It’s the sad truth of my life that even though I’m fascinated by airplanes and flight in general since my childhood days, my body doesn’t like flying. Even the ridiculously short flights inside Germany are taking their toll on me each time.
Now combine this with sitting in the cramped space of economy class for many hours on a transatlantic flight from Germany to Las Vegas and back, and factor in some heavy dose of jet lag (especially on my way eastwards), and you get an idea why after coming back home I had this question on my mind:
Was it really worth it to attend MIX10?
This of course is a question that will also be asked by my boss at Comma Soft (for other reasons, obviously), who decided to send me and my colleague Jens Schaller, to the MIX10 conference. (A note to my German readers: An dieser Stelle der Hinweis, dass Comma Soft noch Silverlight-Entwickler und/oder UI-Designer für den Standort Bonn sucht – aussagekräftige Bewerbungen bitte an Herausforderung@comma-soft.com)
Too keep things short: My answer is yes.
Before I’ll go into detail, let me ask the heretical questions whether tech conferences in general still make sense.
There was a time, where actually being at a tech conference gave you a head-start in regard to learning about new technologies. Nowadays this is no longer true, where every bit of information and every detail is immediately twittered, blogged and whatevered to death. In the case of MIX10 you even can download the video-taped sessions shortly after.
So: Does visiting a conference still make sense? It depends on what you expect from a conference. It should be clear to everybody that you’ll neither get exclusive information, nor receive training in a small group.
What a conference does offer that sitting in front of your computer does not can be summarized as follows:
Being away from work and home will help you to focus on the presented information. Of course there are always the poor guys who are haunted by their work (with mails and short text messages reporting the latest showstopper problem), but in general being out of your office makes a huge difference.
With the focus comes the emotional involvement. I find it much easier to absorb information if I feel that certain vibe when sitting in a session. This still means that I have put work into reviewing the information later, but it’s a better starting point. And all the impressions collected at a (good) conference combined lead to a higher motivation – be it by the buzz (“this is gonna be sooo cool!”) or by the fear to fall behind (“man, we’ll have work on this, or else…”).
At a conference it’s pretty easy to get into contact with other people during breakfast, lunch and other breaks. This is a good opportunity to get a feel for what other development teams are doing (on a very general level of course, nobody will tell you about their secret formula) and what they are thinking about specific technologies.
So MIX10 did offer focus, inspiration and people, but that would have meant nothing without valuable content.
When I (being a frontend developer with a strong interest in UI/UX) planned my visit to MIX10, I made the decision to focus on the "soft" topics of design, interaction and user experience. I figured that I would be bombarded with all the technical details about Silverlight 4 anyway in the weeks and months to come.
Actually, I would have liked to catch a few technical sessions, but the agenda wasn’t exactly in favor of people interested in any kind of Silverlight and UI/UX/Design topics. That’s one of my few complaints about the conference – I would have liked one more day and/or more sessions per day.
Overall, the quality of the workshops and sessions was pretty high. In fact, looking back at my collection of conferences I’ve visited in the past I’d say that MIX10 ranks somewhere near the top spot.
Here’s an overview of the workshops/sessions I attended (I’ll leave out the keynotes):
Day 0 (Workshops on Sunday)
- Design Fundamentals for Developers
Robby Ingebretsen is the man! Great workshop in three parts with the perfect mix of examples, well-structured definition of terminology and the right dose of humor. Robby was part of the WPF team before founding his own company so he not only has a strong interest in design (and the skillz!) but also the technical background.
- Design Tools and Techniques
Originally announced to be held by Arturo Toledo, the Rosso brothers from ArcheType filled in for the first two parts, and Corrina Black had a pretty general part about the Windows Phone UI. The first two thirds were a mixed bag; the two guys definitely knew what they were talking about, and the demos were great, but the talk lacked the preparation and polish of a truly great presentation.
Corrina was not allowed to go into too much detail before the keynote on Monday, but the session was still very interesting as it showed how much thought went into the Windows Phone UI (and there’s always a lot to learn when people talk about their thought process).
