MoDevUX in DC

MoDevUX in DC


I’ve been so busy in the last 2 years that catching a plane to attend a conference has been out of question. Of course, when a good conference like MoDevUX in DC takes place, I have no excuse but to ask Steve to pick me up and drive to Tyson’s Corner faster than you can say “you can’t use the HOV lane” (If you are two, you can carpool).

Let me say this loud and clear. This is a great conference. You get to meet a lot of interesting people. It’s good to develop the business and you probably also learn something. Many thanks to Peter Erickson and the other organizers for this. Good job. Great value for me and for everyone else attending, I am sure.

Now that the above is clear, I’d like to discuss openly and frankly about the conference content. Not meant as criticism, of course. Conference was generally great.

Many years ago I asked a body builder what’s the best way to become as massive as certain body builders depicted in US magazines. “Hard to say” – he replied – “some will tell you that they do their sets with few repetitions, but lifting a lot of weight. And it obviously worked for them. Others will tell you that they use very little weight, but they do sets of 100 repetitions. Yet, they are pretty big too. Who is right? Go figure”.

In yesterday’s conference, I got the same feeling. Some will tell you that the way to succeed is to release early and improve over time. Some will tell you that you only have one shot: don’t ship as long as you are not absolutely positively sure that your app is state-of-the-art and you have hired awesome designers and a team of usability experts to get it right before shipping.  Who is right? Go figure.

My guess is that, as with everything, there are plenty of parameters involved. When all parameters are accounted for, please allow lady luck to have her say. My take is that those speakers shouldn’t be so “absolutistic”. Of course, if you don’t have some monolithic truth to dispense, one’s presentation may lose part of its bite. So, I don’t want to sound absolutistic about this.

Last time I checked, the “Dev” in “MoDevUX” stood for “development”. Yet, I don’t think that the developer side of the conference was sufficiently ‘pronounced’. There were some developer sessions, but at 10 minutes each, there was very little beef that speakers could serve their audiences. Above all, the room allocated for the task was miniscule and could not take more than 30 or 40 people. Some were getting a glimpse of the slides through the tiny door. Others simply gave up. On the other hand, the room with the more “fluffy” keynotes was only half full. Organizers, please make something about this next time.

And now the content. I particularly enjoyed the one by Jon Arne Sæterås, Head of Innovation at MobileTech. In his presentation, Jon Arne explained that Responsive Web Design is not the solution to all mobile problems, and offered BBC as a case study. The move to a RWD solution ruined a perfectly functioning mobile website. Not very surprising, if you ask me. Only someone out of his mind can think that one-size-fits-all can ever deliver better UX than multi-serving.

Always about RWD, a twitter from the BD Conf in Orlando last week had intrigued me. Some guy asked Karen McGrane to marry him after her presentation. So I made sure I did not miss her presentation in DC, now that I had a chance.

Man, is she a great presenter. She totally owns the stage. I can only dream of being such a great presenter one day. The fun part is that many presenters at MoDevUX (Karen included) keep talking about separation between content and presentation, but… aren’t they the living example that content and presentation won’t easily let themselves be separated? if you abstract from Karen’s great presentation skills, which made the presentation great, the content left a few big question marks in my mind. Let me elaborate…

Karen started off with this quote by Ethan Marcotte, the guy who invented Responsive Web Design:

Fragmenting our content across different “device-optimized” experiences is a losing proposition, or at least an unsustainable one.

Interesting. I read this like Karen is endorsing RWD because we cannot afford the cost of developing and maintaining mobile-optimized websites. She then moved on to explain how you want to give your content as much structure as possible with CMSes that are as smart as possible. The reason? you may not know why you are doing it today, but it will have serendipitious effects in the future. This made sense, but…mmmm, something wasn’t right. So, let me understand…it is not OK to use more resources to optimize the UX, but it is ok to use more resources for something that *may* give more value tomorrow (wearing my developer hat for a second: using resources for something you may not need is a big development no-no, according to XP orthodoxy, but I digress).

Karen had a few great case studies. The first one: some media companies are stuck on “print” or have some kind of “printed media” brain damage, even. Those companies can only conceive the new digital era in terms of PDF++ (delivered to iPads). The whole organization yearns for the past and thinks that they’ll get back to the 80’s at some point. Sales figures for the iPad version of the content offer a merciless reflection of that mentality.

The other case study was the US TV guide. Someone, at some point, with no particularly convincing arguments at the time, decided that TV programs descriptions should be provided in three versions by editors, each version with varying length. According to Karen, the rationale for this wasn’t clear at the time, but the approach of producing well-structured data turned into a gold mine later on for new media such as TiVo, set-top boxes and other digital channels that needed short, concise descriptions of movies and TV series for their UIs.

The TV Guide is an awesome case study, but, to me, also a counter example to the need for responsive web design. After all, aren’t these examples of how the same content gets optimized for all of those different devices?

Anyway, at the end of this great presentation, which everyone absolutely loved, I approached Karen and asked some questions: why is it OK to use extra resources to structure one’s data beyond what is immediately obvious, but it is not OK to use extra resources to optimize one’s UX for different devices? her answer was that this is a religious debate that she does not want to get dragged into. A rather disappointing answer, I have to say. I wasn’t trying to be religious. I never was. I was just asking a question which was directly triggered by her presentation. Anyway, she conceded that an approach where you have a mobile optimized site is perfectly OK, as long as it picks its content from highly-structured data you have collected previously. Good to know. You may want to remove Ethan’s quote from your presentation Karen. It does not align at all with the rest of the things you are saying. In fact, it contradicts them in a few subtle ways.

All presenters were great. Fluffy at times. But great. I certainly learned how great presentations are delivered and how you can keep your audience captive. “What happens when everything can tell a story?”. I’ll be damned if I know, Mark. It’s 5PM. I am exhausted.  I’ll pass on the challenge.