Building A Better Web in Belfast

November 5th, 2009 was the day Andy McMillan had planned for Build Conference. And however stressful the last few days up to that must have been – some of which I noticed – he ended up creating the best conference I had attended the whole year. This, ofcourse, is the opinion of a single man (still a boy actually), yet if you would search the #buildconf hashtag, you will find a backchannel like no other conference has seen.

But you’re probably not reading this, because you want to see in how many different ways I could praise Andy (and his great crew, of course). So let us get to it.

What’s this Build thing about?

Created for obsessive-compulsive designers, Build is no ordinary web conference.

With a variety of companion workshops, lectures, parties, meetups and an unconference, Build was created for those enthusiastic about the web and passionate about what they do.

Speaker Stand

Documentary + Designers + Free Beer & Pizza = Win.

Build Conference actually started out on November 3rd with a screening of the astonishing documentary Objectified on November 3rd. There was only one conclusion to be taken from this night: put a bunch of geeks together with an interesting documentary, free beer and free pizza, and you are bound to have a great evening.

November 4th was a day of workshops. That day I attended Andy Budd‘s Guerilla Usability Testing workshop. There might be a future post about this, but it’s not for now.

Let us get on to November 5th; a day on which many a conference goer had trouble getting up – myself luckily not included. The day started out with a first-time speaker who succeeded at waking up the crowd.


Tim van Damme started off his talk with a parody of Steven Ballmers Developer Rant, which was a great way to start talking about Passion.

Tim van Damme

Tim talked about staying creative and not letting your passion suffer from boring projects. He talked about having side projects, but not drowning in them by doing too many, or going too far.

This talk helped me get the recent thoughts I had on passion more tangible, for when explaining them to others. Because I believe passion should be the number one driver for any designer or developer, if they ever want to achieve a higher goal. The rest will just end up in mediocrity.

Be passionate about what you do. If you’re not passionate about design, or development, do us all a favor and start doing something else. Passion can lead to greatness.


This led us to a talk on Seductive Design. Andy Budd opened this talk by setting the mood, making the analogy to one of the situation most easiest imaginable: seduction in a bar.

By taking on one stage at a time, Andy was able to project every single step in the process onto (web) design.

At the first stage, it is important to create an immediate reaction. Looks count, even if they are pumped up by gimmicks, because “What is beautiful, is good.” But even if the subject is not the most attractive one in the world, make a good first impression and be easy to get along with. A friendly and personable approach, with a pinch of mystery and curiosity can easily get you to stage two.

Stage two is where you prove that all the initial thoughts are true. This is where familiarity counts. If the design is accessible, and if others (and if you are lucky, those will be friends) approve, there is a great level of rapport building up. Make it easy and playful for someone to invite friends, because things are almost never fun to do alone.

After the threshold of rapport has been reached, stage three is where you show that the playfulness is not just a facade. Everything should be as easy to use as can be, and if something goes wrong, don’t be serious about it. A level of ZELFSPOT in your project, works as good as it would in a real-life social context. Don’t take yourself too seriously, but be able to become serious at any time, and cash in on your investment.

At this point, commitment is created. By keeping up proximity and praising use you encourage users to return. Good examples of this are Gowalla and StackOverflow. I am an avid Gowalla user, because it is so playful and sticky. There are game elements, but when it comes down to it, its ease of use is what makes it count. Let people grow into your product or service, and through visible improvement, they will commit to it.


Then Mark Boulton got us back to something a bit more serious, and ever so important on the current web; typography. What resonated with me the most in his talk was how great it actually is that we have not had a large amount of font choice available on the web.

Mark is well-known for once being the advocate of Comic Sans on Twitter, saying to the world that “Comic Sans is not a bad font.” And he is absolutely right. Comic Sans wouldn’t have gotten this bad of a reputation if it had only been handled with care. Instead Comic Sans popped up from here to Tokyo, probably even on notices of foreclosure. All because the barrier of entry to using the font was zero.

But that’s not the only reason that restricted font choice has helped us web designers. The restriction to a few ubiquitous fonts has made web designers look at other typography traits, that easily would’ve gotten overlooked if we had even only double the fonts preinstalled on all computers. It has made web designers look at things like the grid, typographic colour and typographic rhythm.

And at the dawn of the age of @font-face, we shouldn’t forget these basics of typography. In a time where fonts will be available on the web more flexibly, we should always have a good font-stack in our CSS, one that deprecates nicely and doesn’t change the typographic colour, or break the layout all together. And we shouldn’t let that happen.


