Monday, 9 September 2013

Evolution of a conference

If someone who has never been to a "tech" conference asked me why it is that they should consider going themselves, I'd say that the reasons have to be personal. You can only learn for yourself, and you will have a hard time infecting others with the same enthusiasm you gain from such events.

But specifically, people should consider going to a conference to really start to understand themselves in the world (there are loads, they differ in value, but there are plenty of a good quality out there). Before my first conference, @Media in 2009, I had received an average degree and entered a field of work based on skills that were largely self-taught up to that point. The prospect of having to work out how to do all of the things that I might have been expected to do, the thoughts of just how good or not I may be at my job...these were issues that the attendance to such a conference helped to alleviate.

If you think, however, that doing the conference thing is going to give you and your business the killer edge (and you're not already in a position of influential power in your organisation...or a freelancer), then you are probably not entering in to the experience for the right reasons. Believing you're just going to take back lessons from modern conferences and make your job more professional is a quick route to long-term demotivation, the opposite of what these events try to achieve!

Conferences have quite significantly evolved over the years. It feels like gone are the days of tutorial based talks about how you might do certain tasks, laid before us instead are an array of top-line examples, exciting experiences, and style check lists of "the right things to do™"

It was interesting to look at, when I got back home from Reasons to be Creative and dConstruct, a booklet from the 2010 Flash on the Beach conference (I think my second year of the event that would become Reasons to be Creative). A conference much more tightly coupled to the interactive and rich fringes of the web, it's talks were much more free to be technical, to be specific to certain technological solutions, to techniques.

Fast forward four conferences to this years' Reasons to be Creative and finding anything that was similar in nature was nigh on impossible to find.

This isn't a criticism. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that hard and fast answers to our problems are either so simple that a visit to StackOverflow is a much more value-for-money action, or so complex and open to interpretation that it'd be foolish to open yourself up as a speaker to tie yourself to something that can be so easily done a number of other ways. When Flash was king, you did things in Flash. The libraries and techniques for doing the same thing Flash used to do are in the multiples of dozens, and designers/developers can be a very fanboyish bunch.

It's also frighteningly obvious that our world is moving too fast to keep up with the changes that we are facing both in software and hardware moving forward. If you thought that the wide array of different mobile phones were hard enough to be dealing with, what with their many different versions of their own web browsers that make IE6/7/8 look like a wet dream, just watch for the next few years that will see wearable computing start it's inevitable rise on wrist watches, glasses, and even through the use of devices that will allow interaction with our work without any physical interaction.

This to me is the greatest problem of our time. We're smart people, we can make things work on an individual level...perhaps even as small teams we can achieve what we need to despite this constant change. But the business world does not, the academic world seemingly can not.

Solving the most efficient way for transitional animation when we were talking about a single technology that was pervasive and widely accepted, taken in by a single worker and taken back to the fold, made a lot of sense three years ago. To me, now, the idea of trying to get individual workers to understand the preciosities of the UX method du jour, is learning to run before you have even been born.

Evgenia Grinblo this year talked about the hurdles to overcome with UX when taken solo endeavor, and it is perhaps in this talk that I see the largest parallel with problems that conferences like Reasons may be facing. Just as it is hard to sell the right strategic processes and UX thinking to bosses, so it is to sell the idea of taking half a dozen or more billable hours and just thrown down the drain (as it may be argued from a two dimensional upper-management point of view).

Evgenia cited others' studies into the effects of user research and reiterated the findings that suggest taking a team to the user to understand them is worth an equal amount of time spent by just one of the team with more users (who then communicates their findings back). Doesn't this sound scarily similar to things that we face when we turn up back in the office, excited and invigorated for another year...month...week, while everyone else secretly simmers under the surface about the preferential treatment or "easy" time you are getting?

To my eyes it seems obvious, entire teams of workers from companies need to be encouraged to attend these events.

The talks I've heard this year are not wrong or boring, though they do become slightly repetitive the more that time goes on. If you go to a modern conference you'll hear about the importance of communicating in your team, about trusting each other, sharing ideas, and encouraging diversity. The problem is that because it is only you from your company that hears this, the effect is more that you're attending a support group than a talk about progressing our respective professions. P.S. if you're a freelancer I'd welcome understanding how these talks on team building necessarily give you usable skills and techniques!

No, for teams it simply isn't the easiest course to have someone come back from a day or week of learning and spout that they now know what is best for the team/business. If the rest of the team isn't also bought-in to the idea, doesn't feel that same level of inspiration and positive feeling that comes from understanding how much better things could be, then it is the toughest of sells.

I don't have any solutions here, I don't know how conference organisers can encourage groups of workers to attend at the same time when even financial incentives for doing do won't even scratch the surface of perceived loss of earnings. I also don't know how such a change would be easy to manage when considering catering talks for just about the widest range of job roles you could if such an avalanche of team attendees did happen.

The only thing I know is what I feel, and that is that the issue of providing the right experience for customers/users is not as easy a fix as the issue of accessibility of Flash sites to those who didn't have Flash, a fix that was more forced by the rise and rise of Apple's iPhone than through any altruistic efforts on behalf of developers, designers or business managers.

I tweeted during the Reasons conference that I don't know of anything that is going to suddenly present itself in the same way Steve Jobs' consideration for users/his bottom line (delete as you feel is applicable) to cause businesses to just throw out the old way and start with the new. Making only a desktop version of a site is still common enough practice, mobile versions are perhaps more considered this year than before, but larger resolutions on devices are going to see project managers and money men questioning whether there is business value in the "mobile site" once again.

For all of those that talk on stage, rightfully, about providing the best experience to all possible people, you must have dozens that say that cutting their budget in half right now and taking the x% of people that can't fully experience the site and abandoning them is just a practice in business pragmatism. Can we ever have someone like Google or Microsoft come out and say they won't be supporting websites that don't act responsibly to all users, of all abilities, with or without javascript or modern browsers?

I know, I know.... let's not be silly.

Inadequate process is the Flash in the room, and I would like to hear more at conferences in the future from people on how to convince the unconvincable, not so much about the best type of practices to undertake...more about how the speakers convinced their bosses to change the company's culture. Not everyone can be an Erik Spiekermann and just advocate logically awesome business practice from the position of a dictator!

But process isn't going to be the be all and end all for future conferences. It is entirely arguable that we are in a "lull" in technological topics, while everything is changing most things are stemming from the same techniques of the last decade; the next few years may yet see a return of specific technical talks though. Just how do you hook your website's app to provide context-aware notifications to someone's Google Glass? What are the implications for the disabled and your responsibilities if they are using non-interactive devices such as the Leap Motion or upcoming Myo?

The future may be more exciting than the present. Arguably it always is. It doesn't mean that the stuff that I have had the privilege of attending this week hasn't been useful, or inspiring...I'd tell almost anyone I know to open their minds with the type of content I have watched and listened to at this years' Reasons to be Creative or dConstruct, but hopefully now you understand why I think that if you're thinking about attending either next year...avoid future it for yourself and yourself alone.