As Jeremy Keith wrote in his post-AEA journal, “the recurring themes were pretty clear: process and workflow.”
Responsive design process was huge. We’re past the phase of, as Megan Fisher's comment troll put it, "my website totally shrinks on phones," and more into defining a new process for how ALL websites are built. Building “content out, not canvas in,” asset files, style guides, and content strategy were heavily discussed.
Pretty much every presentation touched on it in some way, which was remarkable. Jeffrey Zeldman started it off by talking about how designers no longer control the visual experience; more importantly, perhaps we never have. Now more than ever, users value the experience they get on our site or app more than the design, and if the design doesn’t serve the purpose of “connecting the user to the right content at the right time,” then we aren’t doing our job. Designing for content first is best for the user—all users, not just mobile users.
In Ethan Marcotte's talk he said “We should start treating layout as enhancement,” the same way we think of CSS3 being an enhancement. What’s the core experience? Define it, then add on; this applies to content, crucial user experiences and needs FIRST, then layout, then style/theme. (Aside: This goes very well with a lot of the CSS frameworks and concepts happening now, like SMACSS/OOCSS.)
His two points I liked best were: 1) start at the smallest part, find it’s “unique character,” and expand. 2) breakpoints are not specific devices, they are screen sizes “connected to the unique needs of your content”. Duh.
In LukeW's Mobile to the Future talk, he really nailed down WHY that stuff is so important: mobile does everything all previous forms of mass media before it did, and thus it is the new mass media. Mobile isn’t a mini desktop PC; it’s an entirely new medium, and we need to design for it. He has all kinds of amazing stats on his site, which better be in your must-read blog list.
Luke also went over a couple detailed examples, including login. What’s critical? Logging in. So why is it so hard? Why do so many mobile sites not have a “I forgot my password” link? He says that 90% of LinkedIn’s customer service requests relating to mobile were incorrect passwords, but they don’t have a “forgot password” link on their mobile site.
We must define what is critical, and make that always available. See Zeldman’s quote above re: “designing for content first is best for all users, not just mobile users.” Luke said “it’s not just “optimize for mobile”—it should be that easy on your desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, kindle, etc.”
In her content strategy talk, Kristina Halvorson also touched on this: not just “what” but: why, how, when, for whom, how often, what next? Your audience—users—wants a good experience. Define what that experience should be—what is critical—and then go from there.
As expected, Jared Spool's keynote was HILARIOUS, so much so that I quit taking notes about halfway through because it was so engaging. He made the very impactful point that not knowing how to use an interface has nothing to do with being a “novice” or an “expert” or “good with computers”: it means it’s unintuitive. The gap between our knowledge and the knowledge we need is too wide. Our job is to design for that gap. We tend to try to design for new users, and while the first time experience is important, “your most important users need the most intuitive experience.” These are your 20%, your power users, your users that are making up 80% of your purchases and therefore revenue.
He had a great aside that I loved: “socially transmitted functionality.” It’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s the functionality you can only learn about after someone tells you. This is like a keyboard shortcut that blows your mind. Ideally it’s like an easter egg, though: useful, makes you a better user, but NOT critical to workflow.
The lovely Jenny Lam talked about why visual design is important. She noted how important it is to give your designers “real accountability and ownership”—not just have them be producers. Her three design touchstones were:
Integrity: you can’t be someone you’re not, and your design should reflect that. communicate with purpose. Harmony: how does everything relate? Radiance: delight and joy. the little details matter. be expressive.
She also had a great Michaelangelo quote in her slides: “Your only business is to collect & administer the funds…as regards plans and designs, leave that to me.” (Her slides were gorgeous and I highly recommend)
I spotted a bit of HF&J's Idlewild in the wild during Jason Santa Maria's talk on typography. His slides were gorgeous, and the talk was excellent, full of tips on improving both the visual delight as well as the experience. Readability doesn’t mean can you read it; it means do you want to read it. If your type is bad, your design fails—just the same way that if your style is wrong, the content isn’t relevant, or your experience is unintuitive or confusing, your design fails.
In her talk about UI Patterns and responsive process, Sarah Parmenter made the point that a website is never “complete”; we are always going to be adding or changing sections, content, features on the homepage. So we can’t assume that we can create one mockup and be “done”. She had a great quote, “Get sign off on placement, content, and hierarchy in your wireframes. Not layout.”
Throughout, the concept of a style guide was huge. Sarah talked about how she uses a scratch.psd file that contains all the assets; Jenny talked about making moodboards that tell a narrative and give a feel, and going from there to create the design. Andy Clarke, Jeremy Keith, and Ethan Marcotte all touched on that as well. The Starbucks style guide, Mailchimp, voice and tone, style tiles, and similar were all brought up over and over.
In his talk “The Future is Now”, Eric Meyer talked about a ton of new CSS techniques and how they can best be used. He touched on flexbox and the new css columns, and their potential for responsive designs.
After lecturing us on how apes aren’t monkeys, Andy Clarke talked about our outdated process and how it is, “like bringing a knife to a gun fight.” We need to: experiment creatively, produce assets, communicate designs, flow content… but we are still using a photo editing/drawing tool, with a fixed canvas size.
This great quote from John Allsopp's Dao of Web Design article came up a lot: “We should embrace the fact that the web doesn’t have the same constraints, and design for this ﬂexibility.”
Andy and a few other presenters discussed screen/canvas sizes, showing screenshots of 640x480, 800x600, 1024x768, iPhone, iPad, etc… As Andy put it, “at some point we thought it was SAFE to draw a bigger rectangle.”
In Jeremy Keith's talk, The Spirit of the Web, he brought a lot of this together, with the aforementioned inspiring quotes, as well as more discussion on style guides, style tiles, and asset files. My favorite part of his talk was when he showed us the original W3C site, mentioning that it’s technically responsive. (He also told us not to take notes, which explains my absolute lack of detail in this section. Oops!)
The last presentation before Jared Spool’s keynote was Aarron Walter's presentation The Real Me. He spoke about our voice, our integrity, and how we must be true and honest. He said, “It’s not enough to speak your message—people know if you are being dishonest.” He quoted Seth Godin saying “if you are remarkable, some people won’t like you.” We need to communicate honestly, but know that we will not be able to reach everyone. We can’t dilute our message.
Like style, like typography, like content, without integrity and consistency and personality, our designs fail.
Looking for more details? Zeldman’s AEA recap includes notes and writeups for most of the talks.