Thoughts on An Event Apart San Francisco

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We just returned from An Event Apart San Francisco and I am trying to put down notes and ideas while they are fresh in my mind. It was three full intense days of information — some great, some good, some not so much. But overall, it was a valuable experience (and they do conference right — great food, comfortable location, endless supply of coffee and sugar).

My take is always unique — I overheard some people who were ecstatic over the presentations that I felt were completely off — but I have been in the business for over three decades now and I want ideas that are new to me. So here are my notes from the presentations.

“The Fault, Dear Brutus (or: Career Advice From a Cranky Old Man)” by Jeffrey Zeldman

A lot of what Jeffery spoke about resonated strongly:

  • the need to force ourselves to get rid of disdain for our clients that just “don’t get it” — mutual respect is the foundation of designer-client relationship
  • in conversation about design, focus on purpose and use and stay away from esthetics — every person has their own
  • sometimes, people (clients, bosses) are incapable of seeing our growth as designers — move to a new company, new group to gain new identity — an example of Anchoring Errors
  • if your best work is left on the editing table, show your thought process — a good way of presenting your expertise to new clients

Jeffery gave lots of examples. They were funny and poignant. It was a great presentation for a young designer.

“Design Decisions Through the Lens of Performance” by Yesenia Perez-Cruz

I can summarize the presentation as: “It’s Performance Budget, stupid!”

Basically, Yesenia talked about the impact of sluggish presentation on the users — Mirroring Errors. Mirroring Errors are errors of quality substitution — the site is slow to load, thus its products are bad; the copy is badly spelled, then the content is stupid, too (I know I have to watch this one — I’m dyslexic, so perhaps I can get away with more?!); the doctor looks messy, he must be a bad surgeon. In absence of a reliable criteria to judge quality, we all rely on easily perceived values and descriptors.

Yesenia argued (well!) that fast-loading sites equated with being more memorable and translated to overall quality of content (independent of that content). She gave great examples — for every extra 100ms of added page load, Amazon saw 1% decrease in revenue. For every 1 second decrease in waiting time on load, Walmart saw almost 2% increase in conversions. These are serious numbers!

Here’s a reference: “For Impatient Web Users, an Eye Blink Is Just Too Long to Wait,” New York Times, February 29, 2012, For Impatient Web Users, an Eye Blink Is Just Too Long to Wait

Yesenia gave great site references for checking the weight of the site: Web Page Test

This site is a great starting point for having the business strategy conversations with your clients about the performance of the site. Together with the Performance Budget concept, this just might work.

Unfortunately, it is not only about performance. Users will wait for the content if it is something they want. There is no point in downgrading the photography of the National Geographic, for example, because people go to that site specifically for great photography. People will also wait for the hi-rez version of the new Star Wars movie preview.

Like everything else, I believe, performance is just one of the variables, among many, in the business decisions that great design has to take into account. Just saying “performance is everything” is simplistic.

But it was good talk!

“Designing for Social Behavior” by Sarah Parmenter

Sarah talked about the various media channels and how companies had to differentiate their content offerings based on which channel they are using. Sarah gave good examples, too.

She divided content into: Publishing Channel; Aspirational Channel; and Support Channel. Each of these has to be presented to the user/viewer via the right media site. So here is her take: the official company’s site is the main content; repurposed materials go on aspirational channels; and follow up channels provide support.

Instagram: don’t make it professional or staged image content, or it will look like stack photos and will turn the users of Instagram off.

Twitter: great for customer support; provides only 0.04 engagement! This means a lot of followers…

Pinterest: professional quality content, beauty shots.

Facebook: charges for information about visitors to the app — need an alternate way to gather user data.

Take Aways:

  • Participation — need to engage, if only on a very limited level
  • Commitment — need consistent content — audience needs to count on content being there on a regular schedule
  • Authenticity — don’t break the trust; don’t appear staged; don’t repurpose the same content over and over again

This is my example of a company that uses the media channels very well: Fluevogs Shoes. I want them!

The problem with the talk was its application to smaller businesses — each media channel has an enormous cost to a business. So this is ultimately a business decision — What can we do? What is doable for us?

And here’s a good article from the Wall Street Journal on the topic: What Celebrities Can Teach Companies About Social Media

“Unified UX” by Cameron Moll

This was the call to make everything look the same across all devices. Cameron argues that since 77% of all mobile searches happen at home, why are we trying to confuse the customer? He gave an example of his dad feeling mistrustful of a mobile site when it didn’t look the same as the desk top.

Considering that the next day, Derek Featherstone argued that content has to be dependent on context — content changes all the time — it was kind of funny.

“Designing for Performance” by Lara Hogan

Just Test It!!!!

Lara is a designer at She instituted a culture where every decision gets an A/B test — usability wins. She gave a statistic: for every additional 160K/page they get 12% bounce rate! That is a very impressive statistic. She also discussed that perception of speed is not the same as actual load speed, meaning that we need to give users something to do other than look at the blank page.

