My last conference post on here was for UmbracoSpark in early March 2020, back at the start of a year I’d hoped would include a few other such events including the more user-experience focused Camp Digital 2020. What with 2018 and 2019 being heavy mortgage-saving years for me, 2020 had at the start initially been cued up for more events visiting once again, and indeed I’d even picked up the CD tickets at the start of March. Of course as everyone will then know, bigger world issues overtook us shortly afterwards and wiped out much of the events calendars for 2020 and 2021, so it took until 2022 for this to finally be possible to attend again. Having narrowly missed out on Umbraco Codegarden this year, the first in-person conference for me was Camp Digital in Manchester on June 23rd.
Despite being quite local to the area, an earlier start than usual was required due to some limits on transport (full support to the RMT and members on this one mind), however I still made it down to Manchester City Centre in good time. Then upon getting into the building I had to quickly try and remind myself of several things I’d forgotten were a thing from conferences after such a gap (tea and coffee facilities, lanyards, people actually being able to greet you with a handshake all being moments that came up in the first 30 minutes). Then it was straight on to the talks for the day.
After the friendly welcomes to everyone, Rachel Coldicutt took to the stage for the first keynote speech of the conference (yes I must add ‘keynotes’ to the list of concepts I’d almost forgotten existed too). Rachel took a wider angle view of technology being used for purposes it wasn’t intended for, looking at some notable examples from history such as the telephone being designed primarily for conducting business, but then actually being picked up as a social tool instead, with a similar example coming from the original invention of SMS for use by engineers. With the overriding takeaway being that while it’s primarily things like business, money and military that are seen as the drivers for technological innovation, at the core the real drivers are still love and care. As people will make technology work in the best ways to help people, even if that may not have been the original plan from a business. Certainly an inspiring way to start off thinking for the day.
As is often the case with keynotes (see, it is all coming back to me now!), the second keynote of the day from Gerry McGovern on Earth Experience Design took a somewhat sharp and brutally realistic turn the other way. Looking in depth at how the advancement of technology is destroying the planet, gouging out resources, destroying numerous species, and leaving huge amounts of unsustainable waste in its path. I think it’s one of those concepts that most people are aware of to some degree, but the sheer number of impacts and stark facts presented one after another probably stunned many. There were however messages of hope. That for all big businesses may like to put across the right words, business tackling this isn’t something we can rely on. Ultimately it’s going to be ordinary people that can make the change. And importantly not just a single person – but rather people coming together in citizen action to demand change. To demand products that last longer rather than the current ‘fast tech’ cycles of replacement. To demand products that can be repaired to extend their lifespan. While it’s hard to know exactly how successful some of this will be, it certainly left a lot of good food for thought and inspiration, which I suppose is always the idea of a keynote.
With the morning keynotes out of the way, after lunch things split off into multiple tracks, with more of a focus on how different organisations have made changes in ways which involve that important aspect – people. From the tracks I went to, the first such talk from Sharon O’Dea and Hanna Karppi took a look at how people’s life in work is changing, and how we need to keep them at the centre of what we do. Technology can certainly help companies with how they move towards newer ways of working, such as supporting people no longer being in an office five days a week. But it’s important to not lose track of the human element here. Understanding people and the work they do, their beliefs and experiences, and then turning those back into ways of improving things. This was clearly communicated through several examples, with an awful lot of references back to various TV shows. Such as Line Of Duty, representing understanding people’s needs, and Knight Rider, as an example of using interfaces to help people navigate complexity. A good way to keep things relatable, especially with some of those 80s TV references!
