The most timely lessons from An Event Apart DC

I’ve walked out of conference sessions before. It’s an inevitable occurrence when attending technical conferences. Soon enough there will be a session that was poorly described or poorly interpreted by myself.

At a one-track conference, this can make me nervous about the investment; but An Event Apart did not disappoint. In fact, many of the sessions actually reinforced and gave additional insight to efforts I was already undertaking.

Designing for Social Behavior

She opened with the idea of “social mediblah” because she wanted to get rid of the term “social media.” Amen. I’ll help you with that Sarah. Social media, she argued, is really just “a tool to make something happen” but many people give it a stigma in business.

This is something I’ve been preaching at FiscalNote. The things we want to make happen are to spread our brand and build thought leadership. I suppose those are the goals of most brands, but for a young company the first step is to get people involved.

Right now I’m focused on Twitter and Medium, encouraging people to share things they learn and to add their own insights. What Sarah taught me is that I need to think of psychology in our strategy. How can we become an influencer for political information? Or build a tribe that respects what we do? It’s hard to be “authentic” when you must also be unbiased.

Design Decisions through the Lens of Performance

That said, I know websites I’ve worked on are not ideal. At FiscalNote, we’re currently having a conversation about site typefaces. Yesenia Perez-Cruz of Vox Media spoke in this session about developing a page perfomance budget. We’ll certainly use this when debating the merits of including four weights for multiple typefaces.

With An Event Apart, I think many of these ideas became engrained in by day-to-day thinking.

Luckily I’m currently winning the battle for being light on JavaScript, but that’s one for which I’ll continually face fights. Still, when we end up including large images, I’ll refer to Scott Jehl’s “More Weight Doesn’t Mean More Wait.”

My largest takeaway was to have the appropriate data collected, so that when we make changes we can show tangible results: X percent speed improvement and X percent more conversions.

Modern Layouts

Yet Jen Simmons’s talk on “Modern Layouts” gives me hope. She displayed user eye tracking data to show that a sidebar is useless; she shared some excellent magazine page layouts and asked why the web was still coming in second.

Her solution included a series of CSS properties, including “shape-outside,” to address this rut of web design.

If we put in some care and attention, the home page could experience a well-deserved renaissance.

Designing for Details

The right color of a button can increase conversions, she said. Understand what the users want accomplish and design for that. Our goals should be to inform, persuade, and connect.

Design follows trends, and so much web design now is similar. She challenged us to do something unique — to give 10% more; something subtle but engaging.

Now, I just need to figure out what that 10% will be.

Atomic Design

I learned about some great tools in his talk, along with lessons that’ll help me approach our project. Hopefully you’ll see the FiscalNote style guide on his site by the end of the year.

Accessible Forms

A scary idea he postulated is that, with Apple’s Siri and Amazon Echo, users may be ‘communicating’ with web sites sooner than later. Screen readers might be for more than accessibility.

Regardless, forms have always been a little frustrating for me; yet I still need them in every project. This really helped me wrap my head around best practices. I’ll apply these ideas by replacing the Marketo forms at FiscalNote with ones I build myself, leveraging the Marketo API to manage our data.

Content in Context

This is my third year contracting for the Online News Association on their annual conference website. Last year I proposed that during the conference we should change the home page to have it display the current session being live streamed and also the next slate of sessions.

Work for this year’s website is still underway, but I’m hoping to take it a step further after hearing Derek Featherstone’s thoughts on the matter.

Every other session was quite engaging as well. Eric Meyer really commanded the audience as he spoke about designing for a user in a crisis. Dave Rupert was quite a follow-up as he got us laughing again. Cameron Moll had some great suggestions for UX cohesiveness. Gerry McGovern just had a beautiful accent.

For a few sessions I played the good student, sitting front and center. Those were the ones with my best notes, but also the most coffee. (Seriously, sit in the front row, folks.)

The next step is obviously to put these lessons into action. That’s the true measure of a conference — the ease at which ideas lead to outcomes. With An Event Apart, I think many of these ideas became engrained in by day-to-day thinking.

Written by

Senior Digital Manager @ONA; Formerly @nwherald, @pewresearch, @fiscalnote. Softball pitcher; journalist; pizza. Grad of @Illinois_Alma.

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