An Event Apart Summary from Atlanta 2011: Day 1

06-22-11 Ben Callahan

Lots of conferences are out there to help you get better at making websites. One of the best is put on by the folks from A List Apart and it's fittingly called An Event Apart. I had an opportunity to attend this year's event in Atlanta and this is a summary of what I took away from day one of the conference.

I’ve had the privilege of attending several An Event Apart conferences over the past few years. Jeffrey Zeldman and Eric Meyer manage to bring in some of the best presenters with the most applicable topics to the kind of websites that Sparkbox builds. This year was no different. Below is a quick summary of each of the presentations given on day one, in the order they were presented.


Jeffrey Zeldman

What Every Web Designer Should Know: A Better You At What You Do

Jeffrey is a legend in the web design community. His book entitled “Designing with Web Standards” is mandatory reading for all aspiring young web developers and his web design studio (Happy Cog) is world renowned. This keynote presentation was a great mix of passing on the wisdom Jeffrey has gained from his years of experience and pushing web designers to embrace the lack of control that is a day-to-day reality in building websites.

A common theme from the past few years has been “content first” and Jeffrey managed to weave this into his presentation multiple times, emphasizing the critical nature of this concept. Additionally, he encouraged us to test our designs, but to also trust our instincts. Sometimes usability testing gives you the lowest common denominator instead of the best. As an example, he mentioned Nike’s classic slogan, “Just Do It.” Jeffrey implied that testing this slogan would have resulted only in complaints about its ambiguity: “Do what?”

Jeffrey’s recognition of HTML5 as a specification that was designed to make applications instead of documents was an obvious, but critical one. The web has matured beyond documents, into a world of complex applications and business logic. This is an area that Sparkbox has embraced as we take on more and more technically challenging projects.

While this wasn’t Jeffrey’s closing point, I’ll leave you with this as a final controversial thought from his presentation, “Real web designers write code. Always have.”


Sarah Parmenter

Crafting the User Experience

I hadn’t heard Sarah speak prior to this event, but she was a delight to hear (with her delicate British accent) and quite insightful in her cut-to-the-chase presentation style. This presentation was fascinating in its investigation of what compels us, as consumers, to behave the way we do while experiencing a website.

Beginning with an overview of how psychology impacts design, Sarah explained how critical first impressions are and what role our subconscious plays in decision making. She suggested five areas where we can practically take advantage of the psychological effects previously explained: Speed, Surprise, Simplicity, Social Behavior, and Stirring Emotions.

This presentation has caused me to rethink the Sparkbox web design process and consider what role psychology should play. If you ever get an opportunity to hear Sarah speak, take it!


Jason Santa Maria

On Web Typography

Jason has his hands in everything. A former lead designer at Happy Cog, he now has his own small firm called Mighty and is employed by Typekit as the Creative Director. His presentation this year was on the state of typography on the web. Jason started his presentation by emphasizing the critical role type has in design. It’s clear that Jason has a passion for typography but he explained that, with a little consideration, you can make good decisions about how to use fonts available to you for the web to create pleasing designs. His comments about how type should encourage our users to read it was a unique explanation of the craft, as were most of his insights.

Jason closed his presentation with some practical best practices for using type on the web. He spoke of font-size (bigger is better), contrast, line length and the necessity to test fonts for different applications. While some of these concepts may seem like common sense, a quick sampling of what passes as web design these days will quickly reveal that most people building sites these days don’t understand these core ideas. Jason inspired us to dig into type and see it improve the usability of our sites, overall a fantastic presentation.


Luke Wroblewski

Mobile Web Design Moves

Luke is one of my favorite presenters, hands down. He’s witty, intelligent, and he challenges you with data that makes you cringe. I love it.

