Awwwards' "Digital Thinkers Conference" in Berlin, two years ago, was nice. So we decided to go back! This time hopping on a train to lovely Amsterdam, for two days of inspiring talks from top-notch digital thinkers from Fantasy Interactive, Google, Huge, Smashing Mag, Superhero Cheesecake, BiA, Dogstudio, Resn, and many more. We boiled things down to 5 key takeaways:
- The Sameness of The Web
- Can Creativity Be Trained?
- The Need for Speed (and Motion)
- Futuristic Modes of Interaction
- Lots and Lots of Wonderful Showcases
1. The Sameness of The Web
A recurring theme throughout multiple talks (we counted five: Build in Amsterdam's Margot Gabel, Dogstudio's Henry Daubrez, Jenny Johanneson, founder of Smashing Magazine Vitaly Friedman and the guys from Superhero Cheesecake) was a sort of collective eye-rolling at all websites seeming to look alike. We even remember Khoi Vinh, in his closing keynote two years ago, lamenting this trend of 'monoculture illustrations' (we can still admire his Pinterest board).
Of course, there will always be trends. In the past too, suddenly everyone seemed to mention 'flat design' or wanted parallax gimmicks. And now there is the renaissance of email newsletters and the podcast bandwagon. Nonetheless, standardization has raised the overall level of the Web, and: "Websites are no longer a source of entertainment. But big $$$," relying indeed on UX best practices and shared systems.
Still, there is a point to be made:
"When everything is similar, being different attracts" - Vitaly Friedman
It makes business sense to present some authentic brand character and try to connect on an emotional level. Paul Boag too, in his talk on dark patterns, convincingly pointed out why it is wise to get/keep people in a good mood: because otherwise cognitive load increases, getting in the way of whatever message you are trying to get across.
To illustrate how things could/should be, each speaker brought along brilliant examples (some favorites below), while the general approach seemed perhaps best articulated through Dogstudio's "Money idea", i.e. aiming to be unique by focussing on a single, simple, "provocative, sensational or bold idea" that would best summarize a product in a highly memorable way. Like 'that bank/website with the bright red flying VISA card.'
Also, there was a marked nostalgia for Flash sites. Who remembers Get the Glass (2006)?
2. Can Creativity be Trained?
In a world of rising AI-capabilities, many types of jobs are expected to suffer 'creative destruction' — and not just forklift or truck drivers, think types of doctors too. So, Huge's Claudio Guglieri wondered: are 'we creatives' the only ones that needn't worry? And can anyone be creative?
This question of whether creativity is 'nature or nurture' popped up in several other talks as well (like Clearleft's Andy Budd, the duo from Vintage and most notably the first day's keynote speaker and host of the entire conference, Peter Smart —his real name— from revered Fantasy Interactive). The answer seemed surprisingly straightforward: yes, creativity can be trained, facilitated and managed, if you know what to pay attention to. Claudio even brought a formula: C=fa(K,I,E), quoting John Cleese:
"Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating."
Peter mainly talked about the importance of creating the right environment for creative teams to flourish ("Safe teams are creative teams"), focussing in particular on the role of pressure, motivation, and DRUGS —hormones, actually, like adrenaline and oxytocin.
- Pro tip: to counter the freezing effects of hierarchy-in-the-room, kick a meeting off by having everyone confess their childhood nickname. (Like "Smarty Farty.")
Most captivating —and more difficult to recount, alas— were the different anecdotes of briefings, meetings, design processes and learnings from a firm having done work for little obscure brands like Netflix, Marvel, UFC, MasterClass, Spotify and Tesla.
Still known for their proactive creative work through 'What if' cases, Fantasy most recently fantasized The Future of Online Healthcare. It is a smart way to break into (lucrative) industries where you may not have done any work before. The first 'What if' concept, The Future of Airline Websites (2012), which went viral, reportedly attracted over 60 airlines and booking platforms (Kayak, Skyscanner) and most recently Marriott too.
