The most important aspects of a conference are arguably the networking opportunities and the schedule.
This year, there have been a lot of real gems on the web circuit. Of course, not all of them are recorded, and nothing beats seeing a talk first hand, and then chatting about it with your peers afterwards. But a close second is reaping all the inspiration and knowledge in the comfort of your own home.
Here are our favorite talks from this year, all available online, for free, in no particular order. Sit back and enjoy!
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1. Mike Monteiro: Let Us Now Praise Ordinary People
No talk summed up the mess we’ve found ourselves in this year better than this one. Mike Monteiro’s presentation was highly political, and this version, delivered on the day of the US election at beyond tellerrand in Berlin, was even more powerful than usual.
In his inimitably entertaining way, Monteiro reminded the audience of their responsibility as designers, and how they can actually help fix the world. Empathy, he argues, is not enough. Don’t assume how a person from a specific ethnic background or particular gender would behave in a situation, hire them to design it. The talk ended with the longest applause we’ve ever witnessed at a tech conference.
2. Jenn Schiffer: Engineer/Artist
“Jenn is a phenomenal speaker,” Hogan says. “Not only is she the best at holding an audience's attention (and incorporating effective easter eggs), but it's clear how much thought and preparation went into her narrative arc. Jenn's so good at bringing her audience along for the ride in a way that makes her overall message so much more powerful.”
3. Jeremy Keith: Resilience
In this talk, Jeremy Keith stresses how fragile modern websites actually are, and despite how powerful browsers have become, we can’t treat web development as if it were just another flavour of software.
Christopher Murphy, author of Tiny Books, says: “I’ve seen Jeremy’s talk a handful of times now, and I never grow weary of it. It grips me. Every. Single. Time. Jeremy’s understanding of the underlying principles of communication, and how these map onto the wonderful world of the web, represents an important — and core — part of what we do as contemporary communicators. Set aside 45 minutes and watch it, it’s timeless thinking.” Also read Keith’s web book on resilient web design, for free.
4. Chris Shiflett: Understanding People
“Being able to understand people is one of the most under-appreciated skills of our time,” claims Chris Shiflett. Delivered at SmashingConf Oxford, this presentation will encourage you to try and learn more about how we think and make decisions.
“As an educator working in this sector, I completely agree,” enthuses Christopher Murphy. “We need to spend more time understanding people, and we need to ensure that what we teach focuses on this core skill. Watch Chris’s talk, it will surprise you and change your thinking, both good things.”
5. Espen Brunborg: The Secret Life of Comedy
But what if you add a pinch of comedy?
Not only is he a charming person, but his talks are well prepared and delivered in an entertaining way. He’s one of those people who gives you a great time while watching his presentation, but who also has something to say and educates with the content of his talks. One example is this talk, delivered at Reasons to in Brighton, and SmashingConf in New York.”
6. Brendan Dawes: Paper, Plastic and Pixels
This is a hugely entertaining talk, given at Generate London and SmashingConf New York by renowned British artist Brendan Dawes, whose quirky experiments with code, the Internet of Things, 3D printers, and more are guaranteed to make you smile.
“Every time I see him speak, I am amazed by how complex projects look in his explanation, and how beautiful at the same time,” Marc Thiele explains. “He truly is someone who connects technology and art in a way that makes you think you want to start doing what he does as well. And that is not just because he is such a lovely bloke.”
7. Lena Reinhard: Existing in the Tech Industry
The closing keynote of CSSConf Nordic in Oslo, delivered by Lena Reinhard, who leads the platform development team at Travis CI, looked at the human side of our daily work in technology and how to cope with the pressures of a fast-paced environment. It made a big impact on the audience.
Fellow speaker Rachel Nabors says: “It touched me. I found myself tweeting bits and pieces from it, and at points tearing up. Lena speaks from the heart. I'm so glad I had the chance to meet her, no matter how briefly. This industry can be overwhelming. But you aren't alone.”
8. Beth Dean: Emotional Intelligence in Design
Beth Dean is an illustrator and designer, who currently works at Facebook in San Francisco on transparency and authenticity. At IndustryConf in Newcastle, UK, she gave a talk on how we can create designs that help people do what they need to do, even when life is hard.
It’s a continuation of her much-shared Medium post on the same subject, which got the audience on both a professional and personal level, and advocated the use of practical empathy.
9. Lyza Danger Gardner: The Pragmatist’s Guide to Service Workers
This is by far the most technical talk on the list. Service Workers are a hugely exciting collection of web APIs that, among other things, enable us to build rich offline applications — but they’re not the easiest to get your head around. Fortunately, Lyza Gardner is at hand to decode the complexities.
Also, check out Gardner’s article on the same subject as well as her Generate San Francisco talk on keeping pace with web technologies, and the dangers of measuring yourself against the industry’s standards.
