Last Friday saw another Responsive Conference take place at the Dome in Brighton. I had previously heard a lot about the conference, this being the third and (I believe) final outing I was thrilled that we managed to secure some tickets for myself and a selection of the Zoocha team members. From seeing the impressive list of speakers I was sure it would be a great conference, but I had no idea how much information, insight and motivation I would be taking home.
The Conference format
The event itself was uniquely structured: there were four sessions, each consisting of three short talks. Each speaker was allotted 20 minutes, after which there was a short slot reserved for a hosted interview with the speakers, chat show style.
I found this format worked really well as it was fast paced and kept the information in digestible chunks. However, the content was so informative that I can only describe trying to take it all in as like trying to sip water from a fire hose!
I have attempted to condense this goldmine of content and, as such, what follows is a quick overview from each of the speakers. Unfortunately I couldn't condense it enough to include everything, so I highly recommend reviewing all the talks in their fullest - please see links at the end of this blog post.
The first two talks of the first session focussed around accessibility.
Alice Bartlett kicked off the line up by making a 'Business case for accessibility'. As an employee of GDS she was ideally placed to make this case, because of all the great work they are doing to bring Government Services online and make them open to all. Drawing conclusions from her research she was unable to find any evidence that could make a valid business case for accessibility because the cost implications are simply too high. She explained that while this may leave an organisation open to the costly risk of getting sued, the likelihood of this happening in the UK is relatively low. Nevertheless, there were some very valuable learnings to take away in terms of ways that we as web developers can all improve - these ranged from adding accessibility features to our daily work such as aria attributes, through to more business focussed ideas such as adding accessibility to Quality Assurance processes.
Rachel Shillcock was up next with an engaging talk on 'Accessibility and Responsive design - friend or foe?'. She was clearly passionate about her chosen subject and talked about people using their skills for the greater good. With her superpower being web design, she is using her skills to make the web open to all. She certainly opened my eyes to some new tools to check for accessibility flaws within websites and also encouraged all web developers to build accessibility into their daily workflows.
The last speaker in the first session was Alla Kholmatova and her talk took a slight sidestep away from accessibility to focus on Pattern Libraries. Using the Atomic Design system created by Brad Frost, she had worked to build a Pattern Library for Future Learn, the open education platform. Here at Zoocha we have been discussing Pattern Libraries for a while, so it was interesting to see Alla's case study. The results certainly struck a chord with the frontend team and designers here at Zoocha because we could really see the benefits of this approach.
Peter Gasston started the second session with a talk focussed on Web Components, and introduced the idea of locating them on the 'Hype Cycle'. The first stage is where the internet goes crazy for new technologies, then dips in to the 'Trough of Disillusionment' when the realisation of real-world use-cases hits home. From there it's a steady climb on the 'Slope of Enlightenment' to get the technology ready until it reaches the 'Plateau of Productivity'. and it can then be more widely used.
For readers that aren't aware, web components are custom HTML elements that can be created by web developers as reusable components that can simply be implemented by adding a tag to a page. These elements can encapsulate complex features and functionality, and abstract it away from the page HTML to really enrich the internet as we know it. Google has already built a library of components called Polymer which is definitely worth a look at.
As Peter described, web components have great implications for the state of the modern web, but they must be used responsibly. Too many badly built web components would signal a lack of trust in the technology, which on the internet is already fragile. To help tackle this, things like The Gold Standard Checklist for Web Components are being introduced to help bring quality standards and build trust and reliability.
Next up was Jason Grigsby with his talk 'Responsive images have landed'. Responsive images pose a lot of challenges to front end developers because, as Jason demonstrated, to truly optimise images across all devices is a mammoth task. He illustrated this with some in-depth calculations of the best breakpoints to display an image at its optimised size across devices. It really showed the complexity and multitude of options available to developers, and also reassured me that planning for each new responsive site I work on is indeed a difficult task to surmount and that I'm not alone in that struggle.
Heydon Pickering followed with his presentation on 'Solving problems with selectors'. He demonstrated some novel ways of using CSS that I had never thought of. Quantity Queries was the most attention-grabbing for me and took CSS to new levels. The theory is that rather than prescribing the layout of content in the browser with CSS, we could create a quantity query that would enable the browser to use the best grid that suits the content. He raised a chuckle in the crowd with his witty reference regarding 'div-itis' in Drupal whereby he used a selector to indicate the appearance of one of Drupal's notorious by-products (this is easily solved with a little perseverence, and as far as I can tell it's elminated in Drupal 8).
We had a brief lunch break where the team and I decided to soak up some of the Brighton culture with a trip to the Brighton Street Diner. As the entire conference had descended upon the market, we made haste for the shortest queue we could find and revelled in a vegetarian kebab - a revelation that someone has invented not only a meat-free kebab, but also one that is grease-free and doesn't leave you sweating meat and onions for the rest of the day!
After a brisk walk and back to the conference centre it was time for Jake Archibald to take the stage with his novel Wii remote as a slide changer. He was talking about 'Modern Progressive Enhancement' and his demonstrations on how we can really improve on the speed and experience of the web were impressive. By considering the way we prioritise content and when we load scripts, we can reduce loading times, avoid progress loading gifs, and serve the primary content whilst loading the rest in the background. This allows users to view content with minimal delay and will improve the overall experience. He also mentioned using a 3G connection as a baseline test for testing website load times.
