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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