Frontend2010 Oslo: my thoughts & audience feedback

Last week marked the inaugural Frontend 2010 conference in Oslo and I was honored to present the opening keynote alongside such a stellar lineup of speakers. The conference was – a miscast MC and a poor sponsor choice aside – a resounding success (the lovely folks at IXD, which organized the conference, were very receptive to feedback on those issues and assured me that they'd be taking greater care on those points for next year.)

Day 1

During the conference, I got the chance to attend a number of excellent talks, including Paul's "Your design sucks! (How to manage the sign off process)" which made me realize that my decision, several years ago, to stop doing development work for clients – while painful and difficult – was the right one for me.

I also loved Elliot's "Stop Worrying & Get On With It: Tips and Tricks for designing for the Modern Web" in which he channelled Mr. Andy "HardBoiled" Clarke and told the audience that it's all right to develop with the latest and greatest web technologies as long as you use them to implement enhancements instead of core features and take into consideration that core functionality should gracefully degrade on older browsers. (See

Brian Fling gave a lovely talk on Designing Mobile Experiences and I could only sit there and nod my head every few minutes in agreement. What can I say, dude gets it.

And, it was great to catch Daniel Burka and Rob Goodlatte's presentation (The first 15 minutes - Designing for new-user experiences) in real life after listening to it virtually earlier in the year while I was opening the UX Web Summit.

Day 2

On the second day, the lovely Mr. Dan Rubin kicked things off with an excellent presentation on using high-fidelity prototypes for usability testing and rapid iteration. Basically, Dan's technique involves using comprehensive Photoshop mocks of web page UIs as background graphics and layering on top of those only the live components and links that are necessary to test a given feature or screen. You, thus, end up creating simple HTML prototypes that are nevertheless high-fidelity and which you can then use during usability testing. You can also iterate quickly upon these prototypes in response to the user feedback you receive.

I loved the pragmatism and simplicity of Dan's approach although I did raise the question of whether it made it harder to respond to user feedback on aggregate and easier to fall into the trap of having individual users influence the design directly as opposed to having them inform us about the design. User feedback should, after all, inform us about the design and we – as designers – need to filter that feedback and weigh it against our design vision and goals before deciding whether and how to react to it.

Dan's response was that even though they had to make one or two u-turns, the process worked our remarkably well for them and that having seasoned Experience Designers on the team was an important part of the equation.

(Having great people on your team is probably the ultimate determiner of success. A good, lightweight, user-centered process helps support those people, keep them happy and sane, and creates an environment that works with them as opposed to against them. This is important because while finding great people for your team is hard, keeping them is even harder.)

I found Kwame Nyanning's talk to be a great contrast in terms of tone and delivery to all of the other ones. Here is a man with an inner peace and rhythm all his own. While I didn't agree at all with the waterfall nature of the development process he was advocating (although it may work for the types of projects they have on, which I am assuming are mostly high-production-value (and cost), mostly linear, one-offs/microsites for large names like Disney), I loved the aesthetics, pacing, and multi-disciplinary nature of his talk. My tweet at the time pretty much sums it up:

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After Kwame's talk, I decided to finally venture out of the Radisson Blue Scandinavian hotel that the event was taking place in and find myself some warmer clothes (having forgotten to pack anything but t-shirts). Of course, I proceeded immediately to get lost in downtown Oslo and had a great time discovering the town. It did mean, however, that I was late for the after-lunch talks and only got to catch a portion of Meagan Fisher's excellent talk on taking your designs from wireframe to a beautiful finished product. Needless to say, her slides were lickable and you could see that the audience was delighted by the boatloads of practical advice she presented in her highly-concentrated talk. It left you wanting more, like any good talk should.

Given there was time left still after Meagan's talk, I caught the end of Per Martinsen (AKA Tied Revolverman)'s talk on "Transmedia art and non-linear storytelling". In fact, he had just concluded his presentation and there was a Q&A in progress. One of the audience members (Benny – sorry if I spelled your name wrong) started a debate on the nature of reality that I heartily took part in (hey, you don't get the chance to make use of those long years spent studying critical media theory every day). The ensuing debate was one of the highlights of the conference for me and I'd love to see more talks end in a group discussion. After the talk, Per was also kind enough to take me through his talk, which revolved around his extremely interesting "transmedia" project, Earthbound – Surfing the Apocalypse.

I did, unfortunately, miss Paul Irish's session (though I really wanted to attend it) as it was on at the same time as the other two talks but I'm looking forward to catching it on the video recording.

By the time the last pre-closing-keynote sessions came around I was rather knackered. I summoned enough energy to pop into Jina Bolton's CSS session to find a packed room full of entranced people (all but Mr. Heilmann, of course, whom Jina told me was heckling her from the front – this is to be expected!) :)

In the penultimate session of the conference, Nick La presented a relaxed design portfolio review, concentrating on "the little things". He also took us through some web sites that he found inspirational, including Jina's beautiful sushi & ROBOTS.

Finally, to round of an excellent series of talks, Christian Heilmann gave us a closing keynote that took us on a ride through a smorgasbord of different web technologies (and techniques) that we have at our disposal today with the aim of both knowing the right tool to use for the job and to try and get us to "build for the future and to convince those who live in the past to join us."

All in all, I had a great time attending the conference, met some amazing people, and loved Aggie Elisabeth Grøndal Peterson and Per's opening performance (and their show at the dinner) with their band Frost (check out Frost's music on Spotify). And, the whole experience would not have been exactly the same if I hadn't gotten to tickle the ivories of a Steinway grand piano that just happened to be standing out in the hallway. I'm yet again ruined and cannot play any other piano without thinking, "but it's not a Steinway". (It's like the Retina display of pianos.) Oh well.

Audience reactions

Oh, and what post would be complete without some of the feedback from my talk (this is the bit that other conference organizers see and go "oh, look, that guy's good, let's hire him to do a talk at our amazing conference!"):

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By the way, if you want to catch my talk, I'm going to be presenting the opening keynote this Friday at the Over The Air conference in London. Hope to see some of you there.