On may 27 and 28, I attended the Beyond Tellerrand 2013 conference. Tellerrand is the German word for “edge of a plate”. The conference is targeted primarily at web developers and designers, but provides many tracks that look way beyond the edge of the plate of their daily work. It was my first time attending, and the third incarnation of this conference as a whole.
Monday kicked off with a keynote talk by Jeremy Keith. His talk revolved around the fact that everybody participating on the web is a publisher, a designer and therefore a contributor to our social and cultural heritage and history records. And that that cultural heritage is endangered by the fact that the web is full of services that may disappear all of a sudden. A very prominent example is GeoCities. GeoCities was founded in the early days of the web in the 1990s, bought by Yahoo in 1998, and shut down in late 2009. At that shutdown, all 7 million user pages were deleted from the web. Content that had been accumulating for 15 years suddenly gone. Cat photos, poems, rumblings, everything that made up part of recent history.
This demonstrates a problem all of today’s startup impose on their potential users: They all want our data, but nobody tells us what happens to that data once a Google, Facebook, Twitter or Yahoo! buys them out and usually shuts them down afterwards. Nobody tells the average user to backup that data in case the service goes away. Jeremy’s message, paraphrased: If somebody tells you that “the internet never forgets”, tell them they’re talking bullshit and quote one of those Posterous, Gowallas or GeoCities.
Jeremy also showed that initiatives like archive.org attempt to diminish that problem by archiving what they can get their hands on, to preserve this cultural good of human history. And his over-all message was: We may not agree with the design choices somebody makes, but everything anybody publishes on the web is a good that’s worth preserving regardless of the looks of it.
Next, Aaron Gustafson gave a quite inspiring talk about how easy it is to fall back into one’s own usage patterns when designing the UI of anything, and how we should all aspire to put ourselves in our users’ shoes more and be empathic to their needs and usage patterns, to give them a better user experience even if it is not exactly fitting our own. This, of course, also affects users in need of accessibility aids, and it again broadcasts the message that good user experience is good for, and therefore accessible, to everyone.
I unfortunately missed the next talk by Blaine Cook titled “Reinventing Online”, so I’ll just quote the conference program here:
The web has come a long way, and the new tools we have available to us are, frankly, incredible. The shift we’re facing is back to the web, in a post-apps world. Our users expect more today than they did five years ago (before the iPhone), and we expect more today. The beautiful thing is that there are many amazing opportunities for us to create rich web-native experiences that work across all the amazing platforms that have blossomed over the past few years. We’ll do better if we’re able to question our assumptions in order to design and build things that are truly user-centric.
At the same time, on a second stage, a series of a little more than lightning talks (about 20 minutes each) was started by Eric Eggert, who gave a concise overview of a few simple techniques to make one’s sites more accessible. He concentrated on five things that all were fortunately not your usual “use headings” and “use alt text” stuff. His message: HTML is accessible by default, don’t break it by reinventing the wheel.
After the lunch break, Kate Kiefer Lee from MailChimp shared a lot of insights about what it means to find your voice in the context of your organization or company. The most important message: Always be empathic to how you’ll make your users feel with what you say in what context. For example, a generally humorous or sarcastic tone on a Daily Deals web site is not appropriate when it comes to the contact form on that site. A 404 page should acknowledge that something went wrong, but not blame the user, as in “You typed the URL wrong”. A newsletter unsubscription confirmation may or may not insult the user by setting a certain tone. Kate also referenced Jeremy’s theme from the first talk where he talked about the gobbledygook wording of press releases when another Silicon Valley startup had been bought out. Her message, again paraphrased: All this “We’re excited to announce….”, “we’re thrilled to share…..” etc., is total bullshit and self-indulgent because you give no damn about your users or their data, don’t acknowledge how you’ll make them feel by telling them you’ve been bought out and just got a lot of money in cash or stock. They couldn’t care less about that, what’s important to them is what happens to their content they trusted you with, once your service has been shut down.
Next, Harry Roberts gave the first (and only) web developer/designer centric tech talk of the day by talking about how to approach huge web projects from a CSS point of view. Breaking down the tasks, introducing good naming conventions, centering on classes, not IDs in the CSS part of a web project, are all techniques to make the CSS scalable and therefore future-proof.
The last regular talk of the day was held by Mandy Brown. She gave a very interesting insightful talk about how things changed from the book hand-written on parchment to printed books and now to the dynamic web content we’re dealing with every day. Her message: Don’t be afraid, but embrace, that things will never be finished, never set in stone. Even books were never set in stone. The web is even less so, but this opens up a whole range of chance we should never be afraid to take.
After another break, the day was finished with a special talk by James Victore titled “Your Work Is A Gift”. In a very entertaining way, with a lot of great examples, James showed us how he made a paradigm shift from working for a boss, a company, a pay check to working for the pure fun of it. Treating your work as a gift allows you to step outside your previous attitude of working primarily for money. Instead, embrace your work as something you love to do, something you want to share because you love it so much. I found this message very inspiring and resonating with me. Every time I come to a point where I bump into another totally inaccessible web site and ask myself “What am I doing this all for?”, I always come to the same conclusion: I’m doing this because I love doing it! Every line of this blog, every moment I work on helping to make the web, apps and other things more accessible, helps someone somewhere out there to live a better life. And if that isn’t motivating, I don’t know what is!
