Tags: workshop

27

sparkline

Storyforming

It was only last week that myself and Ellen were brainstorming ideas for a combined workshop. Our enthusiasm got the better of us, and we said “Let’s just do it!” Before we could think better of it, the room was booked, and the calendar invitations were sent.

Workshopping

The topic was “story.”

No wait, maybe it was …”narrative.”

That’s not quite right either.

“Content,” perhaps?

Basically, here’s the issue: at some point everyone at Clearleft needs to communicate something by telling a story. It might be a blog post. It might be a conference talk. It might be a proposal for a potential client. It might be a case study of our work. Whatever form it might take, it involves getting a message across …using words. Words are hard. We wanted to make them a little bit easier.

We did two workshops. Ellen’s was yesterday. Mine was today. They were both just about two hours in length.

Get out of my head!

Ellen’s workshop was all about getting thoughts out of your head and onto paper. But before we could even start to do that, we had to confront our first adversary: the inner critic.

You know the inner critic. It’s that voice inside you that says “You’ve got nothing new to say”, or “You’re rubbish at writing.” Ellen encouraged each of us to drag this inner critic out into the light—much like Paul Ford did with his AnxietyBox.

Each of us drew a cartoon of our inner critic, complete with speech bubbles of things our inner critic says to us.

Drawing our inner critic inner critics

In a bizarre coincidence, Chloe and I had exactly the same inner critic, complete with top hat and monocle.

With that foe vanquished, we proceeded with a mind map. The idea was to just dump everything out of our heads and onto paper, without worrying about what order to arrange things in.

I found it to be an immensely valuable exercise. Whenever I’ve tried to do this before, I’d open up a blank text file and start jotting stuff down. But because of the linear nature of a text file, there’s still going to be an order to what gets jotted down; without meaning to, I’ve imposed some kind of priority onto the still-unformed thoughts. Using a mind map allowed me get everything down first, and then form the connections later.

mind mapping

There were plenty of other exercises, but the other one that really struck me was a simple framework of five questions. Whatever it is that you’re trying to say, write down the answers to these questions about your audience:

  1. What are they sceptical about?
  2. What problems do they have?
  3. What’s different now that you’ve communicated your message?
  4. Paint a pretty picture of life for them now that you’ve done that.
  5. Finally, what do they need to do next?

They’re straightforward questions, but the answers can really help to make sure you’re covering everything you need to.

There were many more exercises, and by the end of the two hours, everyone had masses of raw material, albeit in an unstructured form. My workshop was supposed to help them take that content and give it some kind of shape.

The structure of stories

Ellen and I have been enjoying some great philosophical discussions about exactly what a story is, and how does it differ from a narrative structure, or a plot. I really love Ellen’s working definition: Narrative. In Space. Over Time.

This led me to think that there’s a lot that we can borrow from the world of storytelling—films, novels, fairy tales—not necessarily about the stories themselves, but the kind of narrative structures we could use to tell those stories. After all, the story itself is often the same one that’s been told time and time again—The Hero’s Journey, or some variation thereof.

So I was interested in separating the plot of a story from the narrative device used to tell the story.

To start with, I gave some examples of well-known stories with relatively straightforward plots:

  • Star Wars,
  • Little Red Riding Hood,
  • Your CV,
  • Jurassic Park, and
  • Ghostbusters.

I asked everyone to take a story (either from that list, or think of another one) and write the plot down on post-it notes, one plot point per post-it. Before long, the walls were covered with post-its detailing the plot lines of:

  • Robocop,
  • Toy Story,
  • Back To The Future,
  • Elf,
  • E.T.,
  • The Three Little Pigs, and
  • Pretty Woman.

Okay. That’s plot. Next we looked at narrative frameworks.

Narrative frameworks as Oblique Strategies.

Flashback

Begin at a crucial moment, then back up to explain how you ended up there.

e.g. Citizen Kane “Rosebud!”

Dialogue

Instead of describing the action directly, have characters tell it to one another.

e.g. The Dialogues of Plato …or The Breakfast Club (or one of my favourite sci-fi short stories).

In Media Res

Begin in the middle of the action. No exposition allowed, but you can drop hints.

e.g. Mad Max: Fury Road (or Star Wars, if it didn’t have the opening crawl).

Backstory

Begin with a looooong zooooom into the past before taking up the story today.

e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Distancing Effect

Just the facts with no embellishment.

e.g. A police report.

You get the idea.

In a random draw, everyone received a card with a narrative device on it. Now they had to retell the story they chose using that framing. That led to some great results:

  • Toy Story, retold as a conversation between Andy and his psychiatrist (dialogue),
  • E.T., retold as a missing person’s report on an alien planet (distancing effect),
  • Elf, retold with an introduction about the very first Christmas (backstory),
  • Robocop, retold with Murphy already a cyborg, remembering his past (flashback),
  • The Three Little Pigs, retold with the wolf already at the door and no explanation as to why there’s straw everywhere (in media res).

Once everyone had the hang of it, I asked them to revisit their mind maps and other materials from the previous day’s workshop. Next, they arranged the “chunks” of that story into a linear narrative …but without worrying about getting it right—it’s not going to stay linear for long. Then, everyone is once again given a narrative structure. Now try rearranging and restructuring your story to use that framework. If something valuable comes out of that, great! If not, well, it’s still a fun creative exercise.

And that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I was doing, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t really about me. It was about helping others take their existing material and play with it.

That said, I’m glad I finally got this process out into the world in some kind of semi-formalised way. I’ve been preparing talks and articles using these narrative exercises for a while, but this workshop was just the motivation I needed to put some structure on the process.

