edUi 2009 – My Recap and Reactions

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I attended a great new conference known as edUi (a combination of edu – referring to college and university Web sites – and UI – the acronym for “user interface”). The conference featured sessions about HTML5 and CSS3, usability testing, writing Web content, design, social networking, mobile Web development and much more.

Schedule

The layout of the conference was unlike anything I’ve attended in the past. The first day, we were all assigned (based on first and second choices we indicated upon registration) an all-day session. We checked into the conference in whatever session we were scheduled to attend, and then settled in for a long day in one room. The second day, we all attended a morning keynote together, then got to choose one of the sessions we’d missed the day before. The “reprise” as the organizers called it, was a 75-minute summary of the six-hour session that the presenters had made the day before. We then got to choose a 45-minute session, lunch, an hour long keynote (once again, all together) and one more 45-minute session.

At the end of the second day, the organizers got us all back together to thank us for attending and to give away some cool prizes (ranging in value from stickers to a Dell netbook).

Sessions

New Insights in Web Standards

On the first day, I was assigned to a session on HTML5 and CSS3. I recapped some of the information from that session on Monday night. The session was extremely informative and paced extremely well (it didn’t really feel like six hours). I could tell from the inferences made throughout the session and from reading between the lines that my beliefs and feelings about HTML and Web development in general are very much in line with Molly Holzschlag, the presenter for this session. Later, these feelings were confirmed when she and I had a discussion about our likes and dislikes in the new proposed spec on Tuesday morning.

Molly brings an interesting perspective to the world of HTML. Her assertion (which is obviously very much in line with some big players like Google) is that we are programming less and less “pages” and more and more Web applications. One of the things she repeated throughout her presentation is that the browser is becoming a runtime environment. At one point, it was suggested that maybe the new spec shouldn’t be HTML5, but should actually be a new language/standard altogether. Later, it was proposed that maybe that language should be known as WAML (Web Application Markup Language). I have to say that I agree with this assertion, as we are developing so much more than simply hypertext (and have been since the advent of Web 2.0), so it makes little sense to continue perpetuating some of the antiquated concepts found in HTML.

Mediated Culture

On Tuesday morning, we all gathered in the theater to listen to a keynote from Michael Wesch. Michael is an anthropologist, so he was able to present a very unique and informed perspective on human behavior. His presentation opened our eyes to the culture and motives (explicit or implicit) behind the experiences we all have in social media.

His presentation was incredibly informative and entertaining. He spent a great deal of time delving into YouTube and the different types of information we can all draw from the videos, comments, interactions, etc. that we find there. I would highly recommend that you visit Michael’s Web site and, if you ever have the opportunity to hear him speak, you should jump at it. Quite honestly, if you are one of his 400 or so students at KSU, I envy you.

I live-blogged the next three sessions, with the exception of the keynote address in the afternoon. You can read my entries about Usability Testing Without the Scary, The MIT World Story: The Vision Behind MIT’s High-Impact Video Portal and Web Development for the Apple iPhone from yesterday.

Cooking Up Gourmet User Experiences on a Fast-Food Budget

On Tuesday afternoon, we were treated to the official keynote address, presented by Jared Spool of UI Engineering. Spool gave an extremely entertaining presentation exploring the various processes and “tricks” that have been used in the most successful Web campaigns. He presented quite a bit of statistical and research data without making it boring.

At one point, he recruited the entire audience to participate in some “5-second testing,” in which you view a single Web page for five seconds, and then write down everything you remember about the page. He then asked us to take it a step further, and rank, from one to five, whether or not we would do business with the company based on our memory of the page.

Later in the presentation, he told us about a project in which his group began investigating message boards to attempt to determine what common elements could be found throughout. He said that they found that there were actually only 14 different subjects posted over and over again throughout the boards. They then expanded their testing a few times and found each time that this concept held true. Then, they noticed something he described as extraordinary. He discovered that people constantly and consistently posted sentimental items that resulted in essentially providing hope to others. He called these types of posts “Inuksuk” posts, named after a specific type of Inuit statue posted far out in the wilderness with the specific purpose of letting someone know “someone’s been here before.”

