Last week I was afforded the opportunity to go to An Event Apart Boston, a conference I’ve wanted to attend for a few years now. I attribute most of what I know to the fine folks that run with that group, including Zeldman, Dan Cerderholm, Ethan Marcotte, and Luke Wroblewski, all of whom would be speaking. Now that the dust has settled, the photos have been posted, a my notes have been typed up, I’m ready to talk about what I’ve learned.
Please keep in mind this was like the World Series of web development for me; I was very excited (if you follow me on Twitter, you would have seen that- sorry for the 300+ tweets) , I Â took a lot of notes, and I want to try a lot of new things. I’ll try to pare down what I have into a few main points.
I figure I should start with the name of the first talk, given by Zeldman. By no means was this only found in his talk though; this was a recurring theme through all three days, and there is good reason. While web developers could never really predict or control how their users view their websites, we are in an age of thousands of different devices, access points, and screen sizes. The only thing we can count on is having good content.
Designers are no longer controlling the User Experience
Itâ€™s impossible to design without content
Even if we do have a nice design that works on both desktop and mobile, Luke W points out that there are still tablets, ‘phablets’, TVs, gaming consoles, and more. And who knows what we’ll have in the near future. With apps like Instapaper and Pocket, users don’t even need to visit our site to view the content. So we need to make the a priority.
Karen McGrane did a great talk about this: we need to adapt our content to this ever changing world; we can do Â this with APIs and good meta data.
COPE: Create Once Publish Everywhere
Our content can go anywhere because we know it will go everywhere
NPR did things right: their CMS publishes the content to an API, which can then be used by anyone to create great interfaces for any device. This means optimized experiences for desktop, mobile, iPad, and more. That’s much better than a PDF on a tablet, right?
We are all guilty of it; we see some tool that will make the job so much easier because a lot of the work is done already. I’ve done it by using JQuery mobile when maybe I didn’t have to; includingÂ librariesÂ or “one size fits all” solutions Â are something that we as developers need to think about because it could have a negative affect on our users. As Scott Jehl and Luke W pointed out, there are some areas of the world that only use the Internet on mobile, and further, only on Edge or 3G. We can’t assume our users have the same experience as us; we can’t even assume fast connections.
Developer Conveniences are killing our performance.
I recently developed a mobile web app where I used JQuery mobile because it was easier. That means I need to load all of JQuery, JQuery mobile, and accompanying files and for what? Layout elements my users might not even notice? What they will definitely notice however, is how slow the app is, if it is in fact slow.
We need to take a mobile first approach when we create our websites, as Luke W talks about in his book by the same name. That means present the important stuff in an efficient way. Everything else will fall into place after that. We need to remember that mobile isn’t going away- it’s growing at a faster rate than any other media. Here are some stats Luke W gave at his Workshop:
Now, Â a couple of stats from how people use the mobile web:
The way most people are doing Â things now, they are poised to lose a lot of users in the coming years to people who are doing mobile right.
I think what the previous two points really come down to is that we need to consider the user when we create. During one of his talks, Luke W showed one of my all-time favorite xkcd comics:
I think this properly captures what a lot of people have to deal with: what the organization wants users to see vs. what the users actually want to see. It’s imperative that we solve the problems our users have- not the problems we think of.
Whitney Hess gave an amazing talk about how we need to define the problem, not the solution. If we don’t have the right problem, how can we possibly have the right solution? She recommends we do this by talking to the target audience; watch them use our products and ask the context-specific questions. Let them do all the talking and we will learn from them.Â Once the problem is defined, the solution will be clear.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
While Josh Clark, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite people in the industry, gave a talk specific to touch screens, the ideas behind his points are all about the user: consider how people interact with the app or website and adjust accordingly. We can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing when the medium has changed. Pertaining to touch screens, we need to get rid of buttons in favor of gestures. Gestures come naturally to users, which make an interface more intuitive.
Nature doesnâ€™t have instructions
Better UX means happier users. Clark suggests that instead of instruction screens we provide visual cues built into the UI to help the user along. We see thisÂ predominantlyÂ in video games. Jared Spool talks along the same lines about the importance of UX.
He tells us that an intuitive design comes from the user’s current knowledge of an interface matches their target knowledge; in other words, they are using a system they understand. One of the ways we can achieve this is by simplifying the experience, which goes back to the notion on content first. He also gives some very good advice about massive redesigns:
Redesigns should not be huge â€œflip the switchâ€ rollouts.
- Jared Spool
This takes away all current knowledge, making the interface completely unintuitive. That’s why Facebook users get so pissed every time something is changed. Spool recommends we do incremental rollouts so that we don’t zap all current knowledge at the same time.
All-in-all this was an incredible experience. The three takeaways I’ve mentioned here have already started to influence my work, including the mobile app I mentioned earlier, which I plan to redesign and rework. I obviously didn’t mention everything; aside from technique, which I may write up in a different post, Scott Berkun gave an awesome talk about dangerous ideas in the work place and how to make them work for you. I would really, truly recommend you go to one of the An Event Apart conferences if you can. It will notÂ disappoint.