A Simple Guide to Conference Panel Moderation

A couple of months ago I was approached by a soon-to-be conference panel moderator who asked if I had some tips. Having attended a fair number of conferences and having moderated panels, debates, and meetings in both politics, web development, and several other professional settings, I had a fair bit to say.

For conference newbies it may be surprising to learn that panels are quite controversial, and for good reason. Panels are often the fallback option when you have multiple speakers pitching the same topic, panels can become the place a conference chooses to stack women speakers in an attempt to bring up the gender ratio, and panels are often poorly prepared, executed, and moderated leading to boredom or catastrophe, sometimes all at the same time.

Much has been said about how to organize and moderate panels at conferences and I don’t purport to be an expert on the topic. What I do have is extensive experience dealing with politicians, clients, and people who can’t agree on anything, and I have accumulated a wide range of tools and skills to coax a conversation towards a chosen goal. And these tools and skills have proven invaluable in when moderating a conference panel.

So here, mostly unedited from my original email, is my Simple Guide to Conference Panel Moderation:


Reflections and take aways from FITC Vancouver 2012

“Next year you should never have to design in the browser!”

I love going to design and development conferences. Nowhere (except maybe at political gatherings) do you get exposure to more dichotomized views, more hyperbolical statements and more entrenched and dogmatic attitudes. And paradoxically enough, nowhere do you get exposure to more level headed, pragmatic, non-combattive views. I guess that’s what you get when you build your profession around technologies that (d)evolve faster than anyone can keep pace and methods and methodology that requires people and skills from disciplines that in every other respect are polar opposites.

With this as the backdrop, and thanks to my good friends at Microsoft Canada, I found myself attending the FITC conference in Vancouver over the weekend. “FITC” stands for “Future. Innovation. Technology. Creativity.” and the conference functions as a catchall / melting pot / convergence point for anything that falls into these four definitions – if those things relate to the web and design that is. Or something like that. The conference consisted of a workshop day on Friday and two full days of talks Saturday and Sunday. I’m not going to provide a play-by-play of the conference or the talks – others will undoubtedly do a better job at that – so if that’s what you came for, I’m sorry. Instead I’ll share with you my take aways from the talks and the conference itself. Read at your own peril.

#1: Look inwards, get creative

Feeling creatively stunted? Don’t we all. Personally I spend a substantial part of my day being frustrated of how I’m not being creative enough and how I have all these great ideas I can never manifest in reality. Apparently I’m not the only one.

You know you’re on to something when four talks at a conference, on different topics, by different speakers, from different fields, completely unrelated to each other, bring forth the exact same message. The talks, Make Something Ugly: An Experimental Creative Process by Myron Campbell, How to give everything away by Kyle McDonald, Create More, Better, Different by Jason Theodor, Simplicity Through Complexity by Alex Beim and Design Renegade by James White could all be summed up in the same way:

If you want to be more creative, start by asking yourself a simple question: What is it I do that makes me happy? Answer that question and do it.

Through their stories and examples all the five speakers touched on this simple idea of doing what you love even if it doesn’t have a purpose in itself other than doing what you love. This rings true not only in creativity but in life itself, but it is especially true in the creative fields. To paraphrase James White: If you only do creative work when someone pays you to do it, you are limiting yourself and your creativity. Something like that. He said it better and had a cooler jacket on.

Regardless, the message, brought to us through Myron’s poorly drawn bird from his 8 year old self, a drum machine wired to Kyle’s face, Jason’s 16 (or was it 18?) personality types, Alex’s well lit Promise Ring and the forest of James’ mind, was loud and clear: Creativity comes from forcing yourself to let go of your adult limitations and start doing creative things like you did when you were a child.

I’m scheduling creative time from now on.

#2: The term “Responsive Design” is driving people insane

If you work on the web, have a web site, know someone who has a web site, or ever visit the web, you will most likely have heard of “Responsive Design”. And you probably also know that it is the be-all and end-all of current web design and development. You would be correct. However, like with pretty much any other trend word and new technology on the web, the term “Responsive Design” is being thrown around, dissected, dismantled, lauded, abused, and misused by pretty much everyone, and the only thing anyone can agree on is that the term and the technology is causing a lot of pain everywhere.