10. Sacha Judd: How the Tech Sector Could Move in One Direction
You just wouldn’t expect a talk about boy band phenomenon One Direction at a web conference. But Sacha Judd’s deep dive into fandom, and how she became obsessed with the theory of a secret romance between two band members, makes everyone who watches her talk reflect on the lack of diversity in tech.
The angle of this talk from beyond tellerrand Berlin is incredibly clever — it turns out that the girls who invest a lot of time and effort into creating fan art rarely believe in their technical skills, and thus don’t consider a career in the tech industry.
It’s our responsibility to find ways to reach them and encourage them to apply for digital jobs, she argues. Also see the text version, complete with all the GIFs that didn't make it from the big screen to video.
11. Nicolas Nova and Simone Rebaudengo: Smart Frictions
In this talk from Interaction16, Simone Rebaudengo and Nicolas Nova challenged our use of the term ‘smart’ and how it changes the way we interact with products that we label ‘smart.’ They explain what interfaces we can design to avoid turning people into unaware and passive bystanders, and the key questions to ask when designing smart behaviours.
For example, if we want to call a friend but Siri isn’t familiar with the pronunciation of the name, we currently need to pronounce the name inaccurately in order for Siri to understand. A very though-provoking talk about the Internet of Things and smart devices.
12. Peter Smart: The Future of the Web and How to Prepare for it Now
In this first part, he explores emotional intelligence. The presentation is sprinkled with a showcase of mind-blowing apps that make use of natural, facial, and body language. Also see Smart’s accompanying Medium post and essay. Part two will cover haptic technologies and will be presented at Generate New York in April.
13. Ida Aalen: Never Show a Design you Haven't Tested
UX designers often nag you about testing your designs with actual users, right? In this talk from Generate London, Ida Aalen, a senior UX designer at Netlife Research in Oslo, Norway, explains why and how you should and can do it with a minimum budget and effort, drawing from plenty of real projects she’s worked on. Aalen is immensely entertaining, and explains things in a no-nonsense, straightforward way. Also, make sure to read Aalen’s A List Apart article that precedes this talk.
14. Nadieh Bremer: Hacking the Visual Norm
Nadieh Bremer is one of this year’s shooting stars of the web industry, which is fitting because she’s an astronomer turned freelance data visualization designer and artist.
In this presentation, delivered at Fronteers in Amsterdam, she argues that it’s the data, not the tool, that should define what chart to use. Bremer’s visualizations (and slides) are visually stunning, and we also recommend checking out SVG Beyond Mere Shapes from Generate London, and her tutorial for net magazine on how to boost D3.js charts with SVG gradients.
15. Catt Small: Designing Socially Impactful Digital Experiences
Creating a digital product that improves society is harder than it sounds. In this talk from beyond tellerrand Düsseldorf, product designer Catt Small presents a case study of a mobile game she created to improve sex education in the United States, and highlights ways designing for social good can be improved.
To really make an impact, she explains, you need to put a lot of effort into the planning and research stages of your project. For example, you also need to factor in possible failures of your product, and how these could affect the people relying on it.
16. Maya Benari: Turning the Ship
One of the highlights was this talk by Maya Benari, a designer and front-end developer at 18F, a digital services team within the USA federal government. She explains how she helped create the Draft US Web Design Standards, a collection of open source UI components and a visual style guide to build consistent, cohesive federal websites. A fascinating insight into how to produce style guides in complex, old systems with multiple stakeholders and lots of different users.
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One of our personal highlights was British artist and designer Dominic Wilcox at beyond tellerrand Düsseldorf. Although the talk itself wasn’t recorded, we highly recommend Wilcox’s short documentary about his Little Inventors project. He asked children to think up invention ideas, then invited local people to make them real. Absolutely inspiring.
For Marc Thiele, Jared Tarbell’s talk at Reasonsto was another highpoint.
“Jared was an amazing speaker back when Flash was a thing,” Thiele says. “But his work never stopped to amaze me. It’s fantastic to see how he explains and shows complex programming in a way that makes it look so simple. Not to mention how beautiful all of his work and the presentation look. I am simply in love with this guy and his work.”
Then there were talks that didn’t quite make the final list. Aaron Gustafson, for example, was so blown away by Sarah Drasner’s talk about SVG animations that he hired her on the spot to work on the homepage animation for the 10k Apart contest.
Other notable mentions go to Meg Lewis’ talk on creating a personal brand mission, which fellow designer Matt Smith called “seriously one of the most memorable talks of recent time.”
Soledad Penadés on the landscape of web design in 2016.
And Kenneth Ormandy’s excellent talk about web typography.
Bonus: Unite 2016 Talks
If you weren’t there, you can catch up on presentations by the likes of Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke and COO Harley Finkelstein that covered everything from best practices for building Shopify Themes, to using the online store editor.
Unite will be back from April 20 to 21, 2017 in San Francisco.
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Many thanks to Marc Thiele, Christopher Murphy, Lara Hogan, Rachel Nabors, Jina Bolton, Aaron Gustafson, Bertrand Lirette, Marco Cedaro, and Jan van Hellemond for their help with this article.