Three things I loved
- The wide range of topics: Despite increasing specialization in the web-development field, jacks of all trades still dominate our industry. An Event Apart offered sessions by and for designers, information architects, writers and developers alike. The most interesting sessions were often the ones that didn’t cover my own specialties. Dan Cederhom and Jason Santa Maria both tackled visual design. There was little overlap between their presentations, yet each offered up practical device for folks who have to wing it with graphical design without much formal training. Similar cross-functional advice dominated the agenda.
- The skepticism about rules: Presenter after presenter – most especially Liz Danzico – prioritized guidelines over rules, research over dogma, and attention to one’s own audience over one-size-fits-all solutions. One thing that usually distinguishes a great developer, or at least a mature one, is the ability to juggle a host of competing concerns without getting lost in the weeds. Accessibility vs. Ajax, beauty vs. usability, power users vs. Great Aunt Tilly – everything is a tradeoff. If there was on overriding message to An Event Apart, it was that we have to think deeply and often about our audience, our business and our objectives and make informed decisions.
- The focus on end users: It should surprise nobody that the ALA folks are usability nerds, standards geeks and champions of the end user. But it was inspiring to see how the speakers translated that well-worn agenda into series of discrete, actionable tips for everyday developers. As with any complex human endeavor, web development is all about picking your battles. With a potentially limitless number of improvements that could be made to any site or application, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Most speakers showed how simple steps could provide incremental improvements in usability, accessibility, compatibility and profitability – all without starting over at the ground level.
Three things I didn’t love so much
- The absence of concurrent sessions: Packing all 500 attendees into one room for the same 12 sessions (picture here) allowed ample cross-pollination. I’m an RIA developer, but I got the most out of the design, IA and BI sessions. Nevertheless, I longed for the ability to choose from multiple sessions, split off from my colleagues, and come back together during breaks to compare notes. It’s not that any of the sessions were completely worthless. It’s just that most were designed for intermediate skill levels in the same core technologies. I really didn’t need to spend 15 minutes having xmlHttpRequest and getElementByID explained to me. It would have been great if some content had been pitched to masters as well as journeymen. The only way to make that work is through careful scheduling of multiple concurrent sessions.
- The lack of schmooze time: The schedule included some after-hours social events and a 90-minute lunch break each day, but I talked to lots of attendees who felt like they didn’t get enough time to chat with other attendees. Other than a lonely bulletin board – and a social-networking site opened a few weeks ahead of time – there weren’t a lot of structured opportunities to connect job-seekers and recruiters or peers from separate companies. Part of the problem was probably the cramped accommodations. When folks had breaks, they were too busy stretching their legs to schmooze. Still, I would have loved to see breakaway sessions aligned by job or industry categories.
For "people who make web sites," An Event Apart was probably a fantastic chance to hear practical advice and smart prognostication from industry leaders. For people who write client-side webapp code, it was a very good round-up of philosophies and techniques that too often get lost amidst the technical details. For pure software engineers, it probably would have been a waste of time and money.