As I sit here at O’Hare Airport, eyes burning from the lack of sleep, I’m finally getting to wind down mentally and really absorb exactly what I’ve learned from the 2009 An Event Apart conference in Chicago. As a long time ALA reader, I was absolutely pumped to come out here for the first time and take in some of the cutting edge information straight from the horse’s mouth: a collection of industry heavyweights and unsung heroes alike. Put on by Eric Meyer, of noted CSS fame, and Jeff Zeldman, known for his contributions to web standards, the conferences have firmly established themselves as providing the de facto standard as to the quality and gusto, that certain wow-factor, that our imaginative and creative peers crave when making substantial investments of time and money into our careers.
The conference was split among two days; the collective genre of the speaker’s topics from the first day focused more on the business side of web development, while the second concentrated on code, developments strategies, and concepts to open our minds and tries to nudge the industry forward.
If I had to give the conference an overall grade, it would be a B. It’s a grade that leaves you thinking “I wish it was an A, but I’m glad it wasn’t a C”, and that’s pretty much my reaction. While A List Apart is normally known for introducing new and high-concept topics, the conference seemed to amplify sentiments from the past year. To say I was unsatisfied would be a lie, but to say I was blown away would be one too.
Note: all photos beautifully captured by John Morrison – © 2009 John Morrison – subism studios llc – link
The brain behind Happy Cog, Zeldman gave a talk about ensuring we are solving the problem that we were asked to. He emphasized the importance of research to help fight your case, gain trust in your client, and ensure that you are addressing the task at hand. Don’t forget about tried-and-true software design principals, such as scenarios, to show how the site you are developing will address that research. My favorite section of his lecture was speaking about how to “learn to translate” what the client has been asking for: this is not their native thought process, so we should not assume what they are saying (or complaining about, more appropriately) is really what they want. The culmination of his lecture was to ensure we are addressing “the user, the research, and the problem”. When doing some personal site work, don’t forget that you get bored of your layout way before the rest of the world does.
Final Grade: B – Very solid topic, but played a little too safe for me.
Jason Santa Maria
Jason is a guy who leads by example, whether you like his ideas or not. Santa Maria spoke about a point that most will agree with: even though we constantly think about “the big picture”, but realize much of the UX lives within the small details and nuisances that give a site it’s personality. For this reason, his first of three take-aways was to keep a sketchbook, a topic which he wrote about back in April (which was the main reason I started to keep a sketch book on me at all times), so that you are good to go whenever those ideas, big or little, come along. Topic number two was to incorporate a grid system, whether a pre-packaged one like 960, the up-and-coming Blueprint, or rolling your own. In addition, he suggests thinking horizontally as well as vertically; we constantly think about columns, but horizontal content chunks help to maintain consistency even if you vertical layout needs to change ( see Jason’s site, jasonsantamaria.com ). Lastly, point three was his take on how to use fonts, suggesting that you should try to stick with one serif font and one sans-serif font.
Final Grade: C – The sketchpad idea is very important and related well to “thinking small”, but the grid section didn’t seem as relevant, and the font ideas just seemed very opinionated.
An amazing take on what could have been a topic dowsed in buzzword fluff. The head of Brain Traffic, she spoke of how to better integrate content into the life-cycle of the projects, a method BT used to produce a range of satisfied customers from state universities to Target, alike. In addition to site maps and page tables, she suggests using a “content inventory” system to audit a pre-existing site to know exactly what you have out there for visitors to see ( a system which I have already used with a client, only 4 days after she informed me about it). The net result is building a stronger brand, better audience targeting, and more optimized content for search engines.
Final Grade: A – For me, Kristina optimized the level of new and credible knowledge that loyal ALA’ers are accustomed to.
Following in perfect suit, Dan Brown, author of the must-have Communicating Design, introduced “concept models” – a new approach for identifying content relations for a more potent information architecture. Similar to RDB mappings in idea, not only did he introduce the concept, but he walked through procedures of defining and developing the models, the common patterns to look for, and he backed it all up with real world examples.
Final Grade: A – Just like Halvorson: introduce your concept, explain it, show the details, give solid examples. Very direct idea, which was extremely valuable, and instantly usable.
