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.


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​.we​baim​.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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