Day 1 (Monday)
- Designing Rich Experiences for Data-Centric Applications
I wonder whether there was ever a test-run for this session, but what Ken Azuma and Yoshihiro Saito delivered in the first 15 minutes of a 30-minutes-session made me walk out. A commercial for a product (just great: a video showing a SharePoint plug-in in an all-Japanese UI) combined with the most generic blah blah one could imagine. EPIC FAIL.
- Great User Experiences: Seamlessly Blending Technology & Design
I switched to this session from the one above but I guess I missed the interesting part – what I did catch was what looked like a “look at the cool stuff we did” without being helpful. Or maybe I was just in a bad mood after the other session.
- The Art, Technology and Science of Reading
This talk by Kevin Larson was very interesting, but was more a presentation of what Microsoft is doing in research (pretty impressive) and in the end lacked a bit the helpful advice one could have hoped for.
- 10 Ways to Attack a Design Problem and Come Out Winning
Robby Ingebretsen again, and again a great mix of theory and practice. The clean and simple, yet effective, UI of the reader app resulted in a simultaneous “wow” of Jens and me. If you’d watch only one session video, this should be it. Microsoft has to bring Robby back next year!
Day 2 (Tuesday)
- Touch in Public: Multi-touch Interaction Design for Kiosks & Architectural Experiences
Very interesting session by Jason Brush, a great inspiration with many details to look out for in the examples. Exactly what I was hoping for – and then some!
- Designing Bing: Heart and Science
How hard can it be to design the UI for a search engine? An input field and a list of results, that should be it, right? Well, not so fast! The talk by Paul Ray showed the many iterations to finally get it right (up to the choice of a specific blue for the links). And yes, I want an eye-tracking device to play around with!
- The Elephant in the Room
When Nishant Kothary presented a long list of what his session was not about, I told to myself (not having the description text present) “Am I in the wrong talk? Should I leave?”. Boy, was I wrong. A great talk about human factors in the process of designing stuff.
- An Hour with Bill Buxton
Having seen Bill Buxton’s presentation in the keynote, I just had to see this man again – even though I didn’t know what to expect. Being more or less unplanned and intended to be more of a conversation, the session didn’t provide a wealth of immediately useful information. Nevertheless Bill Buxton was impressive with his huge knowledge of seemingly everything. But this could/should have been a session some when in the evening and not in parallel to at least two other interesting talks.
Day 3 (Wednesday)
- Design the Ordinary, Like the Fixie
This session by DL Byron and Kevin Tamura started really well and brought across the message to keep things simple. But towards the end the talk lost some of its steam. And, as a member of the audience pointed out, they kind of ignored their own advice when they used a fancy presentation software other then PowerPoint that sometimes got in the way of showing things.
- Developing Natural User Interfaces
Speaking of alternative presentation software, Joshua Blake definitely had the most remarkable alternative to PowerPoint, a self-written program called NaturalShow that was controlled using multi-touch on a touch screen. Not a PowerPoint-killer, but impressive nevertheless. The (excellent) talk itself was kind of eye-opening in regard to what “multi-touch support” on various platforms (WPF, Silverlight, Windows Phone) actually means.
- Treat your Content Right
The talk by Tiffani Jones Brown wasn’t even on my planned schedule, but somehow I ended up in that session – and it was great. And even for people who don’t necessarily have to write content for websites, some points made by Tiffani are valid in many places, notably wherever you put texts with more than a single word into your UI.
- Creating Effective Info Viz in Microsoft Silverlight
The last session of MIX10 I attended was kind of disappointing. At first things were very promising, with Matthias Shapiro giving a brief but well-structured introduction to info graphics and interactive visualizations. Then the live-coding began and while the result was interesting, too much time was spend on wrestling to get the code working. Ending earlier than planned, the talk was a bit light on actual content, but at least it included a nice list of resources.
It could be felt all across MIX10, UIs will take a huge leap forward; in fact, there are enough examples that have already. People who both have the technical know-how and at least a basic understanding of design (“literacy” as Bill Buxton called it) are in high demand. The concept of the MIX conference and initiatives like design.toolbox shows that Microsoft understands very well that frontend developers have to acquire new knowledge besides knowing how to hack code and putting buttons on a form.
There are extremely exciting times before us, with lots of opportunity for those who are eager to develop their skills, that is for sure.