I think I might try to create a proper deck of cards—along the lines of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies or Stephen Andersons’s Mental Notes—so that everyone has the option of injecting a random narrative structural idea into the mix whenever they’re stuck.

At the very least, it would be a distraction from listening to that pesky inner critic.

100 words 069

I made mention already of an exercise that myself and Charlotte came up with to help developers to think in terms of granular components: using a humble pair of scissors to cut up screenshots or mockups into their constituent parts.

Recently we repeated and added to this exercise. Once the groups of components are gathered together—buttons, form elements, icons, whatever—we go through each group. Everyone writes on a post-it what name they would give this component—button, formField, icon, etc. Then everyone slaps down their post-it notes at the same time. See any overlap? That’s your class name.

100 words 057

It’s UX London week. That’s always a crazy busy time at Clearleft. But it’s also an opportunity. We have this sneaky tactic of kidnapping a speaker from UX London and making them give a workshop just for us. We did it a few years ago with Dave Grey and we got a fantastic few days of sketching out of it.

This time we grabbed Jeff Patton. He spent this afternoon locked in the auditorium at 68 Middle Street teaching us all about user story mapping. ‘Twas most enlightening and really helped validate some of the stuff we’ve been doing lately.

The Session trad tune machine

Most pundits call it “the Internet of Things” but there’s another phrase from Andy Huntington that I first heard from Russell Davies: “the Geocities of Things.” I like that.

I’ve never had much exposure to this world of hacking electronics. I remember getting excited about the possibilities at a Brighton BarCamp back in 2008:

I now have my own little arduino kit, a bread board and a lucky bag of LEDs. Alas, know next to nothing about basic electronics so I’m really going to have to brush up on this stuff.

I never did do any brushing up. But that all changed last week.

Seb is doing a new two-day workshop. He doesn’t call it Internet Of Things. He doesn’t call it Geocities Of Things. He calls it Stuff That Talks To The Interwebs, or STTTTI, or ST4I. He needed some guinea pigs to test his workshop material on, so Clearleft volunteered as tribute.

In short, it was great! And this time, I didn’t stop hacking when I got home.

First off, every workshop attendee gets a hand-picked box of goodies to play with and keep: an arduino mega, a wifi shield, sensors, screens, motors, lights, you name it. That’s the hardware side of things. There are also code samples and libraries that Seb has prepared in advance.

Getting ready to workshop with @Seb_ly. Unwrapping some Christmas goodies from Santa @Seb_ly.

Now, remember, I lack even the most basic knowledge of electronics, but after two days of fiddling with this stuff, it started to click.

Blinkenlights. Hello, little fella.

On the first workshop day, we all did the same exercises, connected things up, getting them to talk to the internet, that kind of thing. For the second workshop day, Seb encouraged us to think about what we might each like to build.

I was quite taken with the ability of the piezo buzzer to play rudimentary music. I started to wonder if there was a way to hook it up to The Session and have it play the latest jigs, reels, and hornpipes that have been submitted to the site in ABC notation. A little bit of googling revealed that someone had already taken a stab at writing an ABC parser for arduino. I didn’t end up using that code, but it convinced me that what I was trying to do wasn’t crazy.

So I built a machine that plays Irish traditional music from the internet.

Playing with hardware and software, making things that go beep in the night.

The hardware has a piezo buzzer, an “on” button, an “off” button, a knob for controlling the speed of the tune, and an obligatory LED.

The software has a countdown timer that polls a URL every minute or so. The URL is http://tune.adactio.com/. That in turn uses The Session’s read-only API to grab the latest tune activity and then get the ABC notation for whichever tune is at the top of that list. Then it does some cleaning up—removing some of the more advanced ABC stuff—and outputs a single line of notes to be played. I’m fudging things a bit: the device has the range of a tin whistle, and expects tunes to be in the key of D or G, but seeing as that’s at least 90% of Irish traditional music, it’s good enough.

Whenever there’s a new tune, it plays it. Or you can hit the satisfying “on” button to manually play back the latest tune (and yes, you can hit the equally satisfying “off” button to stop it). Being able to adjust the playback speed with a twiddly knob turns out to be particularly handy if you decide to learn the tune.

I added one more lo-fi modification. I rolled up a piece of paper and placed it over the piezo buzzer to amplify the sound. It works surprisingly well. It’s loud!

Rolling my own speaker cone, quite literally.

I’ll keep tinkering with it. It’s fun. I realise I’m coming to this whole hardware-hacking thing very late, but I get it now: it really does feel similar to that feeling you would get when you first figured out how to make a web page back in the days of Geocities. I’ve built something that’s completely pointless for most people, but has special meaning for me. It’s ugly, and it’s inefficient, but it works. And that’s a great feeling.

(P.S. Seb will be running his workshop again on the 3rd and 4th of February, and there will a limited amount of early-bird tickets available for one hour, between 11am and midday this Thursday. I highly recommend you grab one.)

Responding

Last week I had responsive-themed tour of London.

On Tuesday I went up to Chelsea to spend the day workshopping with some people at Education First. It all went rather splendidly, I’m happy to report.

It was an interesting place. First of all, there’s the office building itself. Once owned by News International, it has a nice balance between open-plan and grouped areas. Then there’s the people. Just 20% of them are native English speakers. It was really nice to be in such a diverse group.

The workshop attendees represented a good mix of skills too: UX, front-end development, and visual design were at the forefront, but project management and content writing were also represented. That made the exercises we did together very rewarding.

I was particularly happy that the workshop wasn’t just attended by developers or designers, seeing as one of the messages I was hammering home all day was that responsive web design affects everyone at every stage of a project:

Y’see, it’s my experience that the biggest challenges of responsive design (which, let’s face it, now means web design) are not technology problems. Sure, we’ve got some wicked problems when dealing with non-flexible media like bitmap images, which fight against the flexible nature of the web, but thanks to the work of some very smart and talented people, even those kinds of issues are manageable.

