At Recursive, we like to stay on top of the latest technology trends. When I found out A List Apart had selected Minneapolis, MN as one of the An Event Apart cities, I jumped at the chance to go. It’s not often you get to see some of your idols speak in person. It’s even more special that Minneapolis is hosting the event.
In the organizer’s words,
“An Event Apart is an intensely educational two-day conference for passionate practitioners of standards-based web design. If you care about code as well as content, usability as well as design, An Event Apart is the conference you’ve been waiting for.”
In addition to some very informative and inspirational talks, An Event Apart provides an chance to rub elbows with some highly recognized and influential people such as Eric Meyer, Dan Cederholm, and Jeff Veen.
The conference was kicked off by the highly entertaining Jeffrey Zeldman giving a history of the web and reminding the attendees just how good they have it right now. We’ve gone from a time where standards compliance in all the major browsers was a joke to today where even the folks in Redmond are singing their praises. This is an astonishing achievement for our industry and we should all be thankful for the freedom of expression that technologies such as web fonts, CSS3, and HTML5 provide us.
Whitney Hess, a user experience designer, told us all how to listen to what our users were telling us and to respond accordingly. She gave us four techniques anyone could do to improve the way people interact with their websites. They are: design research, web analytics, usability testing, and experimentation/iteration. Case studies of Harvest.com and House.gov showed how these techniques could be applied successfully in the real world.
Harvest is a time-tracking tool with a simple, yet functional, design that was put together by a couple of non-designers. They built the tool for themselves and then released it to the world. When they outsourced their feedback gathering to Get Satisfaction, they found users engaged less, so they wrote their own app (Kaizen). In summary, it doesn’t take huge budgets and dedicated teams to make a usable website; just listen to your users and make sure all you do is for them and you’ll have happy customers.
Rarely if ever do we think about the decisions we make when designing. But according to Jared Spool, design is filled with decisions that affect the outcome of our designs. Following a strict set of guidelines and rules is a bad idea and usually leads to failure in edge cases. Being informed and using a process, which is flexible, is a much better methodology. Jared’s overall message was to step back and think about the process you go through as you create a design. Figure out where that fits into the spectrum and where you can improve, if at all.
After a long lunch, a chance to socialize, and a refill on caffeine, the second half of the day began with Luke Wroblewski giving us some reasons why we should put “Mobile First!” Some very convincing numbers show that mobile is the hot platform these days and has more room to grow. It is surprising, then, to see mobile sites left as an afterthought. Just as PC’s made their way into our homes in the 90′s, so too are mobile devices today and we’re naive to ignore the numbers.
Luke points out that developing for mobile first is often a better strategy than leaving until later in the development cycle. Mobile sites and applications tend to be much more simple and to-the-point than their desktop cousins. It’s the classic case where “divide and conquer” works perfectly. By pairing down the feature set and working in a constrained environment (small mobile screens), you can give the features the attention they deserve. Work on the “stuff that matters.” Later on, if necessary, take what was built and learned from building the mobile app to the desktop.
In order to accomplish the goal of making mobile a priority, there are a number of tips you can employ to help get the job done. Devices come in all shapes and sizes, make sure your design works well at different resolutions. Luke even went so far as to recommend creating a device atlas and grouping devices into categories. While we have to worry about supporting legacy browsers in desktop apps, with mobile devices it’s the exact opposite. In almost all cases, the device has a browser that supports CSS3 and HTML5, in addition to mobile-only features such as physical location and orientation. Use those advanced new features to your advantage. Also be aware of quirks associated with these devices. For example, the action of hovering doesn’t really exist for touchscreen devices. Tweak your designs accordingly.
Up next was Aarron Walter of Mailchimp who reminded us that humans use our apps. This fact is often glossed in all areas of designing and creating a website. We give users boring, utilitarian interfaces. We show them error messages that have meaningless (to the user) codes. In other words, we don’t treat our users like humans. Creating usable software isn’t enough; it needs to be pretty too. People get joy out of using beautiful interfaces and will use them more because they are beautiful. The biggest problem seems to be convincing clients, especially large corporations who are less likely to take a risk, that they need to spend time and resources on non-critical functionality.
Mailchimp makes use of “treats” such as their chimp mascot. When you log in, he greets you. As you move around the site and do certain things, he’ll compliment you or suggest tips. This gives the site a character; a personality. They’re finding people react to this. Some say they log in just to see what the chimp has to say to them today. This is the sort of engagement you want.
However, you shouldn’t go fill your site with cartoons and start having them pop up all the time. The classic example of this is Microsoft’s Clippy. Aaron points out that the problem with Clippy was that he got in your way while you were trying to get things done. He didn’t help you, he annoyed you. The key is to strike a balance. Humans only have so much time and can only handle so many things at once. Sometimes you just need to get out of their way. Mailchimp includes “party pooper” mode for this reason which disables all of the extra stuff and just lets you get down to business.
Wrapping up the first day of talks was Dan Cederholm giving us the lowdown on CSS3. CSS3 can be viewed as a minefield. Browser support is all over the place and many professionals haven’t yet got a handle on what’s new in the spec. However, Dan reminds us that not everyone has to have the same experience when visiting a site. The people saying “I can’t wait until I can use CSS3″ don’t get it.
With the current state of CSS3 support, it is best to limit enhancements to non-critical functionality. Maybe IE users don’t see a transparent background on a selected menu item and instead see a solid color. This is a problem we can live with because it doesn’t effect usability. The person would still get some sort of indication there is a selected menu item.
To show off and test CSS3, Dan has created Things We Left on the Moon. Using the site as an example, we went over examples of how to use RGBA, opacity, border-radius, multiple backgrounds, transformations, and transitions. Some of these properties or effects can even be applied simultaneously to produce new effects.
The first day of An Event Apart was packed with useful tidbits of information on a wide range of topics. Talks ran the gamut from theoretical to practical and in all different areas. Save for some minor room cooling problems, and Internet connectivity issues, the day flew by without interruption.
A synopsis of the second half will be on it’s way soon. Until then, here are a list of related coverage from Day 1.
- Ivan Stegic’s AEA Mpls Day 1 Nuggets
- Luke Wroblewski - An Event Apart: Web 2.1 The Medium Comes of Age
- Luke Wroblewski -An Event Apart: DIY UX: Give Your Users an Upgrade
- Luke Wroblewski -An Event Apart: Anatomy of a Design Decision
- Luke Wroblewski -An Event Apart: Emotional Interface Design
- Luke Wroblewski -An Event Apart: The CSS3 Experience
- The Official An Event Apart Site
- Official An Event Apart Backchannel
- An Event Apart Flickr Pool