dConstruct Round-up

So I got back from dConstruct and a nice weekend in London yesterday afternoon. And since Friday evening I’ve been trying to think of a suave way to wriggle out of my promise. There are no new interviews, and damn me if I didn’t come up with anything suave. Although the lectures at dConstruct were as interesting as I’d hoped, the socialising was a bit limited and I just couldn’t bring myself to thrust a camera in anyone’s face without chatting at least 5 minutes beforehand, and there just wasn’t time for much more than that. So if you’ve been waiting to watch some dConstruct attendees, I hope you’ll be satisfied with a summary of the proceedings instead.

“The Urban Web”

I wasn’t quite sure if I should feel totally uncool for having never heard of Steven Johnson, but he’s written a number of books which sound interesting, and judging by his polished, relaxed style, he’s a conference circuit regular. His latest book, “The Ghost Map”, is the story of the London cholera outbreak of 1854, and was the subject of his talk. John Snow, with the help of local vicar Henry Whitehead, proved that cholera was spread through contaminated drinking water with a mix of detective work and innovative mapping. His map is worth a look: the black bars represent deaths, and reveal the pump on Broad Street as a likely suspect. But Johnson placed more emphasis on the social network of which vicar Whitehead was a super-node, enabling the investigation to go deeper and faster than Snow could have ever achieved alone. A gripping story full of info design geekery that put “The Ghost Map” on my wish list.

This led to a demo of Johnson’s new project, outside.in, which gathers regional info from blogs in your city and displays them in a format reminiscent of newspaper sites. He said Brooklyn, where he lives, is the “bloggiest neighbourhood” in America, so I can imagine the attraction for Brooklynites. The “radar” function alerts you via email to news closer to home, like the truck that burst into flames near Johnson’s house while he was on holidays. As much as I liked the idea of outside.in, radar had the feel of a “solution without a problem”, as a friend said. And as someone living outside the U.S. I once again felt terribly left out. Not only do very few Hamburgers (yes yes, Hamburg residents really are called that) or Sydneysiders (yep) I know of blog about their city, but outside.in doesn’t work outside the U.S. One day maybe.

“Playing the Web”

The day’s prize for most energetic talk definitely goes to Aleks Krotoski. She’s an academic, avid gamer and writer at the Guardian, and gave her talk with much running back and forth, arm waving and the occasional dance step or two, which all sounds maybe a little spastic, but I’m not doing her justice. It was utterly charming. She wondered why the games industry and web industry share so little. Games-makers understand stickiness so well, and we webby folk are so deep into community and openness, isn’t it obvious that we could and should learn from one another? She asked how many games-makers were in the crowd, and the number of hands–ten, tops–proved her point.

After establishing that gamers and webbers don’t actually share, she went through many things we can learn from one another. For lack of detailed notes, I’ll summarise: game people understand play, rich world creation and guidance, web folk get community and have a more fundamental, analytic understanding of interfaces. Far too short a description for a talk so full of energy and exciting ideas. With any luck her presentation will appear on her Slideshare page soon. In the break Kars Alfrink, who knows the games scene far better than I, confirmed Aleks’ concern, said that it’s been coming up on both sides of the fence alot lately, and said she illustrated and analysed it better than he’d ever heard before.

Favourite (inexact) quote: “The term ‘experience economy’ is a phenomenal way to make fun boring.”

Question: what games conferences would you recommend?

“Leveraging Cognitive Bias in Social Design”

For my dollar, Joshua Porter gave the most hands-on useful talk of the day. He took the psychological research evident in his book “Designing for the Social Web” further, and dove into cognitive bias and how we can use it to improve our interfaces.

We all use mental short-cuts, or heuristics, to make decisions when we don’t have enough info. Keeping some typical heuristics in mind can help us make interface paths clearer and motivate users. Some examples:

  • The ‘bandwagon effect’: we tend to follow others, so showing activity and lots of users helps convince new users to sign up.
  • The charmingly named ‘Lake Wobegon effect’: everyone tends to think that they’re above average (I’m sure Joshua wasn’t trying to say that I’m not).
  • Loss aversion: “losses loom larger than gains.” He demonstrated this by asking who’d go for a 50/50 chance to lose/gain £100 pounds. Even when raised to lose £100/gain £300 no more than half of the audience raised their hands.

