How I learned to love the web again

Reflections on my first “An Event Apart” conference.

Illustration of web designer tools in the style of a Slayers tools to combat the apocalypse.

In every generation a Change-maker is born. She alone will stand against the forces of scope creep. She is the designer, developer, brand-builder, project manager, and client hand-holder.

But actually, she’s not alone. The full-stack myth may persist but what truly makes the individual powerful is their team. Consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Without her scooby-gang, she may not have saved the world quite as often and she definitely would have stayed dead that second time. A good leader empowers their team to be better, and recognizes that they can’t fight the powers of darkness alone.

Attending An Event Apart in Chicago this past August was kind of like being in the presence of a united group of superheroes. Each presenter built their talk on a shared foundation of research, humanism, inclusion, thoughtful design, and more research. As attendees listened (far, far away from our ruts of creativity-squelching projects and unrealistic time frames), we became equals. We were all Change-makers.

Two large dollar signs followed by an hourglass indicate that time must be a considered an investment.

“Research saves money.”
— Jeffrey Zeldman

Introduced by Eric Meyer as, “the Kirk to my Spock,” Jeffrey Zeldman opened with a major rebuttal to a giant assumption. His analysis of his own research-centric approach on a recent project offered a lot of insight to many of us who struggle with a demand for “magic” under the restrictions of small budgets and smaller timelines. Zeldman told the story of a recent client coming to him for a site refresh, checkbook at the ready.

“Stop, don’t give me all of your money. Just give me some of your money and let’s do some research,” said Jeffrey.

It may seem tempting to take the money and run with the problem as outlined by the client, (ie. “We just need a design refresh.”). In reality, working in this way is neither faster, nor easier, and will almost always result in confusion, disappointment, and the dreaded scope creep as everything that went unspoken in the kick-off call rears it’s bloated, assumption-ridden visage.

Research is the web’s version of, “Measure twice. Cut once.”

“Yeah,” you say, “but, that’s Jeffrey Zeldman. He can afford to do research. What about the little start-up web companies and the independent designer/developers out there? Do we really have time to do research? And user-testing? This sounds great but let’s be practical. We’ve got deadlines and projects are backed up. Clients will never go for it.”

We buckle under the pressure of “business” considerations (aka. the way we’ve always done things) and take on another “quick brochure-site redesign”. We do exactly what the client asks for without delving further into the problem.

How long did the project actually end up taking (did you exceed your budgeted time)? What happens in 2 or 3 years when the logo is updated or web design trends change? After several different “refreshes,” and twice as many development firms, the original website will become a Frankenstein. The only way forward will be a complete re-build from the ground up.

No one wins in this scenario. Without research, there is no meaningful design. Without meaningful design, we can’t be sure that we are solving the right problems.

A standard webpage with 3 service columns and a carousel.

Stop Being Boring

The commercial web has been around for a mere 20+ years, an insignificant amount of time, and yet it feels like we have already run out of ways to present our ideas. Wait a minute… are we really that boring?

Enter Rachel Andrew. With the publication of “Get Ready for CSS Grid Layout,” Rachel became the prophet for a new CSS spec that changes everything. Acknowledging that change can be hard, Rachel provided some excellent pro-grid arguments to make when you encounter objections. CSS Grid is currently at 68–72% 95% browser support — this is one of the fastest adoption rates ever for any new CSS spec. That website you are working on today is meant to live on the web in the future. Use the technology that it can grow into today without doing any extra work – a few @supports rules and you are all good!

Should you use grid? The short and resounding answer is “YES”. CSS Grid is a revolution in web layout. Prepare to be amazed at how a few lines of code can open up a whole new realm of possibilities in web design.

When Jen Simmons steps up to the stage to close out Day 1 of An Event Apart Chicago, and says (essentially), “Okay, let’s stop this bootstrap-py navel gazing. Let’s look at something completely different,” the audience is rapt. “What about websites that refer to Bauhaus design concepts? How about aligning text from top to bottom or right to left? We can look at art and design from India or Japan.” We are frightened and entranced. We are grateful to hear our own nagging suspicions spoken aloud. The web, and by extension the world, can be anything we imagine.

