GEL writeup

Just wanted to leave myself a placeholder about the exceptional Gel Conference I attended today. Haven’t had a chance to write up my notes yet, (I’m so used to having wifi at conferences that I don’t even know how to take notes for myself without it.) but Mark and his crew put together something to truly be proud of. Imagine a professional conference that doesn’t just fully engage you and challenge your mind, but was even able to touch you on an emotional level. Well done.

Updated: I’ve added my thoughts on each of the speakers, below.

Probably the most appropriate way to review a conference called Good Experience Live is to discuss the experience as it happened, and list each speaker in the order they presented. But first, credit has to be given to Mark for selecting the New York Historical Society as the venue for the event. Stately and elegant without being stuffy, the environment was a great fit for the ideas being discussed.

First up was Ken Jackson, speaking of the history and uniqueness of New York City itself. A subject that’s near and dear to my heart, and Jackson did justice to the city with his presentation. Throughout the day, Mark raffled off gifts from sponsors, donors, and speakers in the breaks between each presentation, and the prize I perhaps missed the most was the chance to win Ken’s Encyclopedia of New York City, which demonstrates just how compelling and good-humored his tone was.

If Ken’s speech was one extreme of the boundaries which encompass a good experience, dwelling on physical space and the planning of entire cities, Elizabeth Peaslee’s presentation on Travelocity’s evolution was perhaps the other boundary. Though I’m perhaps too close to the subject of web experience, having worked in related disciplines for a good number of years, I think the non-web people in the audience got a good understanding of how a website goes from being simple due to a lack of content, to complex due to increasing functionality, and then back to simple due to a concerted focus on user experience.

Stewart Butterfield was up next, and I’ve known Stewart a few years and seen him speak a few times, and this was probably one of the best speeches I’ve seen him give. Based on his discussions over the years of The 5k, he mentioned some familiar ideas about how constraints inform and improve design and experience. The biggest revelation to me was that he first described play, particularly in the context of games, as being the way that children work within constraints (rules of the games) in order to have fun. Then different forms of art, such as architecture and music and even web design were presented as ways for adults to work within constraints for their own satisfaction. The final idea, which he may have given short shrift to, was that working within artistic or creative constraints for adults fills the same role that working within situational or arbitrary game constraints does for children. Constraints on an experience are what make "play".

Gillian Zoe Segal showed us an extended slideshow of characters she wrote about in New York Characters. These were photographs and her brief descriptions of a lot of the more colorful locals that populate the city, though I have to confess to being familiar with the majority of them because of my own obsessive nature about New York City. The point, that experiences are often defined more by the people who share them with you than by the inherent physical nature of your surroundings, was subtly made, but worth mention.

Coming from AOL, Rick Robinson probably faced more of a credibility hurdle when talking about good experiences to a web-savvy audience than any other presenter there. To his credit, he got really ambitious with his presentation while still remaining appropriate for the event, and I thought that was a fantastically smart and brave thing to do. With a background of an animation of people meeting each other and a soundtrack of some string-heavy nonoffensive music rising behind him (it sounded a little like a car company ripping off a Moby song) he talked about the connections that 35 million people try to make on AOL. Having been online a long time myself, I know that finding long-lost relatives, seeking solace after a tragedy, and meeting a spouse online are phenomena that predate AOL, let alone the web, but these examples were still a valid way to illustrate the potential of millions of users all sharing one Welcome screen.

Pam Lewis had perhaps the most inspiring presentation of the day. Her organization, the All Stars Project puts economically disadvantaged kids into situations like corporate offices and boardrooms, not just in order to familiarize them with the mores of those contexts, but also to communicate that those positions are opportunities that they might someday take advantage of. I wrote about a similar idea recently myself when I said, "The biggest factor limiting the life they tried to live was simply not being aware what their potential truly was."

Next up, and closing the morning’s proceedings, was Ze Frank. You know of him from his dancing. Though his presentation was an easy crowd-pleaser, being filled with lots of funny and outrageous bits, the larger point he raised about the kinds of concepts that people connect with (Talking about the success of How to Dance Properly, he said "Kodak asked me to come down and advise on their viral marketing efforts") were important in understanding how humor and humanity are always the most effective way to communicate.

Here in the middle, there was lunch. It was okay. It was mostly marred by there being no place to sit or really place your plate or drink while eating. It wasn’t a bad experience, per se, but was perhaps the least good one of the day. Except the lack of wifi.