There was quite a lot more meat in the talk, and plenty of web examples of cognitive biases in use–I’m seriously hoping Joshua’s planning on slidesharing his presentation soon, though it sounded like the start of another book, so maybe he’s playing this stuff closer to the chest. And I guess it had to come: after the talk someone asked “isn’t all of this evil?” Of course it’s good to think about the ethical consequences of what we’re doing, but is it evil to make a button big and red because we know that our brains register larger, brightly coloured objects before others?

On a personal note, I’d gone all fanboi and brought a copy of Joshua’s book with me to Brighton for a signing, but never had a chance to corner him. And then, purely by coincidence, I ran into him at the Tate Modern in London on Sunday. Short chat, due to my bad mood and him sitting down to eat, but he seemed a friendly guy. Didn’t have the book with me though, so no autograph.

“Designing for interaction”

When Daniel Burka, creative director of digg, and co-founder of Pownce, took the stage I was sinking into a concentration low. But what I took away was a list of challenges to designing systems to help huge numbers of people do similar things together.

  1. Getting signups
  2. Encouraging positive behaviours
  3. Allowing flexible participation

His suggestions for solutions to these challenges were of course taken from his learnings at digg and Pownce, such as streamlined registration, avoid king of the hill contests (lesson hard learned from digg) and my favourite, “pave the cow paths”, i.e. instead of forcing users through pre-defined paths, watch where they naturally go and pave the groove they wear in your site.

“Social Network Portability”

My low led to nodding, which has nothing to do with Tantek Çelik’s talk, and plenty to do with the comfortable, warm darkness of the auditorium and the pre party thrown by the chi.mps the night before. This was the only real tech talk of the day, full of Microformats and code snippets. As far as the ideas go, it all sounded pretty familiar, so no “aha!” moments. In my groggy state the code would’ve been like a rubber mallet to the back of the head, so I ducked out for a coffee. Sorry Tantek, no hard feelings.

“Designing for the Coral Reef”

Lunch! I’m awake again! The votes are in, and the Matts Jones & Biddulph from dopplr get best talk of the conference. As the only speakers to take advantage of the on-stage couch (and if I’m not mistaken, Matt Jones presented in bright blue and white striped socks) they certainly get the “most relaxed” trophy.

The talk itself was a rambling journey through dopplr being a social physics engine (by way of a model of space/time), coral reefs as infrastructure and animal, slippy maps, streaming info in and avoiding “please wait” states, respecting privacy, data portability, building sites no one needs to visit, and plenty more. If it sounds chaotic, well, it was more a thoroughly entertaining information performance than a typical conference talk. Y’had to be there I guess.

The high point of the whole talk was the idea of a “delighter”, an unnecessary feature created purely to delight the user. Dopplr’s best example of a delighter is the personal velocity display. My personal velocity, 5.59 km/h, is about the same as a duck apparently.

And a few announcements: you can add trips by tweeting @dopplr, there are now dopplr groups, with more functionality coming soon, and when you share a specific trip, you’ll soon be able to generate a QR code for it. Unfortunately their hoped for live demo–iPhoners should shoot the QR code on the screen and see a trip–failed due to uncooperative light conditions.

Best quote (although they packed in many worth remembering): “Google Maps is like looking at a blue whale through a letter box.”

Best gimmick: the dopplr colours, which if you haven’t noticed yet change in the logo and the favicon as you enter trips. And the delighter of the conf were the city stickers the Matts handed out at the post-party, which were traded like baseball cards by giddy geeks all night. And as of five minutes ago, you can generate your own city stickers with the dopplr/moo mash-up mooplr!

“The System Of The World”

I’d heard from many what a good presenter Jeremy Keith is, so I was looking forward to this. Since he describes himself as “stuck-up”, I guess I don’t have to fear insulting him: after 10 minutes I thought nothing of his talk other than “what a load of pretentious über-nerdery”. After the Matts, it was like dropping from 5th gear in a sunny-day convertible into 1st gear and drizzle. He read from a verbose academic style paper (admittedly accompanied by a lovely slideshow) and jumped from quoted pop-psych book to dropped name at a dizzying pace, and I waited patiently for it to make some sort of sense.