At this point, he showed us some examples from reviews found on Amazon. He said that, in their testing, they found that there were just as many “Inuksuk” reviews as there were statistical reviews, and that the amount of times each type of review had been rated as helpful was fairly even. This, he said, implies that people are just as interested in emotional appeals as they are in statistical data-driven appeals.

The two big takeaways from this session, however, were “girls under trees” and “terrorists don’t know how to use Ziploc bags.” I will leave those as inside jokes, for now, though.

Communication and Information

As this was the first time this conference has ever been held, I fully expected that there would be some hiccups and misconceptions along the way. For me, those were mostly a result of the communication and information provided by the conference. Following are some examples of things I would like to see improved for next year. I sincerely hope that the organizers of edUi will take these suggestions as they are intended; not as criticisms of the conference itself, but as advice on making it that much better next year.

Session Descriptions

There were a few instances where I felt the session descriptions were less than accurate. I have no way of knowing, obviously, as to whether this was a miscommunication on the part of the conference organizers or on the part of the presenters themselves. However, I would like to see this information improved in the future. The two examples I experienced were (the titles and official descriptions follow; I will explain why I thought they were misleading afterwards):

  • Web Development for the Apple iPhone
    This session will discuss and demonstrate the tools that Apple provides for building web applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch. An overview of the steps involved in laying out an interface, customize controllers and adding handlers and code will be covered.
  • The MIT World Story: The Vision Behind MIT’s High-Impact Video PortalIt’s useful to view the redesigned MIT World video portal by the numbers: 1,000 hours of “big idea” lectures; 8-10 new full-length videos each month; contributions from 100+ departments; 100,000+ global visitors monthly, streaming 4,000 videos a day.And one full-time director to make it all work.

    A model of publishing efficiency and visitor engagement, MIT World’s story will inspire any university seeking to effectively create, publish and distribute web videos – and other content.

    This session will take you behind the scenes to the history, vision and redesign of a purpose-built video portal that works. (Hint: It’s not about trying to be another YouTube!) And it will arm you with fresh approaches to user experience, organization, tagging and search.

    You’ll hear from the director of MIT World, whose motto, “Distributed Intelligence,” comes to life through the unfiltered lectures of speakers like Noam Chomsky, Thomas Friedman and Carly Fiorina. And from MIT’s interactive partner, tasked with re-inventing the very idea of a video portal.

    Learn how:

    • MIT World achieves success with the right blend of user experience design, technology, and editorial point-of-view
    • An editorially driven process (rather than YouTube’s “anything goes” approach) defines MIT World as an engaging publication of thought leadership and ideas, not just a video platform
    • Breaking free of traditional organization and tagging yields results that delight
    • One full-time publisher corrals video submissions from 100+ departments

For both sessions, I mentioned my disappointment while I was live-blogging the sessions. However, I want to reiterate that disappointment and expound upon why I felt the way I did.

Regarding the first session, I felt that the description was seriously misleading. It’s entirely possible that I misunderstood the description of the session, or that I was simply too ignorant of the iPhone development process to truly understand what was meant by the description. That said, I really had no idea that, especially at a conference specifically targeted toward Web developers, coders and designers, the session on iPhone development would be presented by someone that understands absolutely no CSS, Javascript or HTML code. Further, I was extremely disappointed when I realized that, in order to use any of the tools shown in the presentation, I would have to purchase a Mac. The presentation, after all, was about developing Web apps (Web pages and sites specifically targeted at the iPhone and iPod Touch). We’re not talking about native apps for the iPhone. No special tools are needed to do this. You just need to know a little bit about javascript and CSS.

