HandHeld Conference 2012 Highlights

Handheld is a brand new conference started by Craig Lockwood and held in Cardiff on November 19th. It featured 13 speakers (including yours truly!) on one track going from 9am to 6pm! It was quite a long day, but such a fantastic one at that. I have to say that there were NO bad speakers (a first for me!) and NO bad slides! The lunch provided was fantastic and the conference was held in a beautiful 5 star hotel. I was quite impressed with the whole thing!

All of the speaker’s videos are going to be offered online soon, but until then, I thought I’d share some of my notes and thoughts on each speaker’s talk.

Book Stories by Keir Whitaker

Keir’s talk was the only “non-Handheld” subject of the day – but it was a fantastic talk nonetheless about turning your side projects into a business. He talked about the thinking behind his and Elliot Jay Stock‘s motivations behind their new book, Insites. They wanted to move away from client work and produce something that was actually physical and would set a foundation for future projects and recurring revenue. The market for high quality physical books had already been proven thanks to A Book Apart, The Manual and others.

Keir went on to explain how to start a passion business. He advised to think through before you start a collaboration with someone, and that it’s best to do a trial project together to see if you work well together and what skills you each bring to the table. It’s best to discuss money upfront before any work is started. Keir mentioned that both he and Elliot do other work outside of Insites, to cover their income and allow them to spend more time on the project.

He mentioned several ways of getting financing prepared for the company.

  • Bootstrapping, or paying for the project yourself, can be great if you can launch on time. If not, you risk running out of money for the project and for yourself.
  • Kickstarter can prove that people like what you do, but Keir wasn’t a fan of this route. He felt that it could seriously hurt you if the project goes much larger than expected (so you have to fill 10,000 orders instead of 1,000), plus the reward system meant you had to spend time coming up and making the side rewards instead of focusing on your product.
  • Funding from a company or bank is an option, but the most difficult way to go.

To become a real business, Keir mentioned you’ll need to give a physical address, a real (not mobile) telephone number and a copy of your business’s terms of conditions (which I thought was strange!). You’ll also want to decide on which bank to go with and a proper accountant.

Keir also mentioned that you should choose what eCommerce solution to go with. Even if you’re a programmer, he mentioned building your own custom solution isn’t the best use of your time. Keir briefly touched on payment gateways, like PayPal and Authorize.net and merchant accounts. He also warned that preorders can send up a red flag to many of these companies, so make sure you square it away with them ahead of time.

If you’re shipping digital products, Keir suggests checking out FetchApp, which works either alone or as a plugin to Shopify. It’s fantastic for shipping digital products and is one of the only apps that allow resending of emails in case the original is lost or goes to spam.

Keir mentioned that customer support takes A LOT of time. Even though you may have gotten rid of your clients, you’ve just traded them for customers! Twitter is a good medium for support, except when dealing with angry customers, so make sure you move them to another medium like email or phone. A good way to approach angry customers is to think about ways to fix the issue – if their physical book was lost in the mail, offer a refund and a copy of the digital version. Alternatively, is customer support even the best use of your time? Think about outsourcing your support to another company.

Keir went on to show the monthly costs for everything dealing with the book (a little less than £300) and how they had to make sure they were selling enough to justify these costs.

Start Small, Think Big by Lee Armstrong

This was a fantastic talk done by the head of Pinkfroot, who created the fantastic ShipFinder and PlaneFinder apps. Before I even begin writing about his talk, I just have to show you the video they put together from PlaneFinder, which tracks the world’s plane traffic. This video shows all of the flights in and out of the UK in a 24 hour period.

Don’t they look like ants?? Fantastic. I just want to watch this all day.

Pinkfroot is a 4 person team who specialise in iOS apps. ShipFinder was their 1st app and PlaneFinder is their best seller and offers more information than from the airlines themselves. They now even offer an augmented reality version of PlaneFinder, which looks pretty danged awesome to play with.

For Lee, Facebook, Twitter and Google are big inspirations for seeing how they deal with information management. Google started as one server and quickly realised that one single machine wouldn’t be enough to hold the internet. They now have well over a trillion pages indexed. Lee looks at these companies as leading the world on big data.

PlaneFinder started small in just a few countries. It was built in PHP and MySQL on cheap, crappy hosting and quickly outgrew itself so they now self host the entire app. Lee mentioned that the first impression from users is important, so make sure you have proper infrastructure in place to quickly scale up and down to deal with demand. You don’t want to be mentioned on a large site and have your app crash, rendering it useless for people.