After lunch, Ryan Sims took the stage to talk about the importance of practice.

Speaker Stand

The first part of Ryan’s talk was greatly inspired by parts Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. (which is a great book, get it!) Practice is the most important part of acquiring skills and acquiring greatness. Beautifully in line with Tim’s talk about passion, because passion makes us practice – compulsively sometimes.

Ryan also talked about the importance of mentorship, for both the mentor and the apprentice. The mentor helps the apprentice reach a higher level of skill by sharing wisdom, but in return gets a fresh mind – and thus a fresh look – on matters, which can help the mentor improve his thought process.

This can be beautifully illustrated by having a look at the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition in which mentorship can help competent or proficient designers and developers reach the expert status, by getting a different perspective on matters at hand. The Dreyfus model also shows us that, while being an expert in one part of design, one can be just competent in another.

Design / Build

This blended exquisitely well together with Wilson Miner‘s talk on being a hybrid web designer and developer. The blend was profound, because one doesn’t have to be an expert web developer and web designer at the same time, but can get great profit out of being a competent web developer whilst being a proficient or expert web designer.

Some of the most important design decisions happen in code.

When working on large or small projects, hybrid designers can create large value by developing quick prototypes. This allows for design decisions to be not solely based on intuition and the possibility to quickly thwart a never-ending design discussion. It resonated with me that, combined with Andy Budd’s Guerilla Usability Testing, it is possible to do micro-rapid-prototyping on important parts of a project.

To make it more approachable, Wilson cut it up in two categories: taking on design/build in a large company and taking it on in a small company. First, for big companies:

  • Find your leverage, adapt to your environment
  • Earn respect by proving your leverage
  • Understand your blind spots
  • Prototype your own ideas, before you take up other people’s time
  • Be the voice of reason, you’ll be one of the few

And for small companies or freelancers:

  • Don’t try to do everything at once; give IA, graphic design, interaction design etc. their respective periods in which you solely focus on one
  • Give yourself a challenge, but don’t set yourself up to fail
  • Stay open to new ideas

But most of all:

Be intentional, don’t just roll with it.

Life and work will suck you up into their whirlwind. Don’t let fatigue creep in, or give up and start rolling with it. Good design and development come from a combination of “passion”:, “practice” and intent.

A more tangled web

I was going to think of a catchy heading for this, but Eric Meyer hit the nail right on the head. I only noted two things about this talk:

  1. Eric Meyer is awesome
  2. We can put the web forward at our own pace with Javascript.

So let’s get in to that, shall we. The first one needs no explanation. The second part is where it gets interesting. It is projected that HTML5 will be used to its full potential in 2022. It’s something that makes a lot of us cringe, but doesn’t mean we will be doing what we’re doing now for the next 12 years. This is where Javascript comes in.

The Web Has Won

Browser makers have been obsessed by their Javascript engines lately. Some because they wanted to win the race of the Acid3 test, others because they wanted to push the web forward with very intensive web applications (Google Wave, anyone?) But they’re not stopping there, and Javascript engines will continue to grow more powerful in years to come.

What this does is give us a decent performance threshold on using javascript to enable things like advanced CSS selectors for older browsers, using it to easily create graphs without using images or Flash or even enabling us to use CSS-based if-statements and parts of HTML5 mark-up in Internet Explorer.

This makes the web more tangled, and it allows us to have an even bigger influence on where the web should go.

The wrap-up.

So what did we learn?

  1. Eric Meyer is awesome
  2. If you’re not passionate, GTFO
  3. Practice makes perfect
  4. Designers, designers, designers, designers …
  5. Andy McMillan created an epic conference and is one lucky motherfuton

No, but seriously. Build Conference has shown to be a great conference, that organically blended together. We have learned that it is a great time to be a web designer, and the talks have given us a lot of practical things to take home. Build has once again showed me that passionate web designers and developers and really my kind of people, especially because of everyones real-life approachability and open-ness.

Post-conference at McHugh's

It was great meeting up with Andy, Chris, David H, David P, Eamonn, Eric, João G, João V, John, Jonathan, Kieran, Lee, Nicklas, Nik, Paddy, Paulo, Robert, Ryan, Sam, Si, Tim, Wilson, Yaili and ofcourse Andy and a lot more awesome folks.

I will save the date for Build Conference 2010 as soon as it is public. Thanks for reading this novel.