Is there such a thing as an official HasGeek evangelist ? If so, I’d like to interview for the position please. I can tweet, Facebook and Pinterest with ease (sorry MySpace). I’ve attended a bunch of HasGeek events, some not even vaguely in my line of work, and I have really learned a lot from each of them. I’d missed the first edition of MetaRefresh last year so was really looking forward to this year’s edition. MetaRefresh is the annual user experience conference that brings together a bunch of designers, engineers and industry experience to talk about Ux on the web and how we can improve it. The list of talks was impressive and despite the possibility of having a bunch of c(h)atty designers under one roof (“oh, the design of this id card can be better”) I was looking forward to this conference.

Benjamin Lupton, author of DocPad and History.js kicked off the event with his inspirational story of how he braved the odds and manage to create and popularise DocPad despite competition from Google who were developing something similar. He emphasized on sharing your vision for the product while writing open source and collaborating with talented people across the world. While many freelance devs in the audience identified with Ben’s story and hardships, I was a tad letdown with the talk as it did not really have much to do with the topic which was “Why the next big thing sucks”.

From a tweet by @rasgy

Navjot Pawera, co-founder of ExtraThought, with whom we worked with on our very own product – GiveBloodApp, was the next speaker. Always entertaining, his talk entailed the thought processes that are involved while designing any product. “Always question the ‘why’ to get better answers and improve the thought process”, he said. Having spent the good part of a year conceptualizing and developing GiveBlood, I identified with what Navjot spoke about. There were many instances during the design cycle where we questioned each of our decisions and this led to a better product in the end. Check it out for yourself :-)

Tweet by @mrinal

Souvik Das Gupta’s talk – ‘Overexposed’ was next and easily the highlight of the day. Speaking on how not to expose the workings of your backend to the user, he showed the rapt audience many small, yet critical mistakes popular websites make in their basic design features.

For example:
Apple sometimes asks waay too much from their users

Ebay India doesn’t strip away spaces from what is a legitimate credit card number.
(Please don’t use this credit card number anywhere!)

and Flipkart assumes its users have an in-depth knowledge of authentication protocols, where a simple error message would have sufficed

The presentation was informative, funny and Souvik (being an avid foodie) used biryani as an apt metaphor throughout the talk. I can’t do justice to the comparison. Guess you had to be there :-)

Up next was Varvara Stepanova, from Yandex, who spoke about the BEM methodologies they developed that is used in cases where the design of the front-end changes often.
They also gave away these really really cool laptop stickers. Comic-book nerds rejoice!

From a tweet by @apnerve

The other talks in the day were a little too technical for my taste and it was hard concentrating after a rather heavy lunch. The always witty Akash Mahajan had a few zingers in his presentation when he spoke about insecure websites. The gist of the other talks in a few tweets:

Prem Nawaz Khan spoke at length about accessibility on the web, a topic that was a common thread across many talks.
I braved the morning cold for an early start (well, 9am on a Saturday is early) on Day II. Tulsi Dharmarajan kicked things off where she spoke about the practice of ‘design thinking’. She stressed on the importance of defining who the user of your product is and defining the problem that your product is solving. “Good designers are the ones who aren’t afraid to throw a good idea away”, she said.

Taken from here

The ideas and methodologies spoken about overlapped with some of the ideas in Navjot’s talk. Empathizing with the end user and putting yourself in his/her’s shoes is vital while designing your product. Especially if you are designing a shoe.

Shyamala Prayaga spoke at length about mobile accessibility. A mobile phone provides many challenges because of reduced screen size and fonts,the usage is generally restricted to only one hand and the difficulties faced while using it outdoors. Accessibility must be incorporated into a product at the design stage itself and not as an afterthought. Many developers and designers in the audience admitted that they’d not considered making their apps and websites accessible to people with disabilities. Even the ones who’d added it in their initial design documents were shot down by managers who said there was too much of an overhead involved. For many people with disabilities, the internet is their only access to the outside world. So folks, please devote some time and detail to accessibility while designing your websites.

Taken from here

Shwetank Dixit, member of W3C and part of the team at Opera spoke on ‘Defending the Web’. He urged devs to ensure they code for all browsers and not just the popular ones. He recounted this story where he noticed that one of India’s leading financial institutions’ website did not run on Opera. Upon inspection, he noticed that there were couple of faulty lines of code that prevented it from running on Opera. Thus he went to the offices to rectify it and was greeted by a security check that confiscated his laptop. He was taken to a conference room with no internet connection and was given the code…printed on sheets of paper and was asked to correct it with a pen. He duly obliged and the 2-4 weeks later, the site did function on Opera.

He stressed on not to use browser sniffers to load different code for different browsers. There was a startling revelation as well. Opera’s User Agent (UA) String is fairly straightforward:

While Chrome uses names of other browsers as well in their UA string!

Vincent Hardy’s magnificent talk – ‘The quest for graphical web’ closed out MetaRefresh 2013. For those of you who don’t know, Vincent is the director of engineering for the Web Platform Group at Adobe and was involved in the creation of the SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) format. So he’s kind of a big deal. The presentation in itself was amazing-  an animated movie, with a narrative and voice-overs, with characters personifying </div>, Blend Canvas, etc. You can watch it here and see for yourself. The talk detailed the history of the graphical web and was completely engrossing. Here’s my own tweet:

A fitting finale to the conference. Everybody in the crowd went back home with their quest for design fundaes satiated. Well I know I did. It was also very heartening to see the emphasis on web accessibility. The talks that got the best response vis-a-vis questions were the ones on accessibility and many people expressed some remorse over not including any design features keeping it in mind and vowed to do so in their future projects. Many talks included a ‘this design should be simple enough for my dad to understand’. I guess we all know the pain of trying to explain computers and the Internet to our parents :-)
Here’s looking forward to MetaRefresh 2014.

Edit: ALL the videos from MetaRefresh are online. I recommend you watch them:

Edit 2: As @rasagy pointed out in the comments, the image of the notes of Ben Lupton’s talk is not from MetaRefresh but from a similar talk at NID Bangalore.