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Five Pertinent Questions for Andy Budd

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In: Interviews

By Matthew Pennell

Published on June 18, 2007

Digital Web: How did event-organizing and speaking engagements factor into the formation of your agency, Clearleft?

Andy Budd: Clearleft is a user-experience consultancy, so we always expected to run a lot of client presentations. When we started, the training and mentoring aspect was particularly important because it acted as a bridge, allowing us to work with big-name clients before we’d amassed a significant portfolio of work. Luckily we’d been blogging and speaking at conferences for a while, so our reputation really helped break the ice.

We love speaking at events, so I don’t think the company has had a significant effect on the number of conferences we attend—we’d be going to these events anyway, whether we were at Clearleft or not. Conferences are a great way of meeting people, both potential clients and partners—while none of our projects has directly resulted from a speaking engagement, it is how many of our clients discover us.

We’re very passionate about client and developer education, which is why we’ve been blogging for so long. I used to help run a local peer-to-peer training event well before Clearleft, both Jeremy and I did a lot of training with our friends at Vivabit, and Rich ran internal training sessions when he was at Multimap, so when we started Clearleft, team development was an obvious angle. At the moment, we’re running a couple of internal development courses a month, covering everything from user testing and user experience design through to CSS (cascading style sheets) and JavaScript—Jeremy is jetting off to New York in a couple of weeks to train a dev team on AJAX best practices—and we also run public training courses, but these happen less frequently. The training only accounts for a small fraction of our overall workload.

When we returned from SXSW 2005, we were really excited about the event and wanted to bring some of the magic back with us. At the time, there were no other web conferences in the UK, so we wanted an excuse to bring our friends over to Brighton and put on a cracking show. We don’t see d.Construct as a commercial event; it’s more about doing something positive for the community than making money.

DW: This is the third year for d.Construct—what did you learn last time around, and how has it affected your plans and preparation for 2007’s conference?

AB: We’re starting to get a little more experienced at running these things. The first conference (in 2005) was organized in six weeks, and looking back, I’m amazed we managed to pull it off. We started planning last year’s event six months in advance. We thought this would give us plenty of time to arrange things, but you’d be surprised how quickly September creeps up on you. I was rushed off my feet the whole of last summer, so realized we needed even more time. We started planning this year’s event the week after d.Construct 2006, and we’ve already booked the venue for 2008.

The single day, single track format is working really well for us at the moment. It helps keep ticket prices down and means people never miss a session, plus it also means we can focus on quality rather than quantity, which is evident by this year’s line up. I’ve been to a few events recently where a large number of speakers have been shoehorned into a tiny amount of time, and consequently the event becomes more about the profile of the speakers than the quality of the message. We want to keep the session quality at d.Construct as high as possible, which is why we will never let companies pay for a speaking slot; instead, we have a board of advisers made up of local designers, well known speakers and regular conference attendees to help suggest the best possible speakers for the chosen theme.

DW: The strapline for this year is Designing The User Experience—with everything else going on in the world of web and application development, is UX (user experience) really an important enough, and big enough, topic to dedicate an entire conference to?

AB: When devising the schedule for d.Construct, we always try to capture the current zeitgeist. You only have to look at the most popular topics from SXSW or Reboot to realize that user-experience design is a big theme this year. In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger and more important topic at the moment.

Developers have been quick to master the technical aspects of web-application development, so we felt it was important to bring the user back into the equation. After all, our ultimate goal is to build applications that are not only technically elegant, but also a pleasure to use. Because of this, we feel it’s important for people to not only design the system or the visual interface, but to design the entire user experience.

DW: There seems to be a fair degree of conference fatigue in the blogosphere lately, with many commentators feeling that, aside from hallway chat, there is nothing to be learned at conferences. Will anyone actually learn anything at your conference?

AB: I completely agree, and think there are a number of reasons for this. A lot of conferences are focused around a single high-level theme such as web standards or web applications, so once you’ve been to the event a couple of times, it no longer holds any surprises. Conversely, a lot of conferences have no discernible theme, and become a homogenous mass of topics with little focus or direction. It may have been true a few years ago, but I no longer think it’s enough to simply invite a great line-up of speakers and assume the event will be a success. This is why each of our events has a strong concept and changes direction each year—doing so ensures we have different speakers and never cover the same ground twice, keeping the event fresh and unique.

I worry that some people don’t realize how expensive or time-consuming running an event can be. Unless you charge big money, you’re lucky to break even, let alone make a profit. If your motivations are purely economic, it’s easy to cut corners by not looking after your speakers. A lot of conferences don’t offer to pay their speakers or even cover their costs, despite having a high ticket price. One conference I went to asked speakers to pay for their own ticket, which I thought was a bit cheeky—it’s OK if you’re coming from a big company who is footing the bill, but it’s difficult for independent speakers. Some conferences go even further and charge for speaking slots. I’m not a big fan of this practice as it means attendees are essentially paying to be marketed at—it brings the quality down and tarnishes the whole industry.

DW: What would you say the future holds for the small web agency, such as Clearleft? Is there enough business to go around, or should we all be looking at diversifying into events, books, and speaking engagements if we want to survive?

AB: I don’t know if I’d call us small anymore—there are six of us at the moment and we ’re looking to hire a few more people by the end of the year—but it started as just the three of us working from caf

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Related Topics: Web Standards, User Experience, CSS, Business

 

Andy Budd is a user experience designer and web standards developer from Brighton, England. Andy is a regular speaker at events such as SXSW, and helped organise the first "web apps" conference in the UK. Andy wrote the best selling book, CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standards Solutions and blogs at andybudd.com.

 

Matthew Pennell works as a senior designer for one of Europe's leading hotel booking websites, writing semantic XHTML, bleeding-edge CSS and JavaScript that usually works. He is the former Managing Editor and former Editor in Chief of Digital Web, and blogs at The Watchmaker Project.

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