Art Imitates Life

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Pearson Education presented their Voices That Matter: Web Design conference in Nashville earlier this month, featuring sessions led by some leading web and design authors. I’ve been reading their work for years, so when I (as a Pearson employee) was offered the chance to attend the conference, I jumped at it.

Presenters included big names like Steve Krug and Molly Holzschlag, Dan Brown and Garr Reynolds. There was a lot of good stuff, and as always with a good conference, I came away fired up to get something done. Between three days of sessions and a pre-conference workshop I had a chance to learn some new things. I’ll run down the best sessions I attended.

Robert Hoekman, Jr. – How to Improve Each and Every Page on Your Site

Hoekman is the author of my favorite two deisgn/philosophy books since Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. His Designing the Obvious and Designing the Moment are easy reads, just as Krug’s was, and they contain the same kind of advice – make it simple for people. Don’t make them work too hard to find what they need, or they will leave your site out of frustration. Hoekman’s session basically followed the format of his first book; here’s the highlights:

  • The web still sucks, despite our efforts. Why? Because we don’t think about people first. As developers and designers, we tend to look at meeting the technical needs of a project, rather than thinking about the people who will use it.
  • Don’t offer people more than they need. Don’t lose focus! “We don’t need more than we need.” This was reinforced a few times during the week, most persuasively by Garr Reynolds in his Friday session.
  • Build only what’s absolutely necessary. Don’t overdo things. This goes along with retaining your focus.
  • Support the user’s mental model, not the computer’s. People use computers; build a website (or application) for people to use. Remember that humans have a natural way of thinking and doing, and build your experience accordingly.
  • Turn beginners into intermediates. Immediately. Make your app or site so easy to use that the learning curve is shallow. Let people use your app, and keep the learning to a minimum. Make it intuitive.
  • Get rid of errors in your application – users will feel smarter. Do this by removing opportunities for errors. This means testing, testing, testing. I used to have a boss that would go out of his way to break any application we built. He seemed to derive joy from this. As irritating as it was to have someone try to purposely break my work, it was actually the best thing he could have done. It made me examine every action in my app and make sure user errors were kept to a minimum. When they did occur, they were politely told what the error was and how to avoid it in the future.
  • People have to be able to understand the purpose of a page or site when they hit it. Again, don’t lose focus. If you have a clear understanding of why your website exists, it’s easier for you to tell your site’s visitors.
  • Design for uniformity, consistency & meaning. Never underestimate the importance of a universal design (information and graphic) standard. If you want someone to perform an action, indicate it with your design (underlining links, for example). If you have buttons, make them a consistent style.

Gene Smith – Tagging: What’s Next?

Smith, author of Tagging: People-powered Metadata for the Social Web, presented an interesting session on tagging, beginning with a history of attempts to categorize our information systems. While the vertical file was a big breakthrough when our information was paper-based, we have struggled to create a "killer categorization app" for the digital realm. Tagging is one way to help manage the avalanche of information we find ourselves inundated with. Smith then spoke about a few trends he sees in the field of tagging:

  • More structure
    • zigtag – Firefox plugin – Search engine on top of tagging. Suggests proper tag based on your entry. Beta, currently no invites left (as of early June 2008)
    • LibraryThing. Tag and catalog your bookshelf. Build social network with like-minded bookophiles. Collects like tags, rolls them into one master tag
  • Automanual Folksonomies
    • Etsy – A site for artisans to sell their handmade goods, featuring top-down nav plus folksonomies. Most of navigation is generated by users tags.
  • Sparking Innovation
    • Flickr geotagging. This development has spurred developers and users to stretch the concept past it’s original intention, creating a more useful system.

Joshua Porter – Seven Core Principles of Social Design

Porter is the author of the recently-released Designing for the Social Web, a nice little book which has a lot of useful tips for creating websites that your users will actually use. His personal site, Bokardo, is consistently a good read about the evolving field of social design. As the title of his session indicates, he covered the seven principles of social design:

  1. The incredible importance of Identity
    • Example – user reviews of author’s book on Amazon. One is an anonymous, one is not. The non-anonymous review will probably have more weight in this context.
    • Another example – chat. Handles are usually sufficient in that context
    • Persistent identity within system or application is most important
  2. Personal value precedes network value
    • Example – tagging. The most important use of service is to save stuff for yourself. The other features are add-ons. Make the main focus of the application work – keep focus
    • Would your application still be useful even if no one else was using it?
  3. Motivation trumps usability
    • Example – while MySpace leaves something to be desired, usability-wise, it offers a tool people want to use
    • Facebook doesn’t allow you to see everything until you sign up, while MySpace is open.
  4. Focus on a single activity
    • Example – YouTube. Dead simple; uploading videos. How to build an application around this?
    • Determine basic object (video), determine what functions are necessary to make it work
    • Example – Flickr. Straightforward; upload photos. Sharing is secondary
  5. Reciprocity rules
    • Example – Amazon. Rate, recommendations. Why do people do this? Seeing others write reviews prompts users to add their own reviews.
    • Yelp – "It’s your turn to be the critic." Inviting users to be part of the experience
    • The thing that keeps companies from implementing user feedback is fear. They are afraid of bad reviews
  6. Don’t overplan…evolve
    • Example – GMail Labs. Let users decide what features they want, based on actual usage
    • Get Satisfaction. Providing a way for users to give feedback on sites
    • You can’t pre-plan everything. Let it evolve based on feedback and usage
  7. Systems necessarily change over time
    • Example – Digg. Early in Digg’s history, there was a Top Diggers page. As comunity grew, Top Diggers got job offers to promote items – system was gamed. Digg got rid of this page
    • Not only does software change, but community changes as well.
    • Takes imperative from designer about what is needed. Let community decide
    • How useful are reviews? Most reviews will most likely come from disgruntled customers, correct? The ability of users to rate reviews is one check, although the users reputation has to be taken into account