This year Luke started his presentation off by making the whole of the attending body dance to Thriller. The point of this was to teach us some “new moves” to help us address the rapidly growing mobile browsing market. He began by addressing the growth of the mobile web and pointed out that most of the predictions that have been made have also been met earlier than anticipated. He also pointed out that a lot of this activity is happening in mobile browsers, as opposed to native apps. Luke then described how we have an incorrect perception of when people are using moblie devices. The truth is we’re lazy. We’d rather get our phone out of our pocket on the couch than walk across the room to sit at our desk. All of this was to bring us to the conclusion that we need some new methods of addressing the needs of mobile users.

Luke broke down observed mobile behaviors into four main categories: find stuff, check in or set status, playing around, and content creation. He recomended that these behaviors should be the driving force behind the decisions we make for actions that users can take on our sites. He had some interesting ideas about navigation on mobile, suggesting that we should let the content be the first thing we experience on a page. This is an area we’ve been discussing a lot at Sparkbox as the tendency of responsive sites is to stack the navigation in some way at the top of the site. The result is to push your content down the page, hiding it from the user upon page load. Luke suggested adding a link to scroll you to the bottom of the page to get to your nav. We’ve toyed with exposing the “skip to content” link, in place for accessibliity reasons, that would allow the users to touch and scroll to the content.

It should be noted that Luke has a book called “Mobile First” coming out from A Book Apart soon. It’s sure to be excellent.


Ethan Marcotte

The Responsive Designer’s Workflow

Ethan is best known as the guy that wrote that responsive web design article on A List Apart. He coined the phrase, as controversial as it is, “Responsive Web Design” and was an early promoter of fluid grids. Deep down, you can tell that Ethan is striving to embrace the dynamic nature of the web in all that he does and for this, we Sparkboxers love him.

Because we’ve been doing a lot of responsive web design here at Sparkbox, this is the presentation I was most looking forward to. The truth is, this stuff is so new, that people aren’t really sure how to work it into their workflow yet. Our team is very efficient at making websites, so adding something that impacts every phase of the web design process can really complicate that process. And then there are issues on writing accurate estimates. While Ethan’s presentation was great, I felt like the title was a bit misleading, so my expectation was a little off.

Ethan started by discussing how responsive web design could be an option for a struggling industry (newspaper) to become relevant again. He walked us through a project he’s currently working on for the Boston Globe, redesigning their website. The most interesting part of this was in how they handled the navigation, hiding the primary categories behind a drop-down at smaller resolutions. He pointed to two Github repos that they are experimenting with in the redesign:

A fast & lightweight polyfill for min/max-width CSS3 Media Queries (for IE 6-8, and more).

An Experiment with Mobile-First Images that Scale Responsively & Responsibly.

One part of Ethan’s presentation that really resonated with me was his advocation of prototyping. Again, this is a part of the process that we’ve found indispensible in our responsive web design work. Moving beyond static design tools and into the browser is the only way to work through these challenges rapidly.

Ethan is a brilliant guy and his recent book, “Responsive Web Design” is a must read.


Andy Clarke

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Andy is a character, one who is known for creating controversy for the sake of attention. While I must admit that this is annoying, Andy is quite brilliant. His recent book, Hardboiled Web Design, is a treasure of amazing techniques for taking advantage of the offerings of the latest browsers.

This year Andy described in detail how to craft a keyframe-based animation with CSS. While he seemed to believe that the Madmanimation example was absolutely incredible, I couldn’t help but think how basic it really looked when compared with any other modern animation technique. It’s fascinating stuff, but hard to envision how this will be used in a way that won’t bring back the “skip animation” link.

The tool that he has been collaborating on, called Animatable, looks amazing. It runs completely in the browser, and works like a primitive keyframing tool. I’m anxious to get a chance to play with this, even if it’s not something I believe I’ll be using for client work anytime very soon.

Andy is doing amazing work and it’s always enjoyable to hear him present.


Wrap Up

The first day was fantastic. So many great presenters and so many interesting topics. I can’t recommend An Event Apart enough, especially if you care about standards and progressive enhancement.

Keep a look out for my day two summary, coming soon.