AEA: Seattle 2007 Review

I had the pleasure of attending the Event Apart gathering held June 21-22 in Seattle along the waterfront at the Bell Harbor Conference Center. (big thanks to Involution Studios :-) It’s not my usual kind of conference, with its focus on the pragmatics and tactics of designing websites: css, xhtml, php, grids, accessibility, etc. I typically attend events like DUX, IDSA, IA Summit or even DMI Seminars dealing with broader aspects of design strategy, theory, and process relating to “user-centered design” or “user experience”. So this offered a new view for me into a kind of “web design subculture” if you will…Done by the same folks who do A List Apart, this event is explicitly dedicated to “people who make websites”, with an incredibly level of passion and talent for that space.

Overall, it was a very well-done showcase of thoughts from the field by the practitioners who have become truly the legendary names for the css/xhtml web design crowd: Eric Meyer, Jeffrey Zeldman, Khoi Vinh, Jason Santa Maria, Shaun Inman, Jeff Veen, and so forth. I can almost guarantee these names are not familiar to those who come from Carnegie Mellon, Chicago’s ID, or Stanford HCI :-) Which is quite telling about the different “sub-cultures” of design that have emerged in the last decade, focused on various aspects of designing user experience–whether it’s experience theory, innovation planning, human factors, or visual craft & web technologies. Nothing wrong with that, of course. There’s a wonderful plurality of design philosophies, styles, and methods that should be acknowledged; cross-pollination is usually a good thing!

So at AEA are hands-on designers who practice the craft of web design to a supreme level of mastery. Plus, they are (mostly) able to communicate effectively about that!! (which I think is actually quite rare) The event was well worth the time and expense, to hear directly from these masters of the craft, network with like-minded professionals, and become inspired about new ways of thinking and designing… Highly recommend attending future AEA’s, which I believe feature a mix of speakers at each venue, including Cameron Moll, Luke Wroblewski, and other notables in the web design arena.

My hope, however, is that future events will talk more about the challenges and opportunities for what can be called “digital product design”–going beyond content-driven websites towards full-blown transactional UI’s that user’s interact with for data discovery, utility, communications, etc. This could be web-based products like Oracle’s e-business suite, Google Docs,’s CRM apps, iTunes jukebox, mobile phone UI’s, or even car navigation UI’s or ticketing kiosks at the airport. Basically anything digitally manifested that requires user input and sensory engagement, as well as feature definition. It’s a fast emerging space requiring full-on product development with engineering and business strategy to a level beyond websites.

Zeldman on writing: humorous, lively, great examples, excellent points about the text as “interface” to enable usability and overall aesthetic voice, suitable for a particular given audienceJason Santa Maria: great overview of his process, lots of pencil sketches, nifty “gray box comps” for wireframing, and how to propose options to clients. He’s a big fan of showing the client 3 options to help involve the client and get them participating in the critical decision-making moments.

Andy Budd: great overview of “user experience” as the sum of visual, interaction, and usability with prototyping built-into all that, excellent examples from apple to Starbucks to flickr, also mentioned the challenge of balancing or solving business problems with a powerful design strategy beyond some slick visual style

Mike Davidson: riffed on his time with (making it standards-compliant), how lame the W3C has been getting CSS3 and other markup updates into the mainstream, praised “elegant hacks”, breaking the rules to further progress, etc.

Khoi Vinh: very nice talk on grids, the history of grids, and showed how to create a basic grid and variations for laying out content… hands down the best looking slides!

Shaun Inman: good overall presentation, basically thoughts on application design, evolving UI with quick user feedback, using Mint as his primary example

Zeldman on clients: another home-run, this time on dealing with clients, selling a design, etc. with wit and verve!

Jeff Veen: he’s at Google now, but still seems “wired” :-) easily the most passionate and enthusiastic speaker, a truly engaging preso, spoke about user experience in general, why “design is so hard” (the challenges of problem discovery and resolution), “finding patterns in data” (references to Tufte), sticky notes exercise (very much like the box exercise for organizing functionality), flow diagrams, etc. a great ending to the conference!

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