The next talk on my list was from Kylie Havelock, who gave an overview of how things have been changed over recent years at Citizens Advice. After a look back at some of the history of the organisation, it was swiftly on to how the demand continues to rise and how those challenges can be met through improvements to digital while still remaining true to their core purpose, taking examples of improvement loops, better use of data, and the replacement of separated multi-channel access which was traditionally disconnected, with an omnichannel approach, whereby they could have multiple channels both digital and physical, but keep the information connected between the two. Interestingly though for a very digital focused conference, Kylie was very keen to still highlight the huge importance of the non-digital and how digital exclusion has gotten worse particularly among some of the groups most likely to be seeking access to Citizens Advice services. As someone of that ‘young tech’ generation who is used to being the support go-to for a parent who’s never really been able to get too into the internet, this is something I’ve been able to appreciate. All too many banks and government services have moved towards digital only services, with the provision for those without access to the internet usually a token effort add-on (oh, you can go to the post office, oh your local library has a computer). As a recent example my mother is not even able to gain access to payslips for her own job as its been abstracted away behind a mandatory digital service by a private employer, and trying to find out basic information from HMRC around National Insurance contributions recently involved having to dig through and provide about 10 different passwords, security questions, personal details, passport info, emails, and SMS challenge responses just to get to it. So it’s refreshing to see an organisation such as Citizens Advice not only acknowledging the issue with the statistics to back it up, but actively still factoring support for the legacy provision into their future planning while continuing to add to their service offering.
The next talk on the track I’d gone with was from Sarah Mace, who was part of the Leeds 2023 culture programme, which came about as a continuation of the bid originally created for the European Capital of Culture. Despite being involved in a project which in itself names culture, this was largely coincidental with the particular focus of the talk more on how they had worked to bring about culture improvements within an organisation. This was quite a good talk for inspiring thoughts more than anything as while it offered some examples of things that had worked, a lot more talked about the things to look out for rather than solutions which won’t fit everyone. To ensure whether principles such as design principles or accessibility principles were only being applied to a team, or to the whole organisation, and to look at where things don’t work internally. An important take away was one of the biggest things needed is to encourage everyone to communicate frequently, both about the small wins but also critically to share the mistakes. I was glad to be able to identify some of the actual examples from situations I have worked in over the years, such as the use of Agile Popups to communicate things Liked, Learned and Lacked, but also little things. One other personal example was of personalised mugs for new starters, just being something introduced to give that human feeling on day one. I’d almost forgotten about this after so long, but this was something I’d experienced back when I joined Building Blocks in Manchester (an agency more commonly known on the North West digital scene as Dept now). It was 8 years ago now, but the day one welcome pack had such a personalised mug (and even spelled correctly, which is a very common problem I have with my name!), and I can remember it did indeed have that simple human impact at the time. It does really inspire me to try and do more for the team at my current place, although I feel like I should come up with something different to mugs now (teacups, plates… hmm, maybe personalised shirts, for those who’ve seen me in person may know I have a penchant for).
After the split talks, everyone came back together for the final keynote of the day delivered by Gavin Strange from Aardman Animations. I mean when you come to the stage wearing a Meowth t-shirt you’re already onto a winner in my book, and this talk certainly didn’t disappoint. Gavin gave a bit of a potted history of both Aardman as a company and how he’d come to work as a designer there, ultimately being involved with their rebrand as well as directing on some projects. But he also took a look at what things he did in his own personal spaces to keep the creativity and interest flowing. This whole talk was full of energy and positivity, encouraging everyone to spend less time thinking, more time tinkering and just to get involved with pursuing what you want to do. He also included several examples of games and ideas that had done something totally different because they wanted to, not because it necessarily would have made sense on an executive board meeting slide. Certainly the sort of talk which leaves you ending the day on a high, and full of fresh thoughts and ideas to pursue. I’m not sure how many of us may still have remembered some of those ideas after a few drinks at the afterparty at Revolucion de Cuba mind, but there is only so much one person can do!
Overall it was a day full of ideas and inspiration, and for myself ‘as a developer’ it’s always good to get outside of just pure code into these wider ways of thinking. More than anything though, I think it was great just to be able to see so many people able to come together again after such a long void of these events and share ideas once more, and much gratitude goes to the people at Nexer for pulling it together for another year. And also to see so many people who were having difficulty reaching the event on the day itself banding together to offer carshares or similar was fantastic. Here’s looking forward to many more in the future!