Designing a better future: New Adventures 2020

On Thursday January 24th a bunch of like-minded individuals gathered together for New Adventures 2020 – one of the most exciting and progressive design conferences I have had the pleasure of attending. Having been involved with the event in 2019, both as a speaker and running the Women in Tech Nottingham lunchtime takeover, I was interested to see how Simon and Geri would build upon the successes of 2019.

New Adventures came back with a bang last year after a six-year break and returned with a more mature perspective, mirroring the changes in our industry. I reflected on this in my write-up of 2019:

“My abiding impression from New Adventures 2019, was that we are starting to grow up. Both in terms of the conference itself; promoting inclusivity through diversity tickets, pronoun and social interaction stickers and a code of conduct; and in the messages and tone of the talks and speakers.”

This year, diversity and inclusion were woven even more deeply into the conference. In addition to the continuation of diversity and scholarship tickets, inclusive name badges, a dedicated quiet space, and the return of the Women in Tech Nottingham lunchtime takeover, 2020 added a gender-neutral bathroom and sanitary products in the women’s toilets. (If you’re not sure why providing sanitary products is important to inclusivity, read Anna’s blog). Gender inequality was also addressed through the excellent She Wins workshop: How to Negotiate with Confidence run by the awesome Clare and Kate.

Inclusion and accessibility were enhanced this year by introducing live captioning. This was provided by the incredibly skilled stenographer Andrew at White Coat Captioning and Thisten who provided live speech to text through their app. Providing captioning not only made the talks accessible to people with hearing impairments but also helped the audience pick up points they hadn’t quite caught. Or in my case, used to make sure the spelling in my notes was correct. 

Inclusion was a strong theme in 2019’s talks and the speakers this year continued to build upon it.

Cennydd questioned the limitations of user-centred design; asking whether as a practice it does enough for those on the edges and outside of the products we create. With the state of our world as it is, especially regarding climate change, we were encouraged to think bigger. To design beyond our immediate users and beyond even human-centred design. To broaden our horizons by adopting life-centred design. By thinking in this way, we start to mitigate the unintended consequence of our work and design beyond the now.

“Let’s not design with other people in mind, but design with other people.” – Cennydd

Akil encouraged us to draw on walls and use open ways of working to allow for collaboration and validation of ideas. As a GDS practitioner, I am a huge advocate of using walls for collaboration so couldn’t agree more. He also addressed how we can be mindful of the consequences of our designs by introducing us to consequence scanning and asking “What is the good, the bad, the ugly of producing this product?” As designers, we have great power over those who have to use our products or services. This theme was highlighted across the talks in 2019 and further explored by this year’s speakers. Akil succinctly summed it up with:

“‘Do no harm’ trumps ‘don’t be evil’.”

Liz and Laura approached the subject of diversity from two different angles. Liz is a disability advocate and talked about ‘designing with’ – disabled designers leading the process rather than designers empathetically designing for disabled people. She also highlighted problems with design-thinking and suggested that design-questioning is a better way to frame design problems inclusively.

Laura’s talk on building technology that respects people’s rights looked at another side of inclusivity: giving people, especially those who are limited in their digital access such as mobile users, choice over how their data is used. Giving all internet users the choice to easily control the use of their personal information is not only a legal requirement but also the responsible thing for us to do as technologists. Laura reminded us that the tech we use is our new ‘everyday things’ and as such, we need to make sure that we’re creating products that respect each individual’s right to opt-out of data tracking.

“We can’t continue to build products on assumptions of the needs of people who we don’t have access to.” – Laura

One theme that I was interested to see recurring across a couple of talks was empathy. As an inclusive design advocate, to me, empathy is a corner-stone of inclusive design. However, Cennydd and Liz argued, rightly, that empathy in itself is not enough.

“Empathy is a crutch. Radical inclusion beats empathy.” – Cennydd

Liz explored empathy and brought new ways of thinking about empathy as being problematic due to it prescribing emotions and silencing the recipient.

“They feel that they just have to feel empathy for us.” – Liz

This brings us back to designing inclusively and with people instead of for people. As a speaker on this subject at last year’s conference, it’s very positive to see the conversation being carried forward by so many of the 2020 speakers.

