My Top 3 Takeaways from An Event Apart: DC 2014

For those who don’t know, An Event Apart is a design/development web conference for professionals working to improve user experience, web standards as well as raise the level of and redefine the standards of web design aesthetic.

My coworker and I were sent to the most recent AEA in DC this July. While I expected the majority of people there to be developers and designers, there were also some copywriters and project managers. The most impressive aspect of this conference is how universally accessible the knowledge is to those who attend.

The sheer amount of information from this conference could fill an entire book, but instead I’ve picked my top three takeaways to share with you.

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SVG

First up, Chris Coyier’s presentation on SVGs was beyond enlightening. SVGs are vector based images that don’t pixelate or degrade when resized, and are usually much smaller file weights compared to the JPGs and PNGs that are used more commonly nowadays.

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(photo: Chris Coyier’s SVG is for Everybody)

SVGs can have multiple colors, the developer can target different elements of an SVG in the code (for color, animation, etc.). One of the coolest things was seeing him take the file in Illustrator copy and paste it into the code editor. Voila! SVG’d.

In the end, Chris inspired me to use SVGs by showing me how easy and helpful their usage can be.

Click here to see Chris’s complete list regarding SVGs.

Empathy

“It’s becoming the new buzzword,” Jaimee Newberry claims about the word ‘empathy’ in her presentation, Designing Engagement, ”but we don’t have to let it.”  She’s right, too. We’re starting to overuse the term empathy and with every misuse, the word loses it’s original meaning and intent. It’s our job to not let “empathy” become the new “literally.”

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(photos: left – Jeffrey Zeldman’s Understanding Web Design, right – Jonathan Hoefler’s Putting the Fonts into Web Fonts)

If you’re empathetic you’re able not to just relate to someone, but more accurately put yourself in their place, because you’ve been in their place before. What does this have to do with designing and development, you may ask?

With all the new technology, shared methods of design and optimized standards flowing around, it’s easy to get swept up in what’s new and cutting edge and fun. But as Jeffrey Zeldman put it, “we don’t design for browsers, or displays – we design for people.”

One of the most useful tools in any designer/developers arsenal is the ability to create a great user experience. This can only be done if the user is the end-goal, not the cool new effects we can create using CSS3/jQuery, etc.

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(photo: Luke Wroblewski’s Screen Time)

Finally, empathy is not just something we use and design for, it’s our ability to work with others and recognize it in others. One of the most surprising presentations at AEA was Whitney Hess’s The Integral Designer: Developing You. In this presentation she talks about your social and emotional intelligence (SEI profile).

Anyone who has worked with web designers and developers knows that communication isn’t always as smooth as you’d like. It’s not because people aren’t communicating at all, it’s more because people communicate in so many ways, consciously and unconsciously that messages get lost in the melee.

Hess tells us the best way to make our work better is to focus on four quadrants as they relate to ourselves: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

I’m only going to discuss how you relate with others and interact with others on a daily basis. Hess titles it, social awareness, or empathy. Those who struggle with empathy “assume they know how other [people] feel, have a hard time ‘reading’ people, are often surprised by what someone has said or done, wait for their turn to talk – planning their response, and believe everyone thinks like they do.”

The best way to improve on your own social awareness is to listen. Take in the environment around you and focus on how people are interacting with each other. “Understand how others’ perspectives differ from your own.” What are people striving towards? What drives them? Once you’ve ascertained that, then work with others and have your views come from a place they can respect and relate.

Content is King

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(photo: Jared Spool’s UX Strategy Means Business)

Content, content, CONTENT! It was the Marsha Brady topic of this conference. In fact, this concept was covered in arguably every single presentation from DC’s An Event Apart.

It was discussed in Jared Spool’s UX Strategy Means Business presentation, where he declares, “content is king, but strategy is key.” In essence, the key to successful design and business is “delightful content” which “adds real value” to the product and the user’s experience.

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(photo: left – Jonathan Hoefler’s Putting the Fonts in Webfonts)

And then again in Dan Mall’s Responsive Design is Still Hard/Easy! Be Afraid/Don’t Worry!, where he breaks down his web process by adding a content inventory step. This is where the client and designer figure out the site map and informational structure, helping to design and develop with all the variables known prior to construction.

Content is the name of the game on the web. If you’ve got the user’s attention it may be because it was easy to access or designed well, but if you want to keep their attention? Make sure the content is top notch.

A Whirlwind … 

In the end, An Event Apart was an incredibly fun, educational, and useful conference. I recommend it for anyone who works with the web either directly or indirectly.

I also want to thank Squarespace who sponsored an awesome lounge to relax in (barista and free coffee included) and Lynda.com who provided great promos to their site.

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And even if you can’t ever make it to an AEA conference, I highly recommend following the speakers from the conference for tips on best practices and conversations about the web and user experience:

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