An Event Apart Boston ’14 Recap


Last week I experienced two amazing, eye-opening, brain-busting days at An Event Apart Boston, the aptly titled “design conference for people who make websites”; this is our second time attending AEA, and it’s quickly become a must-go event for us: last year we missed it when it came through my fair city, so we travelled out to the city by the bay (was a great excuse to spend a few days in SF). This year it was awesome to have such an impressive roster of web design leaders right here in Boston.

So much was covered in the two days I was there (sadly, I did not attend Luke W’s mobile-design workshop) — I’ve been going back through my notes and recapping all of the great topics, ideas, theories, arguments and practices that we were immersed in, and thought it’d be great to share some of the take-aways that resonated most with me.

EVERY speaker there was fantastic; there wasn’t a bad presentation in the bunch. Please note that if there’s less information associated under a particular speaker’s name, it in no way reflects a lack of valuable information. It is more likely a reflection on my mental capacity, what time of day that speaker presented, how well I was able to relate content back to my own situation, how good my notes were, or how hungover I may or may not have been on any particular morning.

So here are notes, fragments, zingers & commentary from the event, broken down by speaker:

1) Understanding Web Design

Jeffrey Zeldman

  • Web design is like typography
  • Web design is also like architecture: we design the framework for our clients & users to populate & interact with
  • Great web design facilitates interaction between users
  • For years, websites were very misunderstood: they were judged (still are?) based on the same principles as print & TV ads: “It’s interactive if it’s on the internet” ~ overheard at an Art Director’s Club event
  • Facebook’s failed attempt to use HTML5 was a failure of design, not of technology
  • We don’t design for browsers, we design for people
  • Great web design delights
  • Achieve the right things for the wrong reasons: we went into space not for grand designs, but to compete with the Soviets. The end result was still great: we went into space!

2) Designing Using Data

Sarah Parmenter

  • We are no longer artists of the web; we design systems
  • Instincts are experiments; data provides proof
  • “Data” implies numbers, and numbers don’t always tell the whole story: try using “research” instead
  • “Get everyone on the same page, and NOT thinking through preference” ~ Samantha Warren
  • Love this: take taste & preference out of the equation
  • Don’t be seduced by “vanity metrics”: metrics that we use to stroke our egos, but have little applicable, actionable value (hits, page views, unique visitors, and “likes”)
  • Facebook posts reach 50% of their audience within the first 30m of posting

3) Responsive Design is Still Hard / Easy! Be Afraid / Don’t Worry!

Dan Mall

  • Create a Framework, not a Process: a Process, like Newton’s Cradle, is a rigid series of events, where surprise is not expected or welcomed. A Framework, like a football field, provides a series of parameters, rules and objectives that allow creativity & experimentation, and where surprise is welcomed
  • Moving from Waterfall to Agile can be done in small, iterative steps: start by getting all team members involved, at varying degrees, throughout all stages of the projec.
  • Get information and ideas out as quickly as possible
  • Element collage: before creating a “comp”, design elements of the site, and present in such a way as to not look like website (helps to layout in a horizontal format, as most sites are vertical, and can confuse the client)
  • When prototyping, aim to solve ONE problem each time
  • Pattern Lab / Atomic design: move away from designing and thinking about “pages”; break a site into the smallest components (images, articles, headlines, forms, etc) and design up from there

4) Screen Time

Luke Wroblewski

  • Online time is screen time
  • Screens are increasingly widescreen format, and are moving further in that direction
  • Resolution is becoming a poor measurement, as some mobile screens can have as many pixels as a 40” screen
  • Media Queries are smarter than we think, and can be used to detect screen height: useful to compress vertical padding & whitespace, move CTA’s up (this officially renders “the fold” dead)
  • Media Queries can also be used to determine HD / retina displays
  • Our means to detect input types is currently not ideal: our best bet is to use screen size as a proxy, and support all inputs (touch & mouse)
  • Posture: how is the user interacting with the screen? How far away are they sitting? How bright is their environment?
  • Design for the environment, not screen width