Ruth John introduced herself as having just come from a week of sewing LED's onto a jacket which interfaces with Arduino and an iOS app. She took us on 'A journey through space and time' broaching the topic of what web browsers can do using Web API's. She gave a great overview of the available API's and some of their possible applications, from common ones such as the Geolocation API, Web Audio API, to less well known ones such as the Ambient Light API (so you can control the device display brightness based on the ambient light) and the Vibration API (for providing haptic feedback). The use-cases for these API's may not immediately be obvious, but I can really see when we start to step away from the traditional browser and in to the realms of the future of the IoT (Internet of Things) and developing associated interfaces - they will really come in to their own.
Flexbox is something that is being covered alot in the web community at the moment, and Zoe Mickley Gillenwater was next to share her experiences of using it with her current employer booking.com. Her talk, entitled 'Responsive Flexbox inspiration', used her employer as a case study, which was ideal because the stats show that booking.com have over 674,000 properties advertised in 42 languages and 54 currencies. If ever anyone has had to battle with consistently displaying content on a website across multiple languages, these stats prove Zoe has done it. The main takeaway from this for me was that Flexbox is awesome at handling common display issues we frontender's encounter on a day to day basis, and also it's now crossing over to be used on large-scale sites - I will definitely be honing my skills and using it more from now on.
The first presentation of the final session saw Rosie Campbell take to the stage and introduce her talk on how to design for displays that don't yet exist. I have to say this talk truly blew my mind wide open because I got an insight in to the future of our industry - I cannot describe in words the amount of inspiration and excitement this fills me with! Rosie is a Technologist for the BBC R&D department. After a short history on the evolution of displaying content on screens, she went on to talk about future types of display for which responsive design will be applicable e.g. VR Headsets, Smart Homes. 'Unconventional screens' is the current project Rosie is working on at the BBC and this involves the concept of 'Smart Wallpaper'. She showed a video of the concept in action...imagine being able to display digital photos and rearrange them in digitally styled frames on your lounge walls! Your lounge walls could become your personal dashboard displaying news/social feeds - all of which are interactive and customisable via your phone, computer or watch. Ultimately this extends our displays away from the screen, although the concept video still centred on a television as the central display - albeit with content outside of the TV creating a fuller immersive experience akin to 'panoramic and interactive surround visuals'.
In relation to responsive design, Rosie's talk broadens the discussion significantly - the main implication being that we should start thinking about how to layout content when it needs to fit around physical objects (e.g fireplaces, furniture, doorways, moving people etc), and on displays that have completely unpredictable dimensions/shapes (e.g. rooms of your home). The possibilities are endless and I really hope to see this in mainstream homes sooner rather than later.
Continuing the hype of the day, Lyza Gardner's presentation was fast, creatively produced and excellently executed as she seamlessly sped through slide after slide of a mixture of personal and industry insights whilst building the case for Generalists. Generalists don't specialise in any one particular code language or technology, they are the type of people that will be given a task or problem and get it done regardless of underlying technology requirements. The day-to-day struggles of a generalist exist because there is so much to learn and an immense overload of information surrounding the ways to do it. This can often have a negative effect on the Generalist, bringing them down because they want to do the best job they can, but without specialist knowledge it's a constant struggle and steep conveyer belt learning curve. This often leads to self-dissolution of Generalists' abilities.
Lyza used her personal experience with an overload of options in photography and the equipment available to take great pictures. She rediscovered her passion for great photography by restricting her options to a limited number, enabling her to rediscover her passion. She used this analogy to relate to the web industry and suggested we should refine and restrict our options to avoid disillusionment and ultimately achieve higher productivity with increased results. Lyza made a great case for Generalists, pointing out they are essential to the industry where specialists have the skills, Generalists are the glue that binds and drives projects forward.
Aaron Gustafson's talk, the final talk of the day was aptly titled 'Where do we go from here?'. It was a philosophical presentation highlighting most of the topics covered earlier in the day. Aaron described the web as being all about access, with content as what people come to consume. It was the vision of Tim Berners-Lee that content should be created once, and then be accessible by anyone. He made the valid point there is a common misconception that accessibility is about disabilities when this is not the case, its about people. He related real-world accessibility examples such as the where you cross a road, there are ramps on kerbs (they provide essential access to wheelchair users, but are also a convenience and beneficial to other users), to the web with the underlying argument that we should build accessibility into all our projects to the benefit of everyone that accesses them. He made an enlightening remark: 'Responsive design is about accessibility' and although we can spend our time making websites look truly amazing with the best animation, this will not be noticed by someone using voice controls to have the website dictated. It is because of this we should ensure we have clean markup and structure to our websites to give the best experience for all users. This will also give the benefit of futureproofing how our creations will be used in the years to come with technologies such as eye-tracking/gaze, voice control and innovations such as Microsoft HoloLens taking to the market.
In all I feel that achieving accessibility through responsive design really took centre stage at this conference. The topics that did not explicitly focus on accessibility still highlighted the important role it has in all the web community builds now and in the future. Looking ahead, this is also one of the reasons I am a self-confessed lover of Drupal. I can really see it has the potential to grow as a CMS to serve content across even more devices, to also include home automation, watches, VR headsets, Smart Wallpaper and of course making sure it is accessible to all.
I came away from Responsiveconf enthused about introducing more modularity, more re-usability through components and ultimately more accessibility for higher quality and future-proofed products here at Zoocha. The knowledge shared by the speakers was truly enlightening and I personally have never felt so engaged throughout an entire day at a conference. I would like to thank everyone from the organisers and speakers, to the venue, attendees, and of course Zoocha for funding the day out of the office.
From what I could gather, this was the last Responsive conference - I sincerely hope this isn't the case and I strongly urge Jeremy Keith the organiser to continue to bring this conference together as it's certainly one of the best I have ever attended.
Audio for all sessions at Responsiveconf can be found here:
Hopefully the video's should be available in the near future at:
Reach me on Twitter: @will_richards