Val Head and Sarah Drasner have teamed up to offer a two-day workshop on web animation. If you have a chance to attend, do it!
Sunday, September 25th, 2016
Monday, July 25th, 2016
A workshop for codebar students: Build a portfolio or blog site | Charlotte Jackson, Front-end developer
Charlotte did a fantastic job putting this workshop together on the weekend. It was inspiring!
Wednesday, October 28th, 2015
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.
The topic was “story.”
No wait, maybe it was …”narrative.”
That’s not quite right either.
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.
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.
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:
- What are they sceptical about?
- What problems do they have?
- What’s different now that you’ve communicated your message?
- Paint a pretty picture of life for them now that you’ve done that.
- 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
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:
- Toy Story,
- Back To The Future,
- The Three Little Pigs, and
- Pretty Woman.
Okay. That’s plot. Next we looked at narrative frameworks.
Begin at a crucial moment, then back up to explain how you ended up there.
e.g. Citizen Kane “Rosebud!”
Instead of describing the action directly, have characters tell it to one another.
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).
Begin with a looooong zooooom into the past before taking up the story today.
e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey.
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.
Monday, June 22nd, 2015
This one-day workshop that Cennydd is running in London on July 22nd looks like it’s going to be really good.
Saturday, May 30th, 2015
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.
Wednesday, May 20th, 2015
Monday, May 18th, 2015
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.
Thursday, May 14th, 2015
This looks like it’ll be brilliant! Nat is running a prototyping workshop the day before Responsive Day Out:
This workshop is for designers with no coding experience — if you’re an absolute beginner who wants to find out whether coding can help you with your job, this is for you!
Tuesday, December 16th, 2014
The Session trad tune machine
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.
Now, remember, I lack even the most basic knowledge of electronics, but after two days of fiddling with this stuff, it started to click.
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.
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!
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.)
Monday, December 15th, 2014
Seb will be running this workshop again at the start of February—details here. I can’t recommend it highly enough—it’s so, so good!
Sunday, August 10th, 2014
Last week I had responsive-themed tour of London.
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.
Tuesday, June 17th, 2014
Jacqueline Currie is running Robotics/Bioengineering/Computing workshops for girls (ages 6-16) this Saturday at the University of Brighton.
Monday, March 3rd, 2014
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.
Sunday, February 16th, 2014
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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).
- 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.
Monday, February 10th, 2014
Workshoppers of the world
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:
This time I’m on my own. Wish me luck!
Friday, August 23rd, 2013
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.
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.
Wednesday, April 17th, 2013
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?
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…
- Long Live the Web by Tim Berners-Lee
- A Dao of Web Design by John Allsopp
- Responsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte
- A Richer Canvas by Mark Boulton
- Fit to Scale by Trent Walton
- St. Paul’s School
- Map Tales
- The Mobile Context by Mark Kirby
- There is no Mobile Web by Stephen Hay
- Noise-to-Noise Ratio by Merlin Mann
- Responsive By Default by Andy Hume
- Do websites need to look exactly the same in every browser? by Dan Cederholm
- Mobile First by Luke Wroblewski
- Content First
- APIs First
- The DRY Principle
- URL Design by Kyle Kneath
- Time to stop showing clients static design visuals by Andy Clarke
- Style Tiles by Samantha Warren
- Element Collages by Dan Mall
- Pattern Primer example
- Pattern Primer source
Monday, March 4th, 2013
The latest Clearleft product will be like having an intensive set of discovery, collaboration, and exploration workshops in a box. Perfect for startups and other small businesses short on time or budget.
It starts in Spring but you can register your interest now.
Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
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.
Thursday, March 22nd, 2012
The slides from Andy’s one-day responsive design workshop are well worth a perusal.