Ideate, prototype, create.

It was on the 14th and 15th of Feb in Amsterdam that the Digital Thinkers Conference happened. Organised by the Awwwards, the most visited digital design awards platform in the world. I had the opportunity of being there and this is my verdict.

A review on the Digital Thinkers Conference in Amsterdam, 2019

It was last weekend (14-15 Feb) in Amsterdam that the Digital Thinkers Conference happened. Organised by the Awwwards, the most visited digital design awards platform in the world. Every year the Awwwards holds conferences in iconic cities around the globe and Amsterdam was the last chosen destination for such an event.

David Kelley, the founder of IDEO and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the university of Stanford once said:

“We believe the next generation of innovators and leaders need to be great design thinkers”.

And boy was this the place to find those design thinkers. Indeed the Amsterdam was one of the most inspirational events on the subject of designing digital products that I had the honour to attend. A mix of international and local speakers from the most influential companies in the industry shared with the audience their approach to design and conceptualise better digital products.

I won’t go over each and every single talk - I guess at some extend you had to be there to see it - but I will try to make justice to all of the talks that actually inspired me the most and - in my view - added more value to my everyday life.

A few lines about me and my work might bring some light into my review of the talks and the conference in general. I am UX Developer. Wait, what? Do you mean a UX Designer or a Developer? I actually mean both. UX Developer is a fairly new concept in the industry but it basically refers to someone who has skills and experience in both areas. The world of startups is moving out of a technology-push / engineering-centric approach as this means there is too much reliance on the vision of the technologist/founder and not enough emphasis on the early stage where we create an empathy with the user. Design thinking helps do find the actual need first and then choose the appropriate implementation of technologies. In plain English is: the right solutions for a specific problem. In my company - Qadre - I am in the midst of building an interactive process of design thinking the ensure we will breed the best products we possibly can. It turns out that I come from a graphic design background with some experience on ideation but I also know how to code which helps in the prototyping phase. Consequently this conference happen at the perfect timing symbolising a solid contribute for my exploration of design thinking processes so that I can apply such methodologies in my work place.

Ego death and creativity

The Digital Thinkers Conference took place at the DeLamar Venue in one of the most centric streets in Amsterdam. The kick off was held by Pablo Stanley which I must say I admire very much. I met Pablo prior to the conference when I was doing a course on UI design a few years ago. He’s designs caught my eye as I think he is a very strong visual communicator. And that was exactly what happened on the 14th of February in DeLamar. Pablo designed an array of well curated cartoons with minimal animations for his deck of slides and captivated

our attention while telling us about a personal story. It was a brilliant way of making the audience relate and passing a few concepts between the lines. In my view his story underlies the idea that in a creative thinking process we must have compassion with our inner selves and don’t let the ego be a source of disturbance. It was a cute and cleaver way of starting the conference leaving the audience “warmed up” and in a good mood for the speakers that followed.

After Pablo’s talk Amy West took the stage. She works for the company WeTransfer and she talked about inspiration in Design Thinking. What stood more from Amy’s talk was the idea that the work you produce in your company is a solid contribute for the industry and when possible it should be shareable through an API letting your users build on top of what you create. West went on to show us a few examples of case studies that caught the attention of folks at WeTransfer. Small projects developed by users that took the opportunity of having WeTransfer API available to build fascinating stuff. In some cases there were even cases of business ideas coming about out of the use of their API. I think the idea here was that to some extend you should let creativity happen by itself but also keep track of what is being built with the work that you put out there.

Fear not the machine’s wisdom

How often does one see the topic of UI/UX being applied to AI? In fact how often do we see the idea of building for AI’s transparency? Well that was precisely what Joël Van Bodegraven and Pedro Marques did when they hop on the stage to tell us how “Machine Learning is a UX problem”. They both work with AI technologies and spent a bit of time trying to explain that Artificial Intelligence is not the Saruman of technology and in fact they admitted that they hate the term AI and that “machine learning” is a much more accurate description. One of the endeavours that digital designers and engineers should be facing is how to make their technologies more transparent to humans with the purpose of demystifying the magic behind it and hence clearing away the fears surrounding the subject. One of the examples they gave was a comparison between Youtube’s and Netflix’s UI. They explained how on YouTube you the videos that the UI suggests (a result of a machine learning algorithm) even that it is based on your previous watches it is never clear as to why exactly they are suggesting those videos. While on Netflix when you see a video suggestion they actually add a text label saying “Because you watched Narcos”. Finally they made strong statement in the end which I personally identify with. They said Designers should learn hot to code because they should know the medium that they are developing to as best as they can possibly can.

