Journal tags: interview



Hosting online events

Back in 2014 Vitaly asked me if I’d be the host for Smashing Conference in Freiburg. I jumped at the chance. I thought it would be an easy gig. All of the advantages of speaking at a conference without the troublesome need to actually give a talk.

As it turned out, it was quite a bit of work:

It wasn’t just a matter of introducing each speaker—there was also a little chat with each speaker after their talk, so I had to make sure I was paying close attention to each and every talk, thinking of potential questions and conversation points. After two days of that, I was a bit knackered.

Last month, I hosted an other event, but this time it was online: UX Fest. Doing the post-talk interviews was definitely a little weirder online. It’s not quite the same as literally sitting down with someone. But the online nature of the event did provide one big advantage…

To minimise technical hitches on the day, and to ensure that the talks were properly captioned, all the speakers recorded their talks ahead of time. That meant I had an opportunity to get a sneak peek at the talks and prepare questions accordingly.

UX Fest had a day of talks every Thursday in June. There were four talks per Thursday. I started prepping on the Monday.

First of all, I just watched all the talks and let them wash me over. At this point, I’d often think “I’m not sure if I can come up with any questions for this one!” but I’d let the talks sit there in my subsconscious for a while. This was also a time to let connections between talks bubble up.

Then on the Tuesday and Wednesday, I went through the talks more methodically, pausing the video every time I thought of a possible question. After a few rounds of this, I inevitably ended up with plenty of questions, some better than others. So I then re-ordered them in descending levels of quality. That way if I didn’t get to the questions at the bottom of the list, it was no great loss.

In theory, I might not get to any of my questions. That’s because attendees could also ask questions on the day via a chat window. I prioritised those questions over my own. Because it’s not about me.

On some days there was a good mix of audience questions and my own pre-prepared questions. On other days it was mostly my own questions.

Either way, it was important that I didn’t treat the interview like a laundry list of questions to get through. It was meant to be a conversation. So the answer to one question might touch on something that I had made a note of further down the list, in which case I’d run with that. Or the conversation might go in a really interesting direction completely unrelated to the questions or indeed the talk.

Above all, these segments needed to be engaging and entertaining in a personable way, more like a chat show than a post-game press conference. So even though I had done lots of prep for interviewing each speaker, I didn’t want to show my homework. I wanted each interview to feel like a natural flow.

To quote the old saw, this kind of spontaneity takes years of practice.

There was an added complication when two speakers shared an interview slot for a joint Q&A. Not only did I have to think of questions for each speaker, I also had to think of questions that would work for both speakers. And I had to keep track of how much time each person was speaking so that the chat wasn’t dominated by one person more than the other. This was very much like moderating a panel, something that I enjoy very much.

In the end, all of the prep paid off. The conversations flowed smoothly and I was happy with some of the more thought-provoking questions that I had researched ahead of time. The speakers seemed happy too.

Y’know, there are not many things I’m really good at. I’m a mediocre developer, and an even worse designer. I’m okay at writing. But I’m really good at public speaking. And I think I’m pretty darn good at this hosting lark too.

Hosting UX Fest

I quite enjoy interviewing people. I don’t mean job interviews. I mean, like, talk show interviews. I’ve had a lot of fun over the years moderating panel discussions: @media Ajax in 2007, SxSW in 2008, Mobilism in 2011, the Progressive Web App Dev Summit and EnhanceConf in 2016.

I’ve even got transcripts of some panels I’ve moderated:

I enjoyed each and every one. I also had the pleasure of interviewing the speakers at every Responsive Day Out. Hosting events like that is a blast, but what with The Situation and all, there hasn’t been much opportunity for hosting conferences.

Well, I’m going to be hosting an event next month: UX Fest. It’s this year’s online version of UX London.

An online celebration of digital design, taking place throughout June 2021.

I am simultaneously excited and nervous. I’m excited because I’ll have the chance to interview a whole bunch of really smart people. I’m nervous because it’s all happening online and that might feel quite different to an in-person discussion.

But I have an advantage. While the interviews will be live, the preceding talks will be pre-recorded. That means I have to time watch and rewatch each talk, spot connections between them, and think about thought-provoking questions for each speaker.

So that’s what I’m doing between now and the beginning of June. If you’d like to bear witness to the final results, I encourage you to get a ticket for UX Fest. You can come to the three-day conference in the first week of June, or you can get a ticket for the festival spread out over the following three Thursdays in June, or you can get a combo ticket for both and save some money.

