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Future Friendly at Mobilewood

Posted Sep 21, 2011 (updated Sep 22, 2011)

Something magic happens when you let clever people do a slow simmer together. In an era of one-liner tweets and hasty blog posts, it's all too rare to share extended face-to-face time stewing over tough problems.

Last week, I was privileged to do exactly that, secluded with nine of the smartest people I know to think, tussle, and talk about the challenges we face at the frontiers of mobile and web. We settled into a redonkulous house in the Tennessee woods for three days, and we wore space helmets. We called this hootenanny "Mobilewood."

Selected #mobilewood tweets give some flavor of the Mobilewood vibe, but here's a more orderly look at what we did and what we produced.

We worked

Everyone brought passion and intensity to tackling this giddy era of connected devices. We talked about the onslaught of device platforms. We talked about the opportunities and shortfalls of the web in addressing this avalanche. We debated just about every topic that touches mobile/portable content: technology, content strategy, publishing workflow, art direction, interaction design, user behavior, data structure, data transport, and the standards process.

My brain buzzed, and my little geek heart sang.

We tried hard to look outside immediate problems to name the broad challenges of the next decade and instead struggle toward high-level approaches that might guide us through this period of exciting chaos. What we found along the way:

  1. Wow, designing for a multidevice world is hard.
  2. It's only going to get harder.
  3. There are no black-and-white answers.
  4. An era of rapid innovation is, by definition, an era of surprises. None of us pretend to know the future.
  5. That means it's not possible to be future proof in our strategies for technology, design, and content.
  6. If we can't be future proof, we can at least be future friendly.

Being future friendly, we agreed, means thinking beyond any single platform, any single app, any single website so that we can focus on building services for the long haul.

Mobilewood - Lyza embraces chaos
Photo: Jeremy Keith

We wrote it all down

Please visit the brand new Future Friendly website, where you'll find our statement of truths, an exploratory outline of future-friendly thinking, and some resources to help all of us stake out a friendly future. Go get it:

Future Friendly heading

We're the first to admit that a) we don't have all the answers, and b) the content at Future Friendly is more broadly directional than practically prescriptive. That means there's much more work to be done. Over the next few weeks, you can expect to see more commentary from the Mobilewood group (including yours truly) about these big-picture ideas. Those ideas will orbit the future-friendly themes staked out at the website, but will also tackle practical techniques that you can put to work today.

To keep up with all of this, follow the @future_friendly account and the future-friendly hashtag #ffly at Twitter as well as the blogs and twitter accounts of the Mobilewood group:

You are welcome (encouraged!) to contribute your ideas, too. More on that in a bit. First, some more about what else we did at Mobilewood.

We played

Sure, sure, work is its own reward. But it turns out there's a ton to be said for camp fires, hot tubs, hikes, cooking, swimming, guitar-strumming, and immoderate quenching of thirst. Friends, we had a huge amount of fun at Mobilewood.

A playful spirit infused the whole thing. We laughed about night donkeys, turDOMkens, harpsichordists, and cinnamon-candy whiskey. Brad's funky ukelele bass lines mingled in an unholy alliance with Jeremy's Irish mandolin. After I found a cache of toys and silly hats in an upstairs closet, we gave them an immediate workout. A battered toy space helmet was especially popular, and it became the Mobilewood totem—and eventually the future-friendly logo, too (props to Bryan Rieger for that one).

Mobilewood - Hot tub
Photo: Jeremy Keith
Mobilewood - Helmet talk
Photo: Jeremy Keith

We spent hours every day in deep conversation, but we punctuated those sessions with frankly zany activity. There is something heady about being with people who can switch so effortlessly from smart to silly. Future and friendly indeed.

We bonded

When I arrived at Mobilewood, I brought a metric ton of respect for everyone else at the event. I'd had the good fortune to meet and mingle with many of them before. Others I knew only by reputation or through the occasional twitter or email exchange. Across the board, though, I thought of this group as serious, smart, and generally intimidating.