On the plus side, the DashCode application he used exclusively throughout the presentation is free. On the negative side, it only runs on Leopard or Snow Leopard (which, in turn, only run on Macs). Therefore, free is really a relative term, considering I would have to drop a minimum of $1,000 just to get this “free” developer tool.

For the second item listed above, my disappointment came more in the fact that I didn’t feel I really learned anything. In fact, the description of the session I pasted above is actually just as descriptive and informative (if not more so) as the session itself. No substantive additional information was imparted during the session that I didn’t already read in the description. I was honestly hoping that this session would be a how-to or, even better, a “why you should do this” kind of moment. I just didn’t get that feeling from the presentation.

Conference Registration, Information and Communication

I had no real issues with the registration method used for this conference, but I certainly think it could be improved. One thing that was somewhat frustrating was the fact that, upon registration, we were asked to indicate our first and second choices among the sessions that were being offered. We then received multiple messages from the conference informing us when new sessions had been added or when sessions had been cancelled for one reason or another. In those messages, we were always reminded that we could change our session preference choices any time we wanted.

At one point, after a session in which I had been interested was cancelled, I took them up on their offer and went to the site to change my preference. However, rather than showing me the choices I had initially made, they just showed me a basically blank form again. For next year, it would be really nice if they could implement a system through which you actually change your session choices rather than making all new choices again.

The communication, however, was a bit spotty. Personally, I received many of the same messages two or three times. I also received a message on Sunday evening (just before the conference began). For a conference specifically targeted toward employees of colleges and universities, I would recommend making absolutely certain that all communication is sent prior to 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon. Most of us are not anywhere near our offices and a lot of us avoid checking our office e-mail when we’re not at work. What’s more, a great deal of us had already arrived at the hotel on Sunday, so we didn’t really even have a way to print out the new information we’d received. Granted, most of us have smartphones, so we could read the info on our devices, but it was still somewhat inconvenient (in fact, quite a few people with whom I spoke didn’t even realize that messages had been sent on Sunday).

Session Options

One more complaint I have about the conference (and, this is actually a compliment wrapped up in a complaint) is the fact that there were too many good sessions from which to choose. There were quite a few times throughout the conference that I had an extremely difficult time deciding which session to attend, as there were almost always two or three that piqued my interest. One thing I would like to see would be to potentially extend the conference to a three-day event, and repeat some of the sessions throughout the conference. For instance, maybe offer sessions A, B, C and D on the second morning, then offer sessions E, F, G and H after that. Then, in the afternoon, maybe they could offer sessions A, C, F and H concurrently, followed by sessions B, D, E and G. That way, if was interested in attending both sessions A and B, I would have the opportunity to do so.

Conclusion

All in all, I thought this was a fantastic experience. I said at the conference, and I will repeat it here, that it was refreshing and inspiring to attend a conference that was actually targeted at Web developers, coders and designers. So often, I find that conferences are targeted more to either marketers with a session or two that relates to the Web (generally social networking) or they’re focused on technical IT concepts like managing networks and servers. Very few of these conferences really relate to those of us that spend all of our time writing code and developing applications for the Web.

I was very happy to be a part of edUi and look forward to attending again next year.

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6 Responses

  • Thanks for the feedback. Rest assured we do take the criticism in the spirit you offered it and it is very welcome. John Loy and I were pleased with how well the conference went, especially for it being the first year and we’re already thinking about ways to make it better next time around.

    I shared your frustration over some of the session descriptions. Unfortunately we’re at the mercy of the presenters when it comes to that. They write them and we just have to trust that they are accurate.

    There seems to be a real hunger for a conference like this. One that as you describe, is “actually targeted at Web developers, coders and designers”.

    Thanks for your input and for posting about the conference on your blog. We’ll look forward to seeing you next year!

    -Trey

  • Allen

    awesome post curtiss!!

  • Thanks for all of your hard work on this conference, Trey. I appreciate what you guys did to get this conference put together, and am very happy to hear that you guys are already working on reviewing the processes for next year.

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