Web Design Day 2016

, I attended Web Design Day in Pittsburgh for the fifth-straight year. I always look forward to this conference. Back when I worked for IU1, Web Design Day was the one guaranteed day of the year I could be surrounded by like-minded people: those who were passionate about building great things for the Web.

This year was different, of course, as I now work as part of a team at WVU’s Health Sciences Center, who also attended the conference. It was nice having people there I knew for a change.

Here are some of the notes I took down from the talks that were given.

Jen Simmons kicked things off with her talk, Revolutionize Your Web Page. I had seen video of Jen giving a similar talk before, I believe at one of the An Event Apart conferences this past year. Jen presented the audience with a challenge: to break the monotony of web design patterns and to begin preparing for the new tools that are coming down the CSS pipeline. Things like CSS Grids, Flexbox, and Multicolumn can afford us the chance to do more art direction with our designs.

The thing that really struck me—which I knew about but never really considered in full—is the use of @supports. Think of @supports as a native Modernizr: for a relatively new feature you want to use in your design, you wrap that styling in an @supports block, which includes a CSS declaration containing the newer technology:

@supports (display: grid){
   // css grid styles go here

If a browser doesn’t understand the CSS declaration, the block of styles is ignored. It’s this power within the browser and without the reliance on hacky JavaScript that’s really going to help with the adoption of newer CSS properties, and I can’t wait to begin using them.

After Jen’s very technical presentation, Sharon Steed took the stage and gave us a very sobering talk about empathetic communication. You see, Sharon stutters when she speaks. This doesn’t stop her from giving talks about how to employ empathy in our careers and in our lives. People fear being wrong or being embarrassed when they collaborate with others. And the bottom line is we shouldn’t be so afraid to speak, and we should do whatever we can to make sure people are comfortable speaking up. After all, as Sharon put it eloquently, silence kills collaboration while empathetic communication drives it.

Following Sharon was Aaron Irizarry, who works for Nasdaq and gave a talk called Hold Steady in which he talked about communication in large team environments, though many of the principals Aaron spoke on could very easily be applied to project teams of any sizes. Striving for transparency in projects, avoiding unnecessary conflicts, and taking responsibility and admitting your mistakes all help when working in teams. Build trust with your stakeholders. Remain flexible to weather any storms that may arise during projects. Processes may help you to manage things when everything starts to go awry but you have to be prepared to ditch. My favorite quote of the day came from Aaron, when I believe he was referencing Mike Tyson when he said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” How true.

Kate Daly was next with a lightning talk on Taming Complexity. Kate touched briefly on what is involved in doing story mapping sessions: getting four blank, walls, some nice Sharpies and Post-It packs, and—most importantly—zero naysayers. I’ve never been involved with any sort of project activity that dealt with some of the exercises Kate described in her talk, but would love the opportunity to see them in action sometime.

Rounding out the morning was a talk from Eric Meyer: Design for Real Life. Eric’s talk mirrored a lot of what is covered in a book he coauthored with Sara Wachter-Boettcher, which I read and really enjoyed. Also, much like Jen Simmon’s presentation, I had watched a video of an earlier version of Eric’s talk a few months ago. So many takeaways can be learned from Eric’s work:

  • We tend to design for the majority
  • We should be looking for edge stress cases
  • “There’s more to life than delight”
  • Plan for the worse cases
  • Always consider the context

Anybody who works on the web and hasn’t read Eric and Sara’s book really should. It has some very wise advice for anybody building products for the Web.

After a Franktuary-filled lunch, Caitlin Steinert gave a presentation about a project she created where she used JavaScript to figure out the stitching patterns for making custom sized socks.

This led into a lengthy talk by two-time Web Design Day speaker Smitha Prasadh. Last year, Smitha gave a lightning talk about intercultural design. This year, she used her talk to draw comparisons of building web projects and performing music. There were certainly a lot of overlap between the two areas, in everything between the size of the teams in both scenarios to the roles of scores and wireframes providing guidance to those doing the performing. An enlightening if not a-tad-too-lengthy presentation for the topic.

Another lightning talk came from Bridget Reed, who used her time to give us a verbal résumé. I really don’t know what the point of her talk was other than that, to be honest. It left me and my colleagues quite dumbfounded.

Following a break, we heard another lightning talk from Robert Jolly, who described for us a harrowing situation he found himself in: Robert suffered a stroke some time ago and from that experience realized how important accessibility, in particular web accessibility, is. I enjoyed Robert’s talk, and am always interested in learning anything and everything I can when it comes to accessibility. I only wish that this presentation wasn’t so short, and that the majority of it was spent discussing Robert’s personal experience. A little more practical details would have went a long way.

I feel like I had watched Karen McGrane’s presentation—Adaptive Content, Context, and Controversy—before, but I can’t be so sure. Regardless, I always think Karen has some very sage advice when she speaks. This was no different. Karen made a big chunk of her talk explaining why we must not make decisions about our content based on the device being used. We should rely more on user context.

Finally, Jina Bolton gave a case study on her Salesforce’s design systems. This was fascinating. It was also completely terrifying. I give all the respect I can give to those who work on systems that large and their ability to wrangle of that technology. I don’t think I could ever do it.

At the conclusion of the conference, we walked a couple of blocks to the afterparty being held at Alloy 26, a co-working space housed in an old, seemingly abandoned mall. While standing around talking, Dave Rupert came over and chatted with us for awhile. It was really cool to speak with a guy—along with Chris Coyier—who I’ve learned a lot from things like Shop Talk Show.

Speaking of Shop Talk, Chris and Dave did a live, un-recorded episode right there at the afterparty. They took some questions pre-submitted by conference attendees and kind of just goofed off for the better part of an hour. At the end, Dave demoed a really cool, simple, multi-player game he had been developing that he has since released publicly as Global Defense.

Anyway, I just wanted to jot some things down about this year’s conference. I’ve really enjoyed each and every Web Design Day I’ve attended, and already can’t wait for next year.