October 2008 Archives

October 27, 2008

An Event Apart

Yeah it's way overdue, but, then, what about Leftsider isn't?

After getting really jealous that Mager was enjoying the awesomeness that was An Event Apart San Francisco, I decided that I wouldn't lose anything if I asked my new employers to pay my way to An Event Apart Chicago this October. Turns out I had to turn on the persuasion a little bit, and it was not without its stresses... but I did it. And man am I glad I did. Awesomeness all around.

To cut cost I opted to rent a car and stay with my brother-in-law in Addison. The cost of the rental didn't even cover one night in the Sheraton where the event was held, so I figure it was worth it to take the 25-mile commute.


Since I had heard that other events had "sold out," I assumed that this was going to be a very intimate setting with web bigshots. I also was extremely skeptical if this was even possible. Well, it turned out to be approximately 450 people in a large meeting room--not bad but by no means intimate.

2943102226_7378dd1cc1.jpg What made this work was the presence of the presenters in the audience. Not in some green room somewhere or huddled away working on the Next Big Thing™, but there hanging out, being cool, taking notes of other presenters' talks. In a reverse psychology kind of way, it made you really self conscious; If Jeffrey Zeldman is taking notes and gushing on twitter about Dan Cederholm's presentation, why aren't you? This admonition totally worked in favor of the event, which emphasized taking pride in your work and not settling for mediocre craftsmanship. By the end of it, everyone who was there to be impressed what certain that their current work was crap but their next product was gonna shred. Instead of fanboy lines you had people lining up after a talk to actually ask real questions and broaden their understanding of topics discussed--and that says a lot.


2943099216_02375dba41.jpgDay 1

Jeffrey Zeldman: Understanding Web Design

An Event Apart co-founder Jeffrey Zeldman started of the event with Understanding Web Design.

