d.Construct Podcasts | September 28, 2006

If you couldn’t make it to d.Construct06, there is no need to panic. We podcast the whole event and will be releasing each session over the coming weeks. Jeff Barr’s podcast on Amazon web services is already online, and I just published Simon Willison and Paul Hammond’s podcast on web services for fun and profit.


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Webmaster Jam Sessions | September 27, 2006

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the very first Webmaster Jam Session in Dallas, Texas. Organised by the guys at CoffeeCup Software the event was primarily targeted towards their user base. Best known for their easy to use HTML editor, you would be excused for thinking the conference was a more entry level affair. However I was actually very impressed by the level of the presentations and the knowledge of the audience. When quizzed on standards usage by Derek Featherstone and Eathan Marcotte, the vast majority of the audience said they used standards. This is a testament to the standards based approach advocated by CoffeeCup and exactly how far web standards have penetrated.

The event was very well subscribed, with around 400 attendees spread across two tracks. The event was well run and everybody I spoke to enjoyed the event. The organisers went to great lengths to ensure all the speakers were comfortable, including sorting out airport transfers, evening meals and a generous bar tab. Nick and J went out of their way to make us welcome and even turned down the aircon so I’d feel at home. OK, so that last comment was a lie, but the aircon was pretty cold and it made the people in my session laugh.

All the sessions I attended were of a very high quality, but a few stood out in my mind. Cameron Moll delivered an excellent presentation entitled Essential Web Skills. A mixture of slick visuals, beautiful storytelling and even a musical interlude, Cameron held the audience captive for the whole sixty minutes. With such a well executed presentation, I think Cameron is going to find his speaking services increasingly in demand.

Another highlight for me was seeing Jared Spool discuss why good content must suck. Jared is one of the webs pre-eminent usability speakers and now I can see why. His presentation was engaging, insightful and very entertaining. Who knew usability could be so much fun? I had a bit of a chat with Jared after the event and hopefully we’ll be able to get him over to the UK for next years d.Construct.

Last, but most definitely not least was John Moore’s session entitled Starbucks Tribal Knowledge. I’ve come across the Brand Autopsy blog before, but have never seen John speak. However I’d heard he was a great speaker and I wasn’t disappointed. John gave a fascinating presentation on the brand and marketing strategy of Starbucks Coffee. Despite having little to do with the web, the presentation touched on a number of interesting issues such as building your business, not your brand, and how to make the ordinary extraordinary. However dressed as a coroner replete with to-tag business cards, it was the high energy delivery that sealed the deal for me. I’d definitely recommend seeing him speak, and will be buying a copy of his book for my marketing girlfriend when I get a chance.

As well as the presentations, I met some great people in and around the event including Andy Rutledge, Mark Newhouse, Jared Christensen and Rob Jones of Frog Design. It was also lots of fun hanging out with the speakers and CoffeeCup crew, and I look forward to seeing everybody at SXSW next year, if not sooner.

If you want to check out the event, I believe podcasts and vidiocasts are already online as well as a mass of fantastic pictures from the event. If you are in or around the Dallas area, I definitely recommend you check the conference out next year.

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d.Construct debrief | September 15, 2006

So a week has passed since d.Construct06 and I’ve finally found time to jot down my impression of the event. I’m not going to linger on the speakers and presentations too much–suffice to say they were all in top form. Furthermore, each presentation has been blogged about so much, I doubt there is anything I could add. Instead, I’m going to talk about the event in more general terms and then focus in on some specific elements.

dconstruct06 audience

As a side note, If you want to see what people have been saying about the session, I suggest you check out the excellent backnetwork. I’m going to talk about the backnetwork a little later in this post but lets start with the big picture.

In my impression d.Construct 2006 rocked, and I’m not just saying that because I helped organised it. The great location, amazing line-up of speakers and eager attendees made it one of the best conferences I’ve been to in a long time. Thankfully a lot of the attendees agreed, and here are a few of my favourite comments.

