An Event Apart
July 29, 2010

Fair Warning: I'm going to write this without looking up more than names of presenters & their presentations ... so I guarantee some details will be fuzzy and quite likely not fully accurate. This post is more about overall impression - the flavour - rather than the specific details. You want details, check out Luke Wroblewski's excellent summaries dated July 27 and 28. Also, Marc Drummond has some absolutely wonderful summaries.

The infamous Jeffrey Zeldman kicked off the conference with a brief history of computing and the web and between some of his comments and being surround by young whippersnappers, I suddenly felt quite old. I knew most of what he covered (this was to become a theme throughout the conference), but his style was very engaging and I thought it set a nice tone for later pieces both for those who already knew the information and for those who weren't well-versed in computing history.

There were three talks in particular that were particularly important and meaningful to me and the second talk is one of those. Whitney Hess talked about user experience and user testing - something that I harp about constantly. Seriously, people are tired of listening to me bring this up. A lot of what Whitney had to say resonated with me because I've been saying most of it since my teaching days. The first website I built was for my students - and I was stunned when each individual did not find it the most easy to understand website they'd ever seen. I'm not kidding, I was really shocked to discover that certain elements had been easy for some to pick up, but difficult for others. I asked for feedback, I adjusted the site ... and then the same thing happened the following semester which led me to realize the most important lesson about web design:

Your website is never done.

It's never perfect, not everyone will get everything, and you should always, always, always listen to your current users and continue improving what you have.

My favourite tidbit from Whitney, I think, was her insistence that you need both anecdotal evidence and analytical numbers in order to do a real examination of what's working and what's not. I feel strongly about this myself, but wasn't sure how to really quantify or prove that to others, but Whitney pointed out that you must use anecdotal evidence to help interpret the raw data of analytics. I think that's true in a lot more disciplines than web design ....

Of course, the most difficult task is paring down a site, or even a page of a site, to what the user really needs. There's a lot that goes into figuring out who your users are, what additional users you want to attract and how to fight off the various departments who insist what they have to say HAS to be on that page - usually in 48px h1 ... and can you make that red and maybe blinking so it attracts their attention?

Next up was Jared Spool. I was half afraid he was going to give the Amazon talk, which is utterly delightful and really well done, but I've seen it online a handful of times already. (Tuscan whole milk, anyone?) Instead, he talked about the different kinds of design strategies - like the 37 Signals guys do "self design," that is, they design for themselves. They do it quite well and while it's quite off-putting to some people, it is a legitimate way to to design. To be honest, at this point I started enjoying Jared's style and stories so much, I managed to stop retaining information. I'm going to have to go back through the slides, notes and Marc Drummond's excellent notes in order to really absorb Jared's talk.
I got to meet Jared for a few minutes later on in the conference - really nice guy. Wish I was a lot better at small talk and schmoozing because I came across as a clueless schmuck, I'm sure.

After lunch was Luke Wroblewski's talk about the mobile experience. I knew how mobile was exploding, but some of the raw numbers still surprised me. This has been an issue I've been fussing about recently ... but haven't had the time to address. I feel like I'm overwhelmed by all I need to get done! Once upon a time, you coded a site. Now you code the site, the mobile version, the print version ... and to really do it right, it should be a flexible grid ... but that's bleeding into another talk that came later on. I'm afraid I've given Luke short shrift here, but I really do need my notes for this one.

Next up was Aarron Walter talking about human interaction on the web - this was definitely a favourite presentation and something I've always felt strongly about. There is just no reason that a site can't be engaging and admit the human element. You can still have a professional site and be engaging and full of personality. Of course, you also must have a solid site architecture, excellent user experience (from the functional point of view) as well as the element of engagement. Aaron works at Mail Chimp as a user experience designer and I have to say, that has always been one of my favourite sites in terms of its personality. It does what it is supposed to do ... it is easy to use ... it is well set up ... and it's fun. People log in just to see what the chimp will say on certain pages. They'll log in to see what the login page looks like today. They'll hunt pages (when they have the time) for easter eggs like the width of the page "tearing off" the chimp's arm.

That's this unquantifiable "essence" that I think a lot of business-oriented types don't get. There is a human, emotional, non-quantifiable benefit you get to having people enjoy using your site. That warm, fuzzy feeling when they find something new and relate to it is most likely going to make them more patient when something goes wrong - as it inevitably does.

The last talk of the first day was Dan Cederholm's talk on CSS3. I'm afraid I'm going to give Dan short shrift as well because really, I pretty much already knew the bulk of what was covered in Dan's presentation. It was a good overview and it was important to have the first day of the conference, but because his flight had been delayed (canceled?), he came as the last main presentation of the day. He was scheduled to go just before lunch, when people could focus a little better on the nitty gritty and then Jared was to have been the last main presentation of the day - and given his speaking style, this probably would have worked better. But, it is what it is. Dan's talk on CSS3 covered the basics of rounded corners, RGBA, transitions and the like. There were some good details in there that I need to go back over and make sure I've internalized, but it was mostly a basic CSS3 grounding.

That's a heck of a lot of material and that was just the first day! I'll try to summarize the second day some time over the weekend.

Posted by Red Monkey at July 29, 2010 10:04 PM | Design | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Bob from back at FF said:

I haven't been to your site in a while. I like the redesign and was excited to see that you had attended an Event Apart.

I went to one last year in Chicago and was a great experience. Which one did you attend?

October 5, 2010 8:20 PM
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