What does the future look like?

Making assumptions is just something humans do in order to navigate a complex world in a more or less timely and productive fashion. However, assumptions do not save time when it comes to web development. When allowed to run amok, assumptions will always seek to override and impair its challenger — discovery.

Illustration of common symbols: Home, Chat, Burger, Team, Phone, Mail - the burger is a literal burger

Tasked with creating a shared language of symbols and interactions meant to assist other humans in their day to day activities, we can not simply go through the motions. What do real people need to do? How are they best able to do it? What issues might arise from a marketing decision to rename the login area to something more “original” or a designers minimalist proclivity to place 12px #555 copy on a #F5F5F5 background?

Accessibility is more than just being mobile friendly.

The future is not merely mobile, it is inclusive. Day two of An Event Apart explored the varied levels of human interaction within teams and with technology in greater depth.

Derek Featherstone spoke on the topic, “Where Accessibility Lives”. Imagine a hypothetical web team, faced with a number of complaints from users, that has to “determine if the issues (are) larger than a bug and require strategic decisions”. Derek suggested that rather than overwhelming ourselves (and our teams) trying to be “100% perfect and 0% done”, we can create a standard that “evolves to always get better”. We can be 100% done and 60–70% perfect and continue to make improvements. We “focus on better” by incorporating accessibility thinking into our processes and tools. We can then test our assumptions by reaching out to advocacy groups, colleges, and universities.

If basic human empathy is not enough to sway you, accessibility is now a Google ranking indicator and, actually, web accessibility is like a law and stuff. Since 2010, many public and private companies have been sued under the Americans with Disabilities act for failing to to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

A website is often viewed in context with a user’s real life.

In a related talk titled, “Design for Real Life,” Eric Meyer weighed the importance of understanding who our users are against the assumptions we might be making on their behalf. Is an automated “Happy Mother’s Day” email something that everyone wants to receive, does it elicit the same response in all people? People don’t access web content in a vacuum, life is full of stressors and “stress expands to fill available space”. All the more reason to challenge our assumptions about what users need and how they will complete a task. Eric impressed upon us that “when we shape information, we can alter the shape of lives”.

In applying design thinking throughout the lifespan of a project, we come to appreciate that “what we do to help other people, (ultimately) helps us.”

“Our work is done with other people, for other people.”
— Brad Frost

The way forward must be to consider what we do in a more holistic and critical way. How do we help our clients and our organizations stand out? How do we optimize for the human experience? How do we work together?

In a recent meeting to kickoff a new project, a lead developer and project manager (from another company) assigned approximately one week to each aspect of the project: research — 1 to 2 weeks, wireframes — 1 week, design — 1 week, with 1 week between each for client feedback and changes. At the end of these 6 or so weeks, “production ready files” would be handed off to our development team. Which, I guess, we would then proceed to print on our Gutenberg printing press, placing fresh Web Pages under the windshield wipers of parked cars up and down Main Street, USA!

Three cats are drawn to represent the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil idea - except the third cat is just asleep.

“Not my job.” — Everyone

The “handoff” between the designer and the developer is a bit of a running gag within each group (although the clueless party in the story changes depending on whether you talk to the designer or the developer). Brad Frost, in his presentation “Let’s Work Together,” showed a GIF of a delivery driver dumping a package over a fence and driving away. The driver was, naturally, the stand-in for the designer. It’s funny because it is largely true, but why is it this way? When did this divide occur?

There are assumptions ruling departments and agencies that separate the sales process from the wireframe and design period from the let’s-actually-build-this-thing phase. A successful project begins with thoughtful communication and research. Research is an opportunity to discard our assumptions, and to explore the wealth of knowledge and experience contained beyond our own design preferences and production habits.

Evolve into Better

Sure, we can do what is asked of us and no more. We can work in isolated silos and pretend we are “full-stack” superheroes — but aren’t we all better when we work together?

We grow when we challenge each other. It is our job to empower our teams to be better, to educate our clients on the value of research, and to be advocates for the people who will use the things we make.

All illustrations by Emily Rapport.