Afterthoughts on REFRESH 2016, a Conference on Making Great Web Products

Afterthoughts on REFRESH 2016, a Conference on Making Great Web Products

I had the privilege to participate in a REFRESH conference held in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. The conference is about creating great web products, which includes topics such front-end development, product design, and business. I think it is a splendid idea to have a multidisciplinary program as there are already plenty of conferences where people go to learn more about their niche and not learn from other fields. We can bring more value to our clients and users by learning from other fields and for me, this is the strength of the REFRESH conference.


The event was held in an inspiring Kultuurikatel which according to Wikipedia is:

Kultuurikatel aka Tallinn Creative Hub is a non-profit foundation and cultural organisation in Tallinn, Estonia situated in the Tallinn Power Plant and a medium between international culture, creative industry and private sector. Kultuurikatel organizes events, workshops, performances.
Kultuurikatel brick building. Inside of it was REFRESH 2016

The building looks modest from outside. The inner sanctum of the building is a very cool combination of industrial time brick building and more modern elements.

Kulttuurikatel and REFRESH 2016 main stage

The venue is located near harbor and city center which made the conference accessible for may, including people like me coming from up north by ferry.

Each break there was drinks and something small to eat which was a better than having one heavy lunch and dinner. Points to the catering company and organizers for venue and catering.


Most of the program was at the main stage. After lunch, there were front-end talks in a smaller room, but I didn't attend those as when I have got older, I have been less and less interested in going to listen to technical talks. There are several reasons for that:

  • talks that consist of specific framework or a library, I can search and learn it by myself
  • not that many talks are about fundamentals
  • seeing source code doesn't leave any lasting impact compared to speeches that have more principles that I can apply in various circumstances
  • programming is my forte, and I learn much more by picking another field

Because of these reasons, I attended only Main Stage talks.

These were my top four talks:

  • Kate Ivey-Williams & Martin Jordan: "How designers help make government better for everyone."
  • Sten Tamkivi: "Premature Product Portfolio: How could launching too many & too early not be insane for a startup?"
  • Tiffany Conroy: "Beautiful authentication: Tear down the barbed wire."
  • Duncan Lamb: "What is 'Good'?: Exploring Design, Impact and Quality"

Why these four? I think these had all the ingredients that make a talk magnificent: a clear message, good pacing, interesting topic, correct amount of information and entertaining in subtle ways. A tiny amount of entertainment makes the content feel a bit lighter, but having too much decreases the value of the talk.

What were these talks about and what I learned from them?

Kate Ivey-Williams & Martin Jordan: "How designers help make government better for everyone"

The talk was about UK's very successful rethink of digital services. I found the history of how Government Digital Services was created and why. GDS is part of Her Majesty's Government's Cabinet Office which is more commonly known as British government.

Hearing about GDS gave me hope that maybe someday my government has a similar organization, and we all can have a better experience when accomplishing a task that is entirely or partly operated by a government. There are of course hundreds of tasks varying from applying carer's allowance to reporting a missing person. All these tasks citizen can do from Remarkable!

The GDS very openly shares how they operate, and also they share information very efficiently, not only inside their organization but to the whole world. It's incredible what kind of impact they can make to people's lives by reducing the friction when people are seeking for information.

Estonia & UK both have innovation going on at government level, and I can just hope that my country will learn something from these countries.

Sten Tamkivi: "Premature Product Portfolio: How could launching too many & too early not be insane for a startup?"

A bit background story from Sten's LinkedIn profile:

Sten is the CEO of Teleport, Inc, a company that moves you to your best place to live and work.
Prior to co-founding Teleport he served at Skype as an early executive, riding the roller coaster for over 8 years from startup to ~300M active users, ~30% share of all international calling minutes in the world and a $8.5B exit to MSFT.
Sten started his entrepreneurial career founding the first digital media agency in Estonia at the age of 18 and has stayed on the forefront of internet, user experience design and software development scene since 1996.

Learning about the Teleport service was itself already a useful as we have worked with my wife from abroad and the clients were in Finland. Teleport, in our case, would help decide in which country or city I could operate and what kind of impact it would have on my life. There are plenty of statistics the system can calculate based on my preferences and what I want to accomplish. Teleport can tell me differences between two cities and how the changes would impact my life, these numbers include financials, environmental, commuting time and even things related to personal freedom.

Under Teleport umbrella there are many products. Sten's talk was about launching multiple connected products aren't necessarily a bad thing even if many pieces of advice focusing on a core product. The presentation went forward like a train in a logical/timeline order from building core product and adding supporting products to match needs of various users (for example, startup founder vs. remote worker). Interesting idea is that multi-product company gets more publicity because you can publish information about new products frequently compared to single epic launch.

Tiffany Conroy: "Beautiful authentication: Tear down the barbed wire."

Data-driven and practical talk by Tiffany on how SoundCloud improved their registration / log-in process and what were the results of the change. SoundClound has at least 150 million registered users and from the collected information they make observations, for example, dropout rate on registration. Based on the insights they make adjustments.

I liked the metaphor of a product being a garden where people want to go, but they need to pass through a gate which is the log-in mechanism. In some cases, users need to go over the barbed wire to get into the garden. We should not build barbwires.

Slides for the talk

Duncan Lamb: "What is 'Good'?: Exploring Design, Impact and Quality"

I have to admit that Duncan Lamb wasn't familiar to me before the conference, the reason for my ignorance is that I follow a lot of developers and entrepreneurs, but not as many designers. What increases my shame is that he has been in Finland for quite some time. He is now Design Lead at TransferWise and previously he worked at Skype and Nokia.

Few ideas that I picked:

  • because people who build things are data-driven, we tend to collect data that is easy to collect and neglect things that are hard to measure. I think this fallacy is called McNamara fallacy
  • Nixon vs Kennedy debate, radio vs TV
  • using TransferWise requires that people trust TransferWise enough that they put money "into the app" and hope that TransferWise delivers the money. How to design application that people trust, requires more than it doesn't crash and things are well-aligned.

The talk was very well presented with excellent pacing and without any unnecessary words.


The REFRESH 2016 was a very well-organized event, and I am going to be there on 2017.

There is only one thing that I would change. My change proposal is a partly joke and partly first world problem.

We received a bag of full of swag and inside the bag, there was a box size of wine bottle. I was carrying the box whole day and at the dinner, I investigated what an earth I had been carrying. And earth it was. Three flower pots, seeds, and soil! Maybe next time something lighter. ;)

REFRESH 2016 swag

Big thanks for the organizers and speakers for great event and I hope to see REFRESH 2017 happening!