There’s an inclusion programme for the conference and festival days:

Anyone from an underrepresented group is invited to apply. We especially invite and welcome Black, indigenous & people of colour, LGBTQIA+ people and people with disabilities.

Here’s the application form.

There’ll also be a whole bunch of hands-on masterclasses throughout June that you can book individually. I won’t be hosting those though. I’ll have plenty to keep me occupied hosting the conference and the festival.

I hope you’ll join me along with Krystal Higgins, David Dylan Thomas, Catt Small, Scott Kubie, Temi Adeniyi, Teresa Torres, Tobias Ahlin and many more wonderful speakers—it’s going to fun!

Design systems on the Clearleft podcast

If you’ve already subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, thank you! The first episode is sliding into your podcast player of choice.

This episode is all about …design systems!

I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out, although as it’s the first one, I’m sure I’ll learn how to do this better. I may end up looking back at this first foray with embarrassment. Still, it’s fairly representative of what you can expect from the rest of the season.

This episode is fairly short. Just under eighteen minutes. That doesn’t mean that other episodes will be the same length. Each episode will be as long (or as short) as it needs to be. Form follows function, or in this case, episode length follows content. Other episodes will be longer. Some might be shorter. It all depends on the narrative.

This flies in the face of accepted wisdom when it comes to podcasting. The watchword that’s repeated again and again for aspiring podcasters is consistency. Release on a consistent schedule and have a consistent length for episodes. I kind of want to go against that advice just out of sheer obstinancy. If I end up releasing episodes on a regular schedule, treat it as coincidence rather than consistency.

There’s not much of me in this episode. And there won’t be much of me in most episodes. I’m just there to thread together the smart soundbites coming from other people. In this episode, the talking heads are my colleagues Jon and James, along with my friends and peers Charlotte, Paul, and Amy (although there’s a Clearleft connection with all of them: Charlotte and Paul used to be Clearlefties, and Amy spoke at Patterns Day and Sofa Conf).

I spoke to each of them for about an hour, but like I said, the entire episode is less than eighteen minutes long. The majority of our conversations ended up on the cutting room floor (possibly to be used in future episodes).

Most of my time was spent on editing. It was painstaking, but rewarding. There’s a real pleasure to be had in juxtaposing two snippets of audio, either because they echo one another or because they completely contradict one another. This episode has a few examples of contradictions, and I think those are my favourite moments.

Needless to say, eighteen minutes was not enough time to cover everything about design systems. Quite the opposite. It’s barely an introduction. This is definitely a topic that I’ll be returning to. Maybe there could even be a whole season on design systems. Let me know what you think.

Oh, and you’ll notice that there’s a transcript for the episode. That’s a no-brainer. I’m a big fan of the spoken word, but it really comes alive when it’s combined with searchable, linkable, accessible text.

Anyway, have a listen and if you’re not already subscribed, pop the RSS feed into your podcast player.


I’ve been on a few different podcasts recently.

The tenth episode of the Design Systems podcast is myself and Chris having a back-and-forth about design systems: Overcoming Entropy and Turning Chaos Into Order:

Chris and Jeremy Keith discuss imbuing teams with a shared sense of ownership of their design system, creating design systems able to address unforeseen scenarios, design ops as an essential part of an effective design system, and more.

Gerry has started a new podcast to accompany his new book, World Wide Waste. He invited me on for the first episode: ‘We’ve ruined the Web. Here’s how we fix it.’:

Welcome to World Wide Waste, a podcast about how digital is killing the planet, and what to do about it. In this session, I’m chatting with Jeremy Keith. Jeremy is a philosopher of the internet. Every time I see him speak, I’m struck by his calming presence, his brilliant mind and his deep humanity.

We talked about performance, energy consumption, and digital preservation. We agreed on a lot, but there were also points where we fundamentally disagreed. Good stuff!

If you like the sound of some Irishmen chatting on a podcast, then as well as listening to me and Gerry getting into it, you might also enjoy the episode of The Blarney Pilgrims podcast that I was on:

Jeremy Keith is the founder and keeper of, probably the greatest irish music resource in the world. And this episode hopefully has something of the generous essence of that archive. We flow, from The North as a different planet to Galway as the centre of the ’90s slacker world. From the one-tune-a-week origin of and managing an online community to the richness and value of constancy.

I’ve already written about how much this meant to me.