No, the biggest challenges, in my experience, are to do with people. Specifically, the way that people work together.

On Thursday evening, I reiterated that point at The Digital Pond event in Islington …leading at least one person in the audience to declare that they were having an existential crisis (not my intention, honest).

I also had the pleasure of hearing Sally give her take on responsive design. She was terrific at Responsive Day Out 2 and she was, of course, terrific here again. If you get the chance to see her speak, take it.

There should be videos from Digital Pond available at some point, so you’ll be able to catch up with our talks then.

Brighton workshops

There are some excellent workshops coming up in Brighton soon.

Seb will be teaching a two-day course on CreativeJS Fun and Games on the 13th and 14th of March. I went on one of Seb’s workshops a while back, and it was really, really good. He really does make it fun.

Then on April 2nd, Remy will be teaching a one-day workshop called Debug, and know thy tools. It sounds like it will be an “I know kung-fu” moment for front-end dev tools. Alas, I will be out of the country at An Event Apart Seattle at that time (I say “alas”, but of course I’m really looking forward to getting back to Seattle for An Event Apart).

Anyway, if you’re in Brighton—or looking for a good reason to make a trip to Brighton—I can highly recommend these workshops.

Climbing Mount Responsive

I’m back from Munich, where I spent three solid days workshopping with AutoScout24. I’m happy to report that it went really, really well. It’s restored my confidence after the negative feedback I got in Tel Aviv.

Three days is quite a long time to spend workshopping, so I was mostly winging it. But that extended period also allowed us to dive deep into specific issues and questions (all the usual suspects: how to handle navigation, images, complex interactions, etc.).

The real issues, however, were much more “bigger picture”—how to handle the transition to responsive of a big desktop-centric site that’s been growing for over a decade. By the end of the three days, we had divided the options into three groups:

  1. Start making any new pages and sections of the site responsive. After a while of doing that, the team would develop a pretty good feeling of what it would take to then go back and retrofit what’s already online. The downside of this approach is that would provide an asynchronous user experience: users would be moving from responsive to non-responsive parts of the site, which could be confusing.
  2. Leave the current fixed-width grid as it is, but focus on making all the components of the page flexible. Once all the components are fluid, then it should be a matter of switching over to a fluid grid in one fell swoop. On the plus side, this means that the whole site would then be responsive. On the negative side, until all the components have been made flexible—which could take some time—the site remains rigidly fixed-width and desktop-centric.
  3. Rebuild the mobile site, using it as a seed from which to grow a new responsive site. On the face of it, having a separate mobile subdomain might seem like a millstone around your neck if your trying to push for a responsive design. In practice though, it can be enormously useful. Mostly it’s a political issue: whereas ripping out the desktop site and starting from scratch is a huge task that would require everyone’s buy-in, nobody gives a shit about the mobile subdomain. Both the BBC news team and The Guardian are having great success with this approach, building mobile-first responsive sites bit-by-bit on the m. subdomain, with the plan to one day flip the switch and make the subdomain the main site. The downside is that until the switch is flipped, you’ve still got to deal with redirecting mobile traffic—probably using some nasty user-agent sniffing—and all the issues that come with having your content appearing at more than one URL.

There’s no doubt about it: trying to apply responsive design to large-scale existing desktop-centric sites is really, really hard. The message I keep repeating in my workshops is that you can’t expect to just sprinkle on some magic media-query fairydust—it just doesn’t work that way. Instead, you’ve got to figure out a way to reframe all your challenges into a mobile-first way of thinking.

Instead of asking “How can I make these patterns (mega-menus, lightboxes, complex data tables) work when the screen size shrinks?”, you need to ask “What’s the problem they’re supposed to be solving, and how would I design a solution for the small screen to start with?” Once you’ve done that, then it becomes a matter of scaling up to the large screen …which is actually a much simpler problem space.

As is so often the case with web design, it requires the application of progressive enhancement. In the case of responsive design, that means starting with small-screen styles, small-screen images, and small-screen content priority. Then you can progressively enhance with layout styles, larger images, and conditional loading of nice-to-have extra content. Oh, and you absolutely have to accept and embrace the fact that websites do not need to look the same in every browser.

Making that change in thinking can be hugely challenging.

Remember when we were all making websites with tables for layout? Then the web standards movement came along, pushing for the separation of structure and presenation, urging us to use CSS for layout. It took the brain-rewiring power of the CSS Zen Garden to really give people that “A-ha!” moment.

Mobile-first responsive design requires a similar rewiring of the brain. And if you’re used to doing things a certain way, then it’s natural to resist such drastic change—although as Elliot pointed out at the Responsive Day Out, when you first make the switch it might be very tricky, but it gets easier and easier with each project.

Still, it can be a difficult message to hear. I suspect that’s why my workshop in Tel Aviv wasn’t so warmly received—I didn’t provide any easy answers.

The designers and developers at AutoScout24 also didn’t find it easy to accept how much they’d have to rethink their approach, but by the end of the three days they had a much clearer idea of how they could go about making that change. I’m really curious to see where they’ll go from here. Personally, I’m very optimistic about their prospects for successfully pulling off a large-scale responsive relaunch.

There are two main reasons for my optimism:

  1. They’ve already put together a front-end styleguide; a UI library of components. The fact that they’re already thinking about breaking things down into their component parts is a terrific approach (and they also said they’re planning to make their UI library public, which makes me very happy indeed).
  2. Developers, designers, and information architects work side by side. The web department works in teams, but those teams aren’t organised by job role. Instead each small team of 4 or 5 people has a product manager, a UX designer, visual designer, and a developer or two.

