An Event Apart DC 2012

Having just returned from my second An Event Apart, I can affirm: last year wasn’t a fluke—AEA is the most useful and well-orchestrated conference I’ve ever attended. Seemingly every detail has been taken care of: from the fast, dedicated wifi for attendees to the way all of the talks, while on quite different topics, all flow together naturally. And although AEA is a conference for web professionals, there’s not as much emphasis on code as you might expect. @bratling said it perfectly:

What I like most about An Event Apart: it’s not about recipes. It’s about ideas.

Indeed, if you’ve followed A List Apart over the years, this 10,000-foot view of our industry with the occasional, well-timed dip into practical code and constructs, will feel quite familiar.

Luke Wroblewski posted excellent notes on many of the talks, so if you couldn’t attend or need to jog your memory, I’d encourage you to go read those. Although there’s no point in reinventing the wheel—even if I could do so even half as well as Luke—I wanted to capture a few points that I found especially important, insightful, and that permeated many of the talks.

  • Jeffrey Zeldman spoke on the need to consider content before all else, because it’s our content that should inform our design decisions. Although web designers have always sought to impose order on an inherently fluid and uncontrollable medium, we’re beginning to collectively realize that we don’t control the visual experience nearly as much as we once may have thought. We need only look to Instapaper, Pocket, and Readability for examples of how users ultimately control how our content is perceived. So, what then, is a web designer’s job? Jeffrey says it’s to “connect the right user, with the right content, and the right time” and that design that does not serve people does not serve business.
  • Ethan Marcotte effortlessly wove history, storytelling, and web design into both his presentation and full-day workshop on responsive web design. He included a quote from Henry Adams that speaks to our approach to the web: “Chaos was the law of nature. Order was the dream of man.” Ethan’s workshop was a fantastic mix of philosophical and practical, answering some of the lingering questions I’ve had about more complex layout issues.
  • Similarly, Karen McGrane reinforced that we don’t control how, or on what device, users access our content. Considering that although there are still large numbers of Americans who don’t have internet access (either at home or at all), 88% have a mobile phone, and 55% use that phone to access the internet. 31% only, or mostly, use their phones for internet access. In effect, mobile is leading the way toward erasing the digital divide. We need to ensure that we’re not treating users with mobile devices as “second-class citizens.” Mobile is also an opportunity to start over, to simplify, and to take a hard look at our sites—it’s likely that we can use mobile to clean up our “desktop” experience as well.
  • Karen also pointed out that we shouldn’t necessarily “write for mobile”. Good writing should be flexible enough to be used in all contexts, on any device, and should be structured so that we can use it on multiple platforms easily, even those we don’t know about yet.
  • A few other recurring themes:
    • the work we do on the web is a craft;
    • this is a relatively new medium, and we’re still learning how to use it to its full potential instead of relying on old processes and paradigms;
    • be thoughtful, build with empathy; and finally,
    • accommodate—no, embrace—the fluidity and unpredictability of the web.

Attending An Event Apart is expensive, yes, but I’d found it to be worth every penny if you care about the why as much as the how. If AEA is coming to a city near you in 2013, you should go.