A 2015 An Event Apart Conference Recap

This past week I went to An Event Apart conference in Austin, TX. It was truly the most inspiring and informational professional development event I’ve ever attended. (No, this isn’t a sponsored blog post—I’m just a nerd.)

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There were a total of 12 speakers over two days, and 11 of them kept my full attention. Would we say that’s a 92% success rate? I’d say that’s pretty high for a conference. Usually there are a few duds when you attend a conference, but the founders, Eric Meyer and Jeffrey Zeldman (founder of A List Apart), really know how to pick ‘em.

I could give you a rundown of everything I learned from each speaker, but I don’t want to bore you with too much nerd stuff. Give me a call and I’ll guide you through my eight pages of notes. I walked away from this with six new books to read, a hundred or so links to review, and 15 new skills/ideas/plans to implement in my job here at Well Done. Here’s the rundown of the shiniest bits of knowledge from An Event Apart: Austin.

Define your performance budget.

Several of the speakers touched on a really important topic: What’s your performance budget? We all talk about monetary budgets and how much time we have left on a project, but a performance budget was something completely new to me. It’s the concept of deciding how your website is going to perform in regards to page speed. Of course we all want lightning fast page speeds—but we also want pretty images and embedded fonts. The great news is that it’s possible to have both. You just have to set expectations upfront and keep in mind that performance is a design feature, not just a technical concern.

Everyone on the project needs to sit down and discuss what the performance budget is going to be. For example, “Our pages should weigh no more than 500kb and make no more than 16 requests.” Then you keep track of your CSS, images, and JS throughout the project, just like you would if it was a monetary budget. If the client asks for something, or you throw something new in, you have to make sure it doesn’t put you over budget. A good rule is to look at your competitors and make a budget that’s about 20% less, because who doesn’t want to be the best?

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These presentations were a great reminder that the speed and performance of a website is just as much my job as it is for the developer. Based off one of these presentations, I’m diving into a new book called Designing for Performance, by Laura Hogan. She’s in charge of about 200 engineers at Etsy, so I think she can be trusted.

Become device agnostic.

I feel like I don’t even need to write anything here and just show you this picture.

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Every day I design websites. These websites need to work on your phone, tablet, and computer. Responsive, we call it.

Side note: The guy that invented responsive design and wrote the book about it was one of the presenters. Um, can you say celebrity?

Look at all of those sizes. How did we get here? After we all passed out from looking at this picture, we held hands and sang Kumbaya. It was a reminder that we are not alone. What we do is fun and exciting, but it’s certainly challenging.

We can’t design for every device (we’d never finish a project), but we have to create websites that function great on everything. The stuff I create needs to look great on any device, whether you’re on a plane using your laptop or sitting on your couch playing with your phone. Mobile users aren’t always in a hurry and laptop users aren’t always just absentmindedly surfing the internet.

The sites I design better be equally user-friendly. There were multiple examples about how users chose the small size version of a website over the full-size version because it was easier to use. How did we get to this point that hopping on our phones is actually easier than opening a computer when we need to complete a task? Lately, the full-size version of a website is filled with extra content users don’t really care about, while the mobile version gets to the point immediately. We need to start making websites that are simple and informative, no matter which device you’re using. It’s not just about making sure the site just “looks OK”—it’s about creating the best experience possible on every device. Times, they are a-changin’. Let’s start talking about breakpoints and stop talking about device names. Because, well, scroll up and look at that picture again.

Get out of the rut.

One of the most inspiring presentations was about getting out of your design rut. Jen Simmons had some great points about how we’re all starting to design the same thing. Hero image, three callouts, blog feed… you get the idea. We’re all getting a little boring. With new CSS (that’s actually been out for awhile) there is so much more we can do. We’re not always utilizing the tools right in front of us that are accepted by most browsers. Do all websites have to look the same in every browser? Here’s your answer. 

We all need to agree that just because another browser doesn’t accept a certain CSS call right now, it doesn’t mean we can’t use it. As long as we have fallback, we shouldn’t let older browsers hinder our work. And, something you don’t hear very often, “Look at print design to inspire your web design.” I’ve been trying to implement this more and more lately, and this was a great reminder that I’m on the right path. Stop just looking at websites for inspiration and open your eyes to what’s around you.

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This is how we’ve always done it.

Those words will destroy your career. Seriously. It was just come tumbling down and you will have to go live in your parent’s basement. In the big ol’ WWW (or World Wide Web, as I like to call it), things are changing everyday. That means we need to keep up and change right along with it.

Before responsive design was a thing we were all designing websites with tables. Look how far we’ve come. Can you imagine if we were still stuck in that mess? (If you’re reading this and your website is built using tables, PLEASE CALL US IMMEDIATELY.) And even if you don’t say it out loud, don’t fall into the trap. We’re all busy and we’re turning out tons of work, so sometimes you forget to get out of your comfort zone. We need to step back and really pay attention to what we’re doing. Am I doing this because it’s smart, or am I doing it because it’s what we’ve always done? 

Bummer. It’s over.

If you can’t tell, I had a pretty amazing time. I met a bunch of interesting people and learned so many things that you just can’t get from a book or a blog.

Registration is already open for next year, so if you share my enthusiasm about web design and development, I suggest you sign up. I’m already excited thinking about the stuff I’m going to learn next year since, you know, the internet changes like every freaking day minute.