7 emergent themes from Webstock reveal a framework

Agility, simplicity, and curiosity will define the next generation of apps and devices.

WebstockAt this year’s Webstock in Wellington, New Zealand, there were no reports of bad acid or rainstorms to muck things up, just a few sore tummies from newcomers (like me) eating too many Pineapple Lumps.

Webstock wasn’t a rock concert, but a gathering of the geek tribes that lived up to its reputation with accomplished speakers, an interesting mix of topics, and a scenic venue on the harbor.

The conference organizers sat the speakers together and they developed a nice camaraderie — unusual for a tech conference — that had them referencing and building on each others’ presentations. While the presenters came from a variety of backgrounds — engineering, design and the arts — the talks were anchored in how how their topics related to web and mobile business processes.

A few useful and instructive themes emerged over the course of the conference (besides presenters using metaphors from Pixar’s “Wall-E”). Sessions by Doug Bowman, Marco Arment, Karen Halvorson, Steve Souders, Frank Chimero, Christine Perfetti, Josh Clark and Michael Lopp most informed the following.

Deliver value early and build fast with a purpose

Best results come from agile-like processes and cultures that start small and iterate fast. Not surprisingly, this common theme was echoed most often by those with startup backgrounds. By limiting features, releasing fast, and learning, products and services can quickly become aligned to user needs. Resisting feature bloat is important to staying fast, especially after initial success and getting exposed to what may be a large number of users.

The agile approach also lets organization stay tuned into serendipity — uses and features that users exploit that were not part of planned use scenarios (Twitter becoming a communications tool for activism is one example). Corollaries to building fast include failing fast, i.e., quickly acknowledging what doesn’t work, and using the scientific method to test and learn.

Scientific method

Elements of the scientific method — hypothesis setting, testing, learning and adjusting — are just as valid for web performance tuning as for user interfaces and understanding comprehension. Embracing the scientific method can help an organization establish a learning culture. It’s not trivial. To gain the most from testing you need familiarity with using data and quantitative analysis, including visualization (charts), statistics, and machine learning.

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Keep everything human-scaled

Acknowledge that the builders and users of products and services are people whose needs should be understood and accommodated. For user interfaces, human scale means keeping operations and processes simple, functionally consistent, cognitively easy, and intuitive. For engineers and managers that means developing strategies that help align efforts, listening to users and making fast build cycles possible. Communicating on a human scale is best done through narrative processes and storytelling, and establishing a communications strategy. Apple products were often offered as examples of simple-to-use, human-scaled designs that delight users.

Communicating with stories

To effectively communicate with users — to share, to guide and convince, to engage — use storytelling processes like narration and cause-and-effect processes. Stories are a way to cut through and make sense of the increasing volumes and ubiquity of data and noise we experience via the web and mobile devices. Humans are wired to understand and remember stories — they make content and interfaces visceral, memorable and viral (i.e., worth repeating). Different speakers evoked storytelling as a way to develop content strategies, to stay connected with others, as an interface metaphor, e.g., using scrolling to represent the passage of time, and, as a way to put data to use.

My background in data and analysis kept me keenly interested in David McCandless’ “Information is Beautiful” session, with its mix of analytics, visually rendered data and storytelling. David does beautiful, playful and insightful infographics that focus on expressing the relative magnitude/scale of large numbers — especially numbers so large they are abstractions to most people — and on telling the stories in the data. His Debtris visualizations show the size of the US and UK deficits using a visual metaphor from the game Tetris to explains the size of the US and UK debt. David’s work is always designed to tell a story, keeping users compelled to drill further and stay engaged. It’s worth noting that David shared some failures and what he learned from them — the scientific method in action. David, who has a journalism background, calls his mix of charts and narration a “charticle” — a concept worth remembering when teasing a story out of data.

Users expect multi-touch and gestural interfaces

Multi-touch and gestural functions should be treated as the primary user interface, not functionality tacked onto conventional interfaces. If touch and gestures can do the job, there’s no reason to keep a keyboard or mouse. Users see multi-touch and gestures as intuitive and the “right” interface for many tasks, expecting them on many devices, not just mobile phones and tablets. Vendors who fail to fully embrace multi-touch and gestures as the primary interface to devices and services do so at their own peril.

Simple is hard

It’s hard work building the right amount of functionality, providing the optimal amount and frequency of content, creating devices that feel right, and designing user interfaces that are natural and “disappear.” Making a simple experience for users, one that takes the cognitive load of how to use a device so they can focus on why they are using the device, takes effort, sweating the details, thinking, testing, and creativity. To succeed at simple, build fast and use scientific learning processes to refine and improve interfaces. Spend as much time taking out what does not work as building on what does.

Find inspiration everywhere

The presenters commonly described creative flashes inspired by their own needs and from their curiosity about topics outside their primary expertise. Creativity often gets sparked by making non-obvious connections.

Build fast, learn, simplify, tell stories, stay curious — taken together, these themes provide a useful framework for quickly building the next generation of services, applications and devices that become the warp and woof of our increasingly digital and mobile lives.


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