I attend a LOT of conferences, and this was one of the best run events I’ve been to.
Jeff Veen
Probably the Best Web Conference in the World
Stuart Gray
I absolutely loved dconstruct 2006. Well organised, engaging and informative speakers, goodie-bags, booze and of course all of the fun of the sea side.
David Singleton
I’d definetly recomend going next year simply because of value for money for the quality of presentation.
Ben Holliday

Jeremy Keith presenting at d.Construct06

The event obviously wasn’t without it’s hiccups, but I’ll come onto those in a bit.

As far as locations go, Brighton has a lot going for it. Situated on the Sussex coat, it’s 60 miles from London, and a short, 25 minute train ride from Gatwick airport. Brighton is one of the UKs best loved seaside resorts and is an extremely popular weekend destination for Londoners wanting to escape the big smoke. Brighton is a very young and relaxed city with two large universities and a prominent gay community. It is also a creative city, where everybody you meet is either a designer, artist, DJ or musician and sometimes all of them.

As you would expect from this type of environment, Brighton has a strong web development community. Combine that with its proximity to London and Gatwick and you have a great location for a web design conference. Brighton is also a great place to visit, and we saw this as a big selling points for the conference. By holding the conference on a Friday, we wanted to encourage people to stay for the weekend and enjoy our home town. I’m glad so many people took us up on the offer, and I spoke to a lot of people who liked Brighton so much they’d consider living here.

The one problem with Brighton is it’s lack of good conference facilities. There are lots of hotels, but they tend to be sterile and uninviting. There is also a dedicated conference centre on the seafront, but the 70s style architecture and local council ambience is enough to put anyone off. I believe there are plans to tear the place down and build a new venue, so maybe it’ll be ready for d.Construct 2014? We briefly toyed with the idea of moving the event to London as there is a wider choice of venues. Thankfully we dismissed that idea fairly quickly. The conference venues in London are overpriced, and we really didn’t want to lose the Brighton connection.

In the end we decided to hold the event at the Brighton Corn Exchange, which forms part of the historic Royal Pavilion Estate. Built in 1805 to act as the Prince Regent’s riding stables, it is now a popular theatre and conference venue. Its beautiful setting and quirky nature made is a good choice for a grassroots event. The central location also meant it was really close to the station and surrounded by good bars and eateries for lunch. The weather was on our side this year, so lots of people grabbed lunch and either sat in the pavilion gardens or headed down to the seafront.

Empty venue taken by Drew Mclellan

Because the venue isn’t a dedicated conference centre, we did face one or two issues. One problem was the lack of power strips in the seating area. We would have loved to have wired up the whole area, but sadly this wasn’t possible. Instead we set up a laptop charging station in the tea and coffee area so people could work and charge their batteries during breaks. I realise some of delegates didn’t know this area existed, so we’ll do a better job of highlighting the area next year. The main problem however was the lack of legroom.

dconstruct06 audience

The tiered seats were just a little too close for comfort, and meant people had to get up and stretch their legs between presentations. Sadly the seat pitch is fixed, so there is little we can do to improve the situation. We could decide not to use the tiered searing and have flat seating instead. Unfortunately this has its own issues such as restricting the view. Another option would be to use the Dome theatre next year. The Dome is more like a traditional theatre with an imposing stage and plush, comfortable seating. However its a huge venue and consequently costs a lot more. If we did use the Dome next year we’d either have to increase numbers, up the ticket price, or possibly both.

Norm and Steve in the audience of dconstruct06

I really liked the size of this years event. It was significantly bigger than last year, but still managed to retain that friendly, grassroots feel. I think there is a point beyond which a conference stops being a small, community affair and starts being a large, impersonal event. I think 400 people is probably the sweet spot, so I wouldn’t want d.Construct to grow much larger than that.

The other issue is price. The aim of d.Cosntruct is to be a low cost event that any developer can attend without needing deep pockets or a fat training budget. In that regard we want d.Construct to be the antithesis of these large, money making events. However conferences aren’t cheap things to run as we’re quickly discovering, and choices need to be made in order to keep costs down. As such, I’d be interested to know if people would be willing to pay a bit more for a slightly more comfortable venue, or if you’re happy keeping things as they are.

