My daring adventure

This week I attended and spoke at the first ever Dare Conference in London. It’d been such a busy month in the run up to the event, and aside from all the preparation I’d done for my talk, I’d not really taken the time to think about what I was planning to get out of attending.

Good job really, as I’m sure whatever my expectations might have been, they would likely have been completely obliterated by the experience I found.

Now that I’ve decompressed a little, but while the conference is still fresh in my mind, I thought I’d jot down my experience of it.

The right tone

One of the things which initially attracted me to Dare was the notion of people being brave and talking about and exposing their weaknesses or failures, and sharing what could be learned from them.

In the run up to the event, Jonathan Khan was very open about the fact that he’d initially made mistakes about the messaging he’d used in trying to market it to people, and how that had impacted on the number of tickets they had sold.

His opening comments on the first day were just as open, explaining to us what had happened and that the event wasn’t going to break even. It was a really brave move, and it set the tone for the next two days perfectly. The honesty he generously offered us from the stage immediately switched everybody on to the fact that this was going to be a very different type of event.

Courageous

One of the things which struck me straight away, and which gave me an inkling that something special was going to happen, was when I arrived, all nervous and full of anticipation for my sound check early on the first day.

I got the chance to sit and chat with a couple of the other speakers, many of whom were people I’ve gained a huge amount of respect for, and hold in high regard for their speaking credentials. Most, if not all, were just as nervous as me!

Why? First reason was because everybody was presenting entirely brand new talks — this was new territory for everybody; nobody was in their safe zone. Secondly, and more profoundly though, these were mostly talks which were very personal, which covered some really difficult or delicate subjects. There was a hell of a lot of bravery being shown on the stages — it was taking a lot of courage for these stories to be told.

Respect

And the audience picked up on that courage amazingly. I think that once Jonathan had set the tone with his brave introduction, people understood that, right, what we’re going to hear here is going to be something quite dangerous. This wasn’t going to be a load of safe, well-prepared lectures on process and doctrine — this was going to be people talking about their lives. And that means that if you take umbrage at something somebody says, or you don’t respect what they’re saying, then you’re going to be disrespecting them.

It’s hard to capture in words, as are most “in the moment” experiences, but I think by the end of two very intensive days of hearing all of the stories from the speakers, and from the people we chatted with over lunch and coffee, we all felt like we’d got to know one another’s lives a little. We’d all been on this roller-coaster journey together, taking our own little detours on the way perhaps, but we’d all travelled a little way, grown in some little way.

Rather than learning new skills or techniques, we’d all learned a little bit about ourselves.

The end?

I met some really nice people at Dare. Not as many as I’d have liked: on day one I was too busy preparing and having micro-panics about my own talk to really engage with people as much as I ought to have done. And on the second day, my usual insecurities and feeling of being an outsider held me back from talking to as many people as I could have done.

But the people I did share time with were all really lovely people who had stories to share, and an ear to lend. Quite a few people I spoke to were struggling with some really quite fundamental questions about their careers, and the type of person they wanted to be. And often, I think it was the time between talks, when there was room for quiet contemplation or gentle discussion, which offered up some of the more profound moments.

I hope that Jonathan gathers the courage to repeat Dare in the future, because it was unlike any conference or business event I’ve ever been to. I was honoured and proud to be given the opportunity to share my story there, and I hope that people took a little something from it.

But I hope that if it does continue, then it retains it’s intimate, fringe-like atmosphere. So much about the two days was “of the moment”, and I worry that trying to repeat the same thing again, might feel, well: disingenuous. The organisers are very bright people though, so I’m sure they’d be able to find a way to make it work even more spectacularly.

Thank you Dare. You were magnificent. Thank you to everyone who looked after me and made me feel so welcome. I didn’t really know what my expectations would be, but over the past few days you’ve taught me so, so much.

Resources

  1. Livestream recordings of all of the main stage sessions
  2. Photos from the conference and fringe events
  3. The Dare website
  4. Dare on Twitter

How disability made me more productive

Next month, I’ll be speaking at the Dare Conference in London. It’s a new event, which features some amazing presentations from some incredibly talented people. I’ve spoken at a few events in the past, but never anything as exciting or important as this, so I’m just a little bit scared, particularly as I’ll be presenting on a particularly personal subject.

The conference is being attended by people from all around the world, with representatives from some big organisations. Which makes me both nervous and excited about what I’ll be able to bring to the event during my twenty-five minutes on stage. I’ve been procrastinating and re-drafting this talk for months now, but this month I need to get it all finished up, rehearsed and refined.

So what will I be talking about? My presentation is titled “How disability made me more productive“. Pretty ambiguous, eh? The description gives a little more detail:

I’m a developer and designer with ocular albinism. When I became registered as disabled in 2008, it made me reconsider almost everything about the way I live my life. Admitting to myself that I had a disability was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. But over time it’s also been liberating. By covering up my disability, I was making life more difficult for myself. By being honest and open about my weaknesses, I’ve found the freedom to be more creative, more pragmatic, and to participate more effectively.

