CashStar’s front-end team takes Manhattan and finds innovation and inspiration

By Kelsey Raymond, Front-End Engineer

The CashStar front-end engineering team attended the Smashing Conference in New York City.

Smashing Conference 2016Recently, CashStar’s front-end team took a trip to New York City to attend the eighth annual Smashing Conference hosted by Smashing Magazine – an online publication covering the world of web design and front-end development. I’ve been following the magazine for a few years now and have had my eye on this conference, so this trip was an exciting and much-anticipated opportunity.

The CashStar front-end engineers are a team of five, plus our Senior Manager of Software Engineering, Scott Elson. We style everything that our clients’ customers see – from the consumer platform to the business tools – and we help brand our client’s gift card checkout experiences, emails, and digital gift cards. Attending this event allowed us to broaden our horizons code-wise and also see what other creative individuals are doing in our field. We attended to remove the front-end blinders, so to speak.

The four-day event sought to solve real-life design problems and the best workflow to solve them intelligently. Taking place at the New World Stages in Manhattan, the event was jam-packed with smart people, practical talks on techniques, clever strategies, and useful tools, coupled with learning, sharing and networking opportunities.

Smashing Conference 2016

Left: The Smashing Conference hosted at New World Theaters in Manhattan. Right: The conference badges were complete with our names, the wi-fi password, and the schedule – oriented for quick viewing!

Alla Kholmatova, an interaction designer at FutureLearn, had an intriguing discussion about the importance of pattern libraries, or a collection of user interface design patterns. She discussed designing and naming based on function rather than appearance. From a front-end perspective, buttons, forms, and typography (to name a few) can look any way you want them to. If you style buttons that have different functions (i.e. a CANCEL button and a SUBMIT button) to look the same, this can be confusing for users. Taking that design factor into consideration helps to streamline the user experience. This was particularly interesting as we’ve been researching and drawing upon some amazing brands to help us create our own CashStar pattern library. We consider FutureLearn’s pattern library to be one of those sources of inspiration – a result of Alla’s years of hard work!

Smashing Conference - Espen Brunborg

A slide in Espen Brunborg’s presentation.
Click to enlarge.

Espen Brunborg gave a great talk on comedy in web design joking that all of the web looks the same. He touched upon how to apply comedy (not just humor – but something unexpected) to the web to get away from the “design factory” types of layouts. This was especially relevant because a goal of ours at CashStar is to write simple and easily maintainable code while taking into account our brand’s desire to look and feel different across our many CashStar platforms and products.

I especially appreciated Espen’s comparison between music and comedy on the web. He described music as being fast, universal, intuitive, invisible, user-centric and scientific with a steady beat that’s rhythmic and expected. Comedy, however, can be slow, individual, surprising, impressive, visionary, artistic and unexpected. While neither approach is right nor wrong, Espen made a great point that not all design has to fall into one category – it can be a healthy combination of both. Web design can be music and comedy.

CashStar Engineering Team

The Front-End Team (from left to right): Jessica Koch, Caleb Dudley, Kelsey Raymond, Shauna Sanchez, Ian Nichols, Scott Elson.

Seb Lester

Seb Lester’s introductory slide. Click to enlarge.

One of my favorite talks was by the mystery speaker, Seb Lester. Seb is a typographer and hand-letterer known worldwide for his Instagram videos of his hand-drawn type. He showed us a visual progression of his calligraphy skills from an early age to his current work, including his logo design for NASA’s SWOT mission. His work is incredibly inspirational and it was refreshing to see his manual design processes, especially since it contrasts with my very digital process day-to-day.

The conference ended with a presentation from Josh Clark, founder of Big Medium. His talk titled “The Physical Interface” highlighted how the web is changing – and how we can program objects like cars, inhalers, and prescription bottles to collect data and ultimately make our lives easier. He gave examples of innovative products such as the LifePrint, a printer and app that will allow you to print a still-frame of a video. The printer paper contains serial data that, when viewed through the app on your phone, will play the video back. So astonished by the future of photography, you could hear the “wows” from the audience.

Smashing Conference - Josh Clark

A slide from Josh Clark’s talk. Click to enlarge.

Josh also discussed the concept of the Amazon Dash buttons, which can be purchased and pre-programmed to re-order subscription items from Amazon. Users can take it one step further and reprogram the Dash buttons to order virtually anything else – perhaps an eGift Card?

Finally, Josh touched on how technology has in some ways failed us. While technology has made our lives more convenient, it has also removed a personal touch from many parts of our lives. Texting, for example, has replaced phone calls, where inflection can be hard to interpret. Josh showed a great clip from Curious Rituals: A Digital Tomorrow, a short documentary about the future of technology. The clip was meant to be an exploration of some pretty funny outcomes of what could happen when we depend too heavily on technology to streamline our lives.

It’s often difficult to stay on top of all of the new technologies and happenings in the field: What new library or framework should we be working with? And why? It’s refreshing to hear first-hand from the experts about what they’re using, what they would and wouldn’t recommend and to see what they’ve built with these frameworks. The Smashing team, especially Vitaly Friedman, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine, as well as the host of the event, gathered a solid lineup of experts for the show with a vast range of knowledge from SVG on the web to CSS pre-processors. It was a great opportunity to broaden our perspectives on what’s being done and can be done in their field – information that we have brought back to CashStar and shared with the 300+ leading brands that we power.

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