A Journey To The Edge Of The Web (Perth, 2008)

Derek Featherstone presenting 'Journey to the Edge of the Web' at the Edge of the Web Conference in Perth on 6 November 2008Nathanael Boehm attended the inaugural Edge of the Web conference (EOTW) in Perth, Australia on 6 November 2008. The conference venue was at the University of Western Australia (UWA) and organised by the Australian Web Industry Association (AWIA). Nathanael was sponsored by AWIA through Free Australia Wireless to attend the conference and help with the free Internet wireless network.

Over on the east coast we often see the Perth web community migrating across for conferences such as Web Directions South so it was great to be able to support the first web conference of its type on the west coast. Dozens of people flew in to Perth from Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and overseas to support Edge of the Web 08.

Derek Featherstone the internationally-renowned expert on web accessibility from Ottawa, Canada delivered the opening keynote presentation titled “Journey to the Edge of the Web”. He started at the birth of the Internet as we know it with Gopher, then looked at several examples of maturity in interaction design for the web starting with Gabocorp, the design agency who in 1997 blew the world away with their interactive Flash website complete with audio. Then there was the New York Times special feature with a sequence of 3-D images depicting the 2006 small airplane crash in Manhattan.

Derek talked about how interaction design has grown from being simply impressive to being actually useful and contributing to users’ comprehension and learning. He then showed the MSNBC Hurricane Gustav special feature — which while impressive and educational had serious accessibility issues. Similar issues were then shown in YouTube and Google Maps, however he showed how they could be hacked to be accessible providing it can be done. He also demonstrated Mozilla Lab’s Ubiquity and how that could be integrated with interactive web applications like YouTube to allow command-line-like control of video and then maps.

A provoking presentation that urged developers to not be happy with just developing cool looking interactions but to really go the extra mile for a well-rounded fully thought out implementation.

After Derek’s presentation the conference split into two streams — a technical and a not-so-technical. While Laurel Papworth was presenting on “How to Develop a Social Media Marketing Campaign” in the banquet hall I sat in on Ben Buchanan’s “Hacking Humans: Advocating for a Better Web”. I wasn’t sure what to expect here — and was a bit puzzled when Ben started off by saying his presentation wasn’t really about code. He ended up giving some really good advice on how us technical-minded “geeks” can better interact with not-so-technical people, thinking more about our interactions with humans rather than just computers and armed with that knowledge thus “hacking” humans as a component of systems. Humans cause more problems than code, so there’s more to successful IT project implementation than just fixing bugs in code. It’s about the people. Building relationships, building your personal brand — which requires you to first figure out who you are, what it is you do and how you want to project that image.

I then attended Cameron Adams’ session (while Stephen Collins presented on Enterprise 2.0 in the other stream) on “Designing with Creative Code” and pushed designers and developers to be explorers, to experiment and to be artistic. He proposed that we express creativity not just in the actual product or design but in the actual process of design and implementation, demonstrating some examples of creative designs produced through an innovative approach rather than trying to create something innovative. Cam also got to play with his JS-909 JavaScript drum machine up on the big screen, but also showed some good and bad examples of data visualisation of the US Election. His tip was “Reach for code like you’d reach for a pencil” and asked “What story can your code tell?”.

I then left the technical stream with Kai Koenig’s presentation on Adobe AIR and went across to Donna Spencer’s talk on user testing with “Involving Users — Why is it so Hard to do the Right Thing?”. After an explanation of the different types of user testing grouped by direct and indirect methods and self-reported or observed collection mechanisms she went on to look at the different situations where user testing may not be quite so imperative or projects where it’s absolutely vital for the success of the project. She plotted several sorts of web development projects ranging from a personal blog through to an enterprise-wide business application onto an 8-scale graph of importance, effort required or impact of getting it wrong that included points for consideration such as importance to the business, user impact, cost, ability to iterate and feedback collection. A really interesting way to consider user testing and a good tool to help evaluate the importance of user testing for each project and sell user testing to management and stakeholders.

I stayed in the non-technical stream after lunch for Russ Weakley and “Pushing the Boundaries on Content-Rich Websites”. Solid and well-delivered presentation on opening and sharing content and how best to present that content without it being lost in a sea of features. Russ also talked about staff involvement with users via the website including blogging and facilitating discussion in comments. An interesting point in regards to user participation and discussion where the publication of factual information was important was that moderators should comment against incorrect comments to add clarification rather than deleting or editing the original comment to help people learn what isn’t factual, even though it means incorrect information will remain on the site.

After Russ I headed back over to the technical stream for the remainder of the afternoon with Tim Lucas talking about developing for the iPhone. Initially I thought Tim’s presentation would have no relevance to me however it turned out he was talking just about web design for the iPhone, fixed/liquid and single-column layouts, buttons optimised for the iPhone touch surface rather than hyperlinks, making an iPhone site work in both portrait and landscape modes, the use of emulators to help iPhone development and how it’s simply not possible to through the use of stylesheets alone adapt one HTML structure to work for desktop browsers, the iPhone and mobile devices. They need to be separate websites. Tim looked at some options for how the correct site could be delivered to the client browser using the media attribute or through user selection and cookies or .mobile pages.

Lisa Herrod presented “Usability for Designers, Developers and Decision Makers”, developing usability goals, prioritising those goals, profiling the audience and conducting user research. It was interesting to note that if done properly the goals defined at the start of the project can then rationally become the questions used in surveys or interviews for the user research making it easier to develop the research material and checking off the goals. Lisa also talked about expert and comparative reviews and heuristic assessments.

The conference was closed by Chris Messina who spoke about “Breeding Success through Openness” and pushed an openness beyond just the transparency of data, content, code and information but striving to actually maximise the usefulness of your data to other systems and consumers. Using BarCamp and Coworking as examples of “Rhizomatic” models he then went on to the story behind Microformats, a proposal that had first been put to Google who rejected it leaving it up to the community to just implement it anyway. Same with hashtags. He looked at the business benefit of facilitating this open approach and how it’s not for everyone as some organisations are not viable if they don’t protect their data and IP.

Overall a really good conference — everyone spoke very highly of it with only a few suggestions made. The Twitter backchannel was incredibly busy with hundreds of #eotw-tagged tweets being posted throughout the day. And the free wireless network was lightning-fast, some said the best wireless that’s ever been provided by a conference. And the free coffee provided by 5 Senses with on-site baristas and proper espresso machine — just awesome.

For more information visit the Edge of the Web site.

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