I can’t emphasise enough how important that kind of collaborative environment is.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; the biggest challenges of responsive design are not technology problems.:

No, the biggest challenges, in my experience, are to do with people. Specifically, the way that people work together.

I’ve spoken to some companies who were eager to make the switch to responsive design, but who have designers and developers sitting in different rooms, or on different floors, or buildings, or even countries. That’s when my heart sinks. Trying to work in the iterative way that a good responsive project demands is going to be massively difficult—if not downright impossible—in that environment.

So I’m pretty confident that if the designers and developers at AutoScout24 put their minds to it, they can rise to the enormous challenge that lies ahead of them. They’ve got the right working environment, they’ve got a UI library, and they’ve got the option of using their exising mobile subdomain. Most of all, they’ve demonstrated a willingness to accept all the challenges that come with changing from a desktop-centric to a content-first mindset.

All in all, it was a very productive three days in Munich. It was hard work, but then again, I had the option of rewarding myself with some excellent Bavarian food and beer each evening.

Abendessen

Workshoppers of the world

Three weeks ago, myself and Jessica went to Israel. It was a wonderful trip, filled with wonderful food. I took lots of pictures if you don’t believe me.

But it wasn’t a holiday. Before I could go off exploring Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I had work to do. I was one of the speakers at the UXI Studio event.

We arrived on Saturday, and I was giving a talk on Sunday evening. At first I thought that was a strange time for a series of talks, ‘till I realised that of course Sunday is just a regular work day like any other.

It was a lot of fun. I was the last of four speakers—all of whom were great—and the audience of about 200 people were really receptive and encouraging. I had fun. They had fun. Everything was just dandy.

Two days later, I gave a full-day workshop on responsive design. That was less than dandy.

I’ve run workshops like this quite a few times, and it has always gone really well, with lots of great discussions and reactions from attendees. The workshop is normally run with anywhere between ten and thirty people. This time, though, there were about 100 people.

Now, I knew in advance that there would be this many people, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to get as hands-on as I’d normally do; going from group to group, chatting and offering advice—it would simply take too long to that. So I still ran the exercises I’d normally do, but there was a lot more of me talking and answering questions.

I thought that was working out quite well—there were plenty of questions, and I was more than happy to answer as many as I could. In retrospect though, it may have been the same few people asking multiple questions. That might not have been the best experience for the people staying quiet.

Sure enough, when the feedback surveys came back, there were some scathing remarks. Now, to be fair, only 31 of the 100 attendees filled out the feedback form at all, and of those, 15 left specific remarks, some of which were quite positive. So I could theoretically reassure myself that only 10% of the attendees had a bad time, but I’m going to assume it was a fairly representative sample.

I could try to blame the failure of my workshop on the sheer size of it, but I did a variation of the same workshop for about the same number of attendees at UX Week last year, and that went pretty great. So I’m not sure exactly what went wrong this time. Maybe I wasn’t communicating as clearly as I hoped, or maybe the attendees had very different expectations about what the workshop would be about. Or maybe it just works better as a half-day workshop (like at UX Week and UX London) than a full day.

Anyway, I’m going to take it as a learning experience. I think from now on, I’m going to keep workshop numbers to a managable level: I think around thirty attendees is a reasonable limit.

I’m about to head over to Munich for three solid days of workshopping and front-end consulting at a fairly large company. Initially there was talk of having about 100 people at the workshop, but given my recent experience in Tel Aviv, I baulked at that. So instead, the compromise we reached was that I’d give a talk to 100 people tomorrow morning, but that the afternoon’s workshop would be limited to about 30 people. Then there’ll be two days of hacking with an even smaller number.

This won’t be the first time I’ve done three solid days of intensive workshopping, but last time I was doing it together with Aaron:

I’m in Madison, Wisconsin where myself and Aaron are wrapping up three days of workshopping with Shopbop. It’s all going swimmingly.

This last of the three days is being spent sketching, planning and hacking some stuff together based on all the things that Aaron and I have been talking about for the first two days: progressive enhancement, responsive design, HTML5, JavaScript, ARIA …all the good stuff that Aaron packed into Adaptive Web Design.

This time I’m on my own. Wish me luck!

August in America, day twenty

As predicted, today’s schedule of two back-to-back half-day workshops at UX Week was indeed quite exhausting. But it was also very rewarding.

Every time I run a workshop, I always end up learning something from the experience and today was no exception. The attendees were a bright bunch with lots of great questions and discussion points.

Workshopping Workshopping Workshopping Workshopping Workshopping Workshopping

Once the workshops were done, I felt pretty exhausted. Jessica and I had a quiet night sampling the culinary delights of M.Y. China conveniently located just across the street from our hotel so I could collapse into bed at the end of the day.

Responsive workshopping

I spent most of last week up in Greenwich for this year’s UX London. ‘Twas a most excellent event. The move to the new venue gave the whole event a much more fun vibe and the format of a morning of talks followed by an afternoon of workshops was perfect.

Andy did a great job curating the line-up. It had a bit of a dConstruct-y feel, and not just because we had old friends like Marty, Peter, and Hannah back: Genevieve Bell, Simone Rebaudengo and Richard Seymour all broke our brains in different wonderful ways.

Hats off to Kate who worked her ass off to make sure that everything ran smoothly. Seriously, you wouldn’t believe the amount of work she did. The change of venue and format for this year resulted in at least twice as much work as usual.

In the middle of UX London’s three days, I ran a workshop called Responsive UX. As I told the audience that morning when I was pitching the workshop, I got the title by taking the term “responsive design” and doing a find-and-replace on the word “design” with the phrase “UX”. After all, what’s the difference? Right, Peter?

