(Design it: Build it) 7th – 8th October 2013

Hosted by the BALTIC

I recently attended the DIBI conference held in the BALTIC. Here are some of the things that I attended that made me prick my ears up and stuck out as particularly interesting or memorable.

Lean Start Up – Idea to MVP

Bobby Paterson from Searchcamp lead an interesting set of presentations which used the word Lean a lot, which I guess means that Lean is a thing. I don’t quite understand what that thing is, but was able to deduce a few useful principles:

Identify the Minimum Viable Product – don’t faff around building a feature rich monolith to your own genius before showing it to another human.

How to do this? Identify the Minimum Viable Customer – a small and specific customer base, find out what their problems are and answer them. Quickly. Then learn from its mistakes and build another and another as many times as possible before the money runs out.

This is more or less the main creative lesson in any field of creativity, but the methodology comes with tools that may be useful in other fields too – the key tool for creating the story of how your project is going to work together is the Lean Canvas.

Very interesting and I now have a fairly substantial reading list to investigate.


The Design it thread of the conference contained a Disco ball, and as this slowly spun it created pixelated animations above my head. This felt in some way relevant and appropriate, and I’m glad it was there.

Fortunately, the talks were more than capable of competing with its hypnotic spinning… are those pixel colours derived from people’s shirts and hair colour? Parts of a whole… it’s like a metaphor for social something…


…hmmm! oh wait, no – hangon this is interesting:

Clouds of Dust

Luke Murphy-Wearmouth gave a very interesting talk about the concept of Desire Paths. This is a concept I was aware of but not really sure how to translate it into the field of web design.

Firstly and most obviously, use your analytics, heat maps and eye tracking to find out what the users of your site want to do. Prioritise those things and de-prioritise the things they don’t want to do.

The term Decaying Interfaces was used. The idea being that your UI can evolve more or less live based on how its used. This can be done for individual users but for the user group as a whole: A button can become more minimal in its design and explanation as the users become familiar with its purpose.

I’m not entirely clear on how this might be put into practice without inviting the problems that come along with removing or altering the customers landmarks, but I do find it a very interesting idea and worth thinking further on.

Cross Platform Branding

I’d have probably skipped this one if I’d not read the small print emphasising that what we’re going for here is an emphasis on the use of typography to create and project the personality of your site. Our control over the design, template and context is increasingly limited in a mobile first and responsive world, but our choice of typography and spacing can increasingly be used across multiple devices and media.

In my opinion, use of type is one of the areas that has most radically evolved (revolved? – almost) in the last few years, and wisdom about serifs, lowest common denominator system fonts and accessibility that felt set in stone five years ago no longer applies now we have much higher resolution screens and the availability of web fonts.

Paul McKeever gave an convincing and compelling introduction to the state of the art ranging from the strategic and branding concerns down to the nuts and bolts of performance and implementation.

The tool he was hawking looks to be worth further investigation: http://typecast.com/.

A good night to avoid daytime systems failure

This talk on sleep and its patterns and function by Kirstie Anderson was very interesting: though somewhat tangential to the theme of the conference as a whole, I found it an entertaining and enlightening talk, and will attempt to take its lessons on board.

How Documents can change your world

NoSQL is a topic i’m pretty interested in right now. Ross Lawley introduced the key concepts of NoSQL, document databases and MongoDB. There is a lot about this that still puzzles me and the topic of how the heck you manage and mitigate relational issues is clearly one that will become clearer once i’ve had more hands on experience of these kinds of systems.

The talk covered a lot of ground and was refreshingly honest about the weaknesses as well as the strengths of this approach. My feeling is that where there’s a clear chunk of data that can expand or contract, that sits somewhere in a tree like hierarchy, MongoDB is worth investigating.

One of my current work projects involves web based survey and questionnaire systems, the storage and onwards distribution of the data collected, and its display (probably using JSON and D3). I feel this might be a good match for that project.

One Size Fits None

This passionate questioning of the increasing reliance of CMS and Grid systems hit the nail on the head for me. The slightly bristly response from some of the audience (rushing to the defence of the Twitter Bootstrap) served as evidence that a valid point was being made.

Which was as I remember it, not so much that Twitter Bootstrap users are wankers, but that the increasing reliance on a small set of grid system and cms is leading to a homogeneity of design.

Marta Armada made the point that when unquestioned, when it is simply assumed that your grid or templating system of choice represent best practice (because it looks like other sites look right now), it creates a feedback loop that kills creativity in design and brings too much of its own design baggage (both visually and in terms of file sizes and downloads, typography, how buttons bevel, colour schemes, icons and such).

You can’t see a clique from within, and all systems can institutionalise. Bravo.

To Sum Up

This was a pretty good conference and a boost to morale. The usage of drum and bass as a shorthand for cool was sometimes a little trying, and there were some minor logistical hickups, but I know how hard those are to get right. The party was good, I chatted to some old friends and new and came fourth in the build a lego star destroyer competition and feel that I should have done better. They gave us beer and pies. All good.

Content wise, DIBI talked directly about the issues surrounding the proliferation of devices and media that i’ve been wrestling with recently.

I was gratified to find others with the same or overlapping sets of problems. While there are some new routes forward starting to emerge in Responsive Design it seems that while there isn’t yet a best practice to settle into everyone is enthusiastic about that and that this might be a good thing.

Also, nobody I talked to felt the need to prefix the word object with business or the word software with enterprise like they meant something. The focus was on the things that pull in the opposite direction from those kinds of terms:

Creative problem solving using forward looking tools and having a UI that’s a pleasure to use.

Quote of the Conference:

“Flat White? No friend, there are only two kinds of coffee: Americano and Irish”.