Monday, October 09, 2006

Reflections on Web Directions

I have to be the slowest blogger in the IT community. Over a week ago I attended the Web Directions conference. The conference was really good, and has inspired me in a few areas. Many other bloggers have had their say on the conference, but I may as well have mine, just for the sake of redundancy.

One of the common themes from both the Accessibility speakers (Gian Sampson-Wild and Derek Featherstone) and the User Experience speaker (Kelly Goto) was user testing, and not just asking the user what they think. Kelly Goto's quote was 'We listen to what the users "didn't say" and observed what they did'. I have also been challenged in the area of accessibility, I think the quote for me came from Derek Featherstone, and that is "The web is Accessible by default, we make it in-accessible". It has inspired me to go have a look at the way I develop, and the bad habits I've gotten into. The truth of the matter is that it is not really that much effort to get into good habbits that make web sites more accessible.

I really liked Jeremy Keith's AJAX sessions. The first session started out a little basic, but become more interesting in the last half. In the second session Jeremy discussed a technique he called "Hijax" which is aimed at ensuring accessibility, and support for down level browsers. I am looking forward to seeing how well I can apply his techniques using ATLAS. While on the topic of libraries, Jeremy did make one statement that I'm not sure I can agree with. He said that he didn't believe in using thrid party libraries for doing AJAX, firstly becasue AJAX wasn't that complicated and secondly because if something goes wrong in the library as a developer you'll need to be able to fix it. I almost agree with his first statement, but even still, I am a big fan in NOT re-inventing the wheel. If there's a library that has a great ranking control for example, and they've coded it so that it works across all browsers in your supported browser matrix, then there is a lot of testing and coding that you can potentially avoid. There are always bugs in any software, and AJAX APIs are no exception, the skill of a good developer is to be able to use an API in such a way that they can workaround any bugs in the underlying API, I've lost count how many times I've had to do this myself. Also, as a Winforms developer, I am extremely greatful that I do not have to write Win32 anymore, and I'm sure those of you who have written Win32 would agree with me. Having said that, his "hijax" mechanism of progressive enhancement is really cool, and my current goal is to go through all the ATLAS controls (the API I'm currently using) and see how I can apply this technique to them.

I went along to John Allsops talk on microformats to hopefully pickup anything I'd missed from the first time I heard it, and was inspired all over again.

One minor thing I think the organisors can improve on is something I saw at the Tech-ed conference, the "re-charge desks". The tech-ed organisors had desks with a series of power boards that people could plug their lap tops into between sessions. This would have been really good for me as my laptop is now a year and a half old, and my battery is showing its age, it wasn't even lasting 2 hours.

Worth mentioning:

  • Kelly Goto made reference to an example of an interesting User Experience project called Datelens. It is a callendaring visualisation which plugs into outlook (nothing to do with the web at all). I downloaded it and it's quite interesting, definately worth a look. Also it is written in .Net 1.1, which must have been quite an acheivement, and I think with WPF just around the corner, there will be a lot more of these types of user experience applications about.
  • The inaugural McFarlane proze for Excellence in standards based web design was awarded to This site is really worth checking out. It is especially interesting to me because it is written in ASP.Net demonstrating that it is possible to write high quality standards compliant accessible web sites using ASP.Net.
  • - The last speaker of the conference was Mark Pesce (inventor of VRML, explained some of his concepts of social software, and described a project he worked on that attempted to aggregate your social behavior patterns and create social network models simply by using the ability of a blue tooth enabled phone. I thought there’d be some people at readify quite interested in this sort of stuff.

tags: wd06

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