Don’t stop me now

One of the most insightful speeches in the whole conference was Raisa Cuevas one. Cuevas backed her speech with the numbers a made a very solid case of how speed should be your main concern when developing experiences. Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and other recent technologies that are suppose to pimp the user’s experience are cool but we should fix what we have right now before jumping in to this infant technologies. Basically the numbers proof that what our common sense already tells and that is that mobile use has by far surpassed the use of laptops. This also means that most of the time users rely on their mobile data to access information. According to google research studies the most important factor in the user’s experience is the speed. The users hate to wait namely when no feedback is being provided while they wait for content. Google noted that the average speed of websites is 12 seconds which is an embarrassing number as the good websites usually take 5 seconds to load. In fact the optimal speed recommended by google is 3 seconds and there are some fixes, workarounds, small tweaks that one can do to reach this 3 second gold pottery. According to Raisa there is a direct correlation between speed and conversion. It has been proven that faster websites have more conversions. One of the techniques that Raise suggests to optimise the user experience is a concept called “Improved Speed Perception”. This gives the user some feedback and provides some a perception of speed. For example all the content that it is out the screen should be on lazy load and give priority to the content that is actually on the viewport. The interface has 4 steps of loading they are: the first paint, the first contentful paint, the first meaningful paint and the time to interactive. You can refer to the image bellow for more details. Cuevas still had time to mention that there are factors that we can control and that improve speed perception like the above mentioned lazy load technique, the delightfulness of the interaction, the animated sequences included in the prototypes… but then there are the factors that fall out of our scope of control and these are mainly the age of the user and her/his state of mind. Raise also suggested that the future of the mobile experience will most likely progress to PWAs (progressive web app) and that these can boost the user engagement since they allow you to communicate with users in meaningful ways like giving access to information even when offline, send notifications and access the device camera/microphone.

Royal Caribbean Cruises - Case Study

Peter Smart was the host of the event and to our surprise he closed the first morning of the conference by showing us a case study. Peter is also the Head of Product Design for Fantasy - a human-centred design agency. He showcased one of the agency’s latest works for a brand of cruises called Royal Caribbean Cruises. The end result was a beautiful mobile app with engaging graphics and impactful interactions. After awing everyone with by showing the app Smart left a few recommendations for best results in digital products. Among them there was the importance of forgetting about templates and views - that stays in the 90s - the word is experience now. He also stressed the importance of doing rapid prototyping and engage on scrappy experiments on a very early stage. Work with motion and always test your work. From this experiments and test validations we can can start creating our design system, evolve and adapt. Designing from the real world to real humans and focussing on a minimum love-able product is another recommendation from Peter. He also advises to think of flows when conceptualising instead of screens.

Explore, explore, explore…

The borders between Real and Virtual are narrowing more and more. This was the idea behind Anrick Bregman’s talk. With a vast folio on the production of immersive experiences Anrick showed told us about the creative process warning for the dangers of insecurity as creative killer. During the ideation phase it is very important to work with an open ended design since you don’t always know what you’re going for. Using an open ended approach you can always revisit concepts and more easily iterate. Also when designing, aim for virtual memories as this is what the user will remember the most and this increasingly those virtual memories will feel like real ones.

Trend Design Thinking

Lior Pinco is the Design Director at Wix he talked about trends. In fact he’s talk was called Trend Thinking. Pinco expressed very well that the way to stay ahead of trends is by predicting the future and subsequently the way to predict the future is to create it. He often refers to fashion trends as they are one of the big trend setters. He predicted that there we are experiencing the entering on a new renaissance and that this one is female. He also adverted to pay attention to Generation Z as the first humans that have used internet, technology and social media since very young age. The use of plastic as material with strong parallel to environmental issues is a trend that started precisely in the fashion industry and that is going to spread to other industries. Lior finished his talk with the idea that there is no right or wrong but you should raise a question and have an explorer’s mind and courage to create.

