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An Event Apart Boston 2009 Recap

July 2, 2009

Earlier this week the Lion Burger crew (@lionburger) attended An Event Apart Boston 2009 (@aneventapart). The speaker lineup was outstanding, and their presentations did not disappoint.

When Pete and I first arrived in Boston (me from Rochester, him from Acton, MA), we started talking about trying to build something that might make a splash at the event. We knew these conferences get a lot of coverage on Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, etc. We thought it'd be convenient to have one place to view a live stream of activity that covered all of the major sources, instead of having to bounce through Twitter hashtag searches, Flickr tag searches, etc. So we decided to build a feed aggregator.

We called it A Feed Apart, and it aggregates the conference hashtags from Twitter and tags Flickr, and does so in real-time (currently switched off). Check out Pete's posts on what we learned, and how we built it.

As some of you may know, I'm a terrible notetaker. So, my reactions / recaps / thoughts listed below are a combination of my memory of the presentations, the slides (available only to AEA attendees), and the reactions from people on Twitter (which you can find here: If I misquoted you, or you want direct attribution, drop me a line at nick at this

By the way, be sure to check out Jeremy Keith's (@adactio) liveblogging journals, which I've linked to at the beginning of each session from the first day below. Excellent stuff there - thanks Jeremy, you rock.

Revealing Design Treasures from The Amazon: Jarod Spool (@jmspool)

  • Jeremy Keith's liveblog of the presentation
  • Tuscan Whole Milk, 1 Gallon, 128 fl oz (read reviews)
  • 71,431,000 visitors in December, 2008
  • Amazon: 1 of every 5 purchases comes from a review
  • The question "Was this review helpful to you?" was responsible for an additional \$2.7B of revenue
  • 0.07% of users leave reviews after purchasing a product
  • Denon AKDL1 Dedicated Link Cable (read tags)
  • "Risk adverse companies produce crap" - brilliant
  • Experimenting with new ideas is a critical part of innovation
  • Amazon took 12 weeks to roll out navigation changes, and they studied the user experience in phases
  • Amazon turns over its inventory every 20 days - nuts
  • Understand where people are spending time
  • Design is about creating an experience that meets a business objective

Content First: Kristina Halvorson (@halvorson)

  • Jeremy Keith's liveblog of the presentation
  • Have a content strategy for every project
  • Content should focus on the user, not on products
  • Content is not a feature - it's a living-breathing thing that evolves & involves multiple avenues of input
  • Content is cyclical, you can't "set it and forget it"
  • Someone needs to own the content from the beginning of the process
  • Lorem ipsum must die
  • You can't just put icons on the page and expect users to find their way
  • Crappy content == crappy user experience

Thinking Small: Jason Santa Maria (@jasonsantamaria)

  • Jeremy Keith's liveblog of the presentation
  • Use grid-based layouts
  • Use a notebook for sketching designs before any real design work happens
  • "Sketchbooks are not about being a good artist, they're about being a good thinker"
  • Arial is like fishing gum out of a urinal

Future Shock Treatment: Jeremy Keith (@adactio)

  • Jeremy Keith's PDF of his presentation
  • Write for your future self, because you don't want to piss off your future self
  • Use a JavaScript framework
  • Don't use a CSS framework
  • Standards are like sausages - they're delicious but you don't want to see how they're made
  • (view in multiple browsers)
  • HTML5 is coming sooner than you think, and you should be ready for it now
  • Create your own reusable CSS libraries for things like lists, forms, tables, clearfix, etc.
  • Choose a framework based on its philosophy - work with the framework rather than against it

Designing With Psychology in Mind: Joshua Porter (@bokardo)

  • Jeremy Keith's liveblog of the presentation
  • People are easily swayed to being bad (Stanford prison experiment)
  • Changing behavior is what web designers do, and what psychologists study
  • Behavior first, design second
  • We can't change the person but we can change the environment - thus changing the experience
  • Websites are the most common form of persuasive technology today
  • The behavior you're seeing is the behavior you designed for, whether intentional or not
  • Awareness test:

DIY UX: Give Your Users an Upgrade (Without Calling In a Pro): Whitney Hess (@WhitneyHess)

  • Jeremy Keith's liveblog of the presentation
  • Creative spaces and tools allow for creative thinking
  • "Never tell your UX Designer 'it looks good' - they'll punch you in the face. Tell them what an epic fail it is, instead."
  • Customers that feel they're being heard translates to word of mouth (and more business)
  • "You need to have humility and listen. Users aren't always right but you need to hear them."
  • "The key to a company's success is the 'culture of iteration'."

