A couple of days ago, I headed down south for my first ever conference, SmashingConference Oxford. I didn't really know what to expect other than that I'd learn some new things and meet some people working in an industry where most of my colleagues—when I have colleagues—are generally miles away at best. I came away incredibly inspired, to the point that the 4 hours of sleep I got on the Tuesday night didn't stop me researching lightweight blog frameworks on the train home and throwing together this place after work by the end of the week. Also there were laser rhythm games and loads of balloons and how can you go wrong with that?
I learnt a tonne, not just on a technical level, but in terms of design and ethos as well. I'm not going to write too much about the tech stuff now because frankly I want some time to play before I'd feel right talking about any of it, but there are a lot of more universal things that I came away with. Rather than covering them talk by talk or even attempting to go over everything (as I'm sure there'll be videos and you should watch them; at the least there'll be slides), here's a few 'commandments' that stuck in my head.
Smashing covered a really diverse range of topics and it was a bit of a scheduling masterstroke to put Christopher Murphy first because his talk 'A Good Writer Is a Good Thinker' set things up to really take in everything else. In honesty it's his fault I started this blog because the David Weinberger quote he mentioned about 'writing yourself into existence' really struck home. In order to share the things on your mind, you need to kick them into some form of order and clarity. It's like that old bit of wisdom that the best way to cement your learning in something is to teach it to someone else. Or the slightly more recent rubber duck debugging method.
As soon as you are converting thoughts to words, you enter into a conversation with yourself, refining and clarifying not only the words you use to express your idea but those ideas themselves. And in doing that, you clarify yourself. No matter if you're "not a writer", writing is an indispensable tool to develop your own mind, even if it's just in a notebook and you never show another soul. And of course if you do share that writing, you can help others learn from what you've got to say.
It's important not to take that for granted, either. Stuff that you think is obvious might not be to someone else. And even if you're not reinventing the wheel, you never know what little thing you say could give someone else the nudge they needed to come to their own revelations.
Along with sharing your own experience, it's incredibly important to make that experience as varied as possible. Learn from everything. A laser focus on your one subject area will give you practice but can lead you into stagnation. The more you put in, the more complex the machine of your thoughts can get, and the more innovative you can be. It was really encouraging to hear that said on the stage— as someone who's degree is actually English Lit & Philosophy (and then an MA in Contemporary Lit & Film) it's nice to affirm that the stuff I studied isn't really that irrelevant. Even on a smaller scope it's important: when a designer knows about code, they know what they're asking of someone with their designs (if they're not building it themselves). When a backend programmer knows a bit about design, they can build prototypes that don't make them want to claw their eyes out. And it's not just in terms of skills where this comes into play: it's also important that we open ourself up to what our clients and users have to say. Speaking of which...
The importance of user testing and empathy came up over and over. In more direct ways like Meagan Fisher's talk "Getting Personal: The Why and How of Designing for People" and Rachel Ilan Simpson's "User Research for Designers & Engineers", to Richard Rutter's more technical case study in "Don’t Give Them What They Want, Give Them What They Need", a recurring theme of the conference was empathy not as fluffy design language but as the point that we make things for people. And if we're going to make the best things we can, that means not just looking at "What can I do" and "What will look cool" but "What do my users need". Interestingly, for all the amazing talk of new and cool technology, there was also a repeated sentiment to remember the users on less than ideal systems. It's easy fall into the position of "Well my users just won't have crap connections and terrible old computers" but you never know who might want what you are making. That terrible feature phone on flakey 3g might be someone's only access to the internet, through no fault of their own. Granted there are always cases where you need the user's kit to be at a certain standard because of something intrinsic to what you're making, but with the majority of things it's worth using progressive enhancement and graceful fallbacks. Move the web forward, but not by kicking people in the shins unnecessarily. The fantastic performance advice from Paul Lewis and Jake Archibald wasn't just for making your stuff extra slick on a shiny new macbook. For some users it could be the difference between impossible and usable.
Bruce Lawson's hilarious and insightful "Is Blink The New IE6?" had a lot to say about the problem with monopolies (also about the Cheeky Girls) and just like the way we would make Blink become IE6 by forcing people to use it or bugger off, I think that that as an idea applies to how we think and design as well.
In other words, if you don't take into account different experiences and consider the needs of others in your work, you are forcing your brain to only run on IE6. You might do some really innovative and clever things for a while, but ultimately you're going to get left behind and eventually working with you will make people want to punch you in the face.
This came up repeatedly as a theme in Polle De Maagt's "Crafting for #WorldDomination" as he spoke about some of the innovative marketing and service ideas KLM have had. Not to mention the amazing publishing model Peter Bil'ak's showcased with Works that Work. But it also came up time and time again in the more technical talks. Be it responsive images, hybrid apps, flexbox or service workers, as long as you are responsible with how you use it, we have an incredible new toolkit waiting for us to use. This blog is actually my first time using flexbox on anything, having always assumed it had to be an all or nothing affair. But used responsibly in a progressive enhancement capacity, as shown by Zoe M. Gillenwater in 'Enhancing Responsiveness with Flexbox', it is criminally easy to use and solves a whole bunch of design problems. Hand in hand with all this is that if you want something to change in the web, go and make it happen. Use the technology you want to be common because it will force browsers to adapt if they don't want their users to have an inferior experience. Take to the front lines of standards discussions and help make things a reality. The only ones stopping us from being able to use all the new and shiny is ourselves.
And the rest
All this is just a little bit of the stuff that came up, I really recommend checking out all the speakers as not only have a bunch of them posted their slides but they're all really interesting anyway. A minor note but one that was very important to me, was it was refreshing how many women there were: both on stage and among the attendees. Speaking to a few of them, it sounds like that's not the norm, some even told me about conferences where they were one of only three. Others talked about how female colleagues of theirs stopped going to conferences just to avoid that situation, so the sense of inclusion and diversity about Smashing was a very good thing. The tech team and organisers did a cracking job as well, huge props to everyone involved. I really hope I can make it to the next one.
Anyway, enough rambling. Let's make things.