An Event Apart — Chicago

I spent the bet­ter part of Sun­day, all of Mon­day and the bet­ter part of Tues­day in Chica­go at An Event Apart. I had an amaz­ing time. The sched­ule was jam-packed with talks from 8:30 AM to ear­ly evening both days. Not only did I actu­al­ly get to see a bunch of web lumi­nar­ies in meat­space, I final­ly met Eric Mey­er, and my per­son­al design role mod­el, Dan Ceder­holm.

Overview

At times I thought the con­tent of some of the talks was a bit too con­cep­tu­al and utopi­an; I mean that the tips about only tak­ing jobs you feel pas­sion­ate about and spend­ing hours on the crafts­man­ship of a site sound good enough, but are only real­ly applic­a­ble for folks who run their own, already estab­lished design busi­ness (Which were the folks giv­ing the talks). I work on an in-house team of thir­teen, my boss, 7 devel­op­ers, 3 design­ers and a web-main­te­nance per­son; we have around 100 sites that we are respon­si­ble for man­ag­ing. Since we’re in-house we can’t refuse cus­tomers and since we have so many sites to man­age we don’t often have time to give them the pol­ish they deserve. As a com­par­i­son, the team that Cameron Moll runs for the LDS Church has twice as much staff for the same num­ber of web­sites. Folks were con­sis­tent­ly amazed that there were so few of us on our team and that we dealt with so many web­sites.

That’s my only com­plaint about the con­tent; in terms of logis­tics, I would have appre­ci­at­ed a map to the AEA Par­ty the first night, but the pre­sen­ta­tions were avail­able online for con­fer­ence atten­dees and every­thing stayed on sched­ule.

Talk Thoughts

  1. Jef­frey Veen’s (for­mer­ly of Google) talk about infor­ma­tion design was excel­lent, and it made me think of a bunch of ideas for how we could dis­play Elec­tion Infor­ma­tion on the BOE site. He worked on the Google Ana­lyt­ics web­stats project so he’s an expert on how to dis­play large amounts of data in var­i­ous cus­tomiz­able ways. He talked about how instead of telling the sto­ry of the data, we can enable the user to tell their own sto­ry. We sort of already do this with our cus­tomiz­able elec­tion results, but after hear­ing Jef­frey speak, I think our imple­men­ta­tion could be a lot bet­ter.
  2. Cameron Moll talked about deal­ing with in-house design groups. He man­ages a group of 30 design­ers for the Mor­mon Church and their 100 web­sites. Their process involves things like sketch­boards, which sounds like a great way to sell a design, if you have the time to put them togeth­er.
  3. Zeld­man gave an excel­lent talk about how design­ers need to be empa­thet­ic to the needs and behav­iors of the users of the sites we design, instead of just design­ing for what a board or com­mit­tee expects to see. I under­stood his point, and even agree with it, but he didn’t real­ly address the fact that it isn’t an option very often.
  4. Jason Fried’s talk was sim­i­lar. He’s the main man behind 37signals, a very suc­cess­ful CMS and work­flow com­pa­ny. He talked about crafts­man­ship and how doing the lit­tle things and tak­ing your time with a prod­uct will make it excel beyond the aver­age. He men­tioned how his com­pa­ny spent 4 or 5 hours dis­cussing the best way to work the items in a radio list. It would cer­tain­ly be nice if we had that kind of time to invest in the crafts­man­ship of our sites, but I gath­ered from just about every­one else there, that you only have that kind of time if you’re self-employed or run your own busi­ness.
  5. Dan Ceder­holm (my hero! and the author of Web Stan­dards Solu­tions and the Bul­let­proof series) showed us some neat new CSS tricks that can be imple­ment­ed now for for­ward-com­pat­i­bil­i­ty, while at the same time look­ing just fine in cur­rent browsers. He kept stress­ing that it is okay if a site doesn’t look exact­ly the same in all browsers.
  6. Rob Wey­chert com­pared design method­ol­o­gy to how folks play chess. This was a great talk.
  7. Rob Hoek­man did on the spot usabil­i­ty reviews. This is some­thing I think we need to do more of on our sites. There’s a site called Five Sec­ond Test [source of the idea] that can give a good rough esti­mate on how well a site’s design works with the usabil­i­ty. Anoth­er site that was men­tioned near­ly con­stant­ly was UIE which has all kinds of help­ful infor­ma­tion about User Inter­face Design.
  8. Cleveland’s own Eric Mey­er talked about his use of reset stylesheets, which force most browsers to default to the same dis­play rubrics. I’ve used them on a cou­ple of sites and they are amaz­ing. No more hav­ing to fig­ure out why things break in IE! The Debug stylesheets are used to improve acces­si­bil­i­ty, by show­ing images that lack alt text, mal­formed table data and oth­er stuff. They are only used as a diag­nos­tic tool, but are very help­ful.
  9. Andy Clarke talked about how he uses com­ic books as inspi­ra­tion for web­site designs.
  10. There was a lot of talk about the using the Gold­en Ratio through­out the con­fer­ence. I actu­al­ly did a rigid Gold­en Ratio based design for the TWiFi project back in the day.
  11. There was a demo of Adobe CS4 as well and there are some seri­ous­ly awe­some new tricks to make work­ing in Pho­to­shop and oth­er pro­grams much more user friend­ly. I’m excit­ed about get­ting those pro­grams if we ever have the cash for it.

Interesting Links

  • http://wave.webaim.org/ — Acces­si­bil­i­ty Check­er
  • Fire­bug (Fire­fox Plu­g­in that allows instant CSS check­ing and mod­i­fi­ca­tion)
  • Xscope is a tool that allows you to deter­mine the widths and heights of ele­ments onscreen, with­out hav­ing to click around or open files.
  • jQuery is a javascript library that is eas­i­ly inte­grat­ed with CSS and is there­fore eas­i­er for design­ers to imple­ment and use.
  • Web Acces­si­bil­i­ty Check­list PDF

Other Cool Stuff

  • Using the CSS outline attribute doesn’t affect page lay­out the way that using bor­der does.
  • # is called an octothor­pe
  • Instead of using the CSS opacity attribute, which inher­its to all chil­dren ele­ments, you can use background-color: rgba(0,0,0, .7);

I flew in Sun­day night and want­ed to go to The Field Muse­um, but the Chica­go Marathon had traf­fic so snarled that I spent 45 min­utes on a bus, moved about half a mile, and was then told to get off the bus, cross the street, and wait for a shut­tle that would then turn around and take us to the muse­ums. This was at 3:30 and the last admis­sion to the muse­um was at 4, so I was forced to walk up and down Michi­gan Avenue shop­ping. I also went to Navy Pier on Sun­day Night. Mon­day Night I went to The Bil­ly Goat, which is a famous bar where Chica­go Tri­bune jour­nal­ists have been going for years and years. They serve cheezborg­ers (that’s how they spell it) and steak and egg sand­wich­es. No Pepsi…Coke, No Fries…Chips. It’s cash only, and a real­ly cool place. The Bil­ly Goat Dark beer was real­ly tasty, but I drank it all night with­out even get­ting so much as a buzz. I watched the Browns game a bit and hung out with some folks I know from MetaFil­ter.

The Blue Line Ele­vat­ed Train ran from O’Hare just about to my hotel, so I saved some seri­ous cash by pur­chas­ing a CTA pass instead of spend­ing $60 for the round-trip shut­tle or $80 on a cab ride. In Chica­go, just about every­body rides pub­lic trans­porta­tion.

All in all, a great stay. Chica­go is a town that is pret­ty much impos­si­ble to dis­like.

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