On the same topic—Irish music on the web—I made a brief appearance in the latest episode of Shannon Heaton’s Irish Music Stories, Irish Tunes in the Key of C-19:

How are traditional musicians and dancers continuing creative careers and group music events during the Covid-19 pandemic? How is social distancing affecting the jigs and reels? In this unexpected open of Season Four of Irish Music Stories, musicians from Ireland, England, Belgium, Sweden, and the U.S. address on and offline strategies… from a safe distance.

A bit of Blarney

I don’t talk that much on here about my life’s work. Contrary to appearances, my life’s work is not banging on about semantic markup, progressive enhancement, and service workers.

No, my life’s work is connected to Irish traditional music. Not as a musician, I hasten to clarify—while I derive enormous pleasure from playing tunes on my mandolin, that’s more of a release than a vocation.

My real legacy, it turns out, is being the creator and caretaker of The Session, an online community and archive dedicated to Irish traditional music. I might occassionally mention it here, but only when it’s related to performance, accessibility, or some other front-end aspect. I’ve never really talked about the history, meaning, and purpose of The Session.

Well, if you’re at all interested in that side of my life, you can now listen to me blather on about it for over an hour, thanks to the Blarney Pilgrims podcast.

I’ve been huffduffing episodes of this podcast for quite a while now. It’s really quite excellent. If you’re at all interested in Irish traditional music, the interviews with the likes of Kevin Burke, John Carty, Liz Carroll and Catherine McEvoy are hard to beat.

So imagine my surprise when they contacted me to ask me to chat and play some tunes! It really was an honour.

I was also a bit of guinea pig. Normally they’d record these kinds of intimate interviews face to face, but what with The Situation and all, my chat was the first remotely recorded episode.

I’ve been on my fair share of podcasts—most recently the Design Systems Podcast—but this one was quite different. Instead of talking about my work on the web, this focussed on what I was doing before the web came along. So if you don’t want to hear me talking about my childhood, give this a miss.

But if you’re interested in hearing my reminisce and discuss the origin and evolution of The Session, have a listen. The chat is interspersed with some badly-played tunes from me on the mandolin, but don’t let that put you off.

Questions, please

The Brighton Digital Festival is in full swing, Reasons To Be Creative is underway, and Brighton is chock-a-block with all manner of smart geeks enjoying the seaside sunshine. It’s pretty damn great.

Not long now ‘till Brighton SF on Thursday evening with Brian Aldiss, Lauren Beukes, and Jeff Noon. I’ll be the host for the evening so I should make sure that I’ve got lots of incisive questions for the three authors…

What the hell am I thinking‽ I have no idea what I’m doing. Damn it, Jim, I’m a sci-fi fan, not an interviewer!

I could do with your help. If you have anything—anything at all—that you’d like to ask one or all of these luminaries, please share it with me. We’ll be taking questions from the floor on the night too, but I’d feel a lot better if I had a nice stack of good questions to get the ball rolling.

So please, leave a comment and let me know what I should be asking these three masters of sci-fi.

Responsive questions

I got an email from Ben Frain recently asking if I’d answer some questions for an upcoming article in MacUser UK about responsive design. Seeing as this is a topic I could natter on about endlessly, I happily obliged.

Here are my answers to his questions. There’s a good chance that much of this will get trimmed or altered for the final article so I figured I’d share my verbatim responses here.

When you first looked at responsive web design methodology, can you remember your initial reaction?

Before Ethan wrote his seminal article in A List Apart, I saw him giving a presentation at An Event Apart in which he outlined the ideas of responsive design. My reaction was “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Ethan was essentially describing all-round best practices for the web in general, taking progressive enhancement to the next level. But the reason why people started paying attention was because of the timing; the idea of websites being accessed by browsers with all sorts of screen dimensions was no longer an abstract concept, it was a very real description of web browsing demographics.

So my overall reaction to responsive web design was “Finally! Maybe now web designers and developers will really start embracing the web as its own medium.” It’s no surprise that Ethan’s article in A List Apart referenced A Dao Of Web Design by John Allsopp—a piece of writing that should serve as a manifesto for everyone working on the web.

Have you been surprised that responsive web design has become the zeitgeist of the front end community for the past 18 months or so?

I’m not surprised that responsive web design has struck a chord. I only wish it could have happened sooner. While media queries are a relatively recent innovation, we’ve always had the ability to create fluid layouts. And yet web designers and developers have wilfully ignored that fact, choosing instead to create un-webby fixed-width layouts.

