It’s taken me a little while to get around to writing up my notes on Web Dev Conference (WDC 2011) from last week, mainly because I was quite motivated by the talks and got on with a lot of things that had been hanging around for a while and also because on the advice of one of the speakers I took some time off to spend with my family! This is probably going to be quite a long post so I’d advise you to fetch coffee now… Also this isn’t all techie, parts of this will apply top all manner of businesses and freelancers!

Normally I have a bit of a thing against developers conferences, because they often discuss code (which is a pain if you haven’t written it yourself and is out of context in my opinion) or they discuss technologies that are so far in the future it will be two years before you can actually use them in the real world….

However, this was different! Not a line of code in sight, an informal atmosphere and only a sprinkling of tomorrows web… I feel having attended the conference I might get back to channelling my inner geek (particularly after Rob Hawkes presentation on WebSockets in HTML5!).

Venue: I’ve got to admit to being a little dubious about this! A cinema screen for a conference? It did work for the most part, a fantastically large screen tiered seating all made sense. Networking was restricted to loitering in cinema corridors so was quite difficult in places.

The Line Up

I’ve included what key parts I took away from the speeches and a link to their slides (if available). Videos would be great if @webdevconf release them (I don’t even know if any were taken) as my notes certainly don’t do justice to the speakers!

09:30 Neil Dennis from Strawberry Soup 

Neil discussed how his company was setup and things he wished people had told him right at the beginning. The presentation should be just above but the key thing I took from Neil’s presentation was that they started out really small in a garden shed (I’m surprised they survived that given the state of the shed in slide 6!). They sold their first site on eBay for £300 for 3 pages and have grown from there, Strawberry Soup is now a team of 15 in 3 locations in the south.

Neil went on to discuss the fact you don’t need a business plan, but was quick to add that planning is really important. Rather than some pie in the sky objectives they took some real objectives and then worked backwards with smaller goals to get there. They used just the assets they had and didn’t get venture capital or investment (much the same as I did at BetterWebSpace), and always had a months to live spreadsheet (how long they could survive if no work came in) – this was an idea I really liked but remembered quite quickly that the Business Health Check report in my KashFlow accounts already gives this and some other useful information.

One of the biggest pieces of advice that I took away was the advice not to trade services to save money. Generally it will end up costing you in the long term!

Neil advised on some projects that had gone very wrong because they pretended to know more than they did. Remember you’re the expert, you’ve been hired as such and make sure you know when to say no to a project!

The majority of Strawberry Soup’s work comes through creating mockups and pitching to companies they want to work with, they then work on a 30% up front, 30% on completion of the design and the last 40% on completion of the whole project.

Having sound backup in the form of legal and accounting (particularly when employing) was discussed, Neil mentioned gridlaw (I think that’s the right link!) according to my notes but I can’t remember the context! They also use Harvest for time tracking.

10:15 Rob Hawkes (@RobHawkes)

I’d been particularly looking forward to Rob’s presentation on Tomorrow’s Web and Future Technologies, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. I’m not going to go into too much detail here as Rob’s slides speak for themselves and so much of the HTML5 stuff is changing still at the moment.

Things that really interested me from Rob’s talk were WebSockets which will remove the need for Ajax to poll through JQuery as it will allow the browser to open a bi-directional pipe between the browser and a server. The list of uses for this is immense, multiplayer gaming (in the form of Rob’s Rawkets), realtime analytics ( WebSockets are usable already but are in flux, if you plan on using them consider using as a fallback option.

Rob went on to discuss WebRTC (RT Audio and Video in the browser) which Mozilla already offer in a plugin form for Firefox called Rainbow. Ericsson Labs already have a demo of this working, but the key thing about this is that it will open up P2P audio and video in the browser once communication is established, a server is probably needed for connecting two parties together but then they would no longer need the server.

Other  interesting parts of all this HTML5 stuff, were the Fullscreen API (and it’s security concerns), WebSMS API, WebNFC API, Device API and the Vibrator API (this seemed to be the most popular – I can’t imagine why!) for controlling the hardware in a computer/phone. All of these are forming parts of Boot to Gecko to create a full OS.

