Web Directions South – Day 1

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[NOTE: I wrote this post and the next over a week ago. But I wanted to hold off posting them until I’d had a little bit of time to reflect.]

I had the pleasure of attending Web Directions South today – my first time.

Web Directions South

It’s interesting to compare it to TechEd from a few weeks ago in terms of how a conference turns out. Web Directions is much smaller of course, and has a nice intimate feel.

General comments

As a general statement it is no where near as polished as TechEd, and in fact highlights just how good TechEd is (I’ve taken TechEd for granted up until now as being the standard). TechEd has been around for decades now, so it is to be expected.

As another general statement, the sessions and speakers at Web Directions weren’t all of a high standard. In some cases, sessions went overtime or way under, or were not particularly well delivered (eg use of small text bullet point lists that were hard to read). I jumped between a few sessions at times, due to this.

There didn’t really seem to be a consistent theme (or direction!) to the conference. The sessions were broken up into 3 tracks: Design, Development, and Management/Strategy. But within that framework there was no flow or complement amongst the sessions.

Perhaps this is my misunderstanding, but I really came to the conference thinking it was about the web: how we who make our living from using, designing, developing, and building web assets can be improving. What’s new? What do we need to be considering? What does the future hold? But this was not really touched on.

To be fair, the session agenda was all online (update: agenda link no longer active), and I should have paid more attention to the details. True there was a session or two on future items (eg HTML5), but I thought I’d throw these comments in anyway.

Opening Keynote (Lynne D Johnson)

This was a strange session because it seemed to focus on whether print media is going to survive in an online world. My answer: who cares? I don’t. If they do great. If they don’t, no big deal (If I worked in print media it would of course be high on my care factor radar). What I wanted to hear about was how I can better use online media, how I should be designing for it, better implementing it etc.

The other problem was that Lynne was talking about items that I would consider general knowledge. I got the feeling she was actually really smart and knew her stuff but had been advised to dumb it way down. This was a lost opportunity in my opinion. I’d be interested to know what her brief was, because I suspect much of the fault lies elsewhere.

Accessibility beyond Compliance (Derek Featherstone)

This was well presented and the main point that resonated with me was that by focusing on better usability (eg just making our web sites easier to use by keyboard alone) we may well be making them much more accessible. This is a good point because we often come from it in reverse, that is we try to focus on accessibility alone (often considering it a burden!)

Strategies for Social Media (Grant Young)

The highlight of the day, Grant’s session focused on understand the ways that social networks impact business, reputation and influence. He made an excellent point contrasting control of the message with the influence it generates. Thus, if a company wants to control the ‘message’ then they have little influence. But once they open up and let others talk about them (and thus lose control) the influence greatly increases. As grant explained, this is because of the power of ‘someone like me’. We tend to take advice and give credence to people we know (even when those people are not experts or in anyway qualified to necessarily advise)!.

Grant’s session was jam packed with examples and references (it available here on Slideshare). You should follow him on Twitter here.

Context in Mobile Design (Gabriel White)

Gabriel’s session was certainly interesting, but I came away with nothing concrete that I’d incorporate into any web based processes, designs or ideas. As a developer I think it is really important that we get along to more design based sessions, they really serve to expand our minds to how people are using our products. But I had to wonder what his session was doing in a web conference. If it had focused more on browsing behaviours or uses on mobile devices then that would have been really useful. Mobile is going to be (and already is) so huge in terms of web usage, so I felt this session should have been a conference highlight, but it missed it’s opportunity.

Elegant Web Typography (Jeff Croft)

Jeff covered all the main points (myths?) about fonts, colours, leading, layout and much more.

In terms of the web this session was 100% applicable – every designer and developer should know this stuff. Most designers will already, but I’ll guess almost all developers don’t. This is a problem. Too often I hear developers talking in terms of ‘I just do the hard stuff, a designer will make look pretty’. It’s probably true in a lot of cases, but limits the developers. A senior developer who knows how to do ‘the hard stuff’ as well as make it look pretty is an extremely valuable asset. Developers, don’t miss this opportunity.

Predicting the Past (August de los Reyes)

Another extremely interesting session, and perfectly delivered – he is amazing. But, reluctant as I am to criticise, I do have to apply the same test that I applied to earlier sessions – I’m not exactly sure what this presentation was doing at a web conference. I was spellbound by August (and I’d seen him the night before as well), but I’m still wondering how I can directly apply this to the web.

Vendor/Exhibitor area

In between sessions people could mill around in the exhibitor area. Adobe and Microsoft both had big stands and put on a series of 10-15 minute seminars throughout the day. This is where I hung out most of the time. Microsoft had its Surface there (for people to walk on) and Adobe were demonstrating all the cool features in their new CS4 range (very impressive guys!). I really liked this aspect to the conference, and learnt a ton of things. For example, the main thing that blew me away was the new Stretch picture feature in Adobe Photoshop – very cool.

Coming to terms with it

By the end of the day I was starting to come to terms with the conference. Everyone around me seemed to be getting a lot of value from the sessions, so I’m assuming I’m in the minority here. Perhaps my expectations were coming down to more reasonable levels, and I started to take the content as general knowledge rather than specific web and business related knowledge.

Summary

Some extremely interesting sessions. But not many that I could apply directly to the (web) company I work for.

Finally

Although this first post must seem rather harsh, I do understand that this conference is relatively new (at 4 years). Given its history, and how popular it has become so quickly, John and Maxine need to be applauded. I was impressed to see on the day that most of the administration was handled personally and by friends which kept it very personal and down to earth (ie no big conference companies). In terms of logistics the conference was very smooth, and the vendor area was a joy to walk around in. The ‘bell’ that signalled the start of each session was a classic.

Here’s the full list of resources from the event.

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I'm the co-host of HubShots and the CEO of XEN - helping mid-large B2B companies with their digital marketing and lead generation.

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