5) Content / Communication

Kristina Holvorson

  • Principles are intrinsically motivated (vs. rules, which are externally) — Define the principles that motivate your team, client, etc.
  • A good strategy provides you with constraints (like guardrails), and keeps us accountable
  • Understanding strategy via an amusing scenario of a bear standing at a river, waiting for fish: his objective is to eat, his strategy is to go to the river, his tactic is to stand and wait for fish
  • Do not make process your god: process is flexible and always evolving
  • Process helps us all move forward together
  • Know everyone’s roles: have a pre-meeting (before kick-off) so everyone is aligned on terminology, goals, and any potential issues (timing, agendas, overlapping priorities)
  • Roles give us a place
  • “Swoop & poop” — someone stepping into the project and dumping a bunch of unexpected (and unwanted) input (or crap)
  • I’ve been told I bear a strong resemblance to this guy

6) UX Strategy Means Business

Jared Spool

  • Design: the rendering of intent
  • Design is intentional
  • The delivery of content is as important as the content itself
  • Strategy is how we achieve a desired outcome
  • If UX strategy can’t predict an outcome, then UX strategy is broken
  • Amazon’s “cash float” model is incredible, sinister, and will eventually take over the world
  • Great business models are designed; design decisions can always be mapped back to key strategic business priorities
  • Best UX strategists create delight by working in the intersection of business and design

7) The Long Web

Jeremy Keith

  • URL design: plan the syntax of your URL’s: something we often overlook — make them readable, guessable, hackable
  • Conditional loading: don’t allow something to block the rest of the page from loading
  • Progressive enhancement is like a broken escalator: it’s not broken, it just stairs
  • Text-based languages, like HTML & CSS, are most likely to last over the years (as opposed to binary languages)

8) Responsive Design Performance Budgeting

Paul Irish

  • Waterfalls by TLC is a great song
  • Even more important than making a mobile site optimized is to make it faster: the user has tools (pinch & zoom, double tap) to deal w/ layout issues, but nothing to do to make it faster
  • Latency defines the speed of how the web loads
  • Throwing more bandwidth at a problem does not necessarily speed up load times
  • Speed goals: above the fold content in under 1s, first 14KB (including critical path CSS)
  • Speed index under 1000
  • Wow a lot of this is flying over my head

9) The Chroma Zone: Engineering Color on the Web

Lea Verou

  • RGB is an antiquated color model, but we’ve all acclimated to it
  • HSB is a bit more intuitive, but still not perfect
  • Blending modes are coming to CSS!

10) Mind the Gap: Designing in the Space Between Devices

Josh Clark

  • Design for people, not for screens (sorry Luke)
  • Drumpants are hilarious and a ridiculous use of technology
  • Embracing constraints can lead to the best design solutions
  • Designing beyond the screen: touch & motion gestures to control interfaces
  • Never try to out-mouse the mouse
  • Plan for gadget hopping
  • Share actions across devices
  • Some of the most advanced uses of technology outside of the screen will use simple technologies (like SMS) and won’t be used to take over the world, but will let us know how many eggs we have left in the fridge when shopping

11) Web+: Can the Web Win the War Against Native Without Losing its Soul?

Bruce Lawson

  • “Web Apps” are closing the gap with native apps with tools such as Service Workers & IndexedDB
  • Application Cache is a douchbag, and XML is Satan’s Snot
  • User’s download an app in order to “bookmark” it: it just makes it easier to access
  • No one uses actual bookmarks on mobile browsers
  • Opera is developing a great new mobile browser that makes the web feel more “app-like”

12) How to Champion Ideas Back at Work

Scott Berkun

  • The Real Designer is the person with the power to make decisions
  • When networking, ask someone for their business card (instead of trying to push yours on them) — instant ice-breaker
  • Great projects are really, really hard, and often misunderstood at their time: The Eiffel tower was almost universally panned when it was erected
  • When championing new ideas, start small: decide on something you know you can knock out the park — next time, it will be expected that your crazy new idea will work
  • UX Happyhour needs to come to Boston
  • This presentation should have really been earlier in the event: it’s basically a primer on how to network, and how to not waste our two days here


I can’t recall who said this one, but it was a good one:
• 50% of all web / display ads are clicked on by mistake

AND: An Event Apart gives all attendees a great lunchbox with fun swag: Luca loves it!
An Event Apart Boston