3. The Need for Speed (and Motion)
Looming over most talks showcasing stunning UI design was a somewhat sobering statistic, brought along by Mustafa Kurtuldu from Google London, dryly indicating that "How attractive the site looks" ranks only fifth in the UX importance hierarchy.
Paul Boag and Vitaly Friedman stressed this critical importance of technical performance too, offering more stats ("79% of shoppers won't return to a slow site") and some remedies: use a CDN, optimize JS and CSS, limit Web Fonts, and compress imagery. Trivia: Did you know the color red is more difficult to compress? 🤯
- Squoosh.app, a free Google-made progressive Web app, allows you to easily compress any image via simple drag & drop in your browser window.
Still, sometimes there is only so much that can be done, Mustafa continued. Perhaps because of legacy systems that cannot be so easily replaced. And perhaps too because the most effective solution is not technical, but psychological.
- Waiting is annoying → Make it go faster
- Waiting is annoying → Make the wait feel shorter
Often, the actual issue is the perception of speed, and the challenge is to make the wait feel shorter. Here motion comes into play. Not those annoyingly long animations that sometimes only seem to hold things up, but as a tactic to subtly disguise delays.
Some fascinating tests compared the perception of speed of different loading animation approaches: 1) doing nothing, 2) displaying a spinner, 3) presenting a content skeleton, etc... (read more here).
Key takeaway: present a content skeleton ASAP, entering via staggered animation, and using metadata to prioritize what to load first. Youtube, for example, prioritizes loading the actual video, even though those little surrounding thumbnails might be faster.
4. Futuristic Modes of Interaction
Another Googler —or 'Zoogler' as people from Google Zürich are known, apparently— Adrian Zumbrunnen, gave a unique behind-the-curtains look at the design processes for some of Google's most cutting-edge features in products like Google Lens, Maps, Photos, and Assistant. The main challenge seems to be to come up with a new interfacing language for these new features, all driven by 'magic' AI-capabilities.
"Like building a right-click —a context menu— for the real world." - Adrian Zumbrunnen
For instance, when you can 'search what you see' what is the best way to visualize that your camera is actually 'seeing' the thing? Adrian shared some of the alternative concepts that were tested and even some concepts where the team admittedly might have gone a bit overboard creatively. (Note the fox 'guide' idea for AR mode in Google Maps.)
5. Lots and Lots of Wonderful Showcases
Arguably the most fun part of these kinds of conferences is the range of showcases and the stories of how they came together. Our two personal favorites were Moooi.com, by Build in Amsterdam, and Snelweg Sprookjes, presented by Kiki Douglas from Achtung.
Conveniently, a case movie pretty much summarizes Kiki's talk:
It is such a neat idea that even echoes a bit of Adrian's challenge of "how to make tech... not feel like tech." Among other aspects not mentioned in the video above, Kiki added that the storylines are enriched even further by additional data, like:
- Weather data: "The weather is horrible!"
- Time of day: "We have to exercise our eyes a bit"
- Traffic data: "Hmm... why are we slowing down?"
Imagine how, for a child, this must feel like magic.
Margot Gabel interestingly presented BiA's creation for Moooi (a high-end Dutch furniture brand) from a very specific angle: accessibility. Driven by increasingly stringent laws, BiA aimed to prove the point that accessibility compliance does not have to result in something boring. Note the original menu positioning, the voice-enabled search, the playful gimmicks... all of it nicely navigable using tab and keyboard too.
Other things we bookmarked:
Thefutur.com (Chris Do)
Awwwards always wraps up with actual awards. The 2019 winners:
Mobile Site of the Year — The Cool Club
Developer Site of the Year — Bruno Simon
E-commerce Site of the Year — MA True Cannabis
Site of the Year (User’s Choice) — Bruno Simon
Site of the Year — Makemepulse
Independent of the Year (User’s Choice) — Zhenya Rynzhuk
Independent of the Year — Aristide Benoist
Studio of the Year (User's Choice) — Obys
Studio of the Year — Adoratorio
Agency of the Year (User’s Choice) — Cuberto
Agency of the Year — Locomotive
See you at the next edition in Toronto, maybe 🤙