October 8, 2012

After attending a long string of Drupal-focused conferences and camps the past few years, I was excited to break out of the pattern. There are a lot of tech conferences currently on the scene that are platform independent and instead generalize on forward-thinking trends in web development — An Event Apart, Future of Web Design, Mobilism, and ConvergeSE — just to name a few. Ultimately, I decided to attend Breaking Development Dallas because I only had to drive a few hours to get there, and more importantly it featured a stellar lineup of my Future Friendly heroes — Luke Wroblewski, Brad Frost, Lyza Danger Gardner, and Scott Jenson.

The Breaking Development folks really know how to throw a conference. The event was smaller than I anticipated, with attendance somewhere around 200 people. This is definitely smaller than current DrupalCons (3-4,000 people) and even smaller than our own DrupalCamp Austin (300-400 people). The small size really makes an impression too, giving the whole two days a more intimate feeling while the speakers share their ideas and the crowd comes right back with their own questions and ideas. It was also very easy to get face time with the presenters, because now you only have four people hounding them with discussions instead of twenty. But I’ll share my thoughts on the speakers and presentations a little later.

Why the organizers kicked ass

  • The venue — The Gaylord Texan is a feat in extravagance. It’s like Disneyland (there is a manmade river and indoor suspension bridge) meets Biodome but with the classiness of a Las Vegas hotel. It was also very refreshing to be surrounded by natural light while walking around between sessions.
  • Instead of catered lunch buffets, we all got $100 gift cards to use in any of the hotel’s restaurants and cafes. One of the lunches I sat down with eight people from the eBay mobile team, and explained to them the difference between soft and puffy tacos. I only ended up spending 60% of the card on food, so on the last day I bought Texan souvenirs for the office. This is funny because we all live in Texas.
  • The guy on staff who made announcements and segued between speakers was great. It’s obvious he was really listening to the talks and would reiterate their points or connect them to the other talks. I think he’s secretly a web developer when he’s not running events. Update: His name is Tim Kadlec and he’s a web developer and co-founder of Breaking Development.
  • The sessions were a nice blend of practical presentations featuring current implementations/case studies and more abstract forward-thinking idea talks.

Why the sessions kicked ass

Fragmentation in mobile design: Fact or fiction

Belen Barros Pena

Belen showed that despite the fact smartphones run on 6+ different operating systems, there are a lot of similarities between the UI patterns they all use. As a case study she took the default photo app on each phone and demonstrated that they all implement almost the exact same behavior, even down to button placements and gestures. Additionally she shared an interesting point about the hierarchy of screens within native apps — using the iOS mail app as an example. It was neat to see an app broken down similarly to how we would use a site map to break down a website.

Responsive Design Vs Separate Mobile Sites: Presidential Smackdown Edition

Brad Frost

This was an in-depth case study analyzing the strategies behind Romney and Obama’s mobile web experiences, including how they’ve adapted and evolved as their campaigns march along. If you’re not familiar with Brad, follow him on Twitter and check out his crowdsourced responsive patterns and This is Responsive for all your RWD news.

Beyond Mobile, Beyond Web

Scott Jenson

Scott is a super smart guy who has worked at Apple, Google, and Frog Design. It’s clear his current passion is looking at the future of the devices we carry around in our pockets, with a penchant for a solution to provide users with relevant, just-in-time information with little to no interaction required on their end.

The Most Common Denominator: Supporting More, Sucking Less

Lyza Danger Gardner

This was the second-most inspiring talk of the conference. While every other talk was primarily either pragmatic or philosophical, Lyza managed to include the best of both worlds. She started out by coming to terms with mobile development being difficult — but quickly turned her slides into a rallying speech on using best practices to deal with the ever-changing technology and workflows.

Uncle Sam Wants You (To Optimize Your Content for Mobile)

Karen McGrane

I’ll admit, I wasn’t familiar with Karen before, but she’s definitely on my radar now. I thought this was the best talk of the event. Besides being a great speaker, she gave Luke a run for his money in the mobile data-crunching department. Forget everything you thought you knew about internet and mobile usage in the United States. Did you know 57% of Americans without a high school diploma have no internet access? Or that 31% of all Americans only or mostly use the internet on their phones? If you had any doubts about the validity of a Mobile First strategy, I suggest you check out her slides. As the title suggests, the primary topic was the US government’s mission to ensure that every governmental web property becomes mobile-friendly, customer-centric, and shares information openly. Naturally, this led into a pitch about her upcoming book Content Strategy for Mobile (#8 in the A Book Apart series).

First Person User Interfaces

Luke Wroblewski

Luke is known as the champion of the Mobile First strategy (he wrote the book) and supports his claims with tons of data — check out his weekly “Data Monday” blog posts. However, many of us forget he’s a designer at heart and threw us a curveball when we learned he would be talking about the history and future of user interfaces. It was a fun talk that started out with an analysis of UI trends and quickly pointed out that all computer interactions have stagnated for the most part — including tablet and phone touchscreens. The really innovative stuff is happening with our device sensors (cameras, GPS, accelerometers) and Natural User Interfaces — like the Kinect and LEAP. He even showed a video from Disney’s Research lab where they created sensors to recognize body and hand configurations and interactions with liquids. Yes, liquids. A great way to end the conference.

Performance, performance, performance

One of the surprising themes that came up in almost every session was stressing the importance of performance, specifically of the front-end. Sure, plenty of advice was given around responsive design patterns and best practices — but whatever your strategy is, make it load fast! This included tips about using Gzip, reducing HTTP requests, and making the overall footprint of your site smaller. One study revealed that 74% of mobile web users will leave a site if it doesn’t load in five seconds or less. Thankfully, the web chefs here are all speed junkies. Wait, what?

Resources

  • Keep your eye on the Breaking Development Vimeo channel for videos of the talks.
  • When he wasn’t speaking, Luke kept his head down in the back of the room keeping extensive notes on all of the presentations.

Credits: Breaking Bad photo courtesy of AMC networks. Gaylord Texan photo via yours truly.

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Aaron Stanush is a Creative Director and Partner at Four Kitchens who loves solving problems using UX, typography, and mobile design patterns.

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