Matt Gemmell

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NSConference 2011

conference, development, interface, speaking & user experience 4 min read

Last week I attended NSConference 2011, in Reading, England. NSConf (Twitter tag: #nsconf) has been a yearly event for me since it began in 2009, and this year’s was not only the best so far, but probably the best conference I’ve ever attended, on any topic.

It would be difficult not to enjoy the conference given the stellar line-up of speakers (disclosure: including yours truly), but this year there was really a sense of an event that had found its pace and natural rhythm; NSConf has clearly matured. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days to try and pin down what worked so well.

It was a combination of several factors:

  • The universally high quality of the main presentations. Many of the speakers are old hands at conference/public speaking, but a few were relatively new to it, and held their own admirably. There wasn’t a single dud session, and I learned a huge amount.

  • Ideal session length. Keynotes (each day) were 45 minutes, and all other sessions were 30 minutes, followed by 30-minute breaks (with post-session questions pushed into the breaks). You can say a considerable amount on a topic in 30 minutes, but it’s short enough to require effort and preparation to keep the presentation tight and coherent.

    Equally, having a full half hour between sessions not only allowed time to recharge, but also gave an opportunity to really discuss what we’d just heard. This 30-30 format felt like the perfect rhythm for a technical conference.

  • Single-track. NSConference has one track, with sessions on diverse topics that are nevertheless short enough that no-one gets bored or feels they’re not spending their time optimally. Everyone has the same experience, and everyone can talk about what’s been presented that day. No compromises are necessary.

  • Blitz talks were also excellent, and well-pitched. These were 15 minutes long, and took place during the 30-minute breaks between primary sessions. The topics were even more eclectic here, and gave an excellent chance for those who speak less often to address a smaller audience on a subject of interest to them. The personality of the conference really came across in these talks, and I loved every one I attended.

    On a personal note, I was especially pleased that my long-time friend Neil Inglis presented one of the blitz talks himself (an excellent session on incorporating advertising and affiliate links into your apps, which he absolutely nailed), and I hope he’ll consider doing so again in future.

  • A balance between technical and UX material. This year’s conference really illustrated how UX and design matters have become first-class topics in our industry (particularly on the platforms we work with). We had design/concept/UX-focused talks from Mike Lee, Dave Wiskus, Cathy Shive, Aral Balkan (talk about a blockbuster line-up) and myself, and the audience were every bit as engaged as in the more technical sessions.

  • A full-spectrum, end-to-end approach to software development - not just the technical (or UX) side - with best-in-class presenters. DeVoe on marketing. Hoctor on business. Jalkut on customer support. No-one needs to ask these guys for any credentials.

    Then throw in Dann waxing philosophical on method naming, Addey on VoiceOver (with audience participation), Kusterer on parsing, Lee on cryptographic storage, McCormack on Core Animation, Wheeler on Instruments, Zarra on asset caching and more… these are the all-stars you would wish for on each of these topics, and that’s the calibre of speakers that NSConf attracts.

    It was the fucking developer version of Live Aid.

  • The social aspect of the conference was extremely effective. I’ve already mentioned the session-to-break ratio, but the venue itself (and its comparative isolation) made sure that everyone was together for meals, and critically during the evenings. It’s difficult to overstate how conducive the setup was to meeting colleagues and making friends.

  • The labs. Whilst people were initially unsure what these would entail, the labs worked out extremely well. I ran the Design lab with Mike Lee and Dave Wiskus, and the format was that attendees would book a 20-minute slot, and arrive with something they wanted to talk about - often an design or idea, or even a running app - and some questions or problems. We’d sit down, one on one, and find solutions to those problems.

    People seemed to go away from the labs energised and excited, and often with a new perspective not just on the problems they’d brought but also on the focus of their app itself. It was a very rewarding experience for me, and I’m considering expanding my professional services in that direction too, on the strength of my NSConf experience.

Two of my esteemed colleagues from Tap! magazine, Chris Phin (editor) and Craig Grannell (contributing editor for games) also showed up on the Tuesday night to socialise and share some copies of the magazine, which was a very pleasant surprise. They’re fantastic chaps, and they care every bit as much about the Mac/iOS developer community as I do.

The main value of a technical conference for me isn’t the factual content or even the opportunity to socialise with my peers and learn about their interesting work, but rather the feeling you take away when you leave. NSConference for me has always been an opportunity to recharge my inspiration and excitement for doing what I do, and I’ve never left an event with such a buzz as I felt this year.

NSConference has unarguably hit its stride, and stands as the conference to beat in our industry. Huge congratulations should go to Scotty, Dave, Claire, Matt and everyone else for pulling it off.

I’m certain that next year’s event will sell out even more rapidly than it did this year, and I’ll be doing everything possible to make sure one of the tickets is mine.