@media 2008

@media Hot Topics Panel I had the chance to visit the @media conference in London again, for the third time. Again it was different than the last times. Perhaps less spectacular, a little less people, no real revelation. There were excellent talks inside the halls, but the best talks happened outside. Like speaking with Nate Koechley about accessible video captioning with a W3C XML standard that exists for exactly that purpose. There are video tutorials on the Yahoo! Developer Network that would be great test objects. Imagine the impact crowdsourced captioning for video content on flickr or YouTube could have on accessibility! Or I learned from David Storey that Opera is working on a curriculum together with the Web Standards Project. Interesting because there have been similar approaches financed by the European Commission, and it would be good to get them talk to each other. Meeting Steve Faulkner whose Accessibility Toolbar I helped translating into German. Or just speaking with Antonia Hyde, Christian Heilmann, Fabio Carriere, Henny Swan, Ian Lloyd, Lachlan Hunt, Patrick H. Lauke, Richard Ishida, and a few others about standards, accessibility, and internationalization. I admit it. I’m a geek, I can’t smalltalk.

dir=rtl: Ian Lloyd, David Storey, Lachlan Hunt I started my conference program with a case study by the BBC. They did a redesign and managed to squeeze formerly 60 images into 3 sliding doors and sprites. Their home page is now under 300K and 30 HTTP requests. Nice to see Yahoo’s Exceptional Performance guidelines go mainstream. About 5% of their users access the site without JavaScript. They don’t get identical features, but they get identical care. For them accessibility isn’t a buzzword, it’s become a natural part of their daily work. So they were able to find out that blur() is not a friend with JAWS. Also the BBC plays well with the other kids: they joined the OpenID foundation, and with BBC backstage they open their content through an API. Another charming idea is their public beta where people can testdrive new features. About 60% have personalized their home page, although one of the speakers described the personalization features with “my mom’s head exploded.” They used agile development with 2 week sprints, run the website in 12 languages, but don’t have a CDN yet because of the license fees.

Another case study about the LOHAS community Edenbee wasn’t that exiting, mostly because I knew the platform since beta and didn’t get quite why I should speak with other people about changing their lightbulbs. But it’s nice to keep track of your carbon footprint, a feature that uses the AMEE open API.

I was curious about HTML 5, so I went to the presentation of Lachlan Hunt and James Graham. Still I don’t see any advantage of having a bunch of new elements that are incompatible with older browsers when I can achieve the same with ARIA attributes. But I understand the rationale behind some of their decisions, although that doesn’t mean I come to the same conclusions.

For example people use a lot of “nav” and “menu” classes. To make their live easier, the WHATWG came up with the idea to create a nav element. A block level element, so you wouldn’t have to use those <div class="nav"> any more. But every time I use something like class="navigation" it will be an unordered list! I don’t need another div, I’m perfectly happy with my ul and role="navigation". It’s truly backward compatible, it’s semantic, I can use it today, and there isn’t a steep learning curve.

Concrete Comic PanelAndy Clarke’s design Then I went to two design talks by Andy Clarke and Dan Rubin, and though their designs were beautiful, the code examples were not. Imagine the flexibility of a newspaper article and compare that with the inflexibility of absolutely positioned paragraphs with fixed heights. Exactly. Apart from that Andy’s main inspiration came from comic books. It never hurts to throw in some colorful images.

Like in comic books, usability is not about getting from A to B, it’s about the experience of getting from A to B. In comic books the size of a panel and the amount of text strongly influences the reading speed. So you can emphasize content and add dynamics in your web design. That doesn’t mean necessarily that everything has to be in boxes. Emphasis can also be added by removing the boxes.

Dan Rubin used a lot of effects on his designs, like a noise filter to add texture on monochrome surfaces. Nice idea, though that implies the designer explaining the rationale of such a feature to the front-end engineers. They would either ignore it because they overlooked the subtle texture or because they assumed it would be just noise. Some less intrusive hint I will readily adopt was using a letter-spacing of −1 on headlines to prevent tiny rivers between letters. ;)

What slightly worries me is that Dan talked about re-using patterns for some effects in Photoshop. Re-using patterns is the same in CSS, but re-usable effects in Photoshop can mean an unusable amount of work in CSS and lots of pictures making the website slow. What I miss so far is a common understanding of effects and patterns that are both easy to work with in Photoshop and in frontend programming.

Slide: Knowledge Areas of Frontend Engineering The next day started with Nate Koechley’s keynote about professional frontend engineering. He chose the topic because he thinks this is critical to the advancement of the Internet, and I couldn’t agree more. As Frontend Engineers we write software with XHTML, CSS, JavaScript, and quite some amount of PHP. Douglas Crockford calls this “the most hostile software development environment imaginable,” and if you take a look at this graphic from Nate’s slides you will understand why. There are a number of knowledge areas that can be applied in a number of ways on three operating systems and half a dozen browsers in two rendering modes. If you ever wondered why you sometimes see little clouds of smoke coming out of your frontend engineering heads, that’s why.

There are four guiding principles:

  1. Availability and accessibility for all users worldwide
  2. Openness: share, learn, support, advocate
  3. Richness: provide, but not too much
  4. Stability

Then there are three core techniques: Graded Browser Support, Progressive Enhancement, and Unobtrusive JavaScript.If you haven’t heard about those concepts, please read about them now.

At that point the presentation turned into giving advice for quite a number of best practices and tips, like using JSLint, YUI Unit Testing, or YUI Profiler to enhance the quality of your code. Or serving cacheable assets from cookie-free domains. Or anticipated preloads: sneak in your new JavaScript and CSS files a week before the relaunch. ;) Or did you know that the iPhone 2G can keep only 19 assets in cache, and that it doesn’t cache anything larger than 25K? Uncompressed 25K? Needless to say, Nate’s presentation was one of the conference highlights.

John Resig Later I heard a few things about building applications with existing frameworks and APIs, a timely comparison between JavaScript libraries held by no other than jQuery’s John Resig, some tips on internationalization by Richard Ishida, and a panel about accessibility. The one sentence that stuck most in that panel was: “Don’t be the guy with the problems, be the guy with the solutions.” In fact it’s very hard to be passionate about your job while being pragmatic and providing solutions instead of just saying “no.” Something Richard Schwerdtfeger wrote about in a different context:

Working in the accessibility field is extremely difficult. It requires very specialized skills — including incredible persistence. Accessibility is often viewed as additional work that is not always planned for. It requires a person who is tough, committed, patient, and caring to deliver an accessible solution that is usable to our customers. To do this you must have tremendous passion for your job as there is always someone or something to trip you up.

Combining passion and diplomacy is a goal many web evangelists still have to work on… In the meantime remember that accessibility is most likely to have a sustainable impact when it is supported by senior management, when there is an accessibility policy for a company, and when smart companies realize that there is money to be made by maximizing the target audience.

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