Blog

Standards, Empathy, & Accessible Web at An Event Apart

By Jen Couchoud on August 23, 2016

Amanda and I had the opportunity to attend An Event Apart in Washington, D.C. this summer. So, what did a developer and a project manager take away from each talk at this conference? We both shared our reactions and key takeaways below.

Overall, I heard four themes emerge from the conference:

  • Current web design is boring, and it might be because of our reliance on front end frameworks
  • Design for people who are not you, your client, or your key persona using progressive enhancement
  • Keep your code semantic, accessible, and navigable
  • Design without content is decoration

 

Designing with Web Standards in 2016

Jeffrey Zeldman | @zeldman

Jen: The phrase “progressive enhancement” was new to me before this talk—I’ve heard more discussion about graceful degradation in the past. As we work with clients and their analytics to determine their browser and OS requirements, we can decide where the features start and how they build depending on the use case.

Amanda: The web has come a long way over the last decade and a half, but the problems we have today are nearly identical to the problems of the past. The web standards of 2003 are just as applicable today as they were then.

 

Practical Branding

Sarah Parmenter | @sazzy

J: Research isn’t everything—gut instinct matters quite a bit, too. Also, design validation research isn’t worth much without accessibility research. I think this idea is good for us (as a research-heavy company) to keep in mind. We have to use our gut and common sense to validate along with research.

A: Tell your own story with your brand. Stop looking for permission from other brands to justify your design and start being a thought leader.

 

The Art of the Sell

Jaimee Newberry | @jaimeejaimee

J: Anyone would benefit from sitting through this really practical presentation on how to effectively communicate and “sell” yourself and your designs. My favorite tip was to “be specific immediately” in email communications. This is something I try to keep in mind and appreciate when others do, too.

A: Communication is the key and the foundation to “sell” your ideas. Jamiee had a great list of 12 key communication checkpoints to ensure you are being clear, concise, and not a jerk.

 

Designing for Performance

Lara Hogan | @lara_hogan

J: Lara Hogan managed to make me really interested in website performance, something that honestly hasn’t been a big draw for me in the past. The takeaway for me here was how improving the performance of some pages at Etsy directly increased their KPIs. This is an area where we can add value to our clients.

A: Performance is user experience, not just an afterthought. Also, Etsy is really good at making horse puns.

 

Designing Meaningful Animation

Val Head | @vlh

J: I haven’t thought much about animation relating to our work in the past, but it’s present in far subtler ways than I ever realized. I catch our designers talking about this once in a while on Slack, but I’m interested to see how much more overt this becomes in the future.

A: Even the web can learn from Disney’s 12 principles of animation. Develop a choreography with your UI that communicates your brand (and don’t forget to include it in your pattern library).

 

Revolutionize Your Page: Real Art Direction on the Web

Jen Simmons | @jensimmons

J: Layouts should not be a multiple choice question, and there are some really cool changes coming not that far in the future that will enable designers to make layouts without javascript frameworks.

A: The future of CSS looks great. Don’t be afraid to use it now. The capabilities of CSS should be able to help us escape the boring trends of the current web.

 

Extreme Design

Derek Featherstone | @feather

J: Accessibility is built into our process at Think Brownstone. What I got out of Derek’s talk was more context, and a reminder that accessibility doesn’t just mean “screen reader friendly.” Good accessibility is often the same thing as good design.

A: Web users’ abilities are not linear—they exist on a spectrum. Project an extreme use case on a design problem to find a better (and more accessible) solution for all users.

 

The Five Meetings

Kevin Hoffman | @kevinmhoffman

J: This was another talk I believe anyone would benefit from hearing. There was a lot presented here that I’m pleased to say we already do as a company. A new idea I heard in this talk: remove identifiers from personas—race, gender, age—and you remove people’s assumptions about a person of that race, gender, or age.

A: Presentations should tell the user’s story, not the designer’s. The elements of a good story should be used to communicate a great design.

 

Compassionate Design

Eric Meyer | @meyerweb

J: This is another talk that made me think about balancing designing for the greatest amount of users versus the worst case scenario. We often dismiss edge cases, but an edge case could take down the reputation of your company—or more importantly, actually cause a user emotional distress.

A: Plan for the absolute worst stress case. Now, think of something even worse and plan for that. Value people and grow from empathy to compassion.

 

Adaptive Content, Context, and Controversy

Karen McGrane | @karenmcgrane

J: The key point I took away from this talk: it is valid to have a responsive site and serve different pages to people on a desktop or a mobile device.

A: Most of the time, being adaptive is not a good idea. When the situation arises and it makes sense, use adaptive and responsive together to optimize the experience.

 

Vague, But Exciting

Dave Rupert | @davatron5000

J: Prototype! Prototyping allows you to find out if your idea will work as soon as possible.

A: Prototyping is a win for everyone. It eases communication, allows you to fail fast, and keeps the momentum going. Get to code quickly and iterate from there.

 

Design Beyond our Devices

Ethan Marcotte | @beep

J: Think Brownstone is doing it right with our pattern libraries!

A: Think in patterns, not in pages. Responsive design is more than just screen widths, it also means being responsive to how a person uses the site.

 

Summary

J: These conferences are not just for designers or developers. If you’re a project manager, attend one! Better yet, go with a designer or developer co-worker and have meaningful conversations about how your company is already implementing the ideas you hear, or can implement these ideas in the future. Get excited! Go back and share the information with your colleagues and clients. You’re not a record keeper or an admin, you’re a leader, and getting educated on the latest thinking can only make your team stronger.

A: I heard the theme of accessibility throughout the conference without actually hearing the word “accessibility.” It’s awesome to think of accessibility not just in terms of someone with a disability accessing the web, but really as an idea of equal access to the web for everyone. Accessibility could apply to someone using an assistive technology, but it could also apply to a person who can only access the web on a mobile device, a library computer, or a poor connection. Designing for extremes and performance with compassion and standards (and beyond our devices!) are all key concepts in creating an accessible web.