  • What do web designers need? They need empathy, the ability to feel like web users. 
  • Your design should seduce users, rather than repel them.
  • Sit down and design/write content around how people will use your site.
  • Web design is largely self-taught, an education in this area is hard to find. Teaching Excel is not the same as teaching business, teaching Photoshop/Dreamweaver is not the same as teaching web design.
  • There's a lack of convention in job titles as much as there is a diverse range of educational backgrounds
  • The website is often part of some other department, rather than a its own initiative. 
  • Web designers have little resources to really know how to get it right (design AND usability)
  • Unfortunately journalism on web is mainly focused on what makes money or will be the next big thing rather than what the overwhelming majority of designers are actively doing.
  • Landmark web design always fits the content of the creator.
  • Good web design is about the character of the content, not the character of the designer.
Tips for designing
  • Start with the user/your passion
  • Know yourself (in regards to the fit of your position/project)
  • Find the right clients (see above)
  • Sell ideas, not pixels
  • "I don't know" is okay if you are going to research and find out
  • Build trust
  • Bring out the big guns. Use consultants to reinforce your ideas.
  • Create a paper trail
  • Never underprice your work
  • Say no to SPEC
  • Say no to rush jobs
  • End with the user/your passion
It's really interesting that despite being underwhelmed by this presentation it was spot-on as far as what this conference should start with: who we are as people responsible for web design and development and how we can improve.
Eric Meyer: Debug / Reboot
The other founder of AEA, Eric Meyer brought the technical heat. His discussion was largely code-based, showing how CSS can be used to highlight usability and accessibility issues during the development process.
  • Developers need to be using CSS for debugging, checking links and accessibility, as it is standards  in a way that you customize
  • Covers things that fall through validators and might cause issues that aren't immediately available.
  • CSS frameworks should really be developed by you, as you'll probably heavily edit any pre-existing framework that you use (that being said, heavy customization makes frameworks your own. It's a build up/tear down conundrum.
Despite being pretty under-educated about this, I immediately see the efficacy of this and hope that every one in the web dev community starts having this level of granularity in their development process.
Jason Santa Maria: Storytelling By Design
I wasn't sure if it was because I told him I worked for a religious organization or if he was following the tweetstream and saw my playful shot during his presentation (me and my big mouth), but it seemed like I was getting a little coolness from the JSM after his talk. Ultimately I did chat with him on a couple of occasions and even got a pic with him so I hope all is cool. :P
  • Graphics help resonate the emotions of the story the web tries to tell.
  • As a designer, you are the narrator. (not convinced by this.)
  • "Design can't not communicate." Everything communicates something, whether you plan for it to or not.
  • Constraints are not obstacles... perhaps we're not designing hard enough?
  • Communication needs to be based upon precision and clarity (amen!)
  • New needs require new solutions, systems and methods
  • Basing design upon a ratio and rule; recognizing the application of these ideals are completely different between web and other media
  • Greater understanding of CSS and layout can establish more creativity (knowing your boundaries)
  • Creation driven by the message rather than technology
I think I can find a lot hidden in this presentation that never really reached the surface. Naturally a presentation of this type can't go too deep into definition--breaking down storytelling is like trying to define romance. Even so, I think this may be the single aspect of creating websites that needs more attention but consistently gets less. As the web is a method of transferring information, technology will never trump the ability to tell a story. In the following Q&A, Jason said it himself: "Putting your site on the web does not make it great." I think that's sorta where I am, unfortunately.
Sarah Nelson: Actionable Ideas
Sarah Nelson works at Adaptive Path as a design strategist. If you want to know how to make successful sites based on user experience, Adaptive Path and Cooper are really vanguards of user-oriented design you should come to know. In this presentation, Sarah talks about design criteria.
  • Use design criteria to emphasize specific rules for your team to follow
  • Constraints are not bad. Constraints are freedom.
  • Collaboration doesn't have to be painful. Collectively define the problem at hand, and generate team-supported ideas
  • Design criteria need to be actionable items, not esoteric concepts
In a sense I felt like this was an extestion to Leah Buley's UX presentation at the IA Summit in Miami earlier this year, So I didn't really give it the attention it deserved. I regret that, because afterwards at lunch I ate with her and we had a great conversation about completely random but fascinating things that made me pretty excited about what she does. Also, in retrospect, I totally shoulda got a pic with her.
Jason Fried: Designing the Details: Beyond the Basics
Jason Fried is at 37 Signals. Love or hate them, their products do exactly what they advertise and do them well. Jason took an hour to show, through their projects, how you can take your Ikea-esque site and make it into a hand-crafted, high quality project. In each of the points the theme is clearly craftsmanship.  
  • weak/normal/strong:  sometimes emphasizing an element can be better done by de-emphasizing the surrounding elements
  • anticipate the flow, sharpen the focus: make mouse clicks and selected fields work for the user's movement through tasks.
  • copywriting is interface design: words are just as effective as graphics in the goal of successful design. Be explicit and communicate naturally rather than in tech-centric jargon.
  • timing is everything: factor in erroneous mouse targeting and necessary crossover in selecting on:hover elements. Additionally, very few things happen instantaneously in nature; we are much more accustomed to seeing things change.
  • Photographic memory: remember user actions, thereby removing the need for settings and preferences
  • Extreme detail: things that really may be overlooked but will be loved by your development team and take quality to the next page. Eliminate error messages, make little known features your audience can discover and enjoy (If you are using a framework, you can install these features across your projects).
Fried notes that they don't use comps, don't use wireframes. Basically he says they make rough sketches (with fat markers to avoid getting to detail oriented) and then go straight to the code. This is interesting.
Andy Clarke: Underpants Over My Trousers
Never heard of this presenter, but Andy Clarke's fantastic approach was a breath of fresh air from the day. Taking cues from the comic book world (hence the heroes with "underpants over their trousers). Points he focused on:
  • How panels direct flow
  • How variation in panels add and direct emphasis
  • What happens between the panels... is the reader's imagination
  • Panels sized by involvement time rather than a grid or length of content
  • Emphasis by escaping the panels (selectively)
  • Removing assumptions about where the reader has picked up the storyline
Oh how I wish I could've recorded this presentation. Absolutely stellar. I can't express how inspiring this was. And his method was unparalleled: talk about comics, bring about the inspiring connection, show a web implementation, show the code. This is perfection. I've been inspired not only in design but also in presentation style. 
By this point I think we were all at capacity. There was a special session where an Adobe guy showed some of the coolness (and yes it is ALL COOLNESS) in Creative Suite 4, and after that we all headed out to get loose at Fado Irish pub and grill. I rolled in we a few cool people and headed out with another set, so I consider it a great night.

The open bar event was sponsored by (MediaTemple) but SquareSpace was in the house giving up t-shirts as well. Cool peeps.


Don't think Eric's CSS debugging prepared him for this one. His face is priceless.


Day 2

Rob Weychert: Design Lessons in Chess

Philadelphian designer Rob Weychert took us through lessons learned/reinforced in improving his chess game, particularly the ones that relate to creating for the web.

Some preliminary points:
  • Chronology: Do your backrground work; form a strategy before the game starts. Do research.
  • Opening = Information Architecture
  • Middlegame = Visual Design
  • Strategy vs. Tactics: Strategy is long term goals, whereas tactics are short term moves that fulfill the strategy. Design is a tactic to achieve the strategy of communicating information.
  • Endgame =
  • Opponent as user, meeting their needs
  • Opponent as client, achieving their goals
  • Opponent as colleague, challenge each other to push further
Lessons Learned:
  • Content is King: The king piece, in chess, is the ultimate goal and the focus of all action. In web, everything supports content, which is the greater strategy
  • Know Your History: 
  • Think Ahead: Realize the impact of your moves upon the road ahead, and the responses to those moves.
  • Don't Get Too Attached: If you see a good move, look for a better one. Don't settle for the first good thing.
  • Act with a Purpose: Cultivate your project around that sole "king" that is your goal in your web project (see Content is King).
  • Obey Circumstance: Operate and execute based on need, rather than your existing "bag of tricks." Don't put the solution before the problem
  • Principles Are Your Friends. Except When They're Not: Follow established rules, but know why you're doing it. Determine whether they apply to the current situation and work accordingly.
  • The Journey is as Important as the Goal: Love your failures; they are the elements that create the successes you have.
Very simple and down-to-earth presentation; his points were very relevant and could probably be more useful than you'd first assume. But then, that's kinda like chess, isn't it?
Dan Cederholm: Implementing Design: Bulletproof A - Z
Due to family loss, there was a lineup change, but the backup was actually Dan Cederholm, author of Bulletproof Web Design. His voice will lull you to sleep, but his humor will keep you awake. Case in point: A-Z was changed to A-U because he ran out of tips for all the alphabet (even after skipping a half-dozen letters). 