Seriously though, this workshop was a little different in that I wasn’t covering any HTML or CSS or JavaScript. It was much more about planning for the unknown and good ol’-fashioned content priority and hierarchy.

I wasn’t entirely pleased with how it went. It was a workshop of two halves. The first half had far too much of me talking (and ranting), probably preaching to the choir. But I felt I had to lay the groundwork first. The second half—when everybody got hands on with paper-based exercises—was much better.

I learned my lesson: show, don’t tell. I’ll be doing a full day responsive workshop at Ampersand in June. I plan to make sure that there’s less of me talking and more making and collaborating. Also, because it’s a full day, I’ll be able to get down to the nitty-gritty of markup and style sheets.

And don’t forget; if you want me to come to your company sometime and do a workshop there, no problemo.

Some people at the workshop asked about me publishing my slides. The slides by themselves really don’t contain much information but I’ve published them on Speakerdeck anyway. But what’s more valuable are the URLs to articles and resources I mentioned along the way. So here’s the structure of the workshop together with links to examples and further reading…

Introduction

Myths

Progressive Enhancement

Planning

Conditional Loading

Visual Design

Navigation

Responsive readlist

I’m in Madison, Wisconsin where myself and Aaron are wrapping up three days of workshopping with Shopbop. It’s all going swimmingly.

This last of the three days is being spent sketching, planning and hacking some stuff together based on all the things that Aaron and I have been talking about for the first two days: progressive enhancement, responsive design, HTML5, JavaScript, ARIA …all the good stuff that Aaron packed into Adaptive Web Design.

We’re also assigning some homework: reading material for the Shopbop gang to read at their leisure after we have departed Madison. Aaron created a readlist called Adaptive Web Design and I’ve made a readlist called Responsive Enhancement.

Feel free to peruse the links contained therein and send them all to your Kindle or download them all as an epub file for the iPhone/iPad/Readmill/whatever.

Retreat 4 Geeks 2012

As the year draws to a close, I find myself casting an eye back on the past twelve months. There are two events that stand out for me:

I learned a lot at both events. I think there’s enormous benefit in getting together with your peers for days of intense geekery—it’s quite the learning experience.

Looking ahead to next year, there’s one more such event on the horizon.

Aaron started up Retreats 4 Geeks last year and kicked it off with an outstanding week in the woods with Eric. From March 25th to 30th Aaron and I will be leading Retreat 4 Geeks on Progressive Enhancement. Here’s the best bit: it’ll be taking place on a horse ranch in Clark, Colorado.

I’m expecting an intense three days of hands-on coding bookended with some fun outdoor activities. Based on my experiences this year with these kinds of in-depth, focused gatherings, I think it’s going to be pretty special.

If that sounds like something you’d like to be a part of, you can register your place now. Everything—except your airfare—is included: excellent food, luxurious lodging and multiple days of learning and practicing progressive enhancement and mobile-first responsive design. And if you need any assistance in convincing your boss to fork out for the event, there’s a handy factsheet you can download, print out and leave in convenient spots around the office.

So …maybe I’ll see you in the Rockies?

Speaking, not hacking

I spent last week in Belfast for the Build conference, so I did.

The fun kicked off with a workshop on responsive enhancement which was a lot of fun. Toby has written a report of the day outlining all of the elements that came together for a successful workshop.

The day of the conference itself was filled with inspiring, uplifting talks full of positive energy …except for mine. My talk—All Our Yesterdays—had an underlying sense of anger, especially when I spoke about the destruction of Geocities. If you heard the talk and you’d like to explore some of the resources I mentioned, here’s a grab-bag of links:

I thought I had delivered the talk reasonably well only to discover that my American friends in the audience misinterpreted my quote from Tim Berners-Lee as “Cool your eyes don’t change.”

Still, it was wonderfully surreal to be introduced by Jesse Thorn.

Build Jeremy Keith

My appearance at Build was an eleventh hour affair. Ethan was originally set to speak but he had to cancel. Andy asked me to step in. At first I didn’t think it would be possible. Last Thursday—the day of the conference—was the day I was supposed to fly to San Francisco for Science Hack Day. Luckily I was able to change my flight.

That’s why I was up at the crack of dawn the day after Build to catch an early-morning flight to Heathrow where I would have to dash from the lowest to the highest numbered terminal to get on my transatlantic hackrocket.

So you can imagine how my heart sank as I sat in the departure lounge of Belfast International Airport listening to the announcement of a delay to the first flight. First it was one hour. Then two.

When I did finally make it to Heathrow, there was no chance of making the flight to San Francisco. I was hoping that perhaps it too had been delayed by the foggy weather conditions but no, it took off right on time. Without me.

As my flight from Belfast was a completely separate booking rather than a connecting flight, I couldn’t get on a later flight unless I paid the full fare. So I simply accepted my fate.

C’est la vie, c’est it is.

It looks like Science Hack Day San Francisco—to the surprise of absolutely no-one—was a superb event. There’s a write-up on the open.NASA blog outlining some of the amazing hacks, including the cute (and responsive) Space Ipsum and the freakishly brilliant synesthesia mask: syneseizure.

Science Hack Day SF science hack day

Building

I never made it to the Build conference in Belfast last year or the year before. I think it clashed with previous commitments every time.

This was going to be the third year in a row that I was going to miss Build. I had already slapped my money down for the excellent Full Frontal conference which is on the very same day as Build but takes place right here in Brighton in the excellent Duke Of York’s cinema.

But fate had other plans for me.

Ethan was going to be speaking at Build but he’s had to pull out for personal reasons …so Andy asked me if I’d like to speak. I may be a poor substitute for Ethan and it’s a shame that I’m going to miss Full Frontal but I jumped at the chance to join the stellar line-up.

