An Event Apart San Francisco 2016: Lessons Learned

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After Web Design Day in Pittsburgh, I wrote about my personal takeaways from the web conference. So I am going to do the same thing with An Event Apart San Francisco.

This is my second time to San Francisco and, I must say, it feels weird. My first time here was for a research meteorology internship with Naval Research Laboratory, when I rode a research vessel out of San Francisco Bay into the Pacific Ocean. This time I come back as a front end web designer/developer. After seeing the sights on Sunday, it was time to sit back and absorb as much information as possible from the speakers.

My general takeaways were similar to the those I had at Web Design Day (maybe since a few talks were similar), but with additional ones. Here they are:

  • Empathy and respect towards a user keeps coming up as a very important topic. We should treat the experience we are creating on the web as an experience that leaves both the developer and user satisfied. After all, we are designing and developing for humans and humans have emotions.
  • Accessibility remains a relevant topic within designing and developing a website. Even though a designer or developer might not have a disability, designing and developing for someone with a permanent or temporary disability is vital for them to have a good user experience.
  • Diversity in who creates the web is very important. Everyone has a different story and a different perspective on issues just like every user.
  • The user’s opinion can matter more than the opinion of the company/client. After all, the user can represent the audience better than the CEO, developer, designer, etc.
  • Technology continues to evolve and allows for more opportunity in the years to come. Embrace this and create with these in mind.

These are only some of the lessons learned, but by using these in your web work, you can improve your own practices and your website’s user experience.

Here’s a more in depth look at each each speaker’s talk:

Jeffrey Zeldman

Jeffrey started off the conference by explaining how the web used to be and comparing it how the web works now. He specifically went into the book he wrote back in 2003, Designing with Web Standards (3rd Edition), and compared it to how the topics brought up in that book stand up to the standards of today’s web. For the most part, the standards discussed 13 years ago are similar to today’s standards, with only a few tweaks here and there. This just goes to show you that although the web is ever changing, concepts we come up with now can continue to be relevant in the future.

Sarah Parmenter

Sarah went into depth about branding, a process many people link to only the logo. There is a lot more that goes into branding, including the voice and tone, guidelines, consistency, and others. It’s the way the company represents itself as a whole instead of just slapping on a logo that has nothing to do with the message of the company. She used examples like Airbnb to show how they rebranded once they became more than just a “couch surfing” organization. There were a lot of points that you don’t think of when you look at the branding of a company.

Krystal Higgins

Krystal discussed the importance of creating a separate experience for new users, but one that works with the consistency of the brand. One of the most important things she mentioned was to cater the experience in way that efficiently explains or shows the user what to do. Getting first-time users to subscribe/register for your product is important, but retaining them down the road is just as important. She also went into detail about how to create these onboarding processes, mentioning ways like guided interaction, free samples, and personal focus. Guided interaction helps the user follow along with the new process, free samples feel like this new product will be worth it, and personal focus feels like this product matters to you personally. A lot of these are things I never thought about more than just slapping a few alerts on a new user page.

Jen Simmons

I had the opportunity to listen to her at Web Design Day in Pittsburgh and many of the concepts were the same. Jen describes how web designers and developers have fallen into web layouts that are quite boxy and very similar to each other. She went into the design of books, magazines, and objects we see in everyday life and mentioned that there is a lack of this creative design in web work. Jen then went into layouts and how the way we layout websites over the years has changed and that it is about to change even more with CSS Grid Layout. Grid will allow flexibility with design (moreso than flexbox) that can take us back to the creative designs we have seen in old magazines and patterns we see everyday. Grid is on track to come out sometime next year and in my opinion, is a very exciting new adventure since CSS layouts have always been a little fuzzy to me.

Jen also presented a workshop in CSS Grid Layout, which was very helpful in the specifics that we will need to know when Grid officially arrives. A lot of the layouts reminded me of Microsoft WordArt (in a good way), formatting titles in a way that can be positioned vertically and to the left of the rest of the content with no problems. She also went into the history of language and the layouts used to portray these languages.

