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An Event Apart 2009 - themes and perspective

I’m sitting in Boston’s Logan International Airport because my flight was delayed. Normally I’d be tired and cranky but I’m just tired; the rest of me is so encouraged due to the emotional and motivational high I’m on after participating in An Event Apart: Boston, 2009.

Having not attended before, I arrived not knowing what to expect and was fairly intimidated by the number of people in attendance. My fear quickly dissipated after the first day of presentations and the opening night party, which brings me to the first of a couple themes I identified throughout the conference.


There was connection everywhere at AEA09; mobile devices, laptops, business cards, conversations and ideas that connected with each other to form a common framework for the event. The most important type of connection I participated in was personal interaction and meeting new people. At the opening night party I had the privilege to speak with some of the presenters including Jeremy Keith (@adactio), Joshua Porter (@bokardo) and Whitney Hess (@whitneyhess). All of them had really interesting things to say but what struck me was the common thread amongst them all: passion for the content, the standards, and the users. Even amongst non-presenters this seemed to be a common theme.

That evening I also had an engaging discussion with a Googler and two Facebook employees. We talked about MyFrontSteps and Homebook, development strategies, front-end unit testing, user experience and what the most successful types of social software are. An interesting point they raised was that the most successful applications are those that don’t compete with what the Facebook platform currently offers users. I learned that Google and Facebook don’t do any javascript unit testing. The Gmail team doesn’t use GWT (as it was experimental when Gmail was being built). Facebook has a fairly small team of front end developers and 1 person was responsible for the Facebook iPhone application.

Pixel Perfection is Dead

For about a year now I’ve thought that being required to produce pixel perfect websites across so many different browsers is insane. This theme was definitely apparent throughout AEA09 as multiple presenters hammered this point across. It’s almost like they wanted to really drill it into the attendees so that we can go back to our clients and continue to communicate the point.

Dan Cederholm, Jeremy Keith and Andy Clarke all provided audience participation moments where they would yell “Do websites have to look the same in everybrowser?“ to which the crowd would emphatically (and sometimes, not so emphatically) respond “NO!”

It definitely seems like a touchy subject; at one point someone in the crowd shouted “YES!” because she was convinced that her clients could never be persuaded that this was the way to go. I think it’s inevitable that web developers and designers are going to get to a turning point where supporting 8 or 9 browser rendering differences is just not going to be feasible to clients from a monetary point of view. As Andy Clarke put it during his presentation:

your clients will quit worrying about pixel perfection when you convince them of the value you can offer by producing more features that make them money in less time. -(rough paraphrase).

There was much talk of “visual rewards”, basically offering the nice visual touches to the browsers that support them without worrying if IE looks good. Safari4, Firefox3.5 support border-radius, text-shadow, box-shadow and rgba; Internet Explorer doesn’t. That’s ok, IE can live without those flourishes because ultimately it’s all about the content anyways, right? ;) In fact, Andy Clarke has gone as far as creating a style sheet that can be fed to IE6 that strips away all substance except the text and positioning.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that IE needs to die, but web developers have been saying that for years and it hasn’t happened yet. We need to convince our clients that the time spent creating unsemantic markup and hacks to get things to work in IE just isn’t worth it.

UX is Exploding

UX, IA, IxD: all these terms seem fairly new to me but there were so many people at AEA09 who were involved with these disciplines in one way or another. The importance of these positions should NOT be underestimated. Interaction Design, in particular, is an area I feel is severely underrepresented in most organizations. So many times design teams produce static mockups in a very high-fidelity mode through applications like photoshop or fireworks without giving any consideration to user interaction.

It’s virtually impossible to uncover problems with interaction usability through static mockups and often these issues are not extracted until late in the development process.

The solution is to start with a much lower-fidelity solution like paper prototypes and then possibly interactive html mockups. Once these have been created usability testing should be performed at each stage and iterations in design should be rapid. Too often usability testing happens at the end of the development process and this needs to change.

Whitney Hess, a presenter and UX Engineer who I had the pleasure of meeting, encouraged me greatly in this area. Producing web interfaces that are clunky and unusable is a surefire way to limit revenue, but aside from the business concerns I feel that at the heart of UX there is a method to connect people with technology in ways that aren’t limiting. I can’t take full credit for that initial thought however, as a great conversation with Matt Ventre is what really prompted me to see the true nature of UX. If anything, we should be producing web interfaces that focus on providing great content that is portable and formatted in a standards compliant way, housed in an interface that makes the entire experience seamless.


I head back to Saskatoon with a sense of determination and optimism. An Event Apart is truly a special place, one that empowers people to spread the gospel of standards, openness, user experience and excellent design. I think Andy Clarke is right when he says that we’re in a transition time in the web development world. I tweeted the other day that I couldn’t remember how I managed to develop before Firebug;

I think it will be the same way 5 years from now except we’ll be asking how we ever managed without making UX a priority ;)