Just like Keir, Lee mentioned that support is very important. It’s the most unscalable part of business, but they aim to have the best support for both their free and paid users as possible.

Lee mentioned that it’s best to do small product releases often, and advises to think about Twitter which only allows 144 characters – small releases allow users to talk about them easily and often.

The topic of the day was to hate on PhoneGap (lol) and Lee mentioned that they build native apps for each platform, but to save on dev time, they have all of the apps talk to the same backend. That’s pretty smart!

So You Have An App Idea? By Dave Addey

Another favourite talk of mine, Dave Addey, owner of Agant, who created one of my favourite, most useful iOS apps of all time – UK Train Times. This man became my new best friend for this.

Agant is a small company with 7 employees and has done several apps apart from UK Train Times, including QI, Malcolm Tucker and the Great British Bake Off among others.

Dave mentioned that not every idea is a good idea and not every good idea is an app. – I thought that was a fantastic quote for just about everything on the web. He mentioned it’s tough to make good money from the app store. In the UK, you’ll only get about 60% of your iOS app sales after Apple and VAT takes their share.

He likened app development to the American gold rush. The first developers who got there made a lot of money, but then the money began to taper off. Apps now have to be more focused and higher quality. They need to be three things to really succeed:

  1. Be universal
  2. International
  3. Have lasting appeal

If you don’t have all three of these, the app is going to have limited appeal and you’re going to make limited funds from it. He mentioned that apps should have “long tails” or the potential to continue to be relevant for a long time. Apps should scratch your own itch, which is why he created UK Train Times, and should have some kind of hook that keeps users from forgetting about it.

Does your idea suit an app? Think about:

  1. Dead time – which is time users spend traveling or waiting around, when they usually pick up their phone to check apps
  2. Location – don’t just use location unless it’s useful. If the app if useful no matter where you are, then it’s a good app.
  3. Ongoing use – which is not the same as lasting appeal. It’s the opposite of a throwaway app.

Will people rely on your app? If so, you have the potential to sell it for a higher price. Dave mentions that they priced the UK Train Times app at more than normal because of this.

How do you make it? Dave mentions to not bother support every device and everyone, that it’s impossible to do so because of the amount of devices. PhoneGap (surprise!) is bad. It ends up making apps that look neither like a native Apple or Android app and it’s confusing to users. If you “develop once for every device, you get a rubbish app for every device”. In hybrid apps, you end up spending more time getting your hybrid to work like native, so you might as well just go native in the first place.

Apps are all about implementation and he quoted Derek Sivers as saying “ideas are worth nothing unless executed”.

Content and Tone by Robert Mills

Robert spoke about one of my least favourite topics in the world – content! But he did so in a very interesting way, so I was quite surprised at how much I learned (and was able to pay attention).

Robert spoke about the obstacles to creating content. It’s a long and intimidating process that’s hampered by deadlines, bugets and the pressure to get it done so you can start the design. He advised that someone needs to be responsible for the content and to care about it and lead by example. Companies need to adopt a content first approach.

Once you’ve gathered your content, you need to organise, delegate and deal with any translations. Content needs to be check against scope and signed off on from the client. His prefer tool for this is using the GatherContent app, which helps to plan and structure content. It looks pretty interesting and is something I might suggest to clients from now on.

Once you’re ready to use the content, delegate it to a team and remember who you’re telling your content story to. At the end of a project, make sure you review your goals and then refine and audit your content again.

Working With Muppets by Ollie Wells

Ollie works with Sequence in Wales and talked about how they approached mobile projects. He mentioned that clients don’t often understand what they’re asking for when they ask for mobile. Do they mean adaptive? Responsive? An app? He advises to get a common understanding of what the client really wants and needs in mobile.

If the client already has a site up, then take a look at the devices users have with Google Analytics. Also, make sure you have a functional spec with the client about how the site will work and how bugs will be fixed.

Mobile is not the “lite” version and should have the same exact content as the regular desktop site, but using progressive disclosure and interaction design can be quite useful. While he doesn’t always take a mobile first approach, Ollie always has “mobile in mind”. I really like that thinking, because I’m unable to take mobile first in most of mine as well.

He mentions to always test on devices, but to be realistic on your level support for devices, because there are too many to support all of them.

Taking Content Abroad by Rob Lo Bue

Rob had a VERY interesting approach to content. He took the stage by speaking in German, to the confusion of the audience. He then switched to English and asked us if that was annoying. Of course it was! He then went on to point out that this is how international users feel when they download your app and it’s in English.