Garr Reynolds – Design Zen: Bringing Simplicity, Clarity and Beauty to Web Design

I took some notes during this presentation, but to be honest, for most of it I just sat there and enjoyed THE BEST DAMNED PRESENTATION I’VE EVER SEEN. Reynolds, the author of Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery, had an early-morning audience that had spent the past 2 days sitting in conference rooms pay attention to what he was saying. His secret? He didn’t read the bullet points from his slides. Instead, he gave his presentation and used the slides to reinforce what he was saying. A co-worker said that his performance was almost like stand-up. I’d agree; a stand-up comedian who has mastered his material and uses visuals to reinforce his point. A step above Carrot Top, for sure. The main message he imparted was the Japanese saying, "Hara hachi bu." Roughly translated, it means, "Eat only until 80% full." The lesson? Simplify, strip down to the essentials. Avoid the temptation to overload your web page, app or presentation. He also had a few suggestions for further reading:

Kimberly Blessing – Beyond Web Standards: Crafting Design and Development Standards

Blessing is one of the co-authors of the very useful Adapting to Web Standards: CSS and Ajax for Big Sites. She works for a little company called PayPal, and fights for standards every day. I found her session very informative and validating. Why? One of her points was how vitally important it is to have development standards, and the importance of the Standards Evangelist. I held that role at my last job, and lost so many battles due to an ugly political atmosphere that I finally left the organization. While I had backing from the people a level or two above me, as a whole the organzation was happy to build websites the way they’d always done it; in an ad hoc fashion. Here’s what Blessing had to say about developing and maintaining standards:

  • Standards are not just Web standards
    • Interaction patterns
    • usability guidelines
    • design guidelines
    • coding syntax/formatting rules
    • content style guide
  • What is a good standard?
    • Precise language
    • Problem statement and context
    • Use cases, including edge cases
    • Examples
    • Supporting files
    • Cross-discipline buy-in
  • Complaints about standards adherence all point to common problems
    • Standards not thorough enough, well-documented or maintained
    • Efforts lagging behind project work
    • Lack of training and communication about standards
    • Management isn’t reinforcing them, due to lack of commitment
  • Keys to successful standards
    • Timely updates
    • Regular, well-crafted communications
    • Constant reinforcement
    • Assigning an owner who has authority to enforce standards
  • Standards Creation and Documentation
    • Start with fundamentals
    • Investigate the live site and Work In Progress
    • Think ahead to future needs
    • Review regularly
    • Monitor projects for efforts that require standardization
  • Training and Communication
    • Make training mandatory for everyone
    • Offer training regularly
    • Communicate on a regular basis
    • Make information available in a convenient format
  • Approval & Review Process
    • Make adherence to standards part of the project requirements and acceptance or launch criteria
    • Formal design and technical/code reviews look for standards-related issues
    • New work gets fed back into the Standards Creation phase
  • The Standards Manager
    • Champion for standards
    • May run a team dedicated to standards
    • Must understand the related disciplines and work to be effective
  • Bootstrapping Standards
    • Organize
      • Find like-minded folks and band together
    • Execute
      • Inventory, propose, document, evangelize
    • Diplomacy
      • Identify influencers and speak their language
    • Help
      • Be the support system for others
  • Don’t complicate the process!
    • Work reviews into the PDLC
    • Be available regularly
    • Set expectations
    • Use the process as another opportunity to educate

Those were the highlight sessions of the conference from me. Like any conference with multiple tracks, there were a few cases where I was torn between two excellent topics, but that’s a good problem to have.

Other good stuff

In addition to the conference proper, I was able to get arrive a day early and attend Dan Brown‘s Communicating Design: Improving Your User Experience Documentation workshop. You wouldn’t think that 3 1/2 hours discussing documentation would be a good time, but Brown, author of Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning, ran a workshop with a lot of energy in addition to having excellent examples and real-world experience. Definitely a highlight.

Aaron Walter’s Findability: Design Comp to Code spoke of the need to go beyond SEO and loosening the reins on your content. My favorite quote; "When we keep content in a walled garden, it makes it difficult to find." Build that semantic web! Walter is the author of Building Findable Websites: Web Standards SEO and Beyond, one more good resource for modern web designers and developers.

Molly Holzschlag covered the four major browsers in her session, Designing for Today’s Browsers. The best quote from her session was, "Design and programming are human activities; forget that and all is lost." We sometimes forget that real humans are going to use our sites and applications. Once again, simplify, and keep your users in mind. Retain your focus! She also covered a few web development tools, including Firebug, which just happens to FTW. It’s "Inspect this element" feature alone makes it invaluable. Holzschlag is the author of a whole herd of books on web design, co-authoring Transcending CSS: The Fine Art of Web Design and The Zen of CSS Design: Visual Enlightenment for the Web. I still find her 2002 book Integrated Web Design: Building the New Breed of Designer & Developer to be useful, and passed it around to whoever would accept it at my last job. I think it came in handy as we built a new workflow between graphic and web design teams. It is out of print, but you can pick up a used copy pretty cheap.

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