When I left, I took with me genuine affection and wonder for all of them. I was surprised by how personally affected I was by this gathering. It was an emotional thing when the event drew to a close. The mix of work and play—of conversations both professional and personal—was powerful. Lyza captured the spirit in her kind string of farewell tweets.

The bonding was important to our work. Throughout Mobilewood, we inevitably disagreed, floated dopey ideas, shared unformed thoughts. We could do all those things because we understood that we were among friends. Everyone was generous with their ideas and patient with those of others. We were in it together. It was remarkable.

We became a tight group, but not a closed clique. This is not an exclusive club. On the contrary, we want you to join.

You're invited

I worry sometimes about how gatherings like this are perceived. Words like "secret" and "elite" were used alongside the #mobilewood hashtag by folks who weren't there. Perhaps that's to be expected.

But Mobilewood was neither more nor less than a group of likeminded people gathered to share experiences and ideas. The kind of magic we wanted to spark for ourselves and for one another is possible only in a small group. The work, play, and bonding I describe above can't click in when you go beyond ten. Rest assured: if there had only been room, you would've been invited to the hot tub, too.

Our goal is to share what came out of Mobilewood as a base of conversation. That's what the Future Friendly site is all about. By sharing how this small group aligned itself last week, our hope is that others will find similar alignment. But we're also aware that this early effort may need some course correction.

Talk to us, share with us, teach us

Use the future-friendly hashtag #ffly to share your observations and ideas. Tell us about you've begun to implement some of these ideas. Explain where you think our future-friendly themes need refinement. Share the big-picture ideas and nitty-gritty practices that you think need more attention.

This stuff is hard, and we need to do it together. This is a time to be generous, and it's a time for conversation. Let's get after it.

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3 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

Sep 21, 2011 4:33pm [ 1 ]

I would say that although the content is key, the presentation is becoming increasingly important. People want to see the information they are after presented in a stylish and rich way, a bit like the devices around us, where fit for purpose seems to be more and more superseded by or working alongside stylish and beautiful.

Furthermore, as you have said very rightly, the range of new devices that are/will be around us offer a range of presentation capabilities, going from brief text to rich desktop app-like experience.

On the other hand, our time is a finite resource. Our time on the web, viewing information, sharing information, catching up on the web with friends, colleagues, students, and other people with common interest, has increased dramatically in the past 10 years. (just think how long you used to spend on the web 10 years ago, and how long you spend on it today). If I am after some information on the web, I may have time to read long articles on my desktop browser, or I may be in a rush and after a very short and specific piece of information on my smart phone. If I am sharing some information, I don't want to have to repeat the same post on the web, blog, twitter, email, and virtual learning environment for students. People providing or sharing information would benefit from a single data, that can be inputted from many devices, transformed and optimised for the client device that would not necessarily display all the information available.

Therefore, I believe that to be future friendly, the devices will need to know the importance of the content provided, and display only the level of importance defined by the user. This could be done by defining a new html 'importance tag' (a bit like the h1-h6 tags) that the content generators would use.

If what I am saying is not always clear, here is a diagram of what I mean:

input device 1  \           / output device 1 (all content, rich UX)
input device 2 - single data - output device 2 (important and medium content)
input device 3  /           \ output device 3 (important content only, simple UX

And thanks for your hard work :-)

Sep 21, 2011 4:52pm [ 2 ]

And I forgot to add that in the future we will be older (seems obvious but often forgotten), and it will get harder and harder for a soon increasing portion of the web users to type/view/touch with precision. So to be future friendly, the web will have to be all people friendly (going from very young kids to old people).

Sep 24, 2011 8:25am [ 3 ]

I wouldn't be concerned that people consider things like this as elite. I'm so thankful that I have the Future Friendly site as an awesomely-almost-manifesto, contagiously-curated example of how to help the organization shift toward the future of the web. It's going to be one of my main tools in the "stop building ridiculous websites" arsenal.

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