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.

Speaking at the AAAE/Sixel Airport Digital Summit Conference

I had the pleasure of speaking at the AAAE/Sixel Airport Digital Media Summit Conference (#RDUDigital) in Raleigh, North Carolina at the end of September.

I gave a case study on a digital response for an international airport, which included web, social, architecture and app. It was great to meet airport communications, marketing and digital people from all over the U.S. Special thanks to Raleigh Airport for hosting!

On stage at the Airport Digital Summit.
Speaking at AAAE/Sixel Airport Digital Summit

3 Things I Learned at An Event Apart Chicago

It’s #aneventapart time again! This year, I picked An Event Apart 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 An Event Apart 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 An Event Apart Chicago’s 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. Thanks, An Event Apart Chicago.

Take Our Kids To Work 2014 (the Toughest Speaking Gig on Earth)

Today I spoke to a group of 30 grade nine students for the second year and once again it proved to be the toughest speech I give all year. I think my job is pretty cool (computers! websites! social media!), but keeping the attention of 14-year-olds at 8 a.m. is…challenging.

I’ve spoken at a number of conferences over the past few years, including International Association of Business Communicators Social Media conferences and at the University of Toronto, and I really enjoy it. It’s exciting to share the work I’ve been doing with people who are invested in the same things I am. I just hope the students get something out of it!

3 Things I Learned from An Event Apart Orlando

A white samoyed dog wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

I just got back from An Event Apart 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 An Event Apart Orlando 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 An Event Apart 2015!