Implementing Design: Bulletproof A–Z: Dan Cederholm (@simplebits)

Beyond Pixel Pushing: A Simple Way to Better Websites and Happier Clients: Brett Welch (@higoodbarry)

  • "Lowering prices is a race to the bottom - we need to sell our design value more effectively"
  • "A website needs a marketing plan. Always."
  • "When dealing with a scrooge client, cut your scope, not your price"

A Site Redesign: Jeffrey Zeldman (@zeldman)

  • Any project not for yourself should start with research. Research produces achievable goals
  • Research makes a you a credible partner, not a nag or another mouth to feed
  • User research is not market research - it's about how people act and think
  • Find people that represent real users and define their personas. Design your site around those personas
  • Have a content strategy, and place real content in your designs instead of placeholder text
  • Zeldman likes bacon, mayonnaise, and coffee
  • Clients have a lot of stuff on their mind. Use the Alzheimer's method of repetition in a non-condescending fashion; remind them of steps / changes, and keep in contact
  • "Sell ideas, not pixels"
  • Always avoid combating the client, you want them to always be your friend
  • More sexy time
  • Working with text in Photoshop is hard - writing a few lines of CSS is not
  • "Beta testing is good - it gives the impression that you care"
  • "Mostly I have really terrible ideas one after another, and eventually I get to mediocrity and feel so relieved"
  • "I would kill myself if I had to listen to all of my bad ideas"
  • Simply re-skinning a site is a missed opportunity

Flash and Web Standards – Getting Along on the Playground: Daniel Mall (@danielmall)

  • "Flash is the smelly kid." (joking)
  • Jakob Nielson's article in 2000 calling Flash 99% bad was very hurtful to the Flash community, but 100% true
  • "Why'd you create Comic Sans? - 'beacuse sometimes it's better than Times New Roman.'"
  • In design, there is no bad - just appropriate and inappropriate
  • Flash is another tool in your arsenal
  • The web is a playground - our job is to figure out how to get all of our 'friends' (HTML/CSS/JS/Flash) to play along
  • Be willing to compromise and use whatever technique that gets the task done

Accessibility – Experiments at the Edges of Experience: Derek Featherstone (@feather)

  • The coolest thing ever can become passe more quickly than you can even realize
  • The API (generally speaking) is the best tool you have
  • "I have no idea if this is useful, but we'll never know unless we try"
  • "We have to push our limits so that others may break through theirs" - brilliant
  • "When you think you're at your 'accessibility limit', push through and find the next limit"

Findability Bliss Through Web Standards: Aarron Walter (@aarron)

Change the World (Wide Web)?: Scott Thomas (@simplescott)

  • Deliver clear and concise messaging, focused on the "we" rather than the "he" (Obama)
  • "We were building a plane while in flight" - had to deliver materials day-to-day while contributing to the longer-term mission
  • The fold is dead
  • Websites are living-breathing-evolving organisms
  • "Empower other people in the process, and really wonderful things can happen"

Surprise & Delight: Heather Champ (@hchamp)

  • Respect your members
  • 'Archer' is very six months ago
  • Provide guidelines for good citizenship
  • Leaderboards will bite you in the ass
  • Put more tools into the hands of your users
  • A tsunami of feedback has a lifecycle
  • Site changes make users react "like we were throwing kittens out of helicopters on top of small children playing with glass"
  • Be as transparent as you can
  • "Things will happen. It's how you step up, move forward, and change - you'll always make mistakes"
  • Make Lemonade
  • Embrace the chaos
  • noindex all of your abuse / report pages so they don't appear in searches
  • Greenland?

Walls Come Tumbling Down: Andy Clarke (@malarkey)

  • Andy Clarke puts the sexy in CSS
  • "Limitations imposed by a recession make us think & work in new ways, help us to focus, sharpen our skills, and make us more competitive"
  • "We own our skills, no one else - now is the time to improve ourselves"
  • It's time to discard outdated workflows
  • Develop new workflows based on creativity
  • Embrace agile design / development
  • "Designing static visuals that will live in a browser fails by definition"
  • "It's time to stop showing clients static design visuals"
  • "Static visuals reinforce the misconception that websites should look exactly the same in every browser"
  • As the browser landscape gets more diverse, it becomes uneconomical and undesirable to seek "cross-browser, pixel-perfection"
  • "You know, sometimes I think that web designers have got no fucking balls"
  • "Different does not mean broken"
  • Does your aunt fire up two browsers and say, 'It doesn't fucking look the same in Firefox!'?
  • "HTML/CSS should be a tool in the work belt of developers AND designers"
  • Design systems, not individual pages
  • "Clients are not paying you for the hours you work, but for the years of knowledge you have"
  • Do not charge less just because you can work faster
  • Focus efforts on redefining why we do what we love so much