Designertopia – Day 1

Today has been a real eye-opener. The things I learnt today, I will remember for a long time to come.

Expression Studio
Expression Studio

Lets take it back a bit. Microsoft invited MSPs to the Designertopia conference at the London Marriott for a two-day conference on web development and design. Principally, its about Microsoft Expression Studio (their answer to Macromedia Studio). This includes Expression Web (Dreamweaver), Expression Blend (Flash but with total integration for Web), Expression Design (Fireworks) and Expression Media (a media catalogue and video encoding tool designed to be the final process before putting on the web). All of these things require some form of Visual Studio (express will do, Pro with Orcas CTPs is best). They’re all linked together by the .NET 3.0 framework which includes XAML, and ASP.NET 2.0 with AJAX. XAML allows for fancy effects that Adobe has been doing for ages to be put together in a markup language that anyone can use easily. This allows for some quite funky web sites, most of which can be seen on ajax.asp.net.

However, Microsoft also announced the second beta of WPF/e, a cross-platform browser independent (well, currently not Opera) set of libraries that allowed for 3D object manipulation and all sorts of fancy effects that .NET 3.0/WPF comes out with. Using Expression Blend, you can create some great web sites using .NET 3.0 online. These sites impressed me a lot (especially the Burton one). You can see demos at Channel 9’s WPF/e Playground

This keynote speech was good, but it wasn’t amazing (well, the 3D stuff was). With my exposure to Digg, Prototype, script.alioc.us and dojo has rendered me somewhat immune to regular AJAX effects. What I didn’t realise however, was the business effect of such things. The New York times has a reader written in WPF and users of the reader spend 10 times longer looking at the paper than those visiting the regular HTML site.

The first afternoon talk I went to was on the future of games and mobile entertainment looking at interaction with the user. The only really interesting bit was the potential introduction of emotion into video games. Headsets exist that can almost measure your current emotional state based on perspiration, heart rate and blood-oxygen levels. Imagine, Elder Scrolls: Oblivion with quests that you can only get information out of someone if you are angry with them! This talk also defined a very simple thing. If the core interactivity of a game is not fun then the game is not fun (i.e. in Quake the core is moving and shooting. If it’s not fun, it’s not a good game).

Webby Awards

The second talk I went to was entitled, “Participatory Design” and was presented by the Director of the Webby Awards. He told two contrasting stories about implementations of user participation into a web site.
1. Doritos: Crash the Superbowl
– Create a 30 second ad for the Superbowl
– No limits, just feature Doritos
– No tools given
– Submissions moderated by Doritos before going online
It created major interest as it was targeting people in small advertising companies who have access to camcorders and editing suites. The prize was suitably big; it doesn’t get bigger than the Superbowl. Any malicious adverts simply didn’t make it. It produced high quality ads i.e. http://tinyurl.com/yb5gf4: video below.

2. Chevy SUV ad
– Create an ad for a new SUV. Potentially shown on TV
– Given creative tools online. Stock footage and ability to put your own captions on too
– Users can share their videos instantly online.
Chevy messed up. Their target audince, SUV drivers, don’t care enough about Chevrolet to make adverts for them. Therefore it falls to regular internet users who are very knowledgeable about issues such as climate change and the MPG of an SUV. Giving these people the tools allowed them to make realistic looking videos available online with a minimal amount of effort (just about as much effort that the general internet user wants to make). Chevrolet also released this on a Friday with no moderation process. By Monday morning they had a large number of negative adverts circling the internet that look like Chevy made themselves. By the time they took them down, it was too late.

More negative Chevy ads

Lessons.
1. Target the right people
2. Use the right incentives to attract the right people
3. If you want quality, don’t make the process too easy
4. Avoiding bad press is essential, mediation can be necessary

Adaptive Path

The final talk of the day was on a technical track. Called “Connecting Design to Real Business Value”, presented by Brandon Schauer of Adaptive Path (who will be getting my C.V.). He took us through a series of examples trying to answer the question: “Does good design lead to an increase in product value?”. He presented a number of examples from Flickr (photo web site) to Lula (book publishing web site). He came up with a simple workflow:
1. Identify problems – I want pictures for these users on my site
2. Compare projects and potentials
3. Benchmark metrics – Quantify things and see how much it should bring back in value
4. Design and Test
5. Assessment of Value – See how well it has done, quantify it.
6. Set budget – If it was successful, budget goes up
7. Repeat

The main problem is in identifying the areas of a business that will produce the most revenue from additional functionality. His solution was to first produce a simple business model (using www.lula.com as an example). So, books uploaded * quantity sold * profit per book = revenue. The difficult part is to identify ways in which these simple factors can be increased. He pointed us all to a book published by Adaptive Path: “Business Case Modelling for Design Initiatives” Adaptive Path Publications. The final important part is to prototype this new strategy. Brandon used storyboards to illustrate the effect on the user of this new strategy aimed at getting authors to write a second book. These simple storyboards are designed to be shown to clients for active discussion on ideas which then may/may not become a new design feature.
It boils down to a few things:
Model the business, identify areas in the model that can be enhanced
Connect value with user behaviour. Quantify it and how to design it
Prototype the strategy
He recommended that you watch the design documentary on The Incredibles and that design studios take cues from film into having “dailies” to identify good and bad bits early.

That was the end of day 1. At the networking event afterwards (read: free beer) I met a man called Ian Lloyd, who wrote “Build Your Own Website the Right Way” – Standards based web design for the complete beginner (Link – I hope I get some freebies for the plug). Talking with him about general practice in web standards was good, but what surprised us most was that of the people who had laptops, >50% of them were macs (mostly macbook pros) and that most of the presentations were given using Keynote, but that one of presenters used Vista under bootcamp on his mac! It’s a Microsoft conference but that won’t stop Apple ruling the design space. Unless Adobe completely screws up CS3 (not likely), no one will be moving from their mac.

I’ll also mention that over lunch I met two people from RM (www.rm.com – the computing firm I most associate with computers in my primary school). Well, they’ve convinced me to apply for a graduate position there. It seems they do quite a bit of interesting consultancy out of their Oxford offices, including the government’s school rebuilding project. It seems that they don’t just network all schools in the local area, they’re then connected to a complete country-wide network. RM are also into rebuilding schools from walls to catering (all outsourced but all contracts must be tendered etc) so the work is very varied. It sounds fun and at 22-26k starting I won’t say no.

Well, I hope you’re still reading, that was a really good mini-essay and there’s more tomorrow.

Steve

Currently Listening to: the sounds of London i.e. taxis. Oh, and The Killers – Sam’s Town
Currently Reading: My notes from today and the agenda for tomorrow
Currently Watching: Scrubs – 606 – My Musical. Best Episode Ever!
Currently Eating: Hotel food, not bad!
Tube rides so far: 3

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Steve Workman

Steve Workman is the Head of Web Engineering at Yell. He is also an organiser for London Web Standards is an occasional public speaker, talking about web performance and web standards

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