The conference had several different Responsive Design elements including a panel discussion and a couple of talks. And in the spirit of cooperation, togetherness, and all that is good and holy about the web in general, everyone contradicted everyone else. Which is amusing, but also a clear sign that this much loved/hated term is causing more pain than it should.

Here’s a short summary of the Responsive Design Chaos:

Responsive design as originally defined by Ethan Marcotte in his famous A List Apart article “Responsive Web Design” is the utilization of CSS media queries to change the layout and presentation of content on a web site depending on the size and capabilities of the device visiting the website. While this pure CSS approach works well in some cases, it can also cause a lot of problems, especially when it comes to small screen low bandwidth devices (aka smartphones). If we design and publish content meant for a large screen like a widescreen desktop monitor and then use media queries to resize the content to fit on a small screen we force that small screen device to download content that should never be put on that small screen like hugenormous images, ads and other junk.

In response to this realization the Mobile First approach was born: Rather than design for the big screen, design for the small screen and scale things up for larger screens. After all, people use their mobile devices to access the web more than they use desktop devices these days anyway, so that approach seems to make more sense. This in turn spurred a new discussion about why we litter our websites with stuff anyway. When you design for a small screen you make the content the focus. When you design for a big screen, you cram it full of graphics and ads and sidebars and other junk that takes attention away from the content.

Thus was born the Content First strategy which was adopted by a lot of people including Microsoft (which being an American corporation is legally defined as a person). But was the Content First strategy well received? Of course not. Especially because Microsoft employed it in Windows 8. And since pretty much anyone who calls herself a designer must hate Microsoft and must own at least 8 Apple devices, this was automatically labeled as “boring” and the Content First designs were accused of appearing to look like cheap templates. Woe is everyone.

So where does this leave us? With conferences in which multiple talks about Responsive Design contradict each other and everyone has a different interpretation of why Responsive Design is not the be-all and end-all solution it should be but that we all have to live with it.

To all this I say: Get off my lawn!

Seriously people. This is not complicated. Responsive Design as defined by Marcotte is an outdated definition. While the CSS media queries only approach works well in some cases, it is but one of many tools that should be used to make truly responsive websites. The other tools, oft mentioned but also prefixed by warnings that this is not “proper responsive design”, include server-side scripts that deliver different content to different devices, JavaScripts that detect browser capabilities, and a slew of other more or less known tools. Together they can be used to create content focussed easy to access web experiences on all devices, current and future, but for this to happen one major thing has to change:

We have to stop talking about what’s wrong with “Responsive Design” and start talking about how to build cross-device websites. End of story.

I could go on but you would get bored.

#3: The One True Solution to all Responsive Design Problems!

The quote at the top of this post, the one about never having to design in the browser ever again, came from the first talk of the conference, furnished by Adobe. The talk itself was a typical software pitch poorly disguised as an innovation talk, but that is to be expected at these types of conferences. And to be honest there is nothing wrong about it: By giving these types of talks software vendors are able to show off the latest and greatest in technology to the end users and get them to try the applications out early on in the development phase. That means the people who will be using the software get a potential chance to chime in on its development before it is released which in turn can lead to better outcomes at the end of the day. It does happen, occasionally.

Anyway, the Adobe talk was on a yet-to-be-released application called Edge Reflow which aims to make the process of designing responsive websites easier by combining the regular WYSIWYG interface of IDEs of old with a new responsive approach in which you can define screen size breakpoints and allow the application to create CSS media queries to accommodate these break points. Sounds great! If it works that is.

Just as a side note, I had a meeting with an unnamed individual at a large software corporation (not Adobe) some 3 years ago in which I pretty much outlined this exact software model including UI drawings and said “This is what I need”. Apparently people are reading my mind or something. But I digress.

The demo (or rather video slides) of Edge Reflow was pretty impressive, but apart from a few quick screenshots I did not get to see any actual code input or output so it’s hard to judge at this point where the application is headed. The idea is a sound one and it falls in line with Adobe’s renewed attempt at making web design a point-and-click experience (something both Microsoft and Adobe have attempted in the past with horrendous and internet breaking results), but I have hope that this time they may actually get it right. I have a request in for beta access, so hopefully you’ll hear more from me on that front.

