3 Things I Learned At An Event Apart Boston

The 2016 An Event Apart lunchbox.

The 2016 An Event Apart lunchbox.I was lucky enough to attend An Event Apart (Boston, #aeabos, this time) for the third year in a row this week. Once again, it was a great experience: industry-leading speakers, engaging content, and only one very loud venue emergency alarm (everything was fine!).

It sounds corny, but I really do look forward to this event every year. It’s remarkably comforting to spend time with hundreds of other people who get the web. From the Javascript debugging happening out loud at the breakfast tables to the appropriate audience gasp when a speaker points out that IE8 loads every imported font, even those that aren’t used.

I always learn so much every year, but here are a few of the themes I took away:

  1. Honour Thy User
    The biggest lesson I learn again and again in my work is that the user is always right (even when they do very, very strange things). Users are flooded with information and choice – if you don’t serve them a) what they are looking for and b) what you set them up to expect, they will hightail it back to Google for another option. Identify the core goal of a user of your site and then value what your user wants to do. Or, as Jeremy Keith put it:

    1. Identify the core function of the product
    2. Determine the base level of technology you can use to deliver the core function
    3. Enhance!

    Be critical about your site – if you are a news site, what’s the most basic way you can deliver your core user goal (reading the news)? It seems simple, but I’ve found spending the time to clearly identify and agree on what that user goal is will help simplify all of the choices you make going forward.

    I find the “staggered” (progressive, but deliberately so) load strategy really interesting. My bank actually does this (unintentionally, I believe) on their homepage but, unfortunately, one of the last events to fire resets the form input for your card number, which means every time I end up typing in half a number, having the page erase it, then typing it again.

    “No one wants to download your app when they come to your website.” @zeldman

    Jeffrey Zeldman nails it again. As a member of Team No App (yes, I know I’m in the minority), I will try every possible avenue to avoid downloading your app. I don’t want it. But more than that, I want to be met where I’m at and interact with your product the way I choose.

    This is a lesson I reinforce with my social media team all of the time: if they tweeted a question, don’t answer by asking them to email us. And in my favourite example of this, don’t answer a tweet about a lost cell phone by asking them to call us (yes, that really happened).

  2. Be A Good Ancestor

    “We need to be good ancestors and leave behind a web that’s resilient and will last.” @adactio

    This idea really resonated with me as my team grows. How can we make good decisions now that our future selves (or future members of our team) won’t curse us for? Of course, the concept of future-proofing and/or progressive enhancement fits the bill here, but we need to also consider the not so fun but highly necessary need for documentation. Call it a style guide or a pattern library, but aspire to build something like Mailchimp, Starbucks or Devbridge Group, which is my new favourite example.

    I know, I know – you’re creating a website to document the needs of your website. But putting in the effort here will save you from inconsistencies and hours of unnecessary cleanup. Whether you’re a team of 30 or running the show solo, this exercise is incredibly valuable for putting thought into your daily decisions.

  3. What If Someone Doesn’t Use The Web Like I Do?
    Ethan Marcotte posed this question, and it came up thematically in a number of ways. At this point, he was explaining the importance of respecting the content hierarchy in the HTML, regardless of how it appears once styled. As beautiful as your design might be, a screenreader needs to find the content in the shortest and easiest way possible. Or, if your enhancements fail to load, your content will still be visible and easy to comprehend.Eric Meyer spoke about this topic through the lens of Compassionate Design. Most of us can probably think of a time when a form asked us a question that incited a very personal reaction. How about a question about gender that doesn’t offer a chance for you to respond with the term you prefer? Or a question about marital status for someone who is recently separated from their spouse? We make a lot of assumptions about our users, but if we take just a little time to consider different perspectives, our word and design choices can be kinder and more aware.Josh Clark approached this with the idea of calm technology – something I’ve been thinking about lately but didn’t have a term for. I don’t think we’re addicted to our devices; we’re addicted to the connection with and flow of information.

    The goal is to deliver on a real human need. Not just to make things talk but to improve the conversation. Design calm technology that doesn’t vy for our attention, but instead helps to enhance what you’re already doing. Move data gently rather than making it a constant nag. Make screens caption our lives instead of frame them.

    I couldn’t have put it better. It’s the reason I get uncomfortable when we talk about the applications of Beacon technology – I worry we’ll limit ourselves to pushing context-aware ads and miss the opportunities to create real change for how someone lives.

I can’t wait for next year. If you’re so inclined, I tweeted like a mad person during the conference.