All in all, Rob’s talk was an inspiration of what is coming tomorrow, it’s not here yet but we can get involved and start playing with it! I’m also quite tempted to buy his book: Foundation HTML5 Canvas: For Games and Entertainment


11:30 Ben Bodien (@bbodien) from Neutron Creations

Ben’s talk entitled “How I Learned to Stop Panicking and Love My Job” struck a chord with many of the attendees, whether Web Developers or not.

Ben brok this down into:

  1. Planning
    • Breakdown tasks into smaller parts not just “design a website”.
    • Have targets with dates assigned them it’s easier to rectify slips earlier on.
    • Write down a plan, it’s something to refer back to and see how you did. It doesn’t have to be reams of paper, just something!
    • Don’t over-engineer a GANTT really isn’t necessary most of the time! So use basic flexible tools.
    • Always check back on your plans and update them – they are a working document.
  2. Task Management
    • Track time inward vs task outward.
    • Always put a time next to a task, that way if you have a spare few hours you’ll be able to see what you can achieve.
    • Put tick boxes down the side, that sense of satisfaction is great, personally I prefer a big black line through the item or in the case of my workflowy lists, the fact they just disappear and the list gets shorter
  3. Goals
    • Have goals that focus on the longer term of who you are and where you are going.
    • In the same way as a racing driver focus on the next apex and you will steer yourself towards your bigger goals automatically.
    • Make sure your goals are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time framed).
  4. Self Maintenance (and no this is not a euphemism for something else!)
    • Get enough sleep
    • Drink plenty of water
    • Eat properly
    • Take performance enhancing drugs (by this Ben means vitamins, nothing illegal!!)
    • Get some Exercise.
  5. Post Project Analysis
    • Always do this, so you can learn from the project.
    • Make a list of what made you Happy? Proud? Excited?
    • Make a list of what made you Bored? Frustrated? Want to crush baby squirrels with your firsts? (Ben had since advised me on twitter that he has never hurt a squirrel!)
All things you can use in practically any business day in, day out!

12:15 Elliott Kember (@ElliottKember) from Riot 

There are no slides available for Elliott’s presentation, and they probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense if they were here! Elliott’s erratic style is both entertaining and educational so I’ve tried to capture some key points from his presentation titled “Ship It”.

  • Learn from people, they all have experiences. Elliott has come from HTML CSS -> PHP -> CodeIgnitor -> Rails and had a reason for doing so everytime. Reasons you can learn from!
  • When creating things don’t create ghost towns, use existing data. If, when you launch your site, your two users only have each other to chat to they’re going to get bored pretty easily.
  • Show people, don’t tell them – you can’t put on your website “It’s cool” it’s up to the user to decide that.
  • “Haters gonna hate” – there will always be people who hate what you’re doing. Live with it.
  • Elliott believes you shouldn’t define what you are interested in. You should define what you aren’t interested in and then be interested in EVERYTHING else. It will make you an interesting person!
  • Negotiation was something that Elliott clearly enjoys – the psychology of fear and hate that make negotiation work.
  • You should always do things you hate and learn from it.
  • Don’t let your current job title define you, if you’re a “PHP developer” does that stop you dabbling in HTML? Perl? Ajax?
  • Getting lost is good, you’ll learn from it.
  • Teach others, it will force you to learn something completely.
  • Elliott also touched on the reason Riot wear hats (it involves alcohol) and Rubber Duck Programming

14:30 Paul Annett (@nicePaul)

Paul is currently Creative Lead for the Cabinet Office, primarily redesigning (and boy does it need it given some of the demo’s he showed us!). His slides aren’t available as they were primarily videos with him talking, but he covered a lot of good information from their acceptance testing. The key points are below:

  • Optimise your site for the common case, hiding complexity.
  •  They stop supporting a browser when less than 3% of users are using it. That means IE6 is out!
  • Find the Do Quick and make that easy for users to do.
  • Set clear expectations
  • Don’t be subtle, in acceptance testing many users didn’t understand e.g.
  • Look at what context switching a user might do and make that easy for them.
  • Users tend not to scroll down, but those that do probably won’t scroll back up to find the search box!

15:45 John O’Nolan  ( – @johnonolan

This was the talk of the day and provoked lots of reaction and interest, “Designing Emotion –  Becoming a Puppet-Master of User Experience”. John’s slides are available but are not advisable to open at work (John was clearly practicing what he preaches and invoking emotion) they are available here.