One way of offsetting the ticket price is through sponsorship. This year we were very lucky to have some great sponsors, and without their support the event wouldn’t have been possible. We’ll be looking for sponsors next year, so if you work for a company that would like to support our event and the larger developer community, please get in touch. Sponsorship can be a tricky proposition for a grassroots event as you need to make sure people don’t feel you’re selling out. One way to do this is have a good mix of sponsors, from small local companies to big corporations. Another is to make sure that the sponsors get a good deal without influencing the nature of the event.

This year our sponsors got a variety of benefits including stands at the event, inclusion in all our marketing material and goodies in the goodie bag. The goodie bags in particular were a big hit and contained things like Yahoo! branded water, backstage.bbc.co.uk t-shirts and a copy of .Net magazine. If you came to d.Construct I’d be interested to hear what you thought about the goodie bags and the sponsorship in general.

Pictures of schwag from d.COnstruct06

However one thing the sponsors didn’t get was the ability to influence the schedule. We had a couple of big companies offer us piles of cash in unmarked bills in return for a speaking slot. A few people even suggested that a couple of our speakers may have paid to be at the event. However all of our speakers were chosen on merit and we would never ever accept sponsorship in return for a speaking slot. I find the whole idea a little seedy and isn’t something we’d want to be associated with.

Yahoo branded water

One of the big successes of the event was the social side of things. Like most conferences half the value is in the hallway conversations and d.Construct was no exception. We arranged a pre event party on the Thursday night so people could meet up and get to know each other. During the day we made sure the breaks were long enough and there was plenty of time for lunch. Jeremy even organised an impromptu microformat picnic which was hugely popular. Set in the pavilion gardens to the sound of sitar music, passers by were stopping to see Jeremy evangelising microformats like the charismatic leader of some bizarre cult. I didn’t see any coolaid being passed out, but Jeremy did perform a small miracle with a platter of Pret sandwiches.

Jeremy Keith preaching about micdroformats. Photo by Neil Crosby

After the event, everybody headed down to the Snippperoo after party for drinks and cans of peas. Sadly the guys underestimated demand so the bar ran dry pretty quickly and the canapes failed to arrive is significant quantities to sate everybody’s hunger. I blame the venue for bad advice and will suggest all the money goes behind the bar next year. Despite the hiccup, Snipperoo put on a great bash and everybody had a fantastic time. One of highlights of the event was the crazy golf tournament to win a branded skateboard deck.

The other big hit of the event was the d.Construct backnetwork. Created by our friends over at Madgex, the backnetwork acted as a focal point for the conference. In the run-up to the event, people used the system to highlight their connections with other attendees using XFN. Once the event was over, the system aggregated all the blogs posts and flickr images from the event as well as giving people an opportunity to review the sessions. This has been an invaluable resource for gauging the buzz around the event and seeing what everybody thought. So much so that I hope Madgex will let us use the system for all our future events.

I’m sure there is a stack of stuff I’ve missed, but this has already turned into an epic post. Suffice to say that the event was a huge success and everybody I’ve spoken to had a great time. If you came to d.Construct I’d love to hear your comments, and if you couldn’t make it this year, I trust we’ll see you at d.Construct 2007.

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Web Design Books: Wishlist | September 4, 2006

There have been some great books released recently, and there are even more on the way. Here is the list of books I’m looking forward to reading. What books do you want to get your hand on?

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BarCamp London 2006 | September 3, 2006

I just got back from the very first UK BarCamp, held at the Yahoo! offices in London. I’ve been following the BarCamp phenomenon since its inception last year and have wanted to see one happen in the UK ever since.

If you are unfamiliar with BarCamp, the idea began as the antithesis of Tim O’Riley’s invite only FooCamp. Billed as an unconference, the events are completely unscheduled, and sessions are organised on the day by attendees.

