@media 2007 Wrap-Up

Here’s a short sum-up of the @media conference in London that I attended. Joe Clark’s and Nate Koechley’s talks got separate blog entries, please check them for accessibility and browser performance issues.

In this post

Jesse James Garrett First off was Jesse James Garrett, the creator of the term AJAX, who held a keynote presentation with all the usual quotes, big stock photos, historical references to technical pioneers (this time the inventor of the Kodak film roll) and such (podcast). I’m afraid I can’t bear victorian black and white photos of technical pioneers in the context of web development any longer. OK, so this guy changed the way photos were made in 1885. Also web applications are a little more convenient now than server roundtrips. But where’s the common element? One made photography easier for the mainstream, the other is a much hyped technique with the potential to make things easier, but quite often people just blow it.

Don’t believe the hype. Most web applications still don’t innovate, they just copy desktop behavior. And who is really comfortable with the restrictions of desktop software anyway? If it’s only a matter of response rates, learn from Yahoo! how to minimize the amount of data being sent on server requests. If I can update a whole page in 1-2 seconds using smart caching and other techniques, there’s no need for an AJAX request except for immediate form feedback helping users to avoid errors. Film rolls have faded from the face of Earth, it really would be more interesting what’s next, after AJAX. Jesse talked about user-centered design, cited Tim O’Reilly with the paradigm to “design from the outside in.” But that only means: after having taken one usability step back, eventually we will move forward. Where to? Jesse failed to deliver that.

Molly Holzschlag A key factor to understand why browsers are such a pain is to remind yourself that they are just a piece of software, said Molly Holzschlag, now working for Microsoft (podcast). In fact very complex software. She compared the pros and cons of different browsers and what we can learn from them: short iteration circles and automated updates from Firefox, a strong brand and user identification from Opera. Otherwise she recommended that if you really need a feature in IE, make yourself heard. Put pressure on Microsoft to get priority. Just telling them you “want” something like multiple background images or WAI ARIA support won’t be enough. Your voice and your friends’ might weight more than that of the W3C, because you are their customers, their userbase.

Mark Boulton’s presentation about typography gained more momentum after a while (podcast). He explained why Verdana is lighter than Arial, and that you should blur your design to identify the optical gray gradient of a page. Then he continued to talk on grids and how to design to a vertical rhythm, a topic well known from print but rather unrecognized in web design until last year. Quite fashionable are headlines in a serif font for a better structure, and paying attention to small details like using the correct quotation marks or dashes can make a difference.

Jon Hicks with his sketchbook Jon Hicks showed us how to be a creative leech sponge (podcast). Get your inspiration everywhere — with two exceptions. Do sketches, keep those you draw during phone calls, take photos of typefaces, keep photos gone bad just for the color effects, collect labels from clothes, get leaflets (the “all you can eat buffet for designers”; get even the bad as you might need to mimic bad design some day). Get inspiration from book covers, graphic novels, books for children, magazines, patterns, prints, or packaging design. Blogs and flickr groups also help you to get inspiration, delivered right to your desktop through their RSS feed. The two exceptions? Other websites and logos, because there’s a high risk you will come up with a copy instead of an original idea. They are too close to the desired product so there’s no room for creative transformation.

Once you have collected inspirational material, it needs to be cataloged. That can be done in a sketchbook, but iPhoto, Yojimbo, or flickr will do the job.

Catalysts against a creative block (the dreaded blank page) can be deadlines, changing your environment and going for a walk or drive, going to bed, some peace and quietness (in the bathroom, where you keep the magazines for inspiration), taking a shower, or traditional techniques like brainstorming, mindmapping, criticizing and learning from bad examples, or moodboards. If your clients are adventurous enough, they can even do their own.

Hannah Donovan Some people are angry about Last FM’s sell-out to CBS, but Hannah Donovan didn’t make the impression that a petty-minded corporate spirit has taken over (yet). She talked about lessons you learn in a startup, like getting started, getting out the product very quickly (before others do it), taking small iteration steps with the rapid development technique Scrum, and using broad brushstrokes as a designer. Perfectionism is no priority for startups. Also she recommended that designers and developers work on a team (really) and hold 5 minute stand-up meetings every morning, “that makes a world of difference.” That actually means sharing a room, you know.

Shawn Lawton Henry works for the W3C WAI and the MIT, naturally she talked about accessibility (podcast). That’s something most people take as “what you can get away with,” but it’s really about people. So it’s important to understand how people with disabilities use the web. Technical standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG) only supply a shared definition of requirements. Because they are not going to change for a while you better take the time to review the current version. However, the WCAG Techniques document will be adaptable and more flexible. There will be subversions, and although there’s no issue tracker at the moment, you will be able to submit additional techniques to meet the WCAG requirements as they are intended to grow with time.

Richard Ishida I didn’t take notes on Richard Ishida’s presentation about I18N because I was familiar with the slides already, but I was deeply impressed by this man (podcast). Richard lives and breathes internationalization. He speaks about a dozen languages and doesn’t let a chance pass to practice them. He is the perfect personification as head of W3C I18N activity. I only wish he had said a few things about the I18N tag set because it’s a mighty tool for translations and fairly new.

On a related subject Andy Clarke asked designers worldwide if they thought their country or region got a distinctive design style, and he compared international websites of global players (podcast). While most of them just work, they could do better by adapting to the local customs and style. Culturalization is the key, anything else is modern imperialism. Check his presentation (PDF, 18 MB).

Somehow it was different than last year. Of course I came home full of inspiration, but this time it was more like deepening knowledge, while last year for example the concepts of microformats or browser performance were totally new for me. I met more people than in 2006, and I feel some of them can become my friends. That’s a new experience at a conference. I even found some parallels with Joe Clark. No, I’m not a “sarcastic gay vegan,” but we both don’t drink, prefer tea, and can be quite pedantic… I even linked to his website without rel=nofollow now, what an improvement! ;) Anyway, I’m looking forward to meet some of my new friends in Brighton at d.construct.

One Response to ‘@media 2007 Wrap-Up’

  1. Joe Clark

    You meant Verdana, not Ventura. And I see you’re great at smoothing ruffled feathers.