John talked about how all users are fickle and that their obvious actions can easily change based on their current state of mind. Aspirational Marketing (such as the “Marlboro man”) we are now mostly immune to. Designing for emotion can earn you serious money.

You should think about what products people want, he cited that the original Apple iPod was not the best product on the market at the time. There were bigger and better MP3 players, but Apple sold it on “1,000 songs in your pocket” – anyone could understand that!

Design is not just about look and feel, but how your product will be used. Think about what people will do with your product, and design for that – look at how it will impact someone’s life. John briefly discussed the website TheFunTheory showing a video from it and discussing the fact that if you make something unexpectedly fun – people will use it.

Design is the process of creating human behaviour.

John moved on to how emotions work, James Lange theory was that:

Event -> Action -> Emotion

This was abandoned in the 1950’s in favour of cognitive theory:

Event -> Emotion – Action

Neurobiological theory is now the more accepted view:

Event – > Chemical Reaction -> Emotion -> Action

We know three things about emotions:

  1. Emotions always have a subject.
  2. Emotions are caused by things which are overtly positive or negative.
  3. Emotions lead to action.

You need to be noticed, if customers don’t feel happiness they won’t come back, if they don’t feel anything – they won’t even remember you. Make your customers feel an emotion!

John went on to say for me what was the most important:

“When you consider your customer’s emotions
AND design their behaviour.
You are creating an experience.”

John touched on the customer service experience of people like Zappo’s and how they create their WOW factor and brand advocacy. He also discussed the fact that customer complaints are awesome and that you’ve provoked an emotion and reaction, if you can then turn it into a positive for that customer they will become your biggest advocate. If you do all this right your users will make money for you!

16:30 Paul Boag (BoagWorld – @BoagWorld)

Paul is one of three founders at headscape and run a web design podcast, his talk about “Getting down to business” was all about the habits of freelancers and how they need to establish good work-life balance.

Paul’s slides are here (I couldn’t find a way to embed – if you know better let me know!).

Paul talked a little about what success is, and how we define it.. I particularly liked the quote from Winston Churchill:

“Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”

We eventually go the classic “Work to live, don’t live to work”.

Paul discussed the bad habits of freelancers who work long hours and compare them to each other as a badge of honour when really they should be a badge of shame. We should all establish better working habits to take control of our working life.

There are four pressure points for businesses/freelancers:

  1. Bringing in business (Sales!)
    • Your work will not speak for itself, sell it!
    • Work out where the next pay cheque comes from and plan to make it happen.
    • Look at who you are targeting, they won’t find you – seek them out!
    • You should never be too busy to market your services.
  2. Dealing with clients
    • We offer services to customers, not products – we need to act like it.
    • Clients are not the enemy, work with them to reach an end goal and educate them along the way.
    • Regularly update customers, if they want updates every hour do so.
    • If you don’t keep them updated they may hate the finished product! It’s a journey to a finished product take the customer on that journey.
  3. Feeling out of control
    • The culture of freelancers is obsessed with hard work and long hours with endless checklists. Make time for your friends, family and of course yourself!
    • Each day should have a beginning and an end. Those times are movable, but they should happen. Start the day with a list of what you are going to do and end it reviewing those items and planning tomorrow.
    • If you check your email client every five minutes that’s 22,000 interruptions a year (and that accounts for holidays which you take of course?). Paul recommends we check email twice a day. I can’t see that happening for me but turning it off to get things done is something I’ve tried this week!
    • He suggested a service called “AwayFind” which can alert you about certain things happening in your inbox – I plan to look at this in some detail!
    • Paul suggests working in 25 minute sprints, followed by 5 minute breaks and spread those across the day to your most productive times.
  4. Too much work
    • There is nothing worse than turning away great work because you are already working on something mediocre!
    • Hire someone to do the mundane or the things you dislike doing.
    • Working with other freelancers kills your margins and nobody wants to become a project manager!
    • Either hire against your weakness or clone yourself!
    • Hire someone to do your admin or answer your calls.


To sum up…

All in all a fantastic event by @alexolder and one I hope to attend again in future, not a line of code in sight – but could do with some improvements on the networking side of things!