But, after asking myself at least ten times, “what the hell’s his point?” Jeremy started to get a laugh or two. His text and style lightened up a little. He said more, and quoted less. And I realised he’d been building a complex (and perhaps unnecessarily baroque) foundation for a point that was indeed pretty impressive and inspiring. What was it? Don’t ask me to even attempt to repeat it–just go read his talk (bring some time with you) or enjoy the version with the pretty pictures, or wait ’til the podcast is online.

Oh, and he said “ugly bags of mostly water” too. Gotta love that.

A Round of Thanks

First and foremost thanks as I write this goes to Alastair Campbell who took insanely detailed notes and propped up my mushy memory. And other than that the Clearlefties and others who organised dConstruct, the excellent speakers and the chi.mps and backstage.bbc folks who threw the pre and post parties respectively. If I can afford to get over the pond (two ponds, actually) next year, I’ll see you in Brighton.


  1. Jeremy Keith says:

    I may just have to quote this bit for any future speaking events: “a load of pretentious über-nerdery.”

    As for the point of it all, I thought that rather than insulting the audience’s intelligence by pointing out the connection between networks and the World Wide Web (the clue is in the name), I figured the dConstruct audience was smart enough to join the dots.

    Glad you enjoyed the day, Matt. Shame we didn’t get a chance to meet up.

  2. Kars says:

    Nice write-up, Matt. It was good to run into you again.

    I’m surprised to find myself paraphrased here. I do think she described the issue clearly, but having had some time to digest it all, I do have some comments:

    Yes, good things are bound to come from game/web collaborations, but I am sceptical about this coming from either camp. We need new, hybrid designers and studios for this to happen. It’ll take time.

    You did not mention Aleks’ three-system framework (controlled, enabling and psychological), but I have to say I did not find it completely convincing. It’s clear how the 1st two relate, but the last one seems tacked on. I think I still prefer Marc LeBlanc‘s MDA

    Finally, I don’t think it’s useful to focus on immersion, as Aleks did. I do not think it is a defining property of games, and it does not carry over to web apps and such. Furthermore, the games industry’s obsession with immersion is what stands in the way of it reaching a mainstream audience, IMHO. See also Frank Lantz’s immersive fallacy.

    What I did like, was Aleks’ mentioning the new wave of computational dataviz as a an example of playful acts on the web. But that will probably come as no surprise.

  3. Matt Balara says:

    Jeremy: I wasn’t suggesting you should’ve dumbed anything down for the smart audience. Rather a little notice at the start of approximately where you’d be taking us on your whirlwind tour might’ve helped alleviate the shock of changing gears so dramatically from the dopplr Matts to you. Either way, once it was all over I was impressed and inspired. Good job. And do you remember that we did meet briefly at Reboot10? “Clarendon is the new helvetica.” Still need to print that on a t-shirt.

    Kars: I didn’t really think Aleks was suggesting more games/web collaboration, rather just that we look a little more often over our fences at what’s happening in our neighbours’ backyards. Just my interpretation.

    I’d agree that immersion as in games is only rarely, if ever, possible or even desirable on a web site. But if abstracted, the elements that lead to such strong immersion in games can certainly provide UXD guidance for web designers. And just to be clear: when I think “immersive” I think involving and engaging, but not necessarily realistic simulation, as your link to Louis Armstrong’s post suggests. Is that the more accepted games world definition?

    Now that I finally managed to buy and install Spore, and with my post-dConstruct “Aleks glasses” on, I see the fence very clearly. The Spore signup and content sharing processes are both things that make this web designer cringe. Very obvious mistakes and missed opportunities that most of us on this side of the fence would’ve never made or missed. But I can very well imagine those things being low priority to games designers that want to get the 3D models, sound effects and gameplay just right.

    And thanks for the links! Interesting reading. Since dConstruct I’ve been trying to learn more about the games world. Any more recommendations?

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