He also mentioned that it’s important to get your English right. Native English speakers don’t have to read every word, but ESL users do for comprehension. Avoid using idioms because they’re hard to understand. Stop using imperial units, or at least include other measures for easy understanding. This includes things like distance, time and money. When you say 2:00pm, you have to remember there are 12 2:00pms in the world.

Choose a clear font and space out your text to make it easier to read. Using icons are great, because they’re universal, but make sure you don’t change them too much or they won’t be understandable.

For translations, try to use existing tools. Choose the languages you’re going to support widely and make sure they’re going to actually be used on your site. It’s ok to seek help from pros to translate.

Rob also mentioned that you can get translations from:

  1. Your existing users
  2. Crowdsourcing
  3. An agency

He also created a hashtag for people to talk about simple steps to make content most approachable, which you can find at #interbility.

What’s Holding the Mobile Web Back and What Are Facebook Doing About It? by Simon Cross

A very interesting talk from a real Facebook dev (who I swear is Zuckerberg’s doppalganger), Simon spoke about HTML5′s shortcomings and why it’s not the default goto for apps.

Simon talked about it took 6 months to move the apps from HTML5 to native and how the new native version ended up being 2x times faster. It went from a 1.5 star rating to 4 stars and completely changed the way the company now works around mobile.

There were a ton of interesting stats in Simon’s talk. More people are using the mobile web version of Facebook than the iOS and Android apps combined. Also, there are over 7,000 different devices that access Facebook every day. Wow.

The problem with mobile is distribution, performance and monetization. When FB took a survey of companies about why they used PhoneGap, the majority (80%) replied that they simply wanted to be in the app store to get distribution.

Simon mentioned that users use apps to waste dead time or to solve important problems. Facebook has 126 million users who only access Facebook via mobile, and those users tend to have twice the engagement.

He mentioned that friend recommendations are worth more to people than any other recommendations and they’ve been adding new features that allow users to recommend apps. Facebook has already sent users to native app stores to download apps over 180 million times. So they created the FB app centre, which lists the mobile web apps in order of friend use and have had over 130 million users already. In the last 30 days, Facebook has sent users to 7 million web sites.

Simon mentions to treat performance as a feature. It’s hard to do, especially as it might not be hugely noticeable, but it’s important. Going native allowed Facebook to improve CPU performance and can access to native features. They didn’t change any of the design at all, but just going from HTML5 to native doubled speed and usage of the app.

Facebook is actually a member of the W3C group COREMOB which focuses on core features, compile conformance and uses cases.

He also said something I often think about – while there are more Android devices in the world, iOS makes a lot more money and therefor the developers go where the money is.

It Started With A Browser by Matt Gaunt

Matt is a developer for Google and worked on the Google TV (which I admit was lucky enough to get one of them for free before they were released, but could never get it to work so I gave it away). He talked about how hard it was to code for the Blackberry, even in native, and how there wasn’t “one platform” for it (much like Android now?). He chose native for performance as many older devices couldn’t handle HTML5, and therefor thinks native still has an edge.

He noticed though, that many of the apps on the Google TV actually are done in only HTML5 and how beautiful they are. He thinks responsive is the way forward be we, as an industry, are still learning. We should stop thinking of devices though, and concentrate on sizes.

Is Your Thinking L-Shaped? By Kevin Mears

I only got to hear a tiny bit of Kevin’s talk because I left early to prepare myself for my own which was next. Kevin’s slides had the cutest doodles though, and put mine to shame ;)

He started out by talking about desks, and how we required “L” shaped desks back when we had huge CRT monitors. However, we have smaller, slimmer devices and don’t need those desks anymore, yet we’re often stuck with them. Bad desks make work less enjoyable.

He noted that things change due to finding flaws and pushing boundaries  Flash site of the day used to be a big deal until Zeldman pointed out the flaws of flash. Hardware was evolving steadily until the iPhone came out – no one even realise how big that was until afterwards.

He also mentioned it’s not practical to design for all breakpoints (something I disagree with if you’ve got a min and max point). Also, you can’t squeeze content into tiny devices, so it’s important to structure it properly.

20 Mobile UI Tips For Developers by Amber Weinberg

I posted both my slides and a transcript of my talk if you’re interested :)

We, Human by Andrew Spooner

Another fantastic speaker from another big company – Andrew’s talk showed some really awesome inventions with the Microsoft Kinect.

