Taking Apart Lessons From AEA

November 2, 2015

Just a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending one of the best industry conferences for everything web and digital: An Event Apart. It was an eye-opening experience to sit alongside my peers in an educational and inspirational environment with a schedule packed full of expert speakers.

I realize the majority (in other words: all) of you are not front-end developers or UI designers, but some of you may be content strategists and account leads on digital projects. I hope by writing these posts to convey information that meshes with your daily responsibilities while simultaneously giving you some insight into mine.


First, let’s gather some background on the event, and the state of the industry in general. AEA stems from one of the first online publications specific to digital user experience: A List Apart. Why “a list”? Because it began as an email list service. Before blogging and social media, the most efficient way to communicate was via email, and so ALA was created to give brilliant individuals in the field a voice to communicate with one another.

The field was growing quickly and in the course of defining itself it was imbued with the spirit of open-source collaboration. No one held onto their ideas as trade secrets; it was apparent that if practitioners in the field didn’t support one another, device manufacturers and browser creators would drive progress. This early email list quickly grew into an online publication (with an actual ISSN!) and eventually a series of conferences and books.

In short, the community surrounding this publication is home to some of the brightest thinkers and practitioners in the industry. Day one kicked off with the creator of ALA, Jeffrey Zeldman, dishing out general advice for collaboration, client relations, creativity and career advancement. Alliteration aside, let’s talk about a few of his main points:

  1. Work never sells itself. Always try to frame design and technology decisions in terms of project goals. These goals should have been established based on the client’s needs rather than on aesthetics. People have varying taste and don’t need to be educated in quality; rather, they need solutions to their problems.
  2. Attitude trumps work. Regardless of whether you’re the most or least talented member of your team, the people who build positive relationships last the longest. Always regard projects and clients with grace, no matter how frustrating it may seem at times. That positive attitude will be contagious.
  3. Blog like no one’s reading. Writing is complementary to presenting; it will give you practice in assembling cohesive justifications and communicating your decisions. Publishing your writing will force you to be honest with yourself and helps you grow through scrutiny of your peers.

This initial session set the tone for the five remaining speakers of the day. The next speaker, Yesenia Perez-Cruz, touched on a very important topic: network performance. Responsive websites aren’t just about user interface refactoring and consistency in content. Sometimes, responsive development means setting performance goals and ensuring there is a consistent user experience regardless of network environment.

Devices are only half of the responsive equation. If a user is on a slow network connection, a heavy page load will mean users dropping off — and that can be considered nothing less than failure. Yesenia made a few great points and gave a suggestion:

  1. Responsive development is a balancing act between user needs, business goals and brand identity.
  2. Set performance goals alongside other site metrics so there is a number to point to as a gauge for success or failure — throughout development and after completion.

Jen Simmons, the third speaker, provided a dozen great modern methods to bring the concepts of print design back into web. She asserted that two decades of inconsistent browser support led to a limited variety of user interfaces — and a stale method of content delivery. To compound that problem, advertising has dominated the white space that could otherwise be used to add dramatic emphasis to the content itself. Thankfully, CSS (cascading stylesheets) browser support has slowly become uniform; or at the very least, deviates in a predictable and meaningful way. There are now ways to emulate aspects of print design that will allow us to implement a brand identity consistently across digital and traditional platforms. I’ll be diving into this deeper in an in-house learning session later this month, as well as a future Peepshow post!

The afternoon of day one featured three heavyweight speakers who lectured in varying degrees on the same topic: consistent user experience and content on all devices and digital platforms. Cameron Moll discussed the philosophy of a “unified” user experience, based on the fundamental contention that the best user interface is the one nearest the user. This means, for example, that they should be able to quickly make changes to their fantasy football team from their phone after they’ve been acquainted with the desktop experience. He believes we should be discussing responsive design as a “unity first” approach as opposed to “mobile first.” There are small details, even in copywriting, that prove we often don’t consider the unity of the experience. Next time you are encouraging a user to “click” a link, use “tap” or “press” instead. You never know what type of device they may be using to view your content, and it should always feel natural.

Following in this same vein, Karen McGrane spoke about the separation of content from presentation. The big takeaway here: We should feel obligated to make better content-management decisions for our digital projects to ensure that content can be delivered well into the future. You never know what types of devices will be added to the arsenal of choices for the user, so if your content is filled with embedded images, tables or, to put a fine point on it, Flash animations, your user may become frustrated with their experience. Consideration needs to be given to our content-management systems, and that begins with the content model. In most cases, our users don’t truly need a WYSIWYG editor, and we can provide the necessary fields to make their content digestible regardless of the user’s preferred platform.

The last presenter, who coined the term “responsive design,” gave a very technical presentation on the state of current front-end development methodologies, and ways in which he thinks we should improve. Ethan Marcotte suggests that we should:

  1. Stop referring to a website’s “pages,” but instead point to a network of systems.
  2. Design with modularity in mind; design from the content out, instead of shoehorning content into an area determined by superfluous design elements.
  3. CSS allows us to use media queries, and these should defend the integrity of the content, rather than simply addressing bad aesthetics.
  4. Design the transaction; consider workflow long before aesthetic.

I will be addressing the process implications and technical methods of this in the learning session and a future Peepshow post, as well.

austin_skylineSo what did I learn from day one of AEA and how will I be putting it into practice?

I’m going to be rebuild my personal portfolio as a publishing platform, and will be documenting the process to demonstrate how I’ve integrated these new development methodologies into my workflow. I will be vetting various content management systems and frameworks to make sure they adhere to the standards outlined above. Additionally, I will be making a habit of writing and contributing to the development community. I encourage you to do the same with your professional community. Whether that means establishing your own blog (let me know if you need help), using a service like Medium, or contributing to established publications (e.g. the Idea Peepshow); you will learn more about your craft — and more about yourself — by interacting with your peers in such a meaningful way.