Webexpo Prague 2012

By Jan Srutek

Like last year, we were invited to come to Prague for Central Europe’s largest web conference Webexpo, which took place this past weekend. And exactly like last year, it was a great event.

More than 1100 knowledgeable and passionate participants, seamless organisation, great parties, and three conference tracks: Design, Development, and Business. What else could you ask for?

You can check out the programme, and start thinking about a trip to Prague next year right now. The word on the street is that it will be a fully-fledged international conference in 2013.

Design Jam Prague 2012

The conference started on Thursday with the first ever (I’m told!) Design Jam to be held in Prague. Cross-disciplinary groups of design jammers were given a tough brief: Conceive and design a service to collect data about one’s daily activities with the aim of supporting decision-making and improving one’s life. 

Teams approached the challenge in various ways, and we had a range of very interesting concepts at the end. Including a Bluetooth-powered cockerel alarm clock.

I mentored three teams throughout the day. It surprised me that many jammers wanted to jump straight into detailed UI design, or even coding, immediately after coming up with an unvalidated solution idea.

My favourite final presentation was by a team who admitted having very little detailed design done. This was because they abandoned their initial idea just a few hours before the end. Why? Doing a quick and dirty online survey in the afternoon told them their initial concept wasn’t useful, or desirable, for the target user audience, so they had to start all over again.

But this was actually a pretty good outcome, considering they spent just two hours validating their assumptions, which would save them months of potential detailed design and development effort that would ultimately go to waste.

The bite-sized advice I tweeted to the teams in the evening was simple:

Define problem first, don’t jump to solutions prematurely, validate your assumptions, and design concept before detail.

Friday – first conference day

Berka kicked off the day in the Design Hall with a talk about three brains that affect human behaviour: the reptilian, the rational, and the emotional brain. He then illustrated how to speak to each of them with our designs to craft persuasive web experiences.

Next, Richard Sery, reminded us about the importance of context. Richard highlighted the problem with traditional waterfall development tools. For example, use cases traditionally only feature one actor stepping through a task, despite the activities being in reality carried out by multiple personas with wildly different needs, goals, and usage contexts.

Then I switched to the Business track for a great talk on Social media analytics. Eliska Hutnikova and her colleague from H1.cz seem to know their onions when it comes to digital marketing and conversion tracking for social channels. As you might have guessed, Facebook is apparently good for brand engagement, but falls short of effectiveness when it comes to customer acquisition.

The Director of a leading Czech internet business Seznam.cz, presented a honest case study about the redesign of its sports news site. Key takeaway? In order to innovate, you have to be prepared to launch something that might not be quite right initially. If you’ve got the right processes in place, that is not an issue. You can rapidly collect feedback from your customers, iterate, and launch a successful solution quickly. Oh, and don’t forget to choose the right launch date! (A period with no matches is not ideal for a sports site apparently.)

I was delighted to see my former university classmate Adam Hazdra evangelising service design in the next talk. Fingers crossed with that, the Czech Republic needs decent services desperately, and opportunities are plentiful.

Cut the crap! This was the title of Eirik’s talk about the practice of content strategy. He presented some convincing case studies with healthy ROI attached to them. If your content does not match both the business goals *and* user tasks, it’s useless. But if it’s not well written, it’s useless too! I also likes the idea that each content page should have its unique owner. If you were to remember only one thing from Eirik’s talk, it was this: Delete three pages every day.

The final keynote speaker of the day was MailChimp’s Director of UX, Aarron Walter. Aarron gave an inspirational talk about the power of product personality, differentiation, and being humane and honest in interaction design. If your brand stands for simplicity and honesty, your user interface should be simple and honest too. Bank Simple and Hipmunk were both products launched to an already crowded marketplace; banking and travel respectively. But both attracted lots of attention from customers and big players alike, because they focus on what really matters to people, and have a likeable positive brand personality.

We like MailChimp a lot at Foolproof. It showed the world that even productivity applications can be fun and elegant, while keeping the usability bar very high at the same time.

Saturday – second conference day

Both morning talks by Tomas and Riki were really enjoyable. But I had to prepare for my talk, and so was slightly distracted. As one usually is before a talk in front of 300+ smart designers, developers and managers.

Apparently, my talk about applied cognitive psychology and interaction design went really well too. Thanks for all your kind remarks. I was excited to hear you liked it. You see, I always wanted to talk about CogPsy in Prague, because that’s something many great designers there did not seem to be consciously applying in their work. My point was, know at least the basics and your designs will improve considerably. The principles of human cognition are here to stay, unlike the technology.

The afternoon was packed as well.

Stepan from FatDUX had a solid case study about a redesign of a large classified ad portal. Nice job guys. Consistent design is no small feat on such sites – selling a house is pretty different from selling a fridge.

Mike Atherton of the ‘Beyond the Polar Bear’ fame reminded us that the traditional paradigms of information architecture might not be enough today. Our customers’ journeys span a multitude of channels and contexts. Long gone are the days of a single centralised corporate website. To design large-scale websites and applications, we should first model the domain’s interaction objects and relations, and create a solid concept model out of it before thinking about the UI and its impact on users’ perceptions. And finally, Design Hall closed with a brilliantly delivered talk Beyond Responsiveness by Eric Reiss (the Web Dogma and FatDUX guy, not the Lean Startup guy! Obviously.)

Eric proposed a new thing: Proactive design. Design that is situationally aware (location-, time-, and motion-based services), recognises users’ behaviour patterns, predicts their needs, and reacts accordingly.

This year’s main themes

All in all, it was a great event with many excellent talks.

Three main themes stood out this year for me:

Responsive design was discussed in at least four talks I saw.
It reflects today’s reality where designers of all sorts are grappling with the issues stemming from the vast array of interactive devices and contexts in which online content is consumed. Some thought that our devices are still not capable of sufficiently understanding the user’s context and react meaningfully. Others even thought that responsive design is not right and proposed abandoning it altogether, suggesting we should design separate services optimised for web and mobile instead. (Although, that did not really go down well with the audience, if you’re wondering).

Application of psychological principles to design of interactive systems.
Berka talked about persuasive design, Aarron about emotional design, and I talked about improving the good old usability, which forms solid foundations of all online salesmanship efforts.

And lastly, honesty and ethics in design. Are we honest in our interaction design, are we honest as a brand?

The theme appeared in multiple talks, but Lutz Schmitt really drove it home with a couple of key ideas.

Lutz was right when saying that we - not the governments - are defining the laws of the internet. We are defining the experiences people are having online. And so, we are fundamentally shaping what place the internet becomes.

To leave you with something to think about, I’ll venture out to paraphrase philosopher Kant, who was paraphrased by Lutz (you can see already this is a bit of a stretch, can’t you):

We should craft our designs so that they become something we would like others to follow and adopt, so they ultimately become the law.

Written by former Foolproofer Jan Srutek

What do you think?