Earlier this month I attended UpFront Conference, an event organised by Dan Donald and other members of Manchester’s digital community that featured a range of talks of interest to developers and designers alike. Currently in the midst of preparing a talk of my own (the reason for this delayed review), the conference provided plenty of food for thought.

Brad Frost kicked off proceedings with an entertaining talk about an atomic approach to responsive design. Alicia Sedlock followed, with a rare overview of the different tools available for unit, integration and visual regression testing. Modular design and test-driven development are common in other fields of software engineering; that such presentations featured so prominently, hints at a growing professionalism within the field of front-end development.

The line-up also featured speakers who explored more creative aspects of coding. Soledad Penad�s demonstrated a networked peer-to-peer game in which a group of friends could create music together on their phones without being connected to the internet. Ben Foxall’s talk saw the venue morph into an aviary, with attendees phones tweeting and chirping the noise of rooks and kingfishers. Both highlighted the innovation possible on the web, although curtailed to a degree by the dominance of iOS, a platform that supports a single rendering engine, with limited or no support for many of the cutting-edge APIs that were being used.

Universal design

OpenType is another feature missing from iOS, a point raised by Richard Rutter during a typically passionate talk about web typography. His presentation benefited from plentiful rehearsal and refinement, and the same was true of Anna Debenham’s. I’ve seen Anna’s talk about console browsers a few times now, but a new section about universal design really underlined her broader message. She cited OXO, who design products that are as usable by as many people as possible:

When all users’ needs are taken into consideration in the initial design process, the result is a product that can be used by the broadest spectrum of users. In the case of OXO, it means designing products for young and old, male and female, left- and right-handed and many with special needs.

Browsing the web on game consoles, televisions (and yes, even watches) with their myriad capabilities and constraints, is a fantastic proxy for the universal yet hostile medium we should be designing for. Given our predisposition to focus on the latest hardware announced by Apple or Samsung, we’d do well to remember this wider array of connected devices.

Performance emerged a number of times throughout the day, with a talk dedicated to the subject by Dean Hume. One of my favourite talks was by Yesenia Perez-Cruz, who spoke eloquently about making design decisions through the lens of performance. She described a journey from that of ‘reckless designer’ producing image-laden websites, to one advocating the benefits of performance to clients, and working with teams that take collective responsibility for the quality of the final product.

Preaching to the converted?

Performance may have replaced responsive layout as our community’s primary concern, and rightly so. This fact is further underlined by the introduction of Facebook’s Instant Articles product, marketed as a reaction to a mobile web that has become too slow. That announcement hung in the air like a bad smell, and informed many of the conversations I had with people after the event.

It seems like we’ve been talking about the importance of web performance for years, and yet the average size of a web page continues to increase. We advocate greater collaboration between designers and developers sitting side-by-side. And yet, companies continue to outsource front-end development to teams based in countries like Ukraine or India. Progressive enhancement has proven to be an effective and efficient means of building reliable web services. Any yet, client-side MVC frameworks have become the tool of choice for many developers.

Events like UpFront are fantastic, and the team in Manchester deserve credit for organising an accessible and affordable event that featured an amazing and diverse line-up. I was particularly impressed that Dan reminded attendees of their code of conduct during his opening remarks; small details like this really matter.

However, I left Manchester wondering if we need little less talk and little more action. It often feels like we’re trapped inside a bubble; we attend conferences, read blog posts and nod in agreement with each other. Meanwhile the wider industry carries on regardless. Only so much can be achieved by attending (or speaking at) such events, surrounding ourselves with people we agree with. Real change will only happen when we take these messages to our clients, and educate those who pay our wages.