3 Things I Learned at An Event Apart Chicago

It’s #aneventapart time again! This year, I picked Chicago to attend because I’ve never been to the city and because the A Day Apart workshop was put on by Karen McGrane and Ethan Marcotte. I would listen to them teach how to dust properly, but the workshop actually focused on Responsive Design, which I’m about to undertake with my main client. If you haven’t been to An Event Apart, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I learn more there than I do all year. I took eleven pages of notes, but here are the top takeaways I will be able to immediately use:

  1. “The customer is no longer King – they are Dictator.”Gerry McGovern

    This was my first time hearing Gerry McGovern speak, and he was excellent (plus the accent adds +10 to the entertainment factor). This quote echoes another one I heard last year at AEA Orlando – your users will decide how they want to use your site; you have no say. I see this all of the time with my clients – the internal expectation is that a user will follow your navigation from top down, yet so many simply google the business name and the search term and bypass your information architecture altogether.

    It’s amazing how many clients seem to want to hide the meat of their content inside a lot of words, buried far down the page, or deeper in the IA. This is something I encounter with students as well – there’s an urge to really spend a lot of time and characters setting up the conclusion, instead of leading the strongest information. Don’t make your users work for the information because they won’t – they will simply go to Google.

  2. “Responsive design won’t fix your content problem.”Karen McGrane

    Hallelujah. During A Day Apart, Karen walked us through some high level steps to take when moving to a responsive design. She suggests that a content reduction of 60-75% isn’t uncommon, and I completely agree. So much content makes it to the site as either an archive function (put it there just in case) or without ever putting it through the test of “is this valuable to the user or does it just check a box for us”.

    Doing a content audit like this is hard work, and will no doubt result in a lot of testy conversations with internal clients. In much the same way that an editor becomes a therapist, so too does a digital content specialist. My personal suggestions here are to be sensitive to the attachment many clients feel to their work (it is theirs, after all) and to really find out what their goal is for the content. When you take the time to really hear what they want to achieve, you can make a lot more headway by suggesting the best ways to help them get there.

  3. “Your customers’ top tasks are often not the same as your organization’s top tasks.” or Top Tasks vs. Tiny Tasks – – Gerry McGovern

    How often do you find yourself in this situation? You’re spending all of your time posting information to your website that you know no one will look at, while the pages with the highest traffic remain unchanged or even looked at. For my main client, this came in the form of spending so much time adding information to pages that occupy less than 0.01% of the overall traffic, while the mobile platform, of which 73% of my users were hitting, received virtually none of my attention. Our top traffic pages (excluding a forced routing page) have not been touched in four years.

    I’ll be the first to say this is crazy.

    I’m betting I am not the only one who has experienced this. It is my primary goal right now to try and right the balance in this equation, and what I think will be my strongest weapon is the simple idea that right now, we’re yelling into empty rooms. I find there’s a real fear clients have of stopping a practice because of that “just in case” reason, but really, it’s just a waste of everyone’s time to shout at people who aren’t there.

Bonus quote: “Imitating paper on a computer screen is like tearing the wings off a 747 and using it as a bus on the highway”Karen McGrane

Amen.

A white samoyed dog wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

3 Things I Learned from An Event Apart Orlando

I just got back from An Event Apart (AEA) Orlando: Special Edition 2014. It was my first AEA and it definitely won’t be my last. But as my new friend Jessica neatly summarized, the “conference bubble will only last so long. I have pages and pages of notes, but here’s what my experience at #AEAOrl taught me:

  1. Design for everyone.
    Between the global lens Ethan Marcotte drew to our attention to the accessibility angle hinted at by Derek Featherstone (full disclosure, I saw his Web Accessibility talk at #RGDaccess), we can’t continue to design for English-speaking, desktop users using a single browser with broadband internet connections and no challenges with sight or fine motor control.Here’s where I can dump a lot of web design’s favourite buzzwords: responsive design, device agnosticism, progressive enhancement, elegant degradation and fallback. All of these terms are exceptionally valuable (and they let me sound extra smart when telling my clients or bosses what we’re working on), but I’m finding it easier to concentrate their goal into this one concept: design for everyone. We can build sites so that while the experience may differ by browser, connection speed, device and physical abilities, the content can still be delivered effectively. Websites don’t have to look the same in every browser, but every browser should have access to your content.
  1. Simplify.
    A text-only screen of an older model Nokia cell phone.

    How would your website look on a phone like this? Image courtesy of: http://flic.kr/p/7tsJfN

    Ethan Marcotte pointed out that an average size for a webpage in 2009 was 320mb; in 2014, that number has doubled to 1.8mb. Well, so what? That’s not surprising given the trend of full bleed images and active scripts, animation and video. But what are the implications for the users in developing countries and cities? Ethan pointed out that in Africa, mobile penetration is now 60%; that’s 700 million users, most of whom are using basic devices that render only in text.

    Simplification also means enhanced performance. Users expect a page to load in two seconds or faster; anything longer and the perception is that the page is broken – 40% of users will leave. Streamlining is also the key for mobile-first development; if you take the time to organize the content and user experience and optimize it for the mobile experience, you can build out to the larger screen. And speaking of users…

  1. Put the user first.
    As Jeffery Zeldman said as he kicked off day one, “we don’t design for browsers; we design for people.” Who is using your site? And what is the job your site should do? A powerful talk by Eric Meyer put this in sharp perspective – we design for a relaxed, savvy user seeing our site in an optimal viewing environment, but we must consider how our site is used by everyone, especially those in crisis. And these considerations are not static; content priority changes over time and with location, and Kate Kiefer Lee reminded us that voice and tone must change based on content type but also user mood.

It has taken me a week to distill my notes into these points and, believe me, I know it doesn’t do the conference justice. But if this summary at least peaks your interest in the topics, that will be enough. I can’t wait for AEA 2015!