Of course there is a reason for my rather snarky section heading here, and it relates closely to the next section: What Adobe is trying to do with Edge Reflow is solve the mysterious problem of designing for multiple screen sizes. And just like fighting dragons and climbing bean stalks to the sky, this is a honourable quest in pursuit of an imaginary problem. To me the notion of “never having to design in the browser again” smacks of a disconnect from reality that justifies these ridiculous comparisons. As far as I’m concerned you can’t design or develop a website outside the browser. That would be like painting without a canvas or taking photos without a camera. The browser is where a website lives, so that’s where it needs to be designed and developed. Simple as that. That’s not to say Edge Reflow has no place in the design process, far from it. Edge Reflow will fit nicely into the larger toolset of designers and developers and may become a great teaching tool for responsive design. However it will not nor should it replace a proper design and development process. And like I said, that process should always be centered around the browser.

#4: Microsoft is not what Microsoft was

As I was brought to FITC by Microsoft I feel obliged to give them special mention. And to be frank, it is well deserved. Microsoft was represented by the very un-Microsoft-y Thomas Lee who I am glad to say is now a permanent fixture in the Vancouver web community, and he ran a workshop as well as two talks at the event. Again I won’t give a play-by-play of the events. Instead I’ll tell you what became apparent for many at the event – something I’ve known for a long time: Microsoft anno 2012 is not Microsoft anno 1996.

Working on the web industry in North America you’d think there is only one computer manufacturer out there, and it is called Apple. The people in my industry have the Apple Kool-Aid hooked up intravenously and have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that while they may see their grey homogenous already eaten fruit computers as the pinacle of modern society, the people who actually use the stuff they build generally own something running either Windows or a little green robot.

Over the last several years Microsoft has taken great strides to get over the massive moat they created for themselves in choosing to let Internet Explorer 6, 7 and 8 more or less ignore or at least lag behind web standards. And with Internet Explorer 9 and now 10 they have gotten themselves up to par with the competition, though you’d never believe that if you talked to an Apple user whose last experience using Internet Explorer was in 7th grade IT class. And that’s just the browser. With Windows 8 Microsoft has taken a huge leap of faith on a completely new design and functionality approach to personal computing in general, whether that be on a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone. And what they have produced both looks good and works well (so far at least).

Being a Windows user myself, and having beta tested Windows 8 since February, there was little new information in Thomas’ talks, but for the fruit lovers in the crowd his talks, and in particular the design talk on day two, were a serious wake-up call. Of course they would never admit to it – after all, the fact that Apple has turned into the Big Brother monster they portrayed Microsoft as being back in the early 1990s is no reason to accept that the company they believe to be the devil incarnate might actually have something to teach them about design is a hard pill to swallow. Even so I heard a lot of positive comments and ideas come out of the talk. And that has to be chalked up as a big win.

#5: No food = lost opportunity

One last thought, and this one is for the organizers (and for organizers of all such events actually): One of the biggest benefits to attending an event like FITC is the interaction with other attendees and speakers. And this interaction mostly happens at lunch. Therefore there should always be lunch. FITC Vancouver was hosted at The Centre for Digital Media at Great Northern Way Campus. A great venue, but it is in the middle of nowhere and the closest food establishment (ignoring the horrible “cafe” in one of the buildings and a couple of vending machines) is a good 10 – 15 minute walk away. In the pouring rain. The result of no food being offered at the event was that at lunch on Saturday and Sunday the attendees and speakers dispersed like a flock of scared birds and the interactive component that could have been never was.

As a conference organizer myself I have learned that providing food is a must to ensure people get the most out of the event. Which is why even at free conferences we make sure there is food available. If it was a matter of financing that prevented food from being provided at FITC I urge the organizers to add to the ticket price at future events or provide food as an optional add-on. By forcing everyone to leave a great opportunity was squandered and it left a lot of attendees less than pleased. I would gladly have spent $20 to get to share a table and a meaningful conversation with more attendees and from conversations with countless others I know that was the general attitude. Lessons can be learned here.

Regardless, I’m looking forward to the next time FITC swings through town and I might even make an effort to attend one of the many other events happening all over the world. If you’re interested in attending any of these conferences yourself go check out the FITC website for upcoming events.