True to her New York roots, Hess spoke about a sort-of guerrilla approach to developing a user experience. She walked us through some cases studies, including how Iridesco, creators of Harvest, hooked up their contact system directly to a G-mail account, and built a back-end feature request system, to build what the users want, and not what the development team thinks they want. Her main take away point was you can upgrade your UX by design research, web analytics, usability testing, and experimentation and iteration.
Final Grade: B – Hess not only helped dissect UX into very graspable components, but also gave the common man techniques to implement on their projects now.
What isn’t there to say about this upstanding gentleman? After suggesting that he was a secret agent in a past job, I then went on to listen to his lecture about “tearing down the walls” by designing in the browser. As a developer who masquerades himself as a designer, I am all for designing a site in the browser; after all, it is the medium we are addressing – the main selling point of Clarke’s lecture. Designing in the browser allows for more interactive mock-up reviews (rollovers, mouse* events, etc), faster edits to fonts, and it addresses browser anomaly issues up front, rather than after a client approves a lifeless mock-up. The technique is also extremely powerful for rolling out multiple template mock ups in a faster manner, as examplified in a case study for the New Internationalist (note: as of 10/19/2009, his design isn’t implemented).
Final Grade: B – I applaud Andy’s efforts on presenting a topic that antagonizes the recent photoshop-fluff site mantra that has emerged over the recent years, but find that his technique only stands for a certain category of clients that do not desire a “pixel-perfect” design. While I wish we would openly adopt his design technique, it’s going to be a while until we get there.
Final Grade: C – To quote a tweet I posted immediately following his lecture “Am I the only one who feels like they were expecting more from this topic? Everyone seems kind of pumped …I kinda feel like ‘and…’”. I am a huge fan of Meyer, but a recap on the products of a technology that most professionals are already familiar with and use everyday is not what I was expecting from the industry giant.
Simon wrote about “building stuff fast and getting it approved”: his lecture outlined ways to develop products faster using new, agile-esk techniques. A core creator of Django, the python web framework, he mentioned the ability to utilize tools in your given development language to prototype faster: Firebug for CSS/JS, IRB for Ruby, BeanShell for Java, etc. He then spoke about the ability to use JSON with padding (JSONP) to quickly build apps using APIs from other sites. Additionally, he talked about YQL, Yahoo!’s content query system, “/dev/fort”, which was he and a group of his peers locking themselves in a fort in England to conceive, design, and develop a site from start to finish, hack days, screen scraping, open source, and git hub.
Final Grade: C – If you haven’t already gathered, his lecture was incoherent and erratic. Willison definitely seems like a guy with a lot of great insight, but he needs to really work on tightening it up to an obtainable stream of conscience.
An in depth evaluation of the psychology of forms, brought to you by the man who, literary, wrote the book on the topic. Luke took us through very well known examples of web forms, including PayPal, Amazon, and LinkedIn, to illustrate common pitfalls with form design. He presented us with findings of his research into how users respond to forms with vertical label alignments (better for ease of use) versus horizontal label alignment (better for updating). He used heat maps to display how visitors navigated through certain forms, gave a detailed analysis of how to use client side validation, and whimsically took us on a “who’s who” of screwed up web forms.
Final Grade: A – I may go out on a limb and say that this was my favorite lecture. Definite ALA material, Luke presented forms in a way I’ve never heard before. Also, he definately walked away with the quote of the event, “This is the web … fix it”
Rubin’s lecture on “Designing Virtual Realism” was a walk-through on the world of interface design, and how it relates to the web. His big takeaway point was that great design explains itself, and that a natural feeling interface will create the illusion that an application actually performs better.
Final Grade: C – Reminiscent of Simon Willison’s “buck shot” approach to lectures, it was sort of hard to follow. Half way through, his speech turned from creating realism to adding textures to your background. When it was all over, I’d be lying if I said I felt like I learned something.
Wrapping up the event was a very hands-on approach to demonstrating the power of CSS3, combined with that tactful approach of progressive enrichment. Through the use of his very elegant demo site, dowebsitesneedtobeexperiencedexactlythesameineverybrowser.com, Dan shows us how we can add little hints of new CSS properties, even though not all browsers will render these styles the same across the browser spectrum, by utilizing eight techniques, one of which is to start using RGBA.
Final Grade: B – Dan confidently walked us through a barrage of new CSS techniques, and alluded to a bunch of great techniques that I have no doubt we will start to see emerging as trends in the upcoming years.