Digital thinkers in Amsterdam by awwwards pt. I

by Despoina

The first conference I got to attend in the field of UX and design was both inspiring and overwhelming. I have been a fan of the awwwards website since I was student. I visit it to be inspired by the work of talented designers featured there, study closely all the websites that stand out and win the title ‘site of the day’. So, to get to attend one of their conferences was a huge deal for me.

The 2 day event took place in Amsterdam. Good news as it is accessible to me now that I live in Belgium and by having a look at the list of speakers, I immediately knew this would be the perfect opportunity for me to step away from my screen for a while, meet creatives and just get inspired. Reset my brain and awaken my hibernated creativity.

Turns out that the conference was just that. No more routine, no more unnecessary and mind numbing meetings, no more of the office politics, but rather a get together of creative people talking about our experiences, about UX and of course about what the future holds for us and the evolution of digital design.

Transforming this experience into one single blog post was impossible because I feel the need to document every talk that impressed me. So, I broke it down to 2 parts. This is day 1 (for day 2 you can go to this post)

Getting there

Finding the location of the conference was not that difficult. Amsterdam is a small city and the De La Mar theatre was only a 20 min walk from our tiny yet lovely Airbnb in Oude Pijp.

Walking in the city early in the morning was also refreshing. This busy and overcrowded city was still waking up, the air was surprisingly fresh, and the humidity coming up from the canals woke me right up. Once in front of the theatre, I was one of the first enthusiasts to walk in the venue. I handed in my coat and I got a warm welcome along with some cool conference swag 😍  

After my first cup of coffee, a mandatory prerequisite for me to be pleasant and polite towards other people, I started to scan the room looking for the ones who where alone like me to see if I could get me a conference buddy. As it turns out, during both days of the Digital Thinkers conference I got to talk with a lot of different designers from all over Europe…Italy, Cyprus, Amsterdam and even Belgium. I certainly did not feel alone.

Some of the people I talked to were starting their own business, anxious to get insights and guidelines on how to get a successful head start and some were working in UI design wanting to get to know more about UX because their job demanded they do both 🤘(I feel you)

Now, it was time to go in and while I searching for that perfect spot, the harmonious tunes of a lovely violinist was welcoming us. The stage was ready!

The speakers

Our first speaker was Pablo Stanley a designer and animator who’s articles and comics I follow religiously on Medium. He shared with us a story from his childhood all the while explaining why it is important that as designers we should just keep being weird and true to ourselves. A good way to start the conference.

When Amy West from weTransfer followed I was definitely curious. D people still use this platform? I thought to myself, is this revenant today where the way we exchange files has changed so drastically? It turns out that weTransfer focused on their key users, the ones still using their platform for their needs. They identified who they are, researched the way they use their platform and for which specific purpose and then provided dedicated solutions to facilitate them. 

I have to admit that it was truly refreshing to see how a company with such massive competition in our days did not fall into the trap of simply copying solutions from their competitors but instead focused on their niche weTransfer users and provided dedicated solutions that work for them. I could not help myself and headed over to the website during the talk. In all honesty it remains enjoyable, intuitive and beautiful!

The next speakers Joël Van Bodegraven and Pedro Marques from Adyen started their presentation with some rather bold statements.

Technology is a UX problem, they said, and did not stop there …. they went on to suggest that Code is a UX decision. I can only imagine that if I ever dare to say this to my team or to any developer for that matter, I will be be laughed at or even kicked out of the room in a matter of seconds.

Yes, I would make a lot of people very angry for sure. But then again….let’s just think about it; technology is lately the main if not the only focus and goal in mind when we design a product. Often enough, we choose the technology we want to build a product with (way) before we think about what are we providing a solution for. You will hear people wanting their app to use AI, machine learning, blockchain or whatever the latest technological trend is before answering to the main question:

How is this useful for us and our users?

What is the problem we solve for them?

What are we making improving?

If you suggest that you plan to develop a product with a cool new technology such as AI, it sounds sexy and it will most likely and automatically open the pockets of stakeholders and investors. But will it provide added value to your users?

Another point of this talk was that it is important to inspire trust to our users and be transparent of how we use their data. To give users control and freedom in how they use our products instead of deciding for them how they should be used.

The suggestion of Bodegraven and Marques was to use technology as a method rather as the main goal in order to provide real added value to the end user of our product. But, should this come only from the UX designer?

I do not think so, as a big supporter of team work, I trust that developers and managers as well as stakeholders are aligned with these views as well. .

No one wants ‘useless innovation’ said Sergio Mojoli and Lorenzo Cordioli in the next keynote. Useless innovation and #fakeneeds brought up by just trends and not by insights of real user behaviour are not leading to successful products. Hard to argue.