You are only as good as you last project

This subtitle sums the last talk of the first day. One of the speakers couldn’t attend the conference due to personal reasons and - very kindly - Andy Thealander flew from Los Angeles to speak at the conference about creative coding. Andy is the co-founder of Active Theory - an agency focused on providing the best digital experience often recurring to AR, VR and 3D technologies. He broke down his projects into chunks of work and how much time do they spend on each chunk. Usually the formula goes like this: they spend 20% of the time doing UX, 40% of the time doing design and 40% of the time doing development. Being a very skilled group of designers and developers they invest a lot of time and effort on the prototyping phase. Prototypes are very important and for this they often Create mood boards, put together a bit of communications to help conceptualise the idea and always try to reach stage where you fell happy about the project you just built. And by the way his formula goes like this: reality - expectations = happiness.

The second course

On the second day we were presented with Ida Aalen, the Co-founder and CPO of Confrere Video which told us what designers can learn from code review. Aalen explained how the design flow at Confrere Video borrows concepts from software development. Basically the idea of one coder making a PR (pull request) on GitHub and ask other developer to review the code before merging his changes to the main branch. At Confrer Video they use the same philosophy for their design development. A designer asks for feedback on a very early on stage and involves everyone. She also advises to always test your designs against real users. Ida warned us how in her experience 1 in every 3 problems found by experts review were a false alarm and how 1 in every 2 problems found in user testing were overlooked. These tests should be quick and cheap and involve 3 to 6 persons.

You Are A Brand

On my personal view, one of the most influential talks of the whole conference was the one given by one the founders of the Superhero Cheesecake agency who is also an MMA fighter and a dedicated father. They won the awwwards prize 3 years in a row. It was very straight to the point but at the same time very insightful. They basically prepared 12 very disruptive recommendations to create an amazing digital product. Among them you could find stuff like:

  • Don’t pitch, just let the work speak by it self.
  • Start with the why before jumping to prototyping.
  • No layers, as in don’t hide behind a job title be transparent towards the client and don’t let there be layers on the client side as well. Be respected by your skills not for your job title.
  • In a team when someone looses everyone looses.
  • Blame yourself. Take ownership!
  • UI is UX = UX is UI. There is no separation. Never give away the concept / wireframing to someone else. You are the designer this is your opportunity to peak the concept from the start.
  • Conversion is killing conversion. Worry more about the experience. Do not turn every pixel into a conversion point.
  • Don’t think in journeys;
  • Everybody knows / nobody knows. Don’t be afraid of questioning and breaking the rules.
  • Steal everywhere that resonates with you and inspires you. Ideas are formed by what you have seen in the past and you can force this process.
  • You are a brand.
  • You are never finished
  • Take a nap from time to time

Nearly there

The conference obviously ended with a Prize-Giving Ceremony for the best websites of 2008. But there was still time for a few more talks. I would like to mention Louis Ansa who told us about how she developed a tool belt animations along with a design system and hence this helped her to prototype and build faster.

Also mention Philip Schuette from Random Studio who shared the idea of organising work in small teams around each project in comparison to a small jazz combo. He also described the starting point as being very important because it is the case where you formulate psychological and scientific questions.

DPDK talk on service-design was also very insightful as they advised digital thinkers to stop living on an island and understand the real client needs behind the “we want a new website”. Here are a few insights presented:

  • mind the branding gap: fix a point beyond the initial question. Sometimes there are no style guides defined in the client’s brand, no patterns, no brand language, personality, purpose, etc…
  • Go from brand design to product design
  • In the creative process: go all out and then box it up
  • Collect insights to build the experience map where you lay down the key site areas and think fo solutions for each problem / insight. Solutions become epics and epics go on the wall to be developed. A product is a group of epics.
  • Design a product horizon with the goals of the product
  • You get what you design
  • Find the right focus on your inspirations
  • Work with design principles, keep them simple and human
  • Usually we do two sets of design principles and map out what comes out of each one
  • Mix the two prototypes with curating it to be concise
  • Make motion prototypes

In general the Awwwards was very inspiring and motivating as to develop the best digital experiences possible. But mainly I could tell from this experience that Design Thinking is not only gaining space in the digital industry but in fact becoming the crucial engine that drives innovation and pushes the industry. Can’t wait to see how my work will be influenced by the works that I have seen and the network that I had the opportunity to make at the Conference. The amount of information that one consumes makes me think that such an event almost seems like a small summer school where you have the opportunity to specialise in a topic.