An Event Apart: Bringing People Together

An Event Apart Atlanta

Three days full of web design best practices, discussions with fellow designers and delicious southern cooking. That was my experience at An Event Apart in Atlanta last week. When the last session ended, all I wanted to do was curl up, hibernate and let my mind and body digest all the ideas and fried chicken I’d gorged on. So I did just that.

After rising from my slumber, I’m left with this: An Event Apart is about being a decent human being.

Sure, there were plenty of useful technical ideas presented: flexible layouts, compressive images, typography research, mobile usage statistics. These are topics that will change how we designers and developers do our jobs. But it’s not just about us. The underlying assumption behind all these topics is that we are empathetic individuals. We care about the user’s time, their bandwidth and their workflow beyond the screen. It’s not enough if the website works at our own desks. Does it work at everyone’s desk? Does it work for people if they’re not at a desk? Because they’re probably not at a desk.

Mobile first. Responsive design. Adaptive content. Progressive enhancement. Scenario-based design. These are all kind of the same idea at their core, right? They boil down to empathy. Put yourself in the user’s shoes. The mobile-only user with a low-bandwidth connection. Maybe they don’t speak English. Maybe they have poor vision. Do they have access to the content you’re delivering?

Scott Jehl calls this collection of ideas “Responsible Design.” It’s irresponsible to ignore fellow human beings in favor of a giant lossless PNG, a flashy animation or desktop-only content. Karen McGrane took the idea a step further: in a meritocracy built on equality, it’s unacceptable to restrict your content on mobile devices. That’s the baseline. If you can remind people that there are human beings with souls behind the content they’re interacting with, that’s even better.

Empathy doesn’t just apply to the user. It applies to your own team as well. Kim Goodwin expounded on the benefits of “Silo-Busting.” Don’t let the role printed on your business card define who you interact with. The gap between design and development? “That’s where the magic happens,” according to Luke Wroblewski.

As a designer, it’s easy to get caught up in “pixel-perfection,” paint a mockup with fake data that fits nicely in a fixed canvas size and toss it over the wall. I’ll admit, that’s a workflow I’m all too familiar with. But it’s not flexible, sustainable or empathetic to a broad audience. That doesn’t make me a terrible human being, but to the billions of people ignored by a design that doesn’t address their needs, why would they assume anything else?

If that’s overly dramatic and idealistic, I apologize. I’m fired up after going to such an inspirational conference. As a designer, my job is to craft an ideal experience for every user. I may not achieve it, but it’s a noble pursuit.


Photo credit Lou Griffith

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