As well as speaking at the conference itself on November 10th, I’ll be leading a workshop on responsive design and progressive enhancement on the preceding Tuesday. The conference is sold out but there are places available for the workshop so grab yourself a slot if you fancy spending a day working on a content-first approach to planning and building websites.

If you can’t make it to Belfast, I’ll be giving the same workshop at Beyond Tellerrand in Düsseldorf on Sunday, November 20th and there are still some tickets available.

If you can make it to Belfast, I look forward to seeing you there. I’ll be flying my future friendly flag high, just like I’m doing on the front page of the Build website.

That attire would also be suitable for my post-Build plans. The day after the conference I’ll be travelling to San Francisco for Science Hack Day on the weekend of November 12th. If the last one is anything to go by, it’s going to be an unmissable excellent weekend—I highly recommend that you put your name down if you’re going to be in the neighbourhood.

Looking forward to seeing you in Belfast or Düsseldorf or San Francisco …or wherever.

Responsive dConstruction

Tickets for dConstruct 2011 went on sale last Tuesday. Tickets for dConstruct 2011 also sold out last Tuesday.

That’s kinda crazy: a conference for almost 800 people selling out in one day! I think it’s partly down to the great reputation that dConstruct has established for itself over the years as the thinking geek’s gathering. But I think it must mostly be down to the fantastic line-up of speakers: Don Norman, Frank Chimero, Kevin Slavin …it’s going to be quite a day!

If you didn’t manage to get a ticket, don’t despair. Technically, there are still some tickets available. If you book a place on one of the workshops taking place in the run-up to the conference day itself, you’ll get a complementary ticket to the main event. Also, if you book a workshop place before August 2nd, you can get the early-bird rate of £395+VAT rather than the full price of £445.

You might choose to attend Dan Lockton’s workshop on influencing behaviour, Josh Clark’s tapworthy mobile design or Scott Jehl’s jQuery mobile workshop but I’m going to humbly suggest that you might also be interested in the day-long course I’m putting together on responsive enhancement.

As the title suggests, this is going to be all about the intersection of responsive design and progressive enhancement: a content first approach. Because of that, the workshop won’t just be dealing in the technologies involved. It will also spend plenty of time tackling the planning and process. So while there are obvious benefits for front-end developers, it’s also going to be a valuable day for UX designers, project managers and just about anybody involved in building websites today.

Oh, and the workshop will feature a special guest appearance by Scott who will give a peak behind the scenes of the forthcoming Boston Globe responsive site.

I’m going to be spending a lot of time preparing the materials for this workshop. In fact, it’s going to be occupying most of my time between now and August 31st. If you want to be there for the final result, go ahead and book your place.

Drupalcon in Chi-town

The last time I was in Chicago the weather was rather lovely. I spent some time walking around, gaping up at the skyscrapers and exploring the city.

This time the weather has been a bit chillier. My attempts to venture out and explore the city on foot ended in defeat as I was beaten back to the warmer confines of the hotel playing host to Drupalcon.

My first day, as anticipated, was spent hunting down a mythical FedEx/Kinkos so I could print out workshop materials—paper-based exercises and HTML5 pocketbooks. With that task achieved—at no minor expense; charging for ink on paper is clearly a lucrative business model—imagine my surprise when I turned up the next day for my workshop and I was handed the printouts of my workshop exercises; the same materials I had been told I would have to print out for myself. Clearly, I didn’t get the memo …possibly because said memo was never conjured into existence.

Apart from that breakdown in communication, the HTML5 workshop went smoothly. Better than smoothly. The attendees were asking excellent questions and some great discussions emerged. Running a workshop can be very tiring but it can also be very rewarding.

The next morning I attended Dries’s pep-talk keynote. It was like experiencing a milder, kinder more collaborative version of Scientology (I kid, I kid; ‘twas a lovely State of the Union address).

Part of the keynote was a compilation of answers to the question “What is Drupal?” put to a backing track of a suitably schmaltzy motivational song (David Brent would’ve been jealous). As I watched the quotes appear on screen, I noticed that one of them was attributed to me. Except… I have no recollection of ever saying or writing something along the lines of:

Drupal makes complex things easy and easy things complex.

Sure enough, it turns out that the quote was misattributed to me.

I guess it sounds like something I could have said. In fact, I could justify the paraphrased quote thusly: If you want to get a database-driven site up and running quickly, you can do that with Drupal simply by pressing a few buttons and pulling the software equivalent of levers. However, if you want to edit, for example, the way that a particular form field has been marked up, or you’d like to remove some superfluous div elements …well, for that you need to really know what you’re doing.

Hence, Drupal makes complex things (like setting up a website) easy and easy things (like editing some markup) complex.

I had quite a few conversations with people about the nature of frameworks and Drupal in particular. Personally, it doesn’t appeal to me, not just because it doesn’t output the kind of markup that I’d like. It doesn’t appeal to me simply because it outputs any markup at all. I prefer something more like Django that takes care of abstracting away all that server-side complexity and database work, but leaves it entirely up to you to create the front-end (well, except for the admin interface).

But that’s just me. And I totally understand that for other people, that just isn’t a priority and Drupal’s ability to deliver an entire site, front-end included, is a godsend. Different frameworks will appeal to different people—the trick is in finding a framework that matches the way that you approach a problem. A framework is, after all, supposed to be a tool to help you get work done faster. No one framework is suitable for all projects and no one framework can possibly hope to appeal to everyone.