The second female speaker of the day -not that I was keeping score- was Raisa Cuevas from Google. She talked about the evolution of the mobile user experience using what everyone was doing the beginning of 2019; a #10YearsChallenge. She explained how the way we use the internet on mobile has changed, and how web interfaces have changed to adapt to these versatile mobile devices. Today our mobile devices are more powerful than ever, no matter the operating system you choose to use. Yet the speed of most sites and apps on mobile seems to not be doing so great.

Just how important is speed in order to provide an excellent experience on mobile? Well, did you know that slow mobile internet causes a higher level of stress on people than watching a horror movie? Spinners and empty screens are scarier that ‘The conjuring’ !!!!! And if knowing that did not scare you yet then well then think of this; Raisa warned us that ’we have 3secs to load a page [on mobile] before 53% of your visitors leave’ sometimes never to come back.

We cannot afford to lose mobile visitors especially since we know that people are surfing on mobile 4x times more than they do on desktop.

Speed optimisation is key as well as creativity and delightfulness in designing for all different states of your mobile website or app. But why do we have such issues on mobile still today? Often this can be the quality of your connection but we know already that in the near future quality of a connection is not going to be a factor. Especially with free wi-fi spots that can be found almost anywhere and with the long awaited 5G. Everyone will have an affordable and fast connection on mobile. In fact, it has become somewhat of a human right.

The issues with speed often lie in the technology used, absence of compression of big CSS and Javascript files and sometimes it is simply a design decision

So, next time your designers suggest a skeleton page, next time they will show you a joyful and meaningful animated loader, or an illustration between two states & steps of an app, think about the stress you will be saving your end users!

My absolute favourite example of a loading state 😍

Our next speaker was also the host of the conference Peter Smart. His positive energy, presentation skills and the ability to inspire and engage the audience is indubitable. After his talk a lot of people talked about how much of an inspiration he was to them and how much wished they had his presentation skills. American showmanship aside, Peter Smart successfully described how his team redesigned the app for Royal Caribbean in only 6 months. Yes, you read that right!

From designing the navigation with a briefing that was limited to the exclusion of a hamburger menu 😉, to sketching rapid prototypes, testing with cruisers, creating a design system for the new app, from iteration to iteration, to creating E2E flows all the way to delivering an impressive end product with even the tiniest of details crafted with the outmost attention.

All of this in 6 months! I kept repeating this because it just seems so unreal. But, not impossible.

This is what creatives can do when they are given control and freedom over their process. What they can achieve when the business trusts them.

But most of all, what I will never forget from his talk was the following quote:

FUCK MVP*** and go for MLP*** !

YES. Let’s do that! I don’t know about you but I am making this into a t-shirt.

After lunch break, creativity continues

After lunch, I rushed back in the conference room for the second half of this first day. We were asked to welcome Dutch designer Marie Van Driessche not with an applause but with a hand gesture that I found out represents an applause in sign language. Marie gave her entire talk in sign language! Talking about a no boundaries, no one will stand in my way, bad ass inspiring QUEEN. You can tell….. I was impressed by her, her ethos and work.

And indeed who could be better to talk to us about inclusive design than a person who feels the need for it first hand? With this talk, I got to get to know more about deaf people, how they communicate, what do they struggle with today and how designing for them will benefit not just them but all of us. I know, when we talk about accessibility we always feel the need to say that designing for people with specific abilities can be beneficial for all. But hey….. how about cutting to the chase and say that we should just include everyone in the digital universe?

I believe she explains it much better than I ever could do so PLEASE do your self a solid and watch the following video:

The first day of the conference was concluded after the talks of Anrick Bregman, Andy Thelander and Sebastien Dust & Jean François Chainé. The speakers from Montreal emphasised on the balance between employee first and user first and how their design process is affected by:

  • the environment of the employee
  • the early cooperation between designers and developers and
  • by following a non linear but planetary process for their projects.

In short, if you want to make your client happy, make sure your employees are happy as well.

The end of day one

I walked out of the theatre at the end of the talks feeling inspired, encouraged and understood. My brain was full of ideas and I could not wait to share all the things I heard with my team back in Brussels. But this will have to wait for now.

Now, it was time for what I do best when I visit another city, have a long evening walk and enjoy a romantic evening in town with my husband. After all it was still Valentine’s day ❤️

Sources & videos:

* Pablo Stanley’s story: Are you Ready for this?

** Why Machine Learning is a UX Problem | Joël Van Bodegraven & Pedro Marques | Awwwards Conf Amsterdam: Machine learning is a UX problem video

*** MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product with just enough features to satisfy the end user. It is true though that often the MVP result is definitely not MLP which stands for the Minimum LOVABLE product, with just enough enjoyment to please your end users.

**** Work hard, Play harder presentation from Locomotive | Awwwards Conf Amsterdam: Work hard, Play harder talk

***** The Royal Caribbean app: A walk through the redesigned app

Don’t forget that you can read the part II of my impressions of this conference here. !!!!!!

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