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An Event Apart Chicago: Day 1

The folks from A List Apart rolled into town yesterday for An Event Apart Chicago 2007, a two-day web-development conference. Around 500 programmers, designers and information architects flocked to the seventh floor of the downtown Mariott for a varied slate of talks by some of the biggest names in the industry. Today and tomorrow I’ll give high-level overviews of each day’s sessions. On Friday, I’ll provide some color commentary.

Stylesheet guru Eric Meyer‘s “Secrets of the CSS Jedi” kicked things off with an in-depth case study in which pure CSS 1 and 2 transformed tabular data into an Excel-style bar graph. Meyer’s presentation was interesting not only for what his techniques could accomplish, but also for what they couldn’t. It was inspiring to see that plain-vanilla data could be given a powerful visual makeover, yet still remain completely semantic and accessible to handicapped users. But it was disheartening to see that the simple addition of tick marks within the graph demanded the addition of hard-coded percentage values to a number of CSS classes. The lack of simple computational ability within CSS declarations has long been a drawback of the “not a programming language” language. CSS remains a powerful and flexible technology, but, as I discussed at length a few days ago, it’s got a lot of room for growth. For those who were already conversant with Meyer’s techniques, perhaps the most interesting digression in his talk was the chance to tear through Firefox’s built-in browser stylesheets and see how even the most fundamental rules of HTML presentation – such as the invisibility of meta tags and the entire <head> block – are controlled by CSS behind the scenes. Meyer also went over the basic building blocks of the kind “reset” stylesheet most jedis use.

Up next was Jeffrey Zeldman, publisher of A List Apart and therefore another another rock star to this crowd. A lot of recent ALA content has focused on the overlooked art of writing for the web, so it was no surprise that Zeldman tackled the topic “Writing the User Interface,” which packed in plenty of practical advice for writers and non-writers alike. His central thesis was that copy was the cheapest and easiest thing to improve on most sites. Using lots of witty real-world examples, he provided a useful paradigm for breaking textual content into discrete components – guide copy (a.k.a. instructional text), brand copy (taglines and other branding assets), copy copy (a.k.a. real content), labels and URLs – and applying different editing criteria to each. As befits the author of “Designing With Web Standards,” Zeldman was careful to demonstrate that the rules of good web writing and the rules of semantic markup are often one and the same. As with most of Zeldman’s advice over the years, he started with a compelling philosophy, then showed how to break it down into small, actionable steps.

Happy Cog designer Jason Santa Maria finished off the morning block with “Design Your Way Out of a Paper Bag,” a look at the process of rebranding and redesigning an existing site. An illustrated tour of Santa Maria’s own iterative design process, the presentation was, like the earlier sessions, a case study in how a series of small steps can have a big impact on the usefulness of a site. Using an amusing Flickr tour of real-life signage and the abuse and misuse of the poor apostrophe therein, the designer drove home his biggest advice: “Sweat the small stuff.” Along the way, he touched on typography, branding, logo development, grid-based layout, whitespace and other design concerns. As befits a designer, Santa Maria’s session was probably the most visual and the least easily captured in the PDF slides distributed to attendees. He did, however, suggest some excellent further reading, most notably “The Elements of Typographic Style,” “Thinking With Type,” “Grid Systems” and “Making and Breaking the Grid.”

After lunch, Lou Rosenfeld led with “Search Analytics For Fun and Profit.” In a series of painstaking real-world case studies – most notably of my alma mater Michigan State University – Rosenfeld explained how server logs and especially search engine logs offer the keys to a successful site redesign. It’s a simple idea that may seem elementary to many developers, but given how infrequently web-development teams actually use this feedback loop effectively, Rosenfeld’s techniques struck me as really powerful. You would expect a session like this to show you how users’ most popular search terms could serve as the springboard to an overhaul of your navigational systems. But Rosenfeld also delved several levels deeper, showing how much powerful business intelligence can be obtained from inexpensive tools with little or no custom code to support them. Site indices, metadata, search algorithms and the search interface itself – all can be tweaked based the subtle metrics that emerge from careful, detailed session analysis.

Perhaps the most inspiring session was Liz Danzico‘s “The Seven Lies of Information Architecture,” in which the Happy Cog information architect recast the high commandments of IA as guidelines rather than rules. Danzico used copious examples to demonstrate how the most successful sites often bend or break the supposedly unwavering rules of IA. The idea of the magic number – most users can only remember 7 +/- 2 items in their short-term memory at any given time – was the first concept to show cracks under Danzico’s microscope. She went on to debunk the holy status of such maxims as “consistency is good,” “navigation is necessary,” “the shortest path is the best path,” “experience must be seamless” and “users should always know where they are.” Sometimes, the idiosyncratic nature of her examples suggested that certain guidelines work for most sites and are best broken only for a specific purpose. Other times, especially in her examination of Amazon‘s and Apple‘s navigational systems, her case studies suggested that even mainstream sites do and should break the rules. It was Danzico’s last rule – the idea that only IAs should do IA work – that she most thoroughly debunked by the end of her session. She argued passionately that site owners, designers, programmers and end users can and should understand the guidelines of information architecture – but, like IAs themselves, they should apply those guidelines judiciously rather than rigidly.

Last up was designer Dan Cederholm, founder of SimpleBits and Cork’d. He constructed an elaborate site prototype, ToupeePal, to demonstrate “Interface Design Juggling,” his thesis that great design involves keeping lots of balls in the air at the same time. Delving deeply into typography, microformats and the development of favicons, Cederholm demonstrated that beautiful and useful interfaces can be constructed using the supposedly unsophisticated visual and informational tools already at our disposal. Cederholm cried foul on the idea that web typography sucks because too few cross-platform fonts are available. He argued that the single-font typography of the Itallian Renaissance is some of the most beautiful ever created, then he demonstrated practical techniques for getting similar mileage out of limited existing web fonts. Word-spacing, letter-spacing, line-spacing, color, weight, italicization and other simple tools can all elevate even the most familiar typefaces into the design stratosphere. Likewise, even a tiny 16×16-pixel favicon can provide a powerful branding tool when designed correctly. Cederholm closed with an in-depth look at the “accidental API” of microformats, demonstrating that a even a grassroots open-source movement can add power and value to the web without the support of standards bodies and browser vendors.

Check back tomorrow for coverage of today’s sessions, from Eric Meyer’s look at the post-IE7 world to Derek Featherstone’s talk on accessibility.

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