Upon arriving at the venue and picking up our FREE t-shirts, we were greeted by a brief orientation by Ben Metcalfe. Everybody was then asked to schedule events by writing down a brief title and description on a sheet of paper and then sticking them to the glass meeting room walls. I was impressed at how eager people were in suggesting talks, many of whole had never presented in public before. Not having had time to prepare a talk, I opted for a Sunday slot.

After a quick lunch of crisps and subway sandwiches (all provided by the sponsors) the sessions began. Each session lasted 30 minutes and the day moved at a lightening pace. With 5 rooms to choose from, there was almost always something on worth seeing. The sessions ended at 7:30pm and the FREE pizza and beer arrived.

A collaborative mashpit (where people group together to create mash-ups) had been organised for 9pm. However a sizeable splinter group formed–led by Simon Willison– to play a game called werewolf(game). Apparently popular at events like FooCamp, I was a bit dubious about the game at first. However everybody quickly got into the game and we found ourselves playing it until the small hours.

One unique aspect of BarCamp is the camping over. Rather than everybody leaving in the evening and not bothering to come back the next day, attendees are encouraged to bring sleeping bags and sleep on the floor. Out of the 100 or so people who attended, this was probably done by about 40 people including myself.

Having gone to bed late, I work up on Sunday morning after only five hours sleep. Tired and exhausted we all had breakfast before embarking on a second day of events. My talk was the second talk of the day, and my lack of sleep meant I wasn’t on top form. However I enjoyed giving my talk on user experience design and I hope the audience did too. At the very least it sparked some interesting discussion on how ease of use is not the only metric when evaluating the user experience of a design.

I really enjoyed the talks on the second day, and in particular the sessions on user-centered design and microformats. However by 4:30pm everybody was exhausted and after a quick clean-up, it was time to go home. I had a great time as BarCamp London and met some excellent people, and look forward to seeing many of them in Brighton for d.Construct on Friday.

Thank you to Ian Forrester, Ben Metcalfe, Paul Hammond and everybody else involved in the event. Can’t wait till the next one.

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Before, During and After d.Construct | September 1, 2006

(Cross-posted for your pleasure)

d.Construct is only a week away, so I hope you’ve managed to get your accommodation sorted. If not, there are plenty of cheap hotels and B&Bs in Brighton to choose from. Alternatively you could try Lewes or Shoreham, which are a just short train or bus ride away.

If you are staying in Brighton on Thursday night, you’ll probably want to share a drink or two with your fellow attendees. People have already been discussing possible venues, but to make things simpler we’ve done the organising for you. Clearleft have reserved a private room at Heist on Western Road for a pre-event social. So we hope to see you there from 7pm onwards.

Registration for d.Construct opens at 9am on the Friday, so make sure you arrive nice and early. We are expecting queues so please be patient. There are no tickets for d.Construct so simply bring some ID and you’ll be able to collect your conference pass on the door. Once inside we’ll be serving tea, coffee and snacks to make sure you’re wide awake for the days festivities.

There will be FREE wifi at the event, so you can check your emails, live blog the event or hang out on the backnetwork. However please don’t hog the bandwidth by downloading the latest torrents. That’s just naughty!

There will be tea and coffee breaks throughout the day, but lunch is down to you. There are loads of restaurants and eateries near the venue, so go wild. Just make sure you’re back in time for Aral Balkan mashing his Flex up!. Suw Charmin has suggested organising an informal Open Rights Group meet-up during lunch. If you fancy doing something similar, feel free.

After the conference is over I hope you’ll all be sticking around for the after party. There will be FREE (as in beer) food (as in nibbles) and drinks (as in beer and wine) at the Terraces, courtesy of snipperoo. Space is limited, so get there early to avoid disappointment.

If you’re planning on staying in Brighton for the weekend, OpenStreetMap are organising a Brighton Mapping Workshop on Saturday which should be lots of fun. There isn’t anything planned for Saturday evening yet, but feel free to post suggestions on your blogs and use the fantastic backnetwork to sort something out.

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