Fronteers 2014 - part 1

Oct. 14, 2014, 9:17 p.m. in Web Design

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Last week I attended Fronteers 2014, one of Europe's largest front-end web development conferences, in Amsterdam. It is the third web conference I have ever attended and my first time attending Fronteers, and it was a great experience!

Before I talk about what I got out of the conference, I just want to say that I was really impressed with the organisation of Fronteers, the atmosphere, and approachability of the staff in particular. I was pleased to read and hear that they had a code of conduct, and thought the way that the staff drew attention to it, and were always on hand to talk to at any time during the event, made it feel like a safe and inclusive environment, which is super important! :)

This is going to be a two-part blog entry, focusing on the main learnings I took from the conference. For the second part, I'll talk about some of the more technical talks (including CSS animation and game making, yay!) but for this first part, I'm going to focus on one the over-arching messages from the conference, which I think one of the speakers, Petro Salema, summed up best:

"The goal of technical innovation is user experience" Petro Salema - #fronteers14

Web development has really come on in recent years, and being a front-end developer these days encompasses a lot more than it used to. From designing layouts, creating html, adding a bit of Javascript, and uploading our code via FTP, these days front-end development involves much more. Knowing version control such as git, CSS frameworks like Sass, as well as all manner of Javascript frameworks and libraries for all sorts of things that they web gives us power to do. New libraries are cropping up all the time, and technically - we're doing great! We're in a more knowledgable, powerful place than ever with all manner of tools to help us out. But in this transition, in this "best practise" focused environment that we're currently in, have we forgotten some of the basics of the days when we called ourselves "web designers", and coding was a smaller part of what we did?

Heydon Pickering kicked off Fronteers with a talk that discussed just this, questioning how much our obsession with "best practise" is actually relevant to the user, and whether it improves the product as a whole, or how much of it we are doing to maintain our own developer standards - are we sometimes obsessing over the wrong things for the wrong reasons?

"A front-end developer asks 'How should I do this?'. A designer asks 'Should I do this?'" Heydon Pickering - #fronteers14

So often we focus on "best practises", but UX - "user experience" - is still an afterthought. UX is the kind of thing we want to pay somebody to come in afterwards and check, or that we think about at the end. Maybe we see it as a separate role.

Heydon's message was one I feel strongly about myself - that as developers, we all need to start thinking more in terms of design. About why we're doing things, if we should be doing them, and realising that user experience should fall into our role as much as knowing technologies should. It's great to be striving for good code practises, but maybe we should be striving to get a user experience focus higher on our radar again.

Heydon's slides - "Getting nowhere with CSS best practices"

"We are all web designers because
we are all contributing" Somebody at #fronteers14.. sorry, my notes failed me

Design products for less than perfect situations

This was another strong message coming from the conference, which goes hand in hand with a larger consideration of user experience. Alex Feyerke's talk, Offline first drew attention to just how many apps are treating offline as an error, rather than the default state being that the user may have no (or no decent) connection. He talked about how his library Hoodie treats offline as a default and strives to ensure that a user can get to their data when they need it, and not just when they happened to have a connection. Personally I have experience of both being annoyed that I can't use an app offline, and also developing an app where we think "oh yeah, we should put in an error if the user has no connection", so it was useful to shift our thinking back to a user's default state being less than perfect.

Alex's slides - "Offline first"

Walk in somebody else's shoes

"Gov.uk stopped asking what departments want to say, and instead asked what citizens want to know." Meri Williams - #fronteers14

Meri Williams talked about the importance of accessibility and how we need to try and "bake it in" to our workflow, so that it doesn't get forgotten. We may often think that somebody with a disability or accessibility challenges is a minority, but just by talking to your family or somebody you know, we can find out that the use case for our product goes way beyond us, in our offices with our large mac screens and fast connections. It was interesting to be reminded that around 8% of users have difficulty lifting or grasping a mouse for example, a percentage that is almost equal to or higher than some of the percentages we try and include when we schedule in Internet Explorer development. Too often accessibility is an afterthought, or an "extra cost" but Meri rightly pointed out how vital it is to start considering how different people in different situations are using our products and how integral this should be to our process.

Meri's slides - "Baking in accessibility"

"We need to find a way to walk in somebody else's shoes, & see what's different for them." Meri Williams - #fronteers14

Know your accessibility bias

To finish off this first part, I'll return to Petro Salema, whose quote I used earlier. His closing talk "Dream big, think small" on day 2 of Fronteers, opened in a rather harrowing, post-apocalyptic way. He told us a story of planes returning from war, with bullet holes in the wings. The engineers would take that to mean that those parts of the plane needed more work on protecting them from the bullets, and would focus on fixing that area of the plane. What they failed to realise, and what one person eventually realised, is that the opposite was actually true. The planes that returned could withhold the bullets, and so they came back - the ones that couldn't, never came back.

" You can't get a better answer than the question you can ask, limited by your experience" Petro Salema - #fronteers14

Petro's tale, and the rest of his talk, was an eye-opener on how much our own "accessiblity bias" dictates the questions we ask, and the problems we solve. We want to think big, and solve big problems, but we need to remember to "think small", to not simply design ideal solutions to ideal problems, but to increasingly consider the smaller things that take place, the things users may be doing that we haven't even thought about - simply because of our own bias. As he discussed - we can't help our experiences, and we can't help that they naturally effect the questions we ask and answers we come up with, but it shows the need, ever more, to try and find the smaller questions, so we don't miss out on solving the smaller problems that we're not even looking at.

Panda thoughts

I think that, as resonating as these talks were, and as important as the messages were, it's often going to be a challenge in a commercial client world to get some of these considerations to the forefront. Many of us still work in "waterfall" type processes, and don't always have access or resources to get as much user feedback as we would like. Following the conference, I returned to work, feeling like it was wrong that we're all developing in Chrome, seeing our websites 90% of the time in their "best case scenario". However, I then tried to do some development in an Internet Explorer virtual machine again and.. I remembered why we don't develop there by default. XD Even so, I really do think it's time to get user experience back into the limelight again, as much as coding practises are to front-end developers, and find ways to put ourselves in other situations more when we're using the products we develop. I think UX is the responsibility of everybody, and it's going to take some thinking to see how we can get this into our workflow. Thoughts, or comments, or anything I have got incorrect above, appreciated. :)

Part two, where I will talk about some exciting web animation stuff, and some bits and pieces from the other talks at Fronteers, coming soon!