Yet, at Drupalcon, I got the impression that Drupal might be attempting to do just that. Rather than focusing on the kind of sites for which Drupal is particularly well-suited, the goal appears to be nothing less than total domination of the web. I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. If you try to please literally everybody, I think you’ll probably end up pleasing nobody.

I did hear rumblings of the possibility of changing Drupal so that there would be no markup in its core release. Rather, different distributions (built on top of core) could be used to create the right kind of site; one distribution for news sites, another distribution for company websites, and so on. I like that idea. It would also make it easier for Drupal to adapt its output to different devices—something that Dries touched on his keynote.

Meanwhile Jen is spearheading an effort to update Drupal’s output to include HTML5 additions—new input types for forms, sectioning elements for content, and so on. She’s beginning by proposing some design principles. I believe this is a thoroughly excellent approach. At Jen’s Drupalcon core conversation I offered my feedback (and encouragement) on how the design principles are shaping up.

For the rest of Drupalcon, I found plenty to keep my interest. There was a significant design portion to the proceedings so even a non-Drupal person like me could find some great talks, like Samantha’s superb round-up of design techniques—I’ll be bringing some of those gems back to the Clearlefties.

My final night in Chicago was nigh-on perfect. Adrian had been in touch to let me know that his band would be playing in the historic Green Mill. I rustled up a little posse of designers and we spent the evening listening to superb gypsy jazz in an amazing venue that was once a favourite haunt of Al Capone (rumour has it that the grumpy doorman is related). A nightcap of beer and cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger at The Billy Goat Tavern was the coup de grace.

Now I bid farewell to Chicago and hello to Austin, where the weather is significantly warmer.

dConstructable

In just over seven weeks’ time, Brighton will once again play host to dConstruct.

I’m particularly excited about this year’s line-up. As well as the always-awesome Tom, Brendan and Hannah, there will be speakers that I haven’t seen before like Marty Neumeier and David McCandless. Then there’s the dynamic duo of John Gruber and Merlin Mann, no strangers to public speaking or each other.

149 Surprising Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog With Credibility! on Huffduffer

I’m really looking forward to hearing Merlin Mann—as my Huffduffing history attests—and not just because he said nice things about Huffduffer. As for James Bridle… well, mark my words: when this year’s dConstruct is done, his talk will be the one that everyone will be talking about at the after-party.

That’s one of the other things that I’m excited about: chatting with all the people who are coming to dConstruct from far and wide. Tantek is coming all the way from San Francisco.

I’m not the only one looking forward to this year’s event. The buzz on the street is equally positive. That has been reflected in the brisk ticket sales. If you haven’t got a ticket yet, grab one now. At the time of writing, there are about 50 tickets left. If you don’t get a ticket, don’t come crying to me. They’ve been on sale for a week now. If you leave it too late, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

That said, there is a way of getting into dConstruct even after all the tickets have been sold. As is customary, there will be two days of workshops before the conference itself. If you book yourself onto a workshop, you automatically get entrance to the day of presentations.

Now, far be it for me to suggest which workshop you ought to book—they are all top-notch—but if you fancy expanding your mind with markup, I’ll be running HTML5 For Web Designers two days before the conference day. It’s the workshop of the book of the T-shirt. You can book your place for the early-bird price of £345 until August 5th. After that, it’s £395.

See you in September.

Next month in HTML5

I hereby declare April to be HTML5 Month …at least for me. I’m about to embark to on a month of markup pedagogy. I’ll be expounding on the language features of HTML5 at various locations across meat- and cyberspace.

It all starts on April 7th in Seattle. That’s where I’ll be delivering one half of A Day Apart. My brother in arms, Dan the CSS3 Man, will be delivering the other half. While An Event Apart itself has sold out, workshop places are still available so if you’re going to be anywhere near the emerald city, grab a ticket for $449.

After that, my next HTML5 appearance will be virtual. You can join me on April 12th for the first hour of the HTML5 Online Conference. I’ll be setting the scene and acting as warm-up man for Bruce, Peter and Remy. It’s not quite the same as being in the same room as such luminaries, but it won’t increase your carbon footprint. You can get a ticket for $150.

Finally, my pièce de résistance on April 23rd will be a full-day workshop on HTML5 for Web Designers. Don’t let the title fool you; it just means that I’ll be dealing with semantics, structural elements, audio, video, input types and outline algorithms rather than offline storage, canvas or drag’n’drop: language features rather than platform features, mostly. The workshop will take place at the rather excellent Lighthouse facilities right here in Brighton, in the same building as the Clearleft office. Book your place for £395 (or £195 if you’re a student).

I’m going to be living and breathing HTML5 for most of April. If all goes according to plan, the month will be topped off with the first publication from A Book Apart.

More on that later…

Testing HTML5

dConstruct week is in full swing. The conference itself is tomorrow. Remy and Brian are doing their workshops today. Myself, Rich and Nat did our HTML5 and CSS3 Wizardry workshop yesterday.

I was handling the HTML5 side of things and had quite a bit of fun with it. I put together an HTML5 pocket book using using Natalie’s superb CSS. View it in a Webkit or Gecko-based browser and then print it out to experience the CSS3 transform magic. Natalie made a CSS3 pocket book for the workshop which was a nice self-documenting example of CSS transforms. Hers turned out much neater than mine—my folding fu isn’t so good. But hey, it’s the thought that counts and I figured it was nice to give every attendee something hand-crafted.

I prepared some exercises for the workshop and I have to admit that I had an ulterior motive with one of them. Each attendee was provided with two sheets of paper. One sheet of paper listed some new elements in HTML5 in alphabetical order:

  1. article
  2. aside
  3. details
  4. figure
  5. footer
  6. header
  7. hgroup
  8. nav
  9. section

On another sheet of paper, I listed definitions of those elements taken from the spec but in no particular order:

  • …a group of introductory or navigational aids.