I’m very self-conscious of the fact that I don’t want my presentation to be too self-indulgent — it could be all to easy to play the “poor me” card and talk about how difficult life can be. Instead, I intend to talk about the psychological and social aspects of having a disability, and how “being different” can, in fact, be a very good thing. I intend to break down many of the misconceptions of what it means to live with a disability, and to impress upon people how important it is to look at disability as a problem of society itself, not of the individual.

Secondly, I’ll be talking about how I’ve learned to be more open and honest with myself and — more importantly — with others about my weaknesses, and how I learned to turn them into strengths. There are constant challenges to this though, and I want to show how creating a more inclusive environment can help people to be more creative and productive, regardless of ability. We live in a competitive, fast-moving world — sometimes we need to handicap ourselves a little, to create a more level playing field. If we’re racing ahead all the time, and don’t give others the opportunity to catch up, then they might not be able or willing to contribute effectively — in work, or in life in general.

Most importantly of all though, I hope that people will go away from my talk with a slightly different view of the world: a better appreciation of the fact that we’re not all the same, that we all have different strengths and different weaknesses, and that is a very good thing; that by being more adaptive to an individual’s needs and abilities, you can inspire the very best in them. In short: be more inclusive. I don’t think we do enough of that right now. I certainly don’t feel like I live in a very inclusive world, and so I intend to start doing something about it.

It’s coincidental that presenting this talk has coincided with my new role as CTO with an organisation which is setting out to enable people to live a more independent life through the use of technology. If I get time, I’ll also be talking about how we’re starting to look at ways to use emerging technologies in unconventional ways, to allow less-able, elderly and vulnerable people to live a more inclusive and fulfilling life. Some of the things we’re talking about in R&D are getting me very excited.

The Dare Conference is taking place 23rd-25th September, and you can get a whooping £200 off a conference pass by using the discount code SPEAKER13. There’s also a special freelancer rate, which gets you in for just £299+VAT. The organisers have also put together one of those “Convince your boss” wotsits, if you need to persuade the powers that be.

Say hello to Jousey Gifts & Gadgets

At the start of the year, we started to develop ideas for an e-commerce business. For years I’ve worked on websites and commerce solutions for other businesses, both big and small. But I’ve always been playing to someone else’s tune; developing things around someone else’s business objectives and aesthetics.

So, when Jo came up with the idea for a boutique online gift store, we started to put the wheels into motion for creating something different, taking everything we know about online commerce, and moulding it into something of quality and substance.

We’re on a long journey with this project — that’s a long way to go — but last week we hit our first big milestone, with the soft launch of Jousey, a place to buy unique gifts and gadgets. The first iteration of the design has been carefully crafted to make simple and intuitive to use, but with a fresh, vibrant feel which we think breaks the mould of boring online stores.

We’re curating big, bold and beautiful product imagery to complement the choice products we’re stocking. And since we’re all doing more and more browsing on our mobile devices these days, we’ve crafted the site to adapt and look just as beautiful on phones and tablets. There are lots of updates and new features in the works over the coming months, and it’s great to have the opportunity to be working on a growing, evolving design for a change.

We’ll be having a proper press launch next month, and you can keep up-to-date with all of our adventures into selling the very best, hand-picked gifts at the site’s blog.

New horizons

2012 was a really busy year, and I embarked on some fantastic projects. I was really pleased with the work I was able to produce with two of our biggest clients of the year — Whitewood & Fleming and Shannon Trust — both invested a lot of trust in allowing us to do some really innovative work, which helped to drive their organisations forward. There was a lot of hard work involved, but it was worth it.

I also got the chance to work with the very talented people at Pearson’s Future Technology team. Their focus is on working with emerging technologies, and looking at what’s going to be big in the twelve months ahead. I got the chance to really flex my coding muscles and to research and experiment with some pretty cool technology and techniques. I was really pleased when the code for that project was open-sourced, which was a first for the team at Pearson.

In 2013 I knew there was going to be a change to the focus of my work. Although I thoroughly enjoy the diversity of the work we do at We Make Media, there was just no way I could embark on another year at the same intensive pace. Instead, I’ve been focused on finding projects which allow me to invest more of my time and for which I can take more ownership. 2012 was very much about servicing clients and making great individual projects for them. 2013 is more about finding projects which allow me to develop as a person, which give me more of a challenge, and most importantly of all: give me more ownership of the work I’m doing.

At the start of the year, Jo and I set about developing a new e-commerce idea which she’d started to develop. Over the past few months we’ve been carefully planning and developing, and in the coming weeks we’ll be getting ready to launch the first phase. It’s been exciting to work on because it’s allowed me to invest everything I’ve learned about online commerce and audience engagement, and create a design and build which looks stunning, and  works beautifully.

It’s going to be a long haul to get it to where we want it to be — getting it live is just the beginning — but we have a lot of confidence in the idea, and it’s going to be thoroughly rewarding to see it grow and take on a life of it’s own. Following the launch, I’ll be taking more of a back-seat on the project though, which brings me to some more exciting news.