Rachel Andrew

Rachel went into CSS Grid Layout a bit more in depth, showing more technical aspects of it and taking layouts from everyday items and creating them using Grid in experimental browsers. She also went into ways we can use Grid in a way that has fallbacks that will look solid still when Grid isn’t supported in an older browser. Very insightful as to what to expect when working with Grid in the future.

Brad Frost

The first time seeing my brother speak in person was a good one as expected. After a long day of absorbing information from brilliant minds, he presented in a way that was both educational but funny to keep the audience’s attention. Brad went into the depths of Atomic Design, a process in which smaller components make up larger components that make up even larger components. For the short time I have been in this field, this is the way I learned and have approached many of the projects I have done. This talk solidified the reasoning as to why I have built websites using the principle of Atomic Design.

Jeremy Keith

Jeremy’s talk dove into evaluating technology, going through a history of technology and how the best technology isn’t solely created from nothing. It evolves. Technology is built on prior technology and so on and so forth. That is how technology improves. He showed us how certain technologies can be cool but not necessary and included a picture from the 1990s of a selfie stick with a camera well before the explosion of the smart phone and well before the selfie stick became popular over a decade or two later. One of my favorite quotes from his talk was one from Grace Hopper stating, “Humans are allergic to change.” I feel like it not only represents how humans struggle with change in technology, but with life as well. Jeremy went into detail about service workers and web components and how these are great tools. He also discussed the importance of “how well do tools fail,” since this is important in web development when browsers don’t support certain tools. All in all, I learned a lot both in web development and life from this talk.

Val Head

I have listened to Val talk about animation before at a local meetup since she is based here in Pittsburgh and she definitely knows her animation. Val went into the proper way to use animation in web design and development and how to persuade your company to use animation. She also discussed the tools she uses to design animation as well as the pros and cons of these tools. Val also emphasized the importance of storyboards and sketches and how these can be portrayed to the company rather than just describing the animation and having an opinion on it. She made me realize that showing something to a client speaks volumes compared to just saying what you want to do.

Jason Grigsby

Jason’s talk was about how responsive web design has helped to change the way we interact with content. The content changes in response to the viewport size, but when it comes to a click, tap, swipe, etc., the web has a harder time differentiating these. Jason went into the future of the web and how we may adapt to these different input changes in the best way possible. With the addition of virtual reality and other impressive technological advances, the web will have to continue to change and folks will need to get out of their comfort zone to adapt. A very insightful talk that made me think about the future and how things are ever-changing.

Derek Featherstone

Derek discussed the importance of accessibility. He included the audience by having them read a form with only the use of a straw sized hole in their hand. I, personally, find that it is difficult enough dealing with form fields let alone doing it with low vision. This was a perfect example of how to design for folks who are dealing with everyday or temporary handicaps. Derek also described how design can even look better when you have accessibility already in mind. It doesn’t even take a diagnosed handicap to get frustrated with the web as I’m sure we all know. Designing for ease of use for everyone is very important and decreases this frustration. After creating a design system recently with accessibility in mind, this talk definitely was relevant to me and a solid one.

Eric Meyer

I had heard much of Eric’s talk here in Pittsburgh when he came for Web Design Day, but there were some new topics discussed. Eric went into depth about how designers and developers need to stress test ideas and sites. Although we may have a picture of who the user is in our heads, we will likely have some in an audience that don’t fit this persona. Eric gave several personal examples of this and explained how it can deter people from returning to your site or using your application. Empathy is a huge part of web design and development and by thinking about the user we can design and develop our sites and applications better. By speaking the user’s language and catering to their mood, we can create better experiences.

Gerry McGovern

Gerry’s talk was the funniest of the talks as I was almost in tears during it. It was like a stand-up comedy routine, but with very important lessons included as well. Gerry went into detail about how companies’/clients’ hierarchies of tasks are most times different than the users’ hierarchies, and usually the user is who you want to pay attention to. He showed surveys that he helped with where companies had one idea but the users had another. When the company changed its mindset, the user not only had a better experience but the company itself did better. My favorite quote was “if you solve the customer’s problems, they’ll solve your problems.” After all, it is the customer who uses what you create and if they’re frustrated or delighted, that’ll reflect on the company. A brilliant talk and a great way to end the main part of the conference.

Thank you to all the speakers for all of your hard work and sharing it with us!