I went to An Event Apart Seattle last week and it was the best conference I've ever been to. I've started to gather my notes together and will, over the next few posts, talk about what I was able to take away from each of the presentations. Before I go in detail on the talks, though, I wanted to mention a few themes that seemed to flow through multiple presentations during the conference.
HTML5 and CSS3 are ready now.
This theme was the most related to the work I do on a daily basis. Every talk that touched web development explored features that weren't available in every browser (one talk was built around them), and it seems that the web design community has finally abandoned the idea that sites should act the same way in every browser. Most of the speakers accepted that sites should still work in some way in every browser, but it seemed accepted as given that we should start using HTML5 and CSS3 features tastefully to enhance the experience of people using modern browsers (and especially modern mobile browsers).
Context is everything
Whether it was talking about simplicity as delivering the correct experience to the correct user or pairing the correct font or design or architecture or business goal to the correct content or tailoring a mobile web application to fit the behavior of a user who just wants to get the information they need and get on with their life, context was brought up constantly. Building the right context for the job you're trying to do involves asking pointed, well-thought-out questions, and several of the presentations had slide after slide of thought-provoking questions intended to bring the assumed context out into the open.
The things we have been talking about as important before, are now critical
From the data some of the presentations revealed, we are beginning to hit a critical moment in many areas the web touches. Mobile is the most obvious example: Luke Wroblewski was fond of mentioning that smartphone shipments overtook PC shipments a full two years earlier than expected. There were others, too: the rise of HTML5 and CSS3, the ability of sites like TypeKit to drastically help increase your site's branding, and the growth of content strategy as a discipline to deliver the right information to the right people at the right time. These things that were important before are now becoming necessary, because people are beginning to expect great experiences from the sites they visit, and if they can't get it from your site, they will get it somewhere else.
A whirlwind tour of the history of the web
Jeffrey Zeldman started the conference with a fast and funny history of the web. Beginning with Movable Type (Gutenberg, not Six Apart), passing through AOL, the browser wars, an unfortunately de-pixelated Zeldman on the cover of "Designing with Web Standards", and the fall of XHTML, and finishing up with mobile browsing, HTML5/CSS3, web fonts, and the IE9 beta, it did a fantastic job of setting the context for the rest of the conference. Today, thanks to the widespread adoption of web standards, the web has grown up. We can now make use of skills that were not previously useful online to create a better web experience for everyone. And since the web is now everywhere, those experiences can affect people beyond what was previously possible.
Better user experiences through psychology
Sarah Parmenter was next, giving a talk called "Crafting User Experiences." Sarah discussed how well-known psychological principles could be used to build great user experiences. I noticed a lot of parallels to one of my favorite recent books, Predictably Irrational (which should be next on your list if you haven't yet had the opportunity to read it), and I found it really interesting that a lot of this knowledge that used to seem to be confined to sales and marketing is now making its way into mainstream web design.
Snap judgements and sensation transference were the first topics hit. We usually deny that snap judgements are as important as they are, since we tend to thing that "the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it." In reality, judgements made in under 5 minutes are drastically more important to our final decisions than we realize. This is related to to sensation transference: our judgement of the packaging of a product can have real effects on our perception of the actual product. For example, adding yellow coloring to 7up made people percieve more lime taste while drinking it. This led to the first appearance of the Dark Patterns wiki during the conference. Like any skill, though, these skills can be used for good as well as evil.
Better user experiences through psychology can be delivered by concentrating on speed, simplicity, surprise, social proof, and stirring emotions. Speed involves getting people the product they want quickly without any fuss. From working closely on your site's structure and building great navigation to creating quick video overviews of a service, the faster you can get information to someone, the happier they'll be. This goes hand-in-hand with simplicity. Simplicity is delivering the right content to the right person at the right time, and involves really studying your audience and what context they're in when they visit your site. Simplicity is heavily colored by perception, and this can be used to your advantage—telling your users it will take 30 seconds to sign up on your site when it actually takes 10 will make your site seem easier to use and will make that user feel smarter and better about themselves.
Surprise is challenging the expectations of your users in some small way. You can evoke this by using complimentary highlight colors on calls to action, or provoking the user to ask questions they need to click through to answer (what is that weird old tip for a tiny belly?), or even picking a product or company name that provokes surprise and questions from a user (like Sarah herself did with "You Know Who"). Social proof is as simple as pre-filling a tip jar (so it seems normal to leave money) or public follow/like counts on your site (30 million people and counting apparently love FarmVille). Finally, Sarah talked about how people are much more likely to make judgments on emotion and only later justify them rationally. Things like using lots of whitespace for luxury items or natural textures for organic items create an emotional attraction that can work beautifully when trying to attract a user to your products. Etsy does a great job of this, as did Apple when creating a "How it's made" for their iPhoto holiday cards. Anthropomorphized icons can also work great for creating an emotional attachment, and can be as easy as adding eyes and a smile to, say, an illustration of a house. There was a ton of great stuff in her talk, and I'm looking forward to trying some of the things she mentioned myself.