But the afternoon began with a bang. The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players! I’d always been a bit skeptical of the hype around them, mostly because of the people I’d heard the hype from, but they were even better than everyone had said. Their schtick, as you may know, involves writing pop/rock songs to accompany the slides they found in slideshows picked up at estate sales and garage sales. Astonishing stuff, witty on several levels, and completely strange. I’m sure there’s a deeper point about how environment and cultural context inform experience, but they were just plain fun, and that’s what mattered to me.

In a similar vein of social contributions informing experience, Sam Brown discussed in detail his background as an artist and his relationship with technology, both of which educated his sensibility and helped to shape his ongoing art project, Exploding Dog. In mentioning the recurring unstated themes of Exploding Dog, I realized that, though many readers of the site can probably identify motifs around robots, monsters, fish, and rockets, they might be less consciously aware of themes like longing, hope, an almost foolhardy optimism, and isolation. Like all good experiences, it’s satisfying on a superficial level, but closer examination reveals that Sam’s work goes beyond being prompted by the audience and succeeds on a deeper emotional level as well.

James Howard Kunstler was up next, and he won acclaim from both Lance and myself for being the only person to say "fuck" while onstage all day. But childish amusements aside, Jim was an outstanding presence on stage, and a formidable advocate for the entire New Urbanist movement. His refrain, which I just couldn’t agree with enough, was that contemporary urban planning has been ceded to traffic planning, the problem with suburbs isn’t homogeneity but their dreariness, and that people don’t appreciate the beauty and evolved elegance of cities enough. The way he stated it, while showing off windowless, aluminum-sided, ridiculously proportioned, faux-country cottage suburban development homes, was that "We deserve better. This isn’t good enough!" God love a man with standards.

Maryam Mohit went into depth on Amazon’s UI design process, showing lessons that had evolved over the entire history of the site. Beyond the usual explanations of why the tab-for-each-store model didn’t scale to a second row of tabs, there were more subtle revelations about how arbitrary distinctions in the Amazon user interface could be traced to the fact that different groups within the company had created the differing experiences. Maryam was rushed past a few points in her presentation, so I fear we might’ve missed some good pieces, but overall it was a terrific insight into the design process from one of the world’s best online experiences.

I got the chance to briefly meet Andrew Zolli the night before GEL, and though he was personable and engaging, the conversation didn’t even begin to hint at how good he was onstage. Again, humor and provocative statements formed the initial superficial opinions of his ideas, but the broader points he was making about being in a transitional period for all kinds of huge social trends and entrepreneurial values were the deeper message that I took away. Perhaps most profound was the idea that companies and organizations that make good experiences aren’t just making brands, they’re making culture. Most people shudder to think of what kind of culture a for-profit corporation would make, but I think having Andrew’s talk sandwiched between articulate representatives of Amazon and Google did well to assauge the worst fears of how companies behave.

Speaking of Google, up next was their very own Marissa Mayer. Coming after Andrew’s presentation about values and ethics of companies, I’d expected her to at least give lip service to the "don’t be evil" credo that’s increasingly becoming as prominent as the "Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful." mission statement. But the focus was more on the history of the "white page with a search box" aesthetic of the site, and it was almost uncanny how similar Marissa’s presentation was to the talk by Craig Silverstein at the O’Reilly Emerging Technologies conference. Identical ideas on opposite coasts by different execs a week apart? Google’s a cult!

Rounding out the day was Steve Bauman. Steve was set to synthesize all of the day’s lessons into a few larger themes for the audience to absorb, and he was qualified for that task due to his background as a minister. Though he eventually described some beautiful ideas about threshold experience, where the entrance to a place mentally and physically prepares you for the experience to come, (particulaly important when trying to get people into a spiritual mindset when they’ve just walked off the sidewalk in midtown Manhattan) the earlier examples he gave of the… er, somewhat different spiritual experiences possible are what stick in my mind. Specifically, Steven showed some snapshots from the Precious Moments Chapel and the Holy Land Experience. Back in a less ridiculous vein, there were several shots of New York City, showing the arched boughs of trees forming natural cathedrals in Central Park, and inviting pedestrians in the city to see a normal trip down our streets as something tantamount to being in a temple.

Having brought the day full circle, back to New York City and framed in the context where we were all thinking about not just good experiences, but Good experiences, the conference came to a close. There were the usual drinks afterwards, but it was already clear that this was a remarkable success for Mark Hurst and for Good Experience, along with the attendees. I’ll definitely be back next year, and if my only quibbles were about network connectivity and having a place to set my drink, I’d think it’s obvious that I’d recommend to others that they attend as well.