My takeaway from the 2019 event was that it seemed we had finally started looking outwards: identifying our responsibility and the associated consequences of our actions. This year’s event has only strengthened those messages across the design and technology community. There will always be challenges ahead but we the audience at New Adventures are at the forefront of these important conversations. Tatiana encouraged us to “learn how to unlearn” and that is why we need events like this. To unlearn old ways and embrace new ways of thinking. We can take the themes and discussions from the day and discuss, debate, and dwell on them and take them forward into our work. By doing this, we can all contribute to designing a better future.

A New Adventure

Ethan Marcotte speaking at New Adventures

Last Thursday marked the long-anticipated return of New Adventures, a digital design conference held in my hometown of Nottingham. From the first teaser tweet which simply read “2019”, it became the main event highlight on my calendar. I was excited and delighted to see it come back after a six-year break.

New Adventures was the first industry conference I attended. As a designer with a background in print and editorial design, it taught me about the web industry as it was then. A year and a half after the 2013 event, I quit my full-time graphic design job and started running a web design company with my then partner. Later becoming an independent UX consultant before joining SPARCK at the beginning of last year. Attending New Aventures and other subsequent conferences and events inspired me to follow this career path.

Imagine then, how happy I was last summer when Simon asked to meet for a chat about getting involved with this year’s event. I thought that we were going to discuss Women in Tech Nottingham’s potential involvement. We did, and it was great to have WiT Notts contribute to the fringe events, but I was surprised and honoured to be invited to join the line-up of speakers.  

Thinking about the gap between 2013 and now, it seems that our industry has changed a good deal in quite a short amount of time. Although the World Wide Web has been around for 30 years, when New Adventures began it felt like we were very much in our infancy. As a relatively new facet of design, compared to print, for example, which has been around for centuries, we are extremely young. We’re still finding our way.

My abiding impression from New Adventures 2019, was that we are starting to grow up. Both in terms of the conference itself; promoting inclusivity through diversity tickets, pronoun and social interaction stickers and a code of conduct; and in the messages and tone of the talks and speakers.

Just as children move from a preoperative egocentric phase to maturing and understanding perspectives of others, I feel that as an industry we’re on a similar journey. We started off being heavily invested in ourselves through how and what: “How do we design for this new medium? How do we communicate online? What tools and frameworks should we use that support this?” These are important foundational questions that made sense to focus on at the beginning.

It’s now starting to seem like we’re slowly emerging from this self-centred approach and looking at a wider picture. I see a division here. There are many digital practitioners who practise human-centred design through UX and research but they are at the forefront of the curve. A quick Google search brings up an abundant number of articles on the top web design trends of 2019. There are still plenty of arguments about the best UI and prototyping software to use and ongoing disagreements over the latest and greatest front-end frameworks.

These are inward-facing conversations. They are for us and us alone. They are not solving problems for the people we’re designing for. To take an external perspective we must look not only towards the needs of the recipients of our digital products and services but start addressing how we impact those people.

New Adventures 2019 felt like a sea change. The key themes of the event were inclusivity and diversity, ethics and responsibility. The focus shifted from internal tools, trends and processes to bigger thoughts and questions: Ashley encouraged us to stop thinking like industry experts and find out how our customers think; Brendan asked us to put work out there that deserves to exist; Naz promoted diversity within teams to reach wider audiences and called upon us to do better; and Ethan addressed the power and privilege of design, questioning where we as an industry are heading.

It seems we have finally started looking outwards: identifying our responsibility and the associated consequences of our actions. We’re pushing past our early egocentric selves and are moving towards maturity. We’re still making our way along this path, learning from each other as we continue to grow. Ethan, rightly, encouraged us to approach this with hope. The talks at New Adventures showed a significant shift in our thinking and from the feedback, this year’s themes seem to have struck a chord.

My hope is that we see New Adventures return next year so we can see what direction these messages have taken us in. The call to action from the opening of the conference was “Now is the time.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s up to us to shape and build our industry, to help it develop and to make the web a better place. Let’s get to it!