Montag, 26. Oktober 2015

A Backend Dev's Travel to Frontend Land a.k.a. Me @ Smashing Conference 2015 in Barcelona

Now this must seem pretty weird, what is a backend developer fossil doing at the conference of one of the most reknown frontend technology magazines?

The answer is simple, seeing what those pixel pushers are actually doing ;-) Or on a more serious note, trying to broaden my technological horizon, whereas I did not expect to understand very much. But you got to give it a try :-)

So first off, the choice of Barcelona to hold the conference was awesome. A very lovely city, great food, nice weather even in October and open and friendly people. On top, the conference venue was the Palau de la Música Catalana, an old and very impressive concert hall in the
heart of Barcelona.

The Palau's east corner.

The small café, later used for refreshments.

Stair case to the conference hall.

Inside view of the conference hall.
Ok, let's talk business: 

Day 1

Chris Coyier - The Wonderful World of SVG

Well, SVG is nothing new as Chris points this out himself, but still it is underused in most web applications, which is a shame. Chris shows the beauty and simplicity of SVG, how to use it and also what you can do when you have more complex needs (e.g. using defs and use directives to allow reusability). It was a very enthusiastic talk, entertaining and informative. One of my colleagues fired up an SVG editor and didn't stop playing around with it for the rest of the conference ;-) So this was definitely a great start and got me excited regarding the upcoming talks.

Jina Bolton - Living Design Systems

Who doesn't know this kind of problem? There are style guides as PDF or maybe even DOC stored on some network drive, most often in different versions without proper time stamping or even worse just some print outs on a wall in some designers office. Noone really knows what version is the current one, none tells you when it changes etc. The result is an inconsistent user expirience despite an usually high maintenance effort. Jina showed us how they tried to tackle those difficulties at sales force.

In summary they used a technial approach to maintain the style guide, a json format which is then processed by a self built tool that translates it into different technologies like sass, less or even android layout information. A key to that was active and intense communication with all involved parties and to have the designers to actually work in the browser and not just using photoshop to define the style guide.

Talk and topic where both very interessting but adopting this approach for a regular company will probably prove rather difficult. Especially getting the designers to forsake their precious photoshop might be almost impossible in many cases, as it would require the designers to actually learn html and css. Nevertheless I hope this methodology finds it's way into more companies.

Patrick Hamann - Embracing the network

Uhh yeah.. Network!! Finally something I can really relate to ;-) This was a very enlighting and amusing talk about how network failure can impact browser applications and not only with the all to common absence of data or some "request failed" message. loading of ads, tracking scripts or even fonts can result in a broken or even unavailable page should the requests for those resources fail.

Patrick gave a good overview of how to avoid having your site broken by some external dependency, e.g. always use proper timeouts, make sure you really need what you are loading, use asychronous loading etc. But also what you should do proactivly, disable Javascript and then see hwo your site loads/performs without, what works what doesn't, use SPOF test which are available on pages like

Very good talk, very cool topic. Enuff said!!

Seb Lester - Peace, Hellfire & Outer Space

Woah, what a title.. But who is this Seb Lester? I had absolutely no clue what to expect here and I was very surprised when I was presented with wide range of drawigns,paintings and mostg of all calligraphy of all sorts. I got to hand it to Seb, he is one heck of a talent there and once in a while he even threw in the occasional joke. But in essence this was just a listing of his different successes in artwork for an impressive list of clients /(the coolest IMO the NASA for their SWOT project). I still fail to see what this has to do with web development or even web design, as there was nothing you could take away from this talk. Apart from that to become leading in your area of expertice you do not only need talent but also dedication and maybe to some degree obsession for what you do.

The talk itself was also more like walking through a check list. First he showed the agenda "First I will tell you..., then I will show you..., then I will tell you..." and then stoically going through that list. Most of the time he seemed rather anoyed with "having" to give this talk and he was the first who seemed upset/impatiant during the following Q&A session with Vitaly.

I am sorry but this was the low light of the conference and this talk seemed totally out of place to me.

Joe Leech - How to design with science without loosing the magic

What works and what doesn't? What do you have to consider when you want to convince your audience? Simple and obvious questions with tricky and complicated answers. Joe shared his experiences from a lot of different projects with us, The essence was, if you want to make the sell, make your images big and shiny and do not put too much magic into the user interface or the client will be confused, As an example for the last point he referred to a case where a project used the users credit card number to automatically display the card brand (VISA, AmEx, etc.). This can be deducted from the first numbers of any card which means there is absolutly no magic involved, but many clients thought that this information was somehow obtained from their personal data which lead to a drop in sales.

I wonder why you could not put a short explanation next to the credit card brand, but there where probably reasons for it. Joe's conclusions, as much as I might not like them are surely valid and show the sad but undeniable truth about humans.. we are stupid ;-)

Brendan Dawes - Paper, Plastic & Pixels

Brendan gave us a thourough overview of his past work, many different ways of visualizing data and innovative approaches for physical user interacttion. Even though this was another simple listing of "what" was done, instead of showing techniques of "how" to do things, it was inspiring. Also in this case the "how" was always different, always a result of creative thinking out of the box. So that would be VERY hard to give instructions for ;-) I can only recommend to check out the presentation as it would be useless to describe the different visualization approaches, it is well worth the time.