Next, Meagan Fisher described with great insight how she went from, as she put it herself, pixel fucking in Photoshop to designing with a content-first, responsive-always approach. She highlighted that the content strategy comes first and foremost, and from there, design and implementation can ensue. As a designer, it is important to be at the center of communication with the CEO, developers, and clients alike. Designing in the browser also allows for much easier sharing work in progress with other departments and the client, giving them a chance to see the work that has already been done and being able to provide feedback in the process. Responsive design is key in accomplishing the broadest outreach of the content to potential customers, and fixed, pixel-exact photoshopping is no longer a way to accomplish it.
The third talk of the morning was probably the most geeky and topic-centered I’ve witnessed at a conference in a long time. Erik van Blokland showed us how to create responsive fonts. They are an important part of responsive design, but typography is also a highly theoretical topic involving a lot of knowledge about visual perspective and how the human eye perceives letters in general. I’m sorry to say that Erik lost me two minutes into his talk, and that the only thing I understood from it was that the goal is to make fonts responsive to device sizes and orientation changes like images and design in general, but that accomplishing that requires a lot of in-depth knowledge about how fonts are being created and tweaked.
After the lunch break, Brad Frost kicked off the afternoon with an introduction to an approach he calls Atomic Design. He basically comes from a chemistry approach where the most basic element is an atom. Some atoms form molecules, more molecules form organisms, these eventually form the planet, and the planet is part of the universe filled with atoms and molecules and organisms and planets. Transferred to the web, atoms are your HTML tags and CSS rules, molecules are small snippets like a search form, organisms are parts of pages that logically belong together, planets are templates, and the equivalent of the universe is the site filled with content. Brad introduced a development tool he called Pattern Lab, that helps web designers accomplish this progressive development and helps them to preserve atoms, molecules and organisms by enabling them to reuse and slightly tweak them, and bind them together in templates as needed.
Next up was Josh Brewer from Twitter. His talk was titled “Photoshop lies and other sobering truths about product design”. He was announced by Marc Thile, the conference organiser, with an admission that Josh felt his talk overlapped with meagan Fisher’s talk earlier by over sixty percent. To make up for that, he had joked that he would sing through his talk if he had a guitar. I don’t know where from, but Marc actually managed to get a guitar for Josh, and Josh did something I have never seen happen at any conference I’ve been to, and probably won’t again anytime soon. He sang his talk, and the song’s title was “Photoshop, you’re a liar!”. His “talk” had a few very interesting insights into UI development at Twitter, and one of his greatest encouragements was: Prototype on the real thing. If you want to try out new UI design, use real data, don’t use any abstract non-real thing. And use it for a few days or weeks to see if it really is what you as a user would want. This is a really powerful message, and it aligns very much with what I tell developers who ask me for advice on how to make something accessible: Test, test, test! use what you develop! Expose yourself to it and use day to day data for it, not some abstract, static set of data points. Only that will show you were your design is still in need of improvement. Josh sang for the whole 45 minute slot, only twice broke off the song and actually used narrative to highlight some parts of his talk. Absolutely incredible!
Next, Elliot Jay Stocks had the admittedly difficult task of delivering the last talk of the day. He did very well in my opinion, although of course stepping onto that stage after Josh’s song must have been hard as hell! His message: Responsive design is the way to go, but there is still some resistance to it in some parts of the web designer community, and maybe rightfully so, maybe not. He summarized the two days very well in his talk by saying: We’re not building for the here and now, we’re building for the future. What we build today must still work on devices in ten or fifteen or twenty years, and only responsive and responsible design will make sure that that is the case, but no Photoshop pixel fucking will.
All through those two days, I again and again and again had the feeling that these speakers were advertising for a concept that the accessibility community has been trying to get into web developers’ and web designers’ heads for way over the last ten years: Building responsive sites makes sure everybody can access them. They are scalable when zooming, when the screen size changes, etc., etc., etc.. Responsive design also usually leads to better markup on the HTML side of things, so screen reader users benefit from it, too.
So thanks to the mobile internet revolution instigated by the iPhone and Android, the web design community is finally picking up on a theme that will make every site they build much more accessible to a huge variety of people. It’s not called accessibility, it’s called responsive web design, but it is the same theme. Accessibility is always hard to sell, responsive web design apparently is much easier to sell to a lot of CEOs and product managers. And you know what? That’s fine with me! As long as it gets the job done and many more people with age or disability-related visual impairments, with motor impairments etc., etc., etc. can use many more sites in the future much more easily!
It is expected that, within a couple of days or weeks, the talks will become available to watch for everybody. I will provide links once this is the case, and I encourage everybody to watch at least some of these great talks to look beyond her or his own edge of the plate!