Christian Heilmann

dconstruct 2006 review

Saturday, September 9th, 2006 at 3:50 pm

Yesterday I went to dconstruct in Brighton (thanks to Andy Budd who got me a last minute ticket) and all in all I can say it was a massive success (missing the last tube on the way home and having someone throw up next to me on the night bus was less of a success though). If you haven’t been to Brighton, go now, it is simply a beautiful quaint little town. Anyways, about dconstruct:

Dconstruct is a conference for web application developers, and this year’s big motto was Application Development Interfaces (APIs). Although dconstruct is small in comparison with other conferences in the same arena (@media, SXSW), the line-up of speakers was very impressive:

Web Services: Fuelling Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Jeff Barr/Amazon)

First up (after a short introduction by Richard Rutter and Glenn Jones) was Jeff Barr of Amazon giving a talk about all the APIs Amazon offers web developers and business partners. These include the well-known shop API that allows you to embed Amazon product information into your sites, but also the lesser known Mechanical Turk. This is a service that allows you to pay for humans to fulfill a task for you that computers can’t (translations, image matching, sanity checking of content) using all the Amazon payment and communication channels. Other services explained included the search engine / domain value engine Alexa and a service that allows you to store any data on Amazon’s servers or to hire servers to do heavy calculations and conversions for you.

All in all the presentation was thorough in terms of information but as the title already hinted felt very much like a sales pitch and didn’t get me enthusiastic about the offers. I got the same feedback from many others at the conference, but then again it might be that most of us did know of all these services.

Web services for fun and profit (Simon Willison and Paul Hammond of Yahoo!)

Simon and Paul showed that most of Yahoo! runs on APIs as it is simply a matter of scale. They showed some impressive figures of how many visitors Yahoo! has to deal with and which APIs are in use.
Furthermore they showed a bit of what is happening in Yahoo!, including the hack day. This is a (almost) quarterly opportunity for anyone in the company to not do their day to day job for a whole day but take any API and put it together with others to create something they consider worth while.
At the end of the day a jury gives out prices for the best hacks and the hacks are reviewed in the following weeks to see if they can become a product. Simon and Paul explained how this concept fuels creativity and makes developers happier, and I concur (having been surprised to bag the “best user experience” award in the last EU hack day).
They concluded by asking people to take a look at the Yahoo! Developer Network, where all APIs are available for developers to play with.

The Joy of API (Jeremy Keith)

I was wary of this one as I thought it might be a repetition of what Cameron Adams had to say about the same subject but Jeremy gave a very engaging talk about how much joy he gets out of using APIs and realizing that you can turn any web site into an API by embedding microformats. Jeremy showed several APIs (Amazon, Google Maps, Flickr, delicious) and matched them against another in terms of fun, ease of use, documentation and power.
He also pointed out that in order to really use APIs you need to know programming, and that this should change. As a remedy he pointed out that some services like Amazon (and soon Ebay, as I heard at barcamp) offer XSLT as an option, which means you don’t need to use PHP or JavaScript to use the APIs and you still get nice results you can format easily. He also showed that there are some sites that offer people the option to clone other API implementations.
I see the point and ease of these XSLT options, but I do disagree to a certain extend that they are a good option. Having suffered XSLT on an enterprise level for some years I don’t see it as very effective (especially as it is very heavy on the server computation side). Having used APIs I also realized that it is very cool and sexy to implement them with some lines of PHP or JavaScript but to really use them in a secure and reliable fashion you will need a proper server side component to do much of the heavy lifting, caching and optimization for you. In a lot of cases pulling the API data on the server, cleaning it up and spitting out optimized JSON makes up for a much quicker and faster application than going to a lot of third party providers on every page load.
There is no argument on the usefulness of Microformats and I am all over them, too. It was very much fun to see Jeremy give a “Microformats Picnic” talk in the park during lunch break, especially as the backdrop was a Indian Style Palace with Sitar music. Passers-by seeing Jeremy preach in the middle of a listening crowd must have gotten a really quaint impression and I wonder if Jeremy hasn’t started a cult of some kind. If you see confused looking people with cymbals chanting “hCard, hCarc, hCard” just point them to Clearleft ’s office.

Mash My Flex Up (Aral Balkan)

I met Aral at barcamp and he is one of my main stalking targets for the next few months. The main reason is that I am so very happy to finally meet some Flash/Flex developer who is enthusiastic about doing things right in that part of web development. Another reason is that because in between him, Niqui Merret , the WaSP web accessibility and DOM scripting task force we have the chance to finally get Flex and Flash out of the pure design corner into the rich user interface application world and create accessible products that don’t look bland. I also hope to be able to give my share to debunk some bad old Flash and Scripting myths out there together with these people.
If you haven’t seen Aral talking yet, go and see him; it is a lot of fun and to put it scientifically, “he really knows his sh*t”. Aral showed how you can quickly put together an application in Flex and talked about its benefits. I especially like the fact that unlike the Flex presentations I got in the past it is not an Macrobe sales pitch. I can rave a lot here, but let’s just say Aral is an impersonation of enthusiasm and it is a joy to see him talk about things he likes doing. Watch this space.

