dConstruct 2008 - Designing the Social Web

— 5 minute read

Last week I headed on down to Brighton and the dConstruct web conference. A great event full of user-experience insight, old friends and expensive beer.

I arrived in time to meet up with Chris, Bruce (and new acquaintance Jake) for some food, and the on to the pre-party. I chatted to a load of random folk, but I ended up shouting myself somewhat horse trying to talk over the music. We decamped with PPK and some guys from Finland to a quieter pub. I failed to snag a Chi.mp Tshirt.

The actual conference started, in a somewhat hungover way, with The Urban Web from Steven Johnson. This was partly about Cholera and partly about the hyperlocal web. An odd combination that somehow worked, as it took in information design and utilising local connections. It was an engaging talk which took in some of the fascinating work at Outside.in, where they're working on some complex algorithms to associate blog materials with locations without having to resort to geocoding. Nothing UK-based, which is a shame, but I'll be following it with interest. I the left the talk  with a startup idea, which is always a good sign.

Moving on, Aleks Krotoski talked about computer games design and what web folk might learn from them. The basic argument that games designers have less formal interaction design, but produce great "sticky" content, seems somewhat to ignore the fact that their miss rate is high and originality low. It also avoids the vast amount of games design theory out there, from Nokia's work cataloguing techniques to the vast swathes of boardgame and traditional RPG work on interaction.

Still, the talk was fun and Aleks is a presenter full of enthusiasm for her subject that is infectious. Plus, any talk with retro-gamer in-jokes is worth a look. Maybe it would have been better if done after mashing some games developers and interaction designers together for a week and looking at the results?

Joshua Porter then talked about Cognitive Bias, those rules of thumb we all instinctively follow in spite of ourselves. This was the stand-out talk of the day to me. Not just full of useful theory, but then taking that on to give practical examples of application. Joshua focussed in on several Cognitive Biases, particularly how you can apply loss aversion to assist in getting signups. Or how it, combined with software creator's over-estimation of their own product's value, dramatically decreases the likelihood that people will adopt a new solution. Excellent really, in every way, I'll be checking out his book.

For lunch we decamped for excellent Japanese food.

Daniel Burka talked about social design and Digg and Pownce. A good talk, but more of an overview of the issues than concrete material on solutions. Digg is the great example of interaction design on this scale though, so small insights are valuable.

Tantek then talked about the theory of social network portability. I think I've seen too many theoretical Microformat presentations, because it seemed like it needed a conclusion or a more practical angle. Not bad, just nothing new. Plus there's only so any times you can hear rel=me in a sentence before you want to shout "Bingo!"

Matt Jones and Matt Biddulph followed up with the storming Designing for the Coral Reef. A great tag-team talk that switched between design and development issues, with an ever entertaining backdrop of quick-cut photos. My favourite part was about designing those little moments of delight that keep a user coming back and entertained, including the neat "how fast you're travelling in terms of an animal" markers in Dopplr.

Jeremy Keith finished things off with a wonderful talk, which is kind of  hard to do justice to merely by describing. It circled round its concepts, slowly building connections together by layering on references from fiction and history, until it got more and more concrete and about building modern social web apps. You can tell Jeremy is an old hand at this talking malarkey, he managed to keep the audience interested through their "WTF?" moments and really hit the payoff. A very satisfying ending to the day.

I returned to my hotel room to find Holiday Inn Brighton decided to remove my stuff from it. I know the idea that work paid for one night and I the next is tricky, but it can't be that rare surely?

Yahoo and the BBC sponsored the afterparty, which I arrived early for in the company of Paul Lloyd and Jon Roobottom. Unfortunately the venue was too small and after a while a few brave souls were forced outside. Brighton was experiencing a small typhoon at the time, which made this far from ideal. We decamped to the Old Ship Inn.

All in all, a great conference. The talks will apparently show up in podcast form, with transcripts courtesy of Opera, on the dConstruct site and are well worth checking out.