ThinkVisibility: the things that get left behind in the web development process

September 13th, 2009

I’ll admit it – I’m biased. Dom‘s a friend of mine and we do an occasional podcast together (which, incidentally, I will be speaking about at Geekup Leeds this coming Wednesday). So even if ThinkVisibility was shit I would have said it was good.

But it wasn’t shit. It wasn’t good. It was absolutely great.

Things started on the Friday with a free seminar by Tim Nash – all about user profiling. I missed the first half hour (as my bus had to stop and give another bus a jump start – it’s true, honest), so was a bit befuddled as we had to decide on keywords for the other attendees (based upon the introductions they had given whilst I was on the other side of town). But I came away from the session with a list of improvements to make to one of my blogs so it wasn’t a wasted trip.

This was swiftly followed by several pints of Leeds Brewery Pale Ale on an empty stomach, resulting in me failing to buy Al Carlton a drink, but being bought one by Chris Garrett (thank you). I sloped off home before I could get caught up in one of Al’s legendary nights out.

On to Saturday and the conference proper. Despite living in Leeds for years, I’d never really been to Clarence Dock, home to the Alea Casino. I was actually quite impressed – in a “let’s try and look like London” kind of way. Slide into the venue just before ten, pick up my lanyard and creep into the introductory session.

Joost de Valk told us all about optimising WordPress. Speed is key – cache (using Memcached if possible) and distribute your assets using a Content Delivery Network to reduce those page load times.

Next, Julian Sambles told us about how the Telegraph changed its entire culture to adapt to the digital world. It’s certainly a success story (look at the number of times Gruber links to Telegraph stories; a couple of years ago if he wanted a UK angle it would have been the Guardian) – and Julian emphasised that it was mainly a cultural change, not a technical one. Another interesting fact – their digital division not only generates revenue but actually makes a profit (unlike, if you believe the rumours, the print division).

And on to my highlight. I had the pleasure of meeting Judith Lewis in the pub the night before and she was absolutely charming. But her talk was even better. She told us about how Google’s embedding search results for other media types within the standard search results page has changed the game (images, videos and news results pushing other, textual results, further down the list and often off the first page completely). Meaning you should work at getting into the video results, the image results and the news results. But the best bits were when she stepped away from the mic and told us about the “dark arts” of search. Which, of course, I could never repeat here. She then ended her talk with a lolcat.

Leading us to the lunchtime panel. There were a few complaints about the food. Personally I wasn’t bothered. I was very hungry, grabbed a few ropey sandwiches and had a couple of lovely cookies. No complaints from me; especially for less than £100. But, by the sounds of it, some people missed out because of the queues, which would be annoying. While we were eating, there was the lunchtime panel – Al Carlton, Chris Garrett, Kieron Donoghue and Patrick Altoft Dominic Hodgson taking questions via Twitter. There was also a side-competition – how many times will Kieron mention Share My Playlists? Of course, yours truly got a big laugh and round of applause for my question.

On to the afternoon sessions – where the venue was split into three. First up was Paul Robinson, who I vaguely knew from Geekups and my day job. He was explaining how the likes of Amazon and Last.fm’s recommendation engines work – and how by matching similarities between different user data and behaviour, you can add intelligence to your site. Interesting stuff.

Next up was Chris Clarkson telling us the story behind Holiday Watchdog – an affiliate site he and a friend founded in 2003 and sold in 2007. The main thing to take away from his talk was that being a limited company may protect you from company liabilities – but it doesn’t save you from being sued for defamation.

Then was Zoe Piper talking about Google Adwords. There was a lot of interesting stuff here, but unfortunately, I didn’t hear parts of it. Because the main room had been split into three, the speakers could not use the microphones – and Zoe had a quiet voice, meaning I missed big chunks of her talk. This is my only complaint of the day – it’s not Zoe’s fault – just an artefact of the room arrangement.

And finally Artur Ortega gave a talk on how disabilities have fueled innovation in the technology industry. Basically every piece of technology, that we take for granted, in our offices has a history of helping overcome disabilities; from keyboards to scanners (and mostly designed by Bell Labs, as Alexander Graham Bell’s wife was deaf and so he was motivated to solve the problems that triggered).

As I said up-front, this was a great day and a half. I learnt a lot, got to meet some great people and am once again reminded how much there is in the “web industry” that I know nothing about. It has certainly changed the way I approach my next venture.

The next Think Visibility will be in March. You better make sure that you attend.

6 Responses to “ThinkVisibility: the things that get left behind in the web development process”

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