Reflections on dConstruct 2009

In another attempt to implement the career pattern I call Get Out of Your Subculture, I attended dConstruct 2009 in Brighton.

There were a few factors in choosing dConstruct: it's in Brighton, so it offered an opportunity to hang out with my friends at Realmac Software and meet a bunch of people from online. It's a one-day conference, so the hit to my working-time wasn't too great and the price was right. Most of all, through, Adam Greenfield was the keynote speaker which stoked my latent ubicomp infatuation no end.

dConstruct is notionally a "web" conference but, this year, the theme was "the future" and that's somewhere I've always wanted to go.

dConstruct was a slightly different crowd from most developer conferences in that there were - gasp! - actual human females in attendance. More of that later, but the other thing that struck me on a facile level was the dress sense. It goes like this: optional retro headgear, thick black-rimmed glasses, beard, suit or corduroy jacket, t-shirt possibly referencing Super Mario Bros or other retro/ironic subject, jeans, chuck taylors. Accessorise with a dSLR and iPhone.

Aaaaanyway....the actual conference.

Adam Greenfield's keynote blew my mind. People I talked to found it dense and intellectual. It certainly was but, given that I've been interested in similar topics for many years, I found it an absolute delight to listen to. I hope to heaven someone recorded the talk, because it easily contained a 1:10 ratio of "listening time" vs. "thinking time". Probably more like 1:100.

THe second talk was by two gentlemen from Stamen Design, talking about their work in Information Visualisation. The concepts they introduced were really not that new to anyone familiar with the usual InfoVis taxonomy (and they admitted such during the session), but it's good to see that kind of technology becoming more mainstream.

The final session of the morning was Brian Fling talking about how "mobile" is influencing and, sometimes, rearranging the way that design is done. I suppose I took away the message that it used to be "mobile tacked on the side" and is now - sometimes - "mobile first". That said, I thought that the example of Tweetie moving from the iPhone to the desktop was not a strong argument. Twitter, in part due to its utter simplicity, lends itself to mobile-esque design in a way that few other problem domains do.

I took quite a lot of issue with Brian's talk and found it quite unsatisfying. I know dConstruct isn't necessarily a technical how-to conference, but I felt that Brian's talk didn't contain nearly enough actual lessons from the past decade's experience of mobile design. Instead, we got a half-talk on the pop history of the '80s and '90s and then a few thoughts on what might happen in the future. The recurring "no flying cars" gag eventually wore a little thin.

After visiting Realmac towers at lunchtime, the second pair of sessions commenced with Robin Heinecke talking about "juicy feedback" in computer games in particular and designed artifacts in general. This talk went down terribly badly on the Twitter backchannel, and I'm not entirely sure why.

Much of the criticism seemed to be, on the surface, around Robin's choice of font, font colour and style. Secondarily, some people expressed dissatisfaction with the word "juicy" and wondered if there was really a point to the talk. As a Mac developer, I understood exactly where Robin was coming from.

I was surprised at the ferocity of response that this talk generated. It made me wonder if it was just coincidence that this was the only talk given by a woman. It's not as if Robin's talk was the only one that was a little vague or undirected.

August de los Reyes from Microsoft's Surface group gave a talk about emotion and user experience. As I write this, I honestly can't remember a whole lot about his talk, apart from a good dash of self-deprecating humour and references to Marvin Minsky. I think I was probably just getting a little tired by this point in the day.

One more break and Russell Davies took to the stage with a bravura performance in the finest traditions of the great British music hall. I mean, when you see a stool and a suitcase of props on stage, what else does that suggest to you? In between several hysterically funny gags, he delivered what was easily the best line of the conference, referring to a disposable coffee cup lid with an elaborate rotating levered mechanism for closing the drinking-hole in transit:

"I look at this, and it just says 'Tweetdeck' to me."

His elaboration on that line hit home (once I had stopped crying with laughter): incredibly complicated solutions to problems that we, ourselves, created.

In summary, a very worthwhile conference. I gained a whole lot to think about.