From June, I’ll be joining the team at Alertacall, and taking up the role of Chief Technology Officer. Alertacall are innovators in technology which helps elderly and vulnerable people live safely and independently in their own homes, and I’ve been working with them on and off over recent years to help with the marketing of their business.

They’re at a very exciting time in the development of their business, and the technology behind their services is an important part of that. I’ll be jumping on board as CTO to take over responsibility for the technical infrastructure, development strategy for their products and looking at future innovation. It’s going to be an exciting and challenging role with a company which is at the forefront of it’s sector, full of enthusiasm, and which is improving people’s lives through the use of technology — something I’ve become increasingly passionate about.

Although most of my time will be taken up with this new role, I’ll still be splitting my time with other little projects and servicing our existing client base, providing consultancy and generally keeping one toe in the water. For the next several months at least though, this will be my main focus.

So, new horizons all round. 2013 is shaping up to be an exciting year!

Osito

Osito looks like an interesting iPhone app, which pulls together important information about your day-to-day life so you have easy access to things like calendar events, traffic, weather, etc, tied together so that it’s relevant to what your doing.

They call it “predictive intelligence”:

Unlike other applications, services or even personal assistants, Osito learns what you need to know based on the information you provide it — including your location, updates from your calendar, email and your daily routine. This means that Osito can provide you useful, personalized insights like a heads up there’s a traffic jam 20 minutes before your usual departure time or a weather alert before you leave for a lunch meeting.

I love this kind of move towards providing intelligent, relevant information in order to assist you, rather than having to dig into individual apps and resources to find relevant information. There are massive accessibility gains to be had from this kind of approach, as anything which acts as an assistant can be so, so helpful. As a low vision mobile user, I find it really frustrating to have to dig around and find information while on the go. Standing in a busy street hunting for information on my phone is a horrible experience.

Shame I don’t have an iPhone at the moment, else I’d be all over this. And Google Now promised a similar productivity gain, but that’s not supported on my particular Android brick at the moment. It’s a shame that this kind of stuff is only available on high-end devices — a web service which does the same thing would be brilliant.

RNIB guide to Apple accessibility

The RNIB have put together a really useful guide to accessibility on Apple devices, aimed at blind and low-vision users. There’s lots of detail in there for Mac and iOS devices, with overviews of features like VoiceOver, zooming and type-ahead, as well as tips on things like how to alter contrast and invert screen colours.

You can download the guide by following this link. Only disappointing thing about this document is that it’s only available in RTF and Word formats. Would be nice if RNIB would put it online as an HTML guide.

Google Glass is a clear winner for the blind

Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet‘s Head of Digital Inclusion, on the accessibility angle of Google Glass:

I myself as a blind person, for example, could really do with a pair of eyes that are always looking where I’m looking and, at the same time, applying some significant smarts to what’s in front of me. OK, so Google Glass only has one eye – but one eye’s better than none believe me!

Apple continuing to innovate for accessibility in iOS6

Apple announced the feature-set of the upcoming iOS release yesterday, and I’m always interested to see the new accessibility features. And like with everything else Apple do, they’re not standing still in this area at all:

iOS 6 comes with even more features to make it easier for people with vision, hearing, learning, and mobility disabilities to get the most from their iOS devices. Guided Access helps students with disabilities such as autism remain on task and focused on content. It allows a parent, teacher, or administrator to limit an iOS device to one app by disabling the Home button, as well as restrict touch input on certain areas of the screen. VoiceOver, the revolutionary screen reader for blind and low-vision users, is now integrated with Maps, AssistiveTouch, and Zoom. And Apple is working with top manufacturers to introduce Made for iPhone hearing aids that will deliver a power-efficient, high-quality digital audio experience.

It’s easy to be cynical when Apple make a song and dance about how empowering their technology and software can be, like in this video aired at WWDC yesterday — but the fact is, this kind of thoughtful and inclusive application of technology does improve people’s lives.

The blind shooting the blind

If you were ever in doubt about how empowering technology can be for people with disabilities:

I simply gawped when one blind woman pulled out an iPhone then snapped a perfect shot, guided by the built-in Camera app.

Eventually a common theme became apparent: Apple’s applications — Calendar, Messages, Mail, iPhoto, even Maps and most surprisingly Camera — are completely usable by blind people. These applications aren’t using any kind of secret API sauce. They’re using the same UIAccessibility framework you and I have access to.

The meat of this article si less inspiring though, as it discusses the failure of so many app developers to pu the powerful APIs at their fingertips, to good use for creating accessible apps.

This seems to be a common theme, and something which desperately needs to change. I love this little snippet from this post:

Here, then, lies the answer to how to tell whether some developer you’ve just met (or are interviewing) is serious about their craft in five seconds flat: borrow their device, and triple-click the home button. If you don’t hear “VoiceOver on”, or get prompted about VoiceOver, consider that −3 points on the Steve Test.