In taking a batch of related technologies—liquid layouts, media queries, and fluid images—and then grouping them together under one banner—responsive web design—Ethan made it a lot easier for people to talk about this approach to designing and building web sites. There’s a real power in naming related technologies like this. We saw the same explosion of discussion and creativity when Jesse James Garrett coined the term Ajax.

How long after understanding it did you create your first working example (either client work or ‘playground’ work)?

I was already making liquid layouts. In fact, every single site I’ve ever built for over a decade has used percentages by default. Because of that, I was already familiar with the challenges of fluid images and the work done by Richard Rutter (which Ethan references). I had started to dabble with media queries on my own personal projects but seeing Ethan’s proof-of-concept was just the incentive I needed to start implementing them on client sites.

As the methodology gained traction, it started to get a lot of flak from some quarters, often mobile developers. What do you put that down to?

I think a lot of people misunderstood what problems responsive design was claiming to solve. It was never specifically about mobile devices or users in a mobile context; it was always about adapting layout to varying viewport sizes.

A lot of people seemed to be angry that responsive web design didn’t appear to solve any issues relating to bandwidth or context. It’s true that responsive web design doesn’t solve those problems …it also doesn’t cure cancer. It never claimed to.

Responsive design isn’t about mobile. Neither is it about the desktop. It’s about the web.

Whilst no one set of principles can be considered a panacea or magic bullet - are there specific instances where you’d argue against a responsive web design for a clients site?

Honestly, no. But the reason I say that is that, once you’re used to creating responsive sites, it’s really no extra effort. So I’m not saying that every project needs to go that extra mile—quite the opposite. I’m saying that sites that adapt to the user’s device should be the default (and should have always been the default).

The only time I would argue that a client shouldn’t have a responsive site is if the client shouldn’t have a web site at all.

Just to clarify: I’m not saying that the client couldn’t also have subdomains or apps targeted at specific classes of device as well as their responsive web site. But the baseline to having any presence on the web should be a website that works for everyone, everywhere.

That said, it’s a lot easier to create a responsive site from scratch than to attempt to retro-fit an existing desktop-centric site. In that situation, where the desktop-centric site is just too big and bloated to serve up to mobile devices, a separate mobile-specific site can be a good stop-gap measure. But in the long run, maintaining multiple silos just doesn’t scale. Also, the fact that the site is too big and bloated for mobile probably means it’s too big and bloated for anyone, regardless of their device.

For a client who has neither the business necessity or budget for a ‘mobile specific’ website (let me qualify that by saying that I term a ‘mobile specific’ website as one that has some server side functionality to ‘sniff’ the device and serve up entirely different experience based upon it), is there any better option for clients to get themselves a mobile ready presence?

Well, yeah: a responsive web site! It might not be specifically targeted at mobile devices but, if it’s done right, it won’t be specifically targeted at any particular class of device.

At present, although server (e.g. adaptive-images) and JS (Scott Jehl’s <picture>) based solutions exist, responsive design struggles when it comes to responsive images as there is no way to provide alternate images based on media capability or connection speed (one day please!) through markup alone. What would you like to see happen to combat this issue?

There’s some great work being done by the W3C Responsive Images community group. I’m hoping to see some rapid adoption by browsers. But mostly, what I’d like to see is exactly what’s going on: a bunch of really smart people getting together to collectively solve this problem in a backwards-compatible way. I find it quite inspiring, actually.

What are some obvious pitfalls people should avoid when implementing a responsive design?

The biggest mistake I’ve seen is when developers try to treat responsiveness as an add-on, something to be bolted on at the end of the development process. That’s going to lead to a world of pain.

Responsive design makes most sense when it’s paired with the idea of Mobile First. Thinking about the screen size and capabilities of mobile devices first forces you to focus and really think about what’s absolutely essential to deliver. When you don’t have the luxury of a large viewport or a fast connection, you’ll quickly find that complicated navigation and unnecessary page cruft will quickly get trimmed.

In fact, that approach isn’t really about mobile specifically, it’s about focusing on the content. Content First.

Personally, I’d like to see some ability to visually re-construct the DOM through CSS alone - so media queries could literally place anything anywhere. Do you feel that specs like CSS Regions hold the answers to that problem?

I’m much more excited about flexbox, but that might just be because I haven’t examined CSS Regions in any depth.

Flexbox is going to be a game-changer, I think. Source order will still matter for older browsers, but we’ll be able to serve up just about any layout regardless of source order. It’ll be great to finally have that real separation of concerns.

