An Event Apart 2018 – Day 1

Another year has passed and I am back in Chicago attending An Event Apart. I was apprehensive about attending this year because of a lot of things going on personally and professionally for me. But here I am, donut fueled, back in the front row soaking up the knowledge.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect this year, or what, if anything, I would take away. After a few sessions though, I was feeling the energy and motivation return. By the end of the day, I had had a great talk with Jeffrey Zeldman himself and ended up getting drinks and pizza with a group of designers and developers from Bogota, Ottawa, Lebanon, New York, Chicago, & Denver. Only at AEA!

In years past I usually gave a little run down of what each speaker talked about during their sessions. This year though it feels more appropriate to write about the point or two that had the deepest impact.

For day one that would definitely be The lead-off speaker, Jeffrey Zeldman. I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions lately about my growth as a developer over the last few years, and what the next five years might look like. By some weird coincidence, his presentation got me a lot closer to answering those questions.

Zeldman’s talk Beyond Engagement: The Content Performance Quotient posed the question, “Is engagement what your site should be focused on?” To put it another way, is throwing a bunch of shit on your site, hoping users find what they want, and then fist-bumping long session times really what you need to be offering your customers?

When you first dip your toes into the sea of Google Analytics, it’s easy to get drunk on data. We’ve all been there. You see some juicy three minute visits that encompass a handful of pages and you think, “Great! People are spending time on our site and looking at lots of pages.”

Is that really the case though? Data is just data. Without a goal to measure against, it can be interpreted any number of ways. Not necessarily in a way that is beneficial to your users. Those three minute visits could just as easily mean people are lost on your site and can’t find what they are looking for.

So, maybe, just maybe, shorter session times should be the goal. Perhaps, instead of charging ahead with no plan, a little goal-setting and content strategy are in order so your customers can, I don’t know, find what they want quickly and get on with their lives?

We all seem to share this day-dream that visitors to our sites get up in the morning, fix their coffee, and then sit down to spend some quality time browsing websites to see whats new. As if this was still 1996.

Our own browsing habits are the best indicator of how our visitors use the sites we build. When was the last time you read several pages of website? For that matter, when was the last time you spent longer than 60 seconds checking your Twitter, Instagram, of Facebook feed?

This idea of designing websites to give visitors quick access to what they need isn’t necessarily a new idea. However, Zeldman is one of the first I know of to codify it and give it a name. I say this because for the last two years, a project manager and I have been working under a similar (if less sophisticated) line of thinking back at the office. It’s proven to be a great method for getting a clients site online that fits their budget, and gives their visitors an overview of the company, products, and/or services.

It’s never been a problem is getting buy in from the clients we work with directly. We either explain the benefits of how this approach will benefit their business (i.e. a happy customer is a return customer). Or, if that doesn’t grab their attention, we explain how this is the best option given what their budget can accommodate, and that we can always iterate more features in the future.

In the end, clients are happy because they have a smaller site to manage that came in on time and on budget. They like that visitors get a taste, but then have to contact the company for more information. At this point the visitor is in their sales funnel, and presto, everyone is happy.

What is becoming an increasingly difficult problem is convincing “c-levels” that this solution is better way to deliver product. They are so focused on quantity over quality that it’s damn near impossible to get them to admit, perhaps, in this case, less is more. In the end, ego and office politics trump logic and research.

On this point Zeldman had some good advice, “Be brave. Be tactful.” As the people executing the project it’s our job to stand our ground and stick up for the voiceless end-user. It’s up to us to do everything we can to explain how doing the right thing can translate into happy clients with happy customers. That’s the theory anyway!

I’ve been doing my damnedest to navigate these treacherous waters for years. It’s dirty work that often feels like fighting a losing battle. Today, I’m at the point where it feels like no matter how many times I try to explain the benefits of “smaller is better”, it’s just never going to be something that is fully embraced.

So, what do we do when we find ourselves stuck in a situations where what is right will never be taken seriously, and we are forced to constantly stumble ahead blindly? What are the magic words that will miraculously allow us to convince others that what we are saying is a better way?

Unfortunately, there aren’t any. Sometimes the circumstances are intractable. As difficult as it may be to accept, there is only one option left for the designer/developer who gives a shit about his craft and building things he or she can be proud of.