Andrew mentioned that the internet is an internet of things and what happens when we start putting things together? How do we connect them? He then showed some awesome inventions that he thinks were inspired by popular media at the time.

While many of these inventions flopped and there were probably better uses of our time, we need to put in an effort to see what doesn’t work to learn what does. He mentioned the new thermostat Nest, and how it works because it gives you feedback on what it’s doing and allows you to control the thermostat using apps no matter where you are. It’s the new centrepiece of a connected home.

Andrew said that with iPv6, we can have a unique ID for every atom on earth, and the internet is becoming geospatial – connecting us back to the real world.

As sensors become cheaper and more prevalent, we’re starting to give items awareness of where were are. He was pleasantly surprised that no matter what kind of technology you come out with, people will always come up with different ways to use it. Some really cool examples of what people have done with the Kinect are:

  • Attaching it to a trolley to follow a wheelchair bound person at the grocery store
  • Creating a Star Wars light saber from a broom stick
  • Making yourself invisible!
  • Attaching it to a flying machine that can sense when something is in your way.
  • Face tracking

He warned though, that we should be careful what we hook up, because there’s no escape key on these things! He thinks we’ll continue to see Moore’s law (tech getting quicker, cheaper) in the future. He asked if we can make apps faster or have more comples interactions?

But we should also aim to minimise complexity by consistency and use animations only if they have a purpose. He said Microsoft design style consists of 5 things:

  1. Pride in craft
  2. Fast & Fluid
  3. Authentically digital
  4. Do more with less
  5. winning as one

Design Systems by Laura Kalbag

While I spoke on responsive design from a developer, Laura did a fantastic job doing the same from a designer’s POV. She mentioned that there are a lot of problems designers have to deal with when working in responsive.

Really good designs are those that no matter what device you’re on, everything is really cohesive. Designs for desktops and mobile used to be separated.

The web before tables arrived was already responsive and text just naturally flowed around the size of the browser. You can’t have pixel precision with responsive design and you shouldn’t make assumptions based on the viewport. A small viewport doesn’t necessarily mean a mobile device, a user could just be sharing their monitor with another window.

You should figure out what design elements should stay consistent between devices, but content is always the same. People can feel the unity in design. It’s unrealistic to keep the same layout, but you can keep similar shapes, colour and type.

Laura then went on to talk about how to implement responsive design. She says you should detach design consideration from viewport widths. Designing in the browsers is great, but she can’t do it (neither can I) and it’s not for everyone. Moodboards and style guides can be a great help though.

Laura thinks we don’t have enough tools for sharing because we all design in different ways, so we all need something different. We can’t make a mockup for everything and should build our breakpoints around the content itself  There are no experts in responsive web design. Everyone is a pioneer.

A Happy Grain of Sand by Aral Balkan

Among the many photos of toilets, ticket stands and trains (Aral likes things that being with ‘T’) I was able to grab a few notes ;) He calls himself an experience designer, because what he does goes far beyond users.

He mentioned that items in design are associated by proximity and out of sight means out of mind for users (you’ll need to see his toilet to get this). It’s important to layer lesser important things, but remember that users will often forget about them.

Just because two things work well, doesn’t mean they’ll work well together (another photo of a toilet to illustrate this!). Experience is only as strong as it’s weakest link. We should approach objects without making assumptions about them. He also thinks that all the ticket machines in the world were built by sadists.

Things change and you need to make sure you update your app to fit it. You should be bothered by bad UI, don’t learn the patterns or you’ll continue to perpetuate it. We don’t need more things, we need things that work better, Your app shouldn’t look like your DB just threw up. Respect user effort!

Sometimes the best UI is no UI and common sense is a myth.

Design thinking in a company must trickle down or your best designers will quit.

Version numbers are outdated and the web is versionless. When was the last time you noticed Chrome updating?


Handheld was a fantastic conference and I heard Craig will be holding it again next year, in a much bigger place. I suggest going, I learned a lot and had tons of fun! I think I met more people here than I ever have anywhere else, and this was a relatively small conference.

Published by Amber Weinberg

Amber is one of new batch of nubelly writers, she has been coding for over 12 years, and has been freelancing for 3. Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, she’s now based in London and earns her bread doing web and mobile development. She has featured in .Net Magazine and GeekTalk, as well as speaking at Points, Reasons to be Creative and the upcoming Handheld Conf. She’s got a bit of a passion for handmade things, pie and dacshhunds, and more importantly seems to love the occasional animated gif (check out Day of the Dev for some cathartic gifs)

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