The Return of New Adventures

It’s the Saturday morning following the New Adventures conference in Nottingham. I’m sat in a local community centre, in an open area between the library and the café, whilst one of my boys is upstairs taking part in a wonderful yoga class for children.

But my mind is still racing. I could perhaps do with a bit of meditative yoga myself. I feel inspired, refreshed, and full of ideas and drive. But this isn’t the usual lip service I may pay to the conferences I attend. New Adventures is something special to me. The inaugural event, held in 2011, was the first fully-fledged conference I had ever attended. I honestly don’t think I could have chosen a better event to introduce me to this world of connections and knowledge that comes about in the form of a conference, and the fringe events that surround it. I have attended every one of them, and intend to be at everyone that may occur in the future (fingers crossed).

From the opening talk titled “The New Language of Web Design: by Dan Rubin in 2011, right through to the wonderful Jessica Hische and her introduction to “Procrastiworking” as the closing talk in 2013, I was provoked in thought, inspired by actions, and enthralled by the stories told.

Although I was sad that 2013 was to be the last of the New Adventures events (for the time being), in hindsight, I’m rather glad that it opened the opportunity for Simon and Geri to bring it back this year, coincidentally or not, at a time that – I believe – it was needed; kind of like the Sword of Gryffindor, but for the web design community.

The time travelling workshop

I was truly excited in the days building up to the start of New Adventures in 2019, which for me would start with a full-day workshop with Jeremy Keith on “The Progressive Web: Building for Resilience”. Although I’m no longer a full-time developer, having officially switched disciplines around 5 years ago to more User Experience focused work (there was a decent amount of developer/designer crossover around this time for me), I still feel that learning about the capabilities of new technologies as they feed into the ecosystem of the web is an important part of the design process; knowing what is becoming technically possible, and thinking about how we can responsibly incorporate those technologies into the things we build for the people that use them.

But the journey that Jeremy took us through was very thought provoking. Within groups, we considered all of the web-enabled applications that we use on a daily basis, ranked those on their perceived complexity, and arrived at a consensus within the group. Our choice was Facebook. Although I rarely use the platform myself, everyone has an appreciation of how complex it has become; folding in the functionality of acquired companies, building their own frameworks, and the sheer number of users that it caters for. Then came the fun part; the time-travelling.

It is now 1995, and we now have to build Facebook on the available technology at the time. Essentially, we had to create the core functionality of Facebook utilising form inputs to submit status updates, mailing lists instead of notifications, and the like button with a form submission that would do a hard refresh on the page. No instant updates, no notifications of people liking your post, no image or video uploads. But we could still build the core functionality. We could still utilise the base building blocks of the early web to create a basic version of Facebook.

I have long been a proponent of progressive enhancement on the web, perhaps before I knew the true value of it to the people that use the things we build for the web, but Jeremy has always been able to expand my understanding of its importance in the wider scope of things, how it inherently builds resilience into your products, and how it makes it more widely available to people across the world, in vastly different scenarios. The workshop itself was fluid enough to cater to the topics that the attendees were interested in; from over-arching philosophy to technical detail around service workers and new APIs. It has helped me to understand that learning in this kind of environment doesn’t have to be rigorously structured, and can be shaped as the day progresses.

Time for the fringe

Then it was on to the first of the fringe events for me, JH Bowling. This was rather surreal, meeting up with old faces the place where I had most likely met them face to face in the first instance. The whole thing was just as friendly as can be expected, hugs abound, online conversations picked up and carried on in person as if there were no difference in the medium of communication, and meeting those who you have only met online before. All of it magical, enjoyable, and just so bloomin’ lovely. It also helps when Dan Donald casually chalks up the highest score of the night whilst you’re on his team!

The main event

Then Thursday came, the day of the conference itself. Again, so many familiar faces, and so many enthusiastic new ones.

What. A. Day.

I could sit and write in depth about each and every talk, but, in all honesty, I don’t think I would do them justice. At least not in a blog post. Maybe you could watch them back yourself once the videos are released 😉🤞. Instead, I’ll just talk about the ones that I could relate to a little more than the others…

“The Future is Cross-Functional” was the title of the talk from Jessica White, who touched on a lot of things I’m currently experiencing and working through in my current role. Changing your process, and going from something as “waterfall as hell” to something more collaborative, and dare I say it, more agile. Jessica also spoke about bringing your team closer together, working in a more collaborative manner, and trying to understand the viewpoints of other members in your team, as well as understanding your users. All of these are things I’ve written about in my book, UX for Developers, but were brought to life through another’s real life experience.

Ashley Baxter spoke to us about “Idea to Execution and Beyond”, focusing around her experiences of being a solo founder of a company in one of the most heavily regulated industries there is; insurance. I could relate to the subject matter having worked on the digital side of an insurance company in the past, but from Ashley’s perspective as a solo founder, the obstacles and hurdles she has made her way through and over in the creation of With Jack was truly inspiring, especially in the face of stiff competition from the big players in the market, affectionately referred to as “arseholes”! 😂

The other talk to really strike a chord with me was Helen Joy’s “Whose Design is it Anyway?”. A snippet from the talk synopsis covers why this was so up my street:

“We know what we want people to do; what actions we want them to take. But do we really know who these people are? Do we really know what they need? Do we take the time to find out, or are we building products and services based on our own assumptions and biases?”

Helen hit so many of the points that need addressing in the teams I work with, my neck was almost sore with all of the nodding long I was doing. Without actually seeing our users, talking to them, discovering what they need from us, then we are too far from delivering a design for the people that will use it.

And finally, Ethan Marcotte took the stage with possibly the most well constructed talk I have ever seen, “The World-Wide Work”. I don’t think I’ve ever reacted as emotionally to a talk that didn’t involve footage or live examples of users struggling with an inaccessible website or application. I have also never been witness to a talk where spontaneous applause has erupted before the end of the talk. A room full with hundreds of designers, developers, and other web-centric professions, instantly breaking out into a rapturous applause to what was being presented is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

It felt like a call to arms; for us to come together to make use of the power that we hold in the work that we do, and not to be optimistic, but to hope.

“Hope is not the same thing as optimism. Never confuse or conflate hope with optimism. Hope cuts against the grain. ‌Hope is participatory – it’s an agent in the world. Optimism looks at the evidence, to see whether it allows us to infer whether we can do X or Y.

Hope says, “I don’t give a damn, I’m gonna do it anyway.”

– Cornell West, "Race Matters", 27 April 2001

A fitting end to a spectacular conference.

The after party

The after party was held at the Nottingham Contemporary, a fascinating space, and a perfect venue for us designer-types! For me, it turned out to be a mix of meeting some wonderful people for the first time, and catching up with those wonderful people who I had met through previous New Adventures, and a few other conferences I’ve attended since that first one in 2011. So many amazing, friendly people, so little time.

I hope that I see you all again, but with much less time passing between.

The biggest of thank yous

I don’t know how to express my thanks to Simon and Geri, for bringing back the most influential conference in my career. So, I will just say thank you.

A big thank you to all of the volunteers, and everyone else behind the scenes who made it happen. I hope you can all recover from your efforts to make all of this happen again, sooner rather than later.