Even so, there was no way I could capture each letter. Basically the best summary would be the emphasis again on craftsmanship. Craftsmanship in implementation is not immediately noticeable, but is noticeable nonetheless. In many instances, certain features would not be immediately noticeable unless a page was resized or something else exceptional to intended usage. Covering all bases--even the ones that are extreme--is what is means to be "bulletproof." By bulletproof, Cederholm means flexible, adaptable, and effective without complexity.
Cameron Moll: The In-House Designer
Cameron designed on his own from 2004 to 2006 before accepting a position on a design team at the LDS church (I, having started my company last year before being picked up by the communication team of the SDA church, was all ears once I heard this). 
  • In-house designers do 3 things: work, publicity, relationships... 20%, 40%, 40% respectively
  • There are few things that build trust better than results. Build relationships that can generate great results.
  • Sometimes the best methods of communication are less efficient but more effective.
  • Great designers are also great communicators. Great communications skills create the shortest distance between ideas and realization.
  • Understanding when to show elements of a product and when to show the product in its entirety. Remove fidelity when it is not necessary for agreement, so that team players can focus on what counts.
  • Establish weekly design reviews, in-house workshops, and other tools that develop team skill and experience
  • Establish connections with internal departments, local colleges & university, and other relationships that can be mutually influential
  • Establish a culture and environment that fosters creativity.
Just a few of many very useful points that would be useful for any communication department (Adventist entities don't have design departments, do they?)
Curt Cloninger: The Arts & Crafts of Web Design
Curt Cloninger came from left field with this presentation. Not sure how it was received, but there were some definite concepts that were worth discussion in his comparison of websites and arts and crafts. Arts and Crafts:
  • Stays true to the nature of materials. What is the nature of a pixel? A link? A scrollbar? Stay true to that and don't mix up the interaction for users
  • Blends of artistry and handicraft. The web is a blend of design and development, and your skillset determines your output.
  • Unites the Microcosmic and Macrocosmic. The web also allows us to detail to level which ultimately designs harmonious (and sometimes excessive) themes. The web can be ornate.
  • Values Utility and Beauty. There is a value in effectiveness, but also in aesthetic. There is a value in Beauty (and solely beauty?). Adding aesthetic elements correctly can provide value.
  • Is Enjoyable. Create what you want. If the tools are not there to make what you want, create the tools. Be immersed and involved.
  • Redesigns the World. Take your work beyond the parameters of your project. Design your users. Design the project's environment.
Ultimately, he encouraged the audience to go further and do more and become geniuses of their craft.
Jeffrey Veen: Designing the Next Generation of Web Apps
Jeff Veen. Man. What can you say that can really show how cysed I was about hearing this dude. And he did not disappoint. Jeff took a step back from the craftsmanship minutiae and shows where things are going. Starting in 1974, he oriented our direction with the advent of the video game and the hard drive, and took us through an understanding of where we have come from and what that means for our web creations.
  • Tools for participation and scale of data: from 1974 to the future, the direction of the web.
  • Every minute of the day, 24 hours a day 18 hours of video is uploaded to Youtube.
  • If things make you (the designer) feel stupid, it's probably not your fault; it's the presentation.
  • The presentation of data can alter the response from the audience, negating the default desensitization of statistics
Tips for displaying information
  • Assign different visual cues to each dimension of data.
  • Remove everything that isn't telling the story
  • Provide filters to enable clarity
  • Designers will need to learn to operate without total control. Users will determine device and layout.
  • Give tools to people to create their own stories with your information. Use the data itself as a mechanism for navigation (google analytics is an excellent example of this).
  • 70% of google traffic originates outside of the United States
  • Under 25 internet users, born into a web world assume their web information is public unless made private, over 25 assumes private unless made public.
  • New ideas come from your heart, not your wallet.
I was surprised that the event was not so much about the future of the Web as it was the state of the designer. To that end, Veen's presentation really did a good job of answering that expectation while still keeping in the conference spirit that the future of the web is in the hands of the designers right now--today.
Look at how tall this dude is! Also, Zeldman in the back, left.
Coming to the end of this two-day session, I'm convinced again that the future of the Web is in my hands. I need to stop trying to do what is normal and start hand-crafting again--bringing a level of effective quality and creativity that is more appropriate to the Web's potential. First day back in the office I knocked out two phenomenal solutions that would have otherwise been mundane. I need to attend stuff like this more often to keep my thinking sharp. 
So that was Chicago. And that's about it.