A Reflection on Day One of An Event Apart Atlanta.

Published in: Web Development.

Having finished the first day of An Event Apart Atlanta, I’ve come away with a lot of good information. My notes are much more extensive than this post, but these are the common themes I felt emerge from the various talks.

The Web is Complicated

The largest theme of the day was that the web has become complicated, and we need to be prepared for it.

Samantha Warren started this theme with her presentation of Style Tiles. As building for the web has moved from fixed width sites to responsive, the way we communicate the visuals needs to adapt to become more flexible, allowing us iterate with our clients more efficiently and quickly. Style Tiles live between static mockups and mood boards. They communicate more than mood boards, without communicating the false certainty that accompanies mockups. They help communicate that we’re not designing pages, we’re designing a system from which pages and templates will be created.

Style Tiles look to be best used as aides during early design discussion. Once a project is mature, pattern libraries would be a better ongoing tool to centrally communicate the aesthetic and components that make up the system that makes up the website.

Jason Santa Maria touched on this theme in his discussion of the value of being flexible with your process. As he explained the need to move from the “flat and fixed” process that was the standard, with its manual file versioning and chaotic naming, he made the argument that such a process worked because the web was simpler medium then.

The theme really hit hard with Luke Wroblewski’s talk on designing for the increasing diversity of devices in use. We need to embrace the current state of devices, treating high resolution, wide screen devices as the dominant devices that they are. We need to leverage all the tools in our media query toolbox to design for the variety of devices on the market. Inputs are not mutually exclusive and are only increasing. We need to build in a way that accommodates various inputs interchangeably. A gigantic jump in the complexity of the web becomes apparent when we realize that TVs and smartphones have the same resolutions, but have completely different postural interactions. We need to respond to not only screen size but viewing distance, holding position, and environmental factors.

Jason Grigsby finished the theme with an incredibly practical overview of the needs of building websites mobile first. A big part of his talk involved emphasizing the importance of responsive image solutions. I’ve been hesitant implementing a responsive image solution because they all feel so hackish, like they’re working against the browser instead of with it. Jason recognized this, saying that they are hacks, and we shouldn’t overlook that fact. We should implement a solution in a way that we can change it later, because hacks can become obsolete very quickly.

We don’t yet have great tools to deal with much of the complexity. We need to adapt our client communications and our designs in light of the ubiquity and complexity of the web platform. We need to build websites that are optimized for the data that we know, use reasonable proxies to optimize for the data that we don’t know, and push for improved data for variables that don’t have reasonable proxies.

Prioritize Communication Over Tools or Process

While Jason Santa Maria touched on the complexity of the web platform, he mostly hit on moving our focus from following a particular process to getting to the root of what processes are for: communication. We need to choose our tools and approaches based on the situation and use whatever communicates our ideas to our colleagues and clients most effectively and quickly.

A sub-theme that tied in with Samantha Warren’s talk was that of working in the appropriate fidelity at the appropriate points in a project. Communicating at less of a fidelity than what is needed leads to a discussion that isn’t focused on the items that aren’t ready to be discussed, while communicating at too high of a fidelity may lead to a discussion about details that don’t need to be discussed yet.

Use mood boards when you need to work through very abstract notions of a brand. Move to style tiles when it’s time to focus those abstract notions into a design system. Start ideas on paper, moving them into mediums of higher and higher detail as those details are ready to come into focus. Move discussions about details to the lowest fidelity required. If a discussion on colors needs to be made, don’t redo the style tiles or designs, work with color palettes until a solution is closer at hand.

Communicate and Emphasize the Importance of Design

The final theme that emerged from the day was the need to communicate and emphasize the importance of design. I came in late to Jeffrey Zeldman’s talk and missed most of it, but he ended it talking about the web industry needing evangelists more than it needs stars. Jared Spool took it home with the last talk of the day, though, showing how, if we want to be taken seriously, we need to demonstrate the value of our work to the strategic priorities of business.1 Additionally, we should take an active role in designing the business model to achieve the priorities so that we can work in a way that serves the user. When we develop strategies for revisions and improvements, we should communicate them in the context of the strategic priorities and measure them against those priorities. The more we work in the same world as our bosses and our bosses’ bosses, the more positive influence we can have.

Other Takeaways

  • All of the speakers look shorter in person than they do on Twitter.
  • @CodingItWrong had the best running Twitter commentary.
  • Vitamin T had a surprise hit with their dancing robots.
  • I need to allow for more time to get into Buckhead from Decatur.
  1. Increasing revenue, decreasing costs, increasing new business, increasing existing business, increasing shareholder value.

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