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So yesterday was my first proper speaking engagement, down in Bristol at the Web Developers Conference.  I was lucky enough to be on a panel there last year and was very fortunate to return with my own slot this time around.  Like anything new, getting out of your comfort zone, it was a little daunting.  I’ve done a load of BarCamp sessions before – some planned with slides and others made up on the spot but never anything of this length and to more than 20 people.

Part of the realisation of what I’d committed to was that I’d be sharing the stage with the likes of Jon Hicks, Sarah Parmenter and Elliot Jay Stocks – all well known and amazing designers.  Not really calling myself a designer (as I guess I’ve far more of a history in front and back-end development), I went for hand drawn slides which I think turned out OK with a flick-book-esque spider running across the bottom.  I normally rant/ramble about stuff I either know about or have passion for so it was a new experience trying to give that some kind of a narrative and actually make a point!

The Talk

So what I got together was a different approach to workflow – labeling a group of existing disciplines and ones not currently considered widely as a stage about context.  This basically means that before design or development, looking through these and seeing how they can apply to the content the site or service will be generating.  This includes elements most/all of us would do anyway, like considering who your audience are, language/localisation, etc and also ensuring accessibility is included at this embryonic stage.  Bring into the mix how relevant location is (both of the visitor and of the location of the producers of the content or those cited within), time, device used (not just desktop or mobile – considering the dearth of web accessible devices we’re now using) and most importantly – how does your content work outside of the framing your design provides?

Strong design works with the content, whatever that may be, and can lift otherwise templated, formulaic sites to a new level working with the content (I was another one to give a nod to Jason Santa Maria’s site) but we need to do this while understanding how our content is consumed, through RSS feeds, in aggregators or shared through Twitter, Facebook and the like.  This comes down to the importance of copy to some degree.

I also feel that we need to look more about the importance and relevance of meta data and show it up on screen, so I used examples of the meta information The Guardian uses, which in their case is the names and locations of the journalists (linked to each journalists space within the site) and an article history, the way Flickr scrapes out the EXIF and IPTC data from jpegs to gleam the device used, the location of the image was taken (should the device record that) and of course when it was taken.  I also showed Yahoo!’s Search Monkey to demonstrate part of the solutions around understanding context.

In my eyes, content (meaning the focus of a site – related text, images, video, audio) has implicit contexts that we as humans can interpret and a few that we choose to explain explicitly, which also enables computers and therefore search engines to interpret what these things mean or relate to.  Through semantic web type technologies we’re looking at unlocking these implicit contexts and to have machines look somehow take these and weave the web closer together.  Almost the flip-side of this are ideas coming from microformats and RDFa, which enable to to explicitly mark-up these hidden contexts and make them machine readable.  By verbosely describing what can be found within our content opens up more possibilities for how it can be used.

Perhaps by looking at which contexts, from a large collection, might be relevant to what we’re creating, this might allow us to add new dimensions to what we create and to maybe take our conventional ideas in very different directions.  An example may be that a local news site may actually try to do more around location and perhaps look at the location of their visitors and welcome them in an appropriate way – there may be different needs from people viewing within their area to those from outside.  By considering how these contexts could be relevant to what a site produces, we could be pushing our presentation and technology and informing our design decisions.

The C Word

View more presentations from Dan Donald.
Not sure how much sense the slides make without the rambling talk that went with it!

Digesting it all…

There were certainly times before hand where I was nervous as hell about the idea of doing something like this but all things considered, it was a fantastic experience.  The other speakers were all really good people and very friendly and welcoming.  Although I was pretty much shaking on stage, I managed to get through my session and actually got some good feedback from members of the audience.  So I certainly appreciate Alex giving me the slot and the support I had.  I’m definitely up for more of this and can see how it contrasts with my experience of BarCamps and the like.  Now I know what to expect I can work on the nerves and round off some of the rough edges I still have…

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22nd October, 2009