Web Applications in a post Web 1.0 world (Derek Featherstone)

Derek Featherstone, renowned accessibility expert from Canada is always fun to see speaking as his presentations are very informative but at the same time rather off-key.
Instead of a slick and streamlined slide show it can happen that his enthusiasm takes him away and he starts showing you all kind of browser tricks and examples of how you can break web applications by doing things normal people users do. This time he showed amongst other things that search boxes with predefined content that gets deleted when you focus the field are a bad idea. Tabbing to the next form element and shift-tabbing back to the field would erase your last entry (this can be easily fixed though by comparing the content of the field before deleting it on focus). Another example were find-as-you-type suggestions that are not keyboard accessible or don’t take screen estate into consideration.
Derek showed some results of accessibility tests with clients, and explained some of the challenges Ajax driven applications have to master. These included making users aware of error messages unobtrusively and offering real tabbing anchors to allow for keyboard navigation instead of a lot of “#” links, which are reported as visited links by assistive technology. This is a massive topic and we’ll do some research with Derek in WaSP (including Aral) to see what can be done.

Understanding Folksonomy (Thomas Vander Wal)

I was lucky enough to meet Thomas before dconstruct in London where we had an interesting chat (together with Eric Miraglia) in the hotel bar. At dconstruct, Thomas talked about tagging and what it really means in terms of building up data, retrieving data and forming relationships. He also showed different interfaces working with tags and their benefits and problems. For example tag clouds make sense in certain environments but could be actually misleading for visitors not used to them as overemphasizing some tags will make it harder for people to find smaller, but not less important items. Thomas also pointed out the dangers of tagging, as some tags might just be wrong or even profanities, but on the other hand showed that a wrong tag might be an opportunity as you didn’t think of a relationship it might indicate. Keep your eyes open, this man has a lot of good stuff to talk about.

Designing the Complete User Experience (Jeffrey Veen/Google)

Having delivered the most inspiring presentation at @media, Jeffrey Veen this time talked about findings in usability research in his latest projects and that we are quite at a threshold of usability and design at the moment. He showed in several examples how important user research and interviews are and how this data can be used (for example by matching existing products and sitemap sections against the questions and wishes of users and easily recognizing where there is a missing product or which are just not that important). He also talked about some outdated ideas of web usability and how they don’t hold up once you brought the context of the product into play (the example was the Amway web interface, which violates almost every rule Jakob Nielsen defined and yet makes millions of dollars as the audience is automatically given).
What shall I say? Jeffrey could sell you empty batteries and you’ll show them to friends and family afterwards as the best thing ever. Get the presentation and watch the video (if there’ll be one somewhere) as there is a lot of ammunition in this one for your next internal “can we please think about usability this time?” pitch.

The venue and organization

The conference was held in the corn exchange in Brighton, and it is very convenient location with a nice little park behind the main hall and lots of opportunities to grab good food around (including my favourite – Bill’s). There was ample supply of coffee and cookies, you got all the information you needed quickly and simply said the organizers did a great job. The only annoyance was that the seats simply don’t offer enough leg room and I had to jump up and down in between presentations to get the blood circulating (I do that a lot anyways, though).

Sponsors and Schwag

The main sponsor was MadGex who kept very much hidden, but must have put quite some effort into it. Yahoo! Answers brought their bus around and had the good idea to sponsor water in the goodie bag, Zimki showed their JavaScript development system (server side, I’ll look into that, no idea right now) and gave out free shirts with the rather cryptic slogan “pre-shaven yaks” (eh?), Snipperoo sponsored the drinks for the after party (and their budget lasted about 20 minutes, which didn’t stop the party though) and Adobe gave out a demo version of Studio 8. Backstage BBC was there in manifestation of Ian Forrester (who hopefully made it home ok, as he was dead tired on the train back) gave out cool retro shirts that warm my 8 bit fan heart, Future Publishing gave out free copies of the .net magazine (ranging over three months for some reason) and Friends of Ed sponsored dozens of free books as prizes including a lot of copies of my book and the accessibility book I worked on (I guess they don’t want to pay royalties).

The People

Apart from the usual suspects that can be met at Pub Standards in London, it was fun to see some people that are less likely to end up in Southern England, including Peter Paul Koch, James Edwards, Jon Hicks, Jan Brasna, Tomas Caspers, Chris “Wookie” Mills of Friends of Ed and many many more I forgot now or were pretty blurry at the end of the evening anyways.

Best thing and going forward

The best idea I think was to not print nametags, but create schedules that fit in a badge container and put stickers on them with your name. That way you always had the schedule at hand, and didn’t have to dig through your bag to find out what was next.
If you ask me if it is worth it going to dconstruct, the plain answer is “hell, yes”.

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