  • …represents a section of a page that consists of content that is tangentially related to the content around it, and which could be considered separate from that content.

  • …used to group a set of h1–h6 elements when the heading has multiple levels, such as subheadings, alternative titles, or taglines.

  • …typically contains information about its section such as who wrote it, links to related documents, copyright data, and the like.

  • …some flow content, optionally with a caption, that is self-contained and is typically referenced as a single unit from the main flow of the document.

  • …a section of a page that links to other pages or to parts within the page: a section with navigation links.

  • …a thematic grouping of content, typically with a heading, possibly with a footer.

  • …a section of a page that consists of a composition that forms an independent part of a document, page, or site.

  • …additional information or controls which the user can obtain on demand.

I then asked the attendees to match up the definitions with the element whose name sounded like the best match. To be clear: this wasn’t a test of knowledge. I was testing the spec.

Giving this exercise to thirty very savvy web developers yielded some clear results. There’s definitely a lot of confusion around when to use section and when to use article. I’m not convinced that there needs to be two different elements, especially now that the article element no longer takes the cite or pubdate attributes. figure and aside were also an area of confusion.

When the workshop was over, I collected the pages with everyone’s answers. Once I get some time I’ll publish the results, probably in a spreadsheet. Then I can present that data to the WHATWG list. Some people on IRC were wondering why my superfriends and I haven’t presented our concerns by email. Well, we will. But I think there’s a lot of value in publicly discussing this stuff (and soliciting feedback). Mostly though, I’ll feel a lot more comfortable about raising an issue if I can back it up with some data. There’s a big difference between telling Hixie your opinion and giving Hixie data.

So, in a very real sense, I got a lot of the workshop. It took quite a while to put the workshop together. The face-to-face meeting with my unicorn-powered peers in New York proved to be absolutely invaluable. I was tweaking the slides right up till the day of the workshop; not because I was rearranging the content, but because the spec was literally changing overnight (albeit in small ways).

Now that the workshop is over, I can relax. And relax I will …in Canada. I’m off to Whistler this weekend for Jessica’s brother’s wedding, followed by a couple of days in Vancouver.

Alas, that means I won’t be around for all of dConstruct. I’ll be able to catch Adam Greenfield followed by Mike Migurski with Ben Cerveny before heading up to Heathrow. But I won’t be able to make it to BarCamp.

Well, I’m sure that everyone who’s coming to Brighton will have plenty of fun without me. And I plan to have plenty of fun in British Columbia …though at some stage, I need to make some time to collate all that yummy data from the workshop.

Eventful

At the start of this year I made a vow to myself to reduce my level of overseas travel. It’s working out pretty well. My Dopplr animal has been downgraded from a squirrel to a butterfly.

I’ve been to a grand total of two conferences in the states this year; the obligatory South by Southwest in Austin and An Event Apart in Boston—it’s always an honour (and a surprise) to be asked to speak at that one. That’s quite a reduction compared to last year and it looks like I won’t be adding to that short list before the year is out.

Reducing my overseas travel hasn’t meant a reduction in attending great events. As well as all the Barcamps and Hackdays, London can boast some world-class conferences like @media and UX London. In fact, if I want to attend kick-arse conferences in the UK, I don’t even need to leave Brighton.

dConstruct is just over a month away. The line-up is particularly stellar this year. Rather than playing it safe, we’ve decided to push the boat out with the challenge of Designing for Tomorrow. To answer that challenge, we’ve lined up the finest minds of the next decade. Adam Greenfield! Mike Migurski! Russell Davies! (no, that one). Expect plenty of mind-boggling talk on ubiquitous computing, data visualisation, mobile design, and science-fiction interfaces.

Think it’s not relevant to your day-to-day work? Think again. And learn to exercise your imagination.

Anyway, tickets are a measly £125 so if you think that’s not worth it, might I suggest diverting your funds to getting a good psychiatrist.

There are still tickets left. If you haven’t been able to make it to dConstruct in previous years because it sold out too quickly, now’s your chance. If you have been to dConstruct before, then you know how great it will be. I’m hoping that the event will be sold out by the day of the event. Partly that’s because I want to see Clearleft’s faith in our peers’ thirst for knowledge rewarded, but mostly it’s because I’ve got a wager to that effect with Cennydd. If his pessimism is rewarded, I’ll be £1 out of pocket.

You’ve still got a few weeks to grab a ticket for the conference itself but if you’re planning to come along to one of the workshops in the run-up to the conference, you’d better act fast; the early bird price of £345—which includes a ticket to the conference—runs out in 48 hours. After that, a workshop costs £395.

Far be it for me to suggest which workshop you should book—they’re all going to be good—but might I point you to HTML5 and CSS3 Wizardry which will be run by a trioka of Clearlefties; Richard, Natalie, and myself. They’ll be handling the CSS3 goodness and I’ll be regurgitating what I’ve been learning from immersing myself in the world of HTML5.

Maybe I should just get Remy to pop in and show off his demos but I suspect he’ll busy preparing for his own jQuery workshop the next day.

Not content with doing workshops, tutorials, screencasts, and a book, the tireless Remy Sharp is organising his own conference. Full Frontal will take place in the beautiful Duke of York’s cinema in Brighton on November 20th. This is going to be a serious JavaScript geekfest. Get this: for a mere £100, you get Simon Willison, Peter-Paul Koch, Christain Heilmann and more. If you’re a JavaScripter and you’ve felt frustrated by the lack of your favourite scripting language at most web conferences, Full Frontal is guaranteed to satiate you.

Between dConstruct, Flash on the Beach, and Full Frontal, I may never have to travel outside of Brighton for a conference again.