Whether it’s flexbox or regions, I look forward to the day when we can stop using layout hacks like floats, because let’s face it, floats are a hack: they were never intended for layout.

Although tools like Adobe Shadow (Weinre) are emerging, existing prototyping tools like FireWorks are limited when it comes to fluid designs - do you prototype/design there or do you do a lot of designing in browser?

Fireworks and Photoshop are useful tools for designing elements of a site’s design but they are woefully inadequate at conveying the fluid dynamic nature of the browser. For that reason, I think it makes a lot of sense to get into the browser as soon as possible (it also means you can start testing your designs sooner).

Spending a lot of time making high-fidelity comps isn’t very efficient, I feel. A lot of that time would be better spent trying things out in the browser and reacting to how they behave at different sizes.

Some people have claimed that designing in the browser is much more limiting than designing in Fireworks or Photoshop, but I think that just comes down to what you’re used to. Those tools come with their own constraints (a fixed-width canvas and lack of interaction being the obvious ones).

Also, if there are certain things that can only be done in a tool like Fireworks and not in a web browser, then what’s the point of doing them? Unless you’re planning to just export your design as one big image, you’re going to have to translate that Fireworks comp into markup and CSS at some point. There’s no point in creating something that can’t be translated.

Graphic design tools still have their place. One of the techniques I find works really well with responsive design is the creation of Style Tiles. These allow you to nail down the visual vocabulary of a project without getting into the nitty-gritty of page layout. They are less wishy-washy than mood boards but not as time-consuming and high-fidelity as page comps.

Can you sum up, in general terms, the key things you think people should consider when building sites today?

I’ve found that it makes sense to apply the principle of progressive enhancement to everything: layout, images, and content:

  • Use small images by default.
  • Don’t apply any layout in your CSS.
  • Start with the content that is absolutely essential.

Once you’ve got that baseline working well, then you can start to progressively enhance the site:

  • Load in larger images if the screen size permits it.
  • Use a grid for page layout, but keep the CSS declarations for the grid within media queries.
  • Use Ajax to conditionally load non-essential content for larger screens.

Don’t start a design by thinking about the desktop layout. But don’t start by thinking about the mobile layout either. Instead, think about the content. And when I say “content”, I don’t mean “copy.” Your content could be a task, like adding an item to a shopping cart. Focus on the core task that your user wants to accomplish.

Separating out the content (reading an article, buying a pair of shoes) from the delivery mechanism (a desktop browser, a mobile browser, a tablet) requires a different mindset to the way web sites have traditionally been built. But much like the change in mindset that was required when we changed from tables for layout to CSS, it’s incredibly rewarding.

Ending September

September was quite a month. There were plenty of events that I attended right here in Brighton:

In the middle of all that, I went to Tennessee for Breaking Development and Mobilewood.

I finished the month with a trip to Italy for the inaugural From The Front conference. It was a great little grassroots affair. It was basically a free event—there was an ostensible cover charge of ten euros just to ensure that people didn’t sign up without showing up. That’s why I waived my usual speaking fee (as an aside, if you’re a conference organiser and you’re thinking about asking me to speak for free at an event that charges hundreds of dollars/pounds/euros to attendees …don’t).

I have to admit that the location of the event did make a difference. I jumped at the chance to return to Bologna. Jessica and I even managed to squeeze in a trip down to Florence. Pictures were taken.

The evening before travelling to Italy, before I packed my bag I had a chat with Jen for her podcast, The Web Ahead.

5by5 | The Web Ahead #3: Jeremy Keith on Everything Web on Huffduffer

We talked about a lot of stuff from the nitty-gritty of responsive web design workflows and processes to being future friendly in the face of the mobile browser landscape. We also discussed long-term digital preservation and the web’s role as a storage medium for our collective culture. It sounds like a random grab-bag of topics, but in my mind all of this is connected.

I somehow managed to avoid even once mentioning a space elevator.

See me speak

While I was in Nashville for the Voices That Matter conference, I sat down for an enjoyable little chat with Nikki McDonald. It began with a discussion of my uncanny resemblance to Severus Snape before moving on to more webby matters.

I also had a great three-way chat with Christopher Schmitt and Steve Krug. Christopher has posted up a transcript of the conversation

If you’re not completely sick of hearing me natter on and you are in Brighton on Tuesday evening, come along to £5 App where I’ll be babbling about Huffduffer. I know it clashes with the Flash Brighton screening of Sita Sings the Blues but you can watch that online anytime, right?