As the talk title suggested, Naz talked about including diversity in design processes. He introduced himself as a “third culture kid” that is now a “third culture adult” meaning that he spent large parts of his childhood living in countries that were not his country of origin, and still does. This has given him a unique perspective on the topic of inclusivity within design.

Naz suggested that in order to design for inclusion we need to design withinclusion. Involve a variety of people with different backgrounds and experiences within the design process, gather workshops and learn to anticipate the room. Provoke discussion after the workshops to find the things you are not thinking about that others would.

We should be embarrassed if everyone in our workplace looks like us.

He ended the talk by saying that although the world is far from perfect (he mentioned that we once again have Nazi’s), public discourse and awareness is starting to raise, and encouraged us to continually do better.

The World-Wide Work – Ethan Marcotte

Ethan Marcotte - Photo Credit: Stefan Nitzsche

Having seen Ethan Marcotte talk once before at Responsive Day Out in 2014, I was expecting something good. And I wasn’t disappointed!

Ethan opened his talk by telling us that he wanted to take a look at how the web is changing, how web design is an agent of power and it has the potential to do harm. And then about hope… It was an extremely powerful look at the ethics, morals and political use of the web today. And as designers and developers we have the power to shape the web, and therefore the world around us.

Throughout the talk he gave a number of examples of how the design of every day things can foster racist and classist biases. One example was the Long Island Parkway overpasses, designed by Robert Moses, that had been purposefully built to be so low that only cars could pass under it. Therefore preventing people on a lower income using the bus, to get to the Long Island beaches. Another was the humble sowing machine, originally marketed as being able to liberate women and end poverty but was quickly changed to improving efficiency as it revolutionised the textile industry and trapped people in sweatshops making cheap clothing.

He likened these examples to the web, suggesting that web design as a practice is becoming industrialised and feels a little darker now.

A map of Cleveland illustrating the correlation of poor neighbourhoods compared to the areas that have access to high speed broadband drew similar parallels to the classist bridges of New York. The armies of workers (many in the Philippines) that are now employed to moderate content and remove profanity from social networks, not dis-similar to sweatshops.

Like the design of everyday things, design in technology has been used to exploit people and foster biases. A very different reality to the message sent out by Tim Berners-Lee when he stood up at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and stated that this is for everyone…

But then Ethan went on to talk about hope.

This was his call to arms, encouraging us not to be optimistic but to have hope instead.

“Hope is not the same thing as optimism. Never confuse or conflate hope with optimism. Hope cuts against the grain. ‌Hope is participatory – it’s an agent in the world. Optimism looks at the evidence, to see whether it allows us to infer whether we can do X or Y.

Hope says, “I don’t give a damn, I’m gonna do it anyway.”

– Cornell West, “Race Matters”, 27 April 2001

Showing us that we can affect change and that some already are. Google employees showed the strongest demonstration of tech worker activism yet by walking out in protest, after it was discovered management had protected high-ranking employees accused of sexual misconduct.

The talk ended with a call to form a union of tech workers. It was an incredible talk and an amazing way to end a conference that contained so many amazing talks.

If you are interest in any of the topics Ethan touched upon, he created a reading list here to support this talk.

Favourite Talk?

Although Ethan’s talk was incredible to witness, I think my favourite talk was Jeremy Keith’s.

Why was this your favourite talk?

I really enjoyed the metaphors pulled from Architecture, the idea of pace layers was really interesting. And I think the message that it’s ok to be overwhelmed by the amount of new technologies available is really important, because you are not supposed to learn them all.

Biggest takeaway?

I think the idea that “how we understand and craft the digital experiences has evolved” is really interesting. As digital infiltrates more of our daily lives and not just when we sit at a computer, what our responsibilities are to the user and how much power we have to influence the world around us, is being considered in a much more serious way than it was when New Adventures was here before.

Anything you didn’t like?

When I think about New Adventures in the past, I think I look back through rose tinted glasses a bit. NAConf was the first conference I attended (before any WordCamps) and importantly, was the first conference held in the UK of this quality within a reasonable price bracket (as far as I’m aware), – the alternatives at the time were Future of Web Design / Web Apps, whose ticket prices were more than double. The amount of people I met at those early conferences was amazing and many of whom, are people I’m still in touch with now.

What I didn’t like this time around were the empty seats in the conference hall. I guess its a sign of the times, there are now a lot more affordable high quality conferences held in the UK, which is fantastic! But it does mean that this isn’t thego to conference of the year any more. It seemed a little sad that they were not able to sellout as they used to, but it by no means detracted from the event itself.

And, actually I sort of think (based on the calibre of talks and the rave reviews I’ve read making sure I researched this properly) that by attending the first for six years, Rob and I were a part of the start of something very special indeed. There is some speculation around whether the organisers want to run it again next year, I think that if they do, it will be a sell out and the conference hall will once again be as full as I remember it 🙂

Any other thoughts?

Although this conference was much more theoretical than technical (it had only one example of code on screen all day), no matter whether you are a designer or developer, I think it is really beneficial to occasionally attend events like this.

I find that they really help renew the desire to do good, meaningful work. Hearing about other peoples personal journeys towards success or that you should have side projects but not too many (the term “procrastiwork” has stayed with me since Jessica Hisch’s talk in 2013), can be inspirational and reinvigorate enthusiasm to try new and different things.

But also, these types of conferences (and this one especially) reminds us that we are a part of something awesome! And that our work has a resounding impact on the world us.

“With great power comes great responsibility” (sorry couldn’t resist…)

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