Again, doing A/B testing on everything is a luxury of a well-funded company. Small businesses can’t afford to do that. So it comes down to what is important to our business and to our customers. If download speed is the only performance matrix that matters, than by all means cut down to the bone! Don’t use fancy web-type — regular fonts are fine. No one has ever left the site they needed to use because the subhead type was too rounded and the “r” were too funky.

“Modern Layouts: Getting Out of Our Ruts” by Jen Simmons

It would be cool to design strong diagonal text blocks on a web page …but everything Jen talked about was focused on secondary content. She showed a wonderful example of a New York Times magazine article — a giant image spanning the entire width of the screen with an article in one column below. But the talk didn’t cover the need to expose the users/visitors of a website to its richness of offerings — Home Page design is a different animal (from secondary, single article pages).

Jen talked about books and magazine as a comparison to web layout. But books too have limitations — there is the size, and the center has a bind. But the thing about printed stuff is that a user can flip through the pages to get a sense of what lies within. Websites don’t have that luxury. A website needs to communicate its contents to the visitors in basically one glance — it is very hard to do. And boxes — many, many boxes — do work well for this. Diagonals and curves, while wonderful-looking, take up space… Obviously, this is not a rule-of-thumb, but more often than not, we have to design for density of information. The news paper layout (which is very similar to web layout) is presented in boxes and columns for exactly this reason.

It would have been nice if in this discussion, we explored other information delivery systems before modern times:
Scrolls? — what’s the layout that works for those? Readers can’t see the contents of the scroll from the outside; there’s no way to “flip pages” on a scroll. Perhaps that’s a better comparison to a web page. And the slow reveal of information as the page scrolls can be an advantage in some circumstances.

How about Stone Tablets? Pillars? This of Egyptian columns delivering information to the worshipers:

Karnak Temple Interior

The designers of information layout for these columns had design meetings too… (and bad design might have been a death sentence!)

What about radio? This is time-spooled content…

There was a missed opportunity in this talk.

But Jen was very very good!

“Resilience: Building a Robust Web That Lasts” by Jeremy Keith

Great talk! Jeremy started with fire beacons, and moved all the way through the development and design ideas behind the World Wide Web.

The HTML pattern of < .. > … < /.. > repeats over and over again and is extremely resilient. HTML is a declarative language: if the browser doesn’t recognize the command between the <> brackets, it just prints text between. This reduces a lot of failure.

JavaScript, on the other hand, is an imperative language (step-by-step instructions) — any syntax error breaks the code. This is very fragile.

In the history of content presentation on the web, new notation started in the imperative language format and slowly moved into the declarative form.

Jeremy urged everyone to find solutions that were resistant to failure. To accomplish this, he recommended the following process:

  1. Identify core functionality;
  2. Make from simplest tech;
  3. Enhance.

This felt to me like a fractal design strategy. And the pattern of < .. > … < /.. > also had a fractal feel to it.

Great talk!

“CSS Grid Layout” by Rachel Andrew

Great technical presentation on the possibilities of CSS Grid layout. All her examples can be found at Use Chrome. Enable “Experimental Web Platform Features” flag.

Rachel gave one of the best talks at the event (technical, but amazing).

“Content in Context Is King” by Derek Featherstone

Derek is a very nice guy — it comes through. But what he ultimately suggested was to show content hidden under three different tabs to different users depending on their relative location and time: a person is in the building, show tab with conference floor plan; the person is 10 minutes from the building, show tab with driving instructions, etc.

Derek also talked about limiting access to content based on location (GPS) data — a really bad idea. This is not a great insight. He also proposed making email harder to read for the times of day when we are most “productive” — a non-starter. Never reduce capability to encourage desired behavior!

Content and context need to be explored through need and goals of the user. And it has to be a real need and a real goal. It felt like Derek made up data to justify his decisions. Where did he get the numbers for the 10% of the users are…?

This was a missed opportunity to look deep into how to think about content and context and human need.

For a real discussion on the importance of context, check out the work of InterNews in Pakistan.

Again — a super nice guy.

“Designing for Crisis” by Eric Meyer

Eric gave a lot of personal examples to push the need for empathic design. He was a strong advocate for good user personas.

Crisis design work is big in human rights fields. It might have been interesting to showcase how emergency workers and doctors without boarders use empathic design principles to help their work.

Overall, a good presentation.

“Tall Tales From A Large Man” by Aaron Draplin

I might be a minority here, but I didn’t know who this guy was. I wasn’t impressed by his art work. The entire presentation was about how great Aaron Draplin was and how we should all just hire Aaron Draplin to do our logo work.

I was under impression that An Even Apart conferences were about teaching new skills, exposing to new ideas, and helping designers think differently about their approach to work and design. This last presentation was like a traveling salesman selling himself.

Aaron wasn’t good enough or funny enough to pull off a conference closing. And it was his 175th(?) instance of this talk!

Nope, just no.

(Perhaps if he was Richard Avedon…)