dConstructing dConstruct

Thu 18 September 2008 by Jim Purbrick

A couple of weeks ago the great and the good of web development descended on Brighton for the wonderful clearleft produced dconstruct conference and once again I’m glad I went along.

Steven Johnson kicked off with a talk about how Dr. John Snow’s innovative data visualization of a cholera epidemic and the wisdom of dead crowds helped convince people of the water borne nature of the disease. It was an interesting story, but it mostly ended up being a plug for his book and geoblogging aggregator outside.in.

Next up, Aleks Krotoski talked about how games had spent decades creating incredibly compelling user experiences in silos without much contact with each other the academic HCI community or the web. Meanwhile the web is very interested in creating similarly sticky experiences using virtual rewards to encourage participation. Aleks’ conclusion was that the two communities should talk and I agree.

Daniel Burka talked about similar themes in his talk about the evolution of Digg. The most interesting anecdotes where about how top diggers started off as a good incentive, but became a disincentive when new users saw how unachievable the scores had become and how the recommendation engine is now a good way to encourage some of Digg’s passive audience to get involved.

Matt Jones and Matt Bidaulph talked about their successful Silicon Roundabout startup dopplr. Jones talked about visual design and delighters which sounded a lot like Alek’s virtual rewards in games. SL uber-hacker Bidaulphtalked made another gaming analogy, talking about how embedding dopplr in other sites and vice versa achieves a similar seamless experience to streaming maps in games: removing the load screens and jumps that used to bedevil console games and still are the normal experience when using the web. He also talked about the importance of using message queues and asynchronicity in services like dopplr which pull information from across the web.

Joshua Porter‘s talk on Leveraging Cognitive Bias in Social Design was the stand out talk for me. He talked about exploiting people’s tendency to pattern match to generalise isolated positive case studies on web sites and on framing account creation as something to do to avoid losing features rather than something that gains features as a way to play on the tendency to value losses greater than gains. His description of the how the 9x mismatch between customers (who over value the application they already have by 3 times) and developers (who over value the application they have developed by 3 times) creates a huge barrier to application adoption was particularly interesting.

Tantek Celik‘s talk about using hCard and rel=me links to create portable, auto-updating social network profiles and data to reduce the fatigue induced by inviting all of your friends to many social networks was the most practical session of the day. I’m going to try playing around with rel=me links and Google’s social graph API here soon.

Jeremy Keith gave a grandiose talk to end the day which wove together psychohistory from Asimov’s Foundation Series with Critical Mass and The Wisdom of Crowds to talk about how network effects and power law distributions cause some social software to explode in popularity while others wither, but that despite The Tipping Point being sold in business sections as a how-to book, it is fundamentally a retrospective and that predicting or engineering tipping points or network effects is notoriously hard. It was a great talk and the conclusion that social software is more of a lottery than a science is valid, but still: you have to be [in it to win it] (http://secondlife.com).

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