Day 2

The Mystery Speaker... Bruce Lawson

This year's Mystery Speaker is one of the people behind the Opera browser and his enthusastic talk covered a lot of ground. Starting with web components vs installable webapps, passing over the difficulties when trying to define a web standard to the process of how to get a new feature into the html standard. As an example for the latter he gave how responsive images found their way into the browser. This was an interesting insight how browser development works and how browser developer think.

Anna Debenham - Game Console Browser

Anna basically gave an overview over what browsers are available on what console, what those browsers can do and more importantly what they can't. Also she showed us what challenges web page design for those varying displays hold for us and, at least for my part, managed to raise some awareness for it.

I must admit that the practical relevance of this is still kinda minimal, but I am also sure that in the next 5 - 10 years this will become rather important and so we should take up on this opportunity to make up our mind about it.

Zoe M. Gillenwater - Enhancing responsivness with Flexbox

Well, this was just Flexbox in depth! How you use, what it does, what is the difference to other layouts, what are the benefits, how you make sure a fallback is used, etc. 

Everything came with working code examples, plain and simply hands on stuff. And I LOVED it!! Mainly because it was nice to see actual code for a change, as opposed to concepts and theories as before. On the other hand this means I cannot say any more about it, apart from: Look for the slides and checkout Flexbox if you haven't already!

Espen Brunborg - Graphic Design in the 21st Century: Is the internet killing creativity?

I must admit, after the first 5 minutes into this talk I thought "Oh my god, this will be an hour of useless whining - shoot me now!" But I was wring.. UTTERLY wrong, as it turned out to be one of the best talks of this conference.

Espen's point was twofold. For one he pointed out, that creativity in the web indeed seems to have gone into hiatus. Most web sites look the same, with similar layout, almost identical look and feel and basically looking like copy cats of each other. He made a very strong point to dare trying new, creative and maybe unconventional approaches. Designers should take pride in what they create and try to make something unique. 

The second part of his talk was related but still something different. His point was that designers restrict themselves too much with so called "rules" of what must be done and what mustn't, examples for this are the dreaded parallax or the often shunned carousels. Espen's response was "I use those" and he showed the audience where and why he did use those elements. And he has a point, there are cases in which all of those things make sense and thus can or maybe even should be used. Cases in which they emphasize the message of the site or even improve the user expirience. His bottom line was, that you should not blindly follow every rule that is out there because if you do you can't do anything useful, instead think for yourself and decide what to use and what not. And if someone disagrees, well that can always happen. But if you are convinced that your's is best approach, stick to it!

Zach Leatherman - A brief history of that time you used web fonts

Here Zach told us a lot about what is good about web fonts and what is bad, or rather what many people do wrong when using web fonts. This had a lot of overlap with Patrick's talk from Day 1, but covered the fonts aspect way more indpeth. His main focus was the importance of font loading strategies and what can go wrong if you ignore this point, which can even lead to our web page being unable to render. He showed us how FOIT (flash of invisible text) and FOUT (flash of unstyled text) can occur and how you can deal with that. Was very interesting and you should definitely checkout the slides.

Andrew Tider & Jeff Greenspan - We'll teach you everything we don't know

Well, what can I say about those two? They are crazy and did crazy stuff during their carrers ;-) Starting with plush toys of sexual techniques over a sound prrof booth where you can shout at George Bush to a statue for Edward Snowden in Central Park. 

They spoke about how they started their projects without having a clue how they will turn out or most of the time not even knowing where to start. The essence was that you have to believe in yourself and your idea and that you have to dare to go down an unconventional path, maybe even walk the line of legality. Think out of the box and don't wait for miracles to happen, make them happen!!

Andrew Clarke - Counting Stars: Creativity over Predictability

So, the very last talk of the conference. I was curious what gem the organizers had saved for us. Weeeelll.... I would say the summary of this talk would be like the first 10 minutes of what Espen spoke of earlier. Creativity in web design runs low and designers should create new and original pages again. Something they can be proud of instead of just copying what others have already done.

Yet Andrew managed to drag this point on and on for 50 minutes boring the hell out of the audience. And just have to point out the irony of holding a talk where you complain that people just copy instead of create and then have about 50? slides each one having just a quote of someone else. There was actually exactly one slide that did not have such a copied quote and that one had a quote of himself. Sorry but quoting yourself in a talk is pretty lame. 

So this one was a huge let down and it seems Andrew noticed the audience's disapproval because he was extremly rude during Q&A.


I did really enjoy my first Smashing Conf, the overall level of talks was good with the occasional crap in between that you just cannot avoid. Nice location, some goodies and tasty catering.

It was a bit of a pity that there was no lunch served at the venue, so every group wandered off on their own but understandable that you cannot do that in such a location. It was also a bit unusual for me that there was only one track, on the one hand you don't miss anything but on the other hand you have no choice what to hear. Not sure if that was good or bad tbh ;-)

I think I could have done without the Q&A which often resulted in a chitchat between Vitaly and the speaker but I heard from others that they liked it. So I guess everyone has to see that for himself. 

I would also like to point out that the party on the first evening was held in a nice venue, the Estrella brewery with great catering. I think it might have been a bit better if there had been bistro tables to allow people to mix up easier and maybe not only have beer and water for drinks, but hey nothing is perfect ;-)