Saturday, October 13, 2007

Two Tales of One City...or Somethin’ Like That (Part II)

Meeting of the minds
Lest I be tempted to nominate Trey for sainthood, I guess I’d better stop slurping and get on with the story. But given the backdrop I just painted about the guy, I think you’ll understand just how great this next part was for me.

For one thing, the conference we attended in Dallas was called the Webmaster Jam Session, not the Underling Jam Session. Trey was the logical choice to attend this thing. He didn’t need to invite me. Quite frankly, some of the stuff being discussed is still completely over my head at this point. Yet Trey knew I could benefit from it nonetheless.

One day during the last week of August, Trey called me over to his cube, pointed to his computer screen and asked, “You ever heard of this?”

He had the Webmaster Jam Session 2007 web site up on his monitor.

“Can’t say that I have,” I replied.

“Well, it’s one of the coolest conferences in the country, and I want us to go,” he exclaimed.

“Sounds good to me!” I beamed.

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t pretty pleasantly surprised.

Trey went on to say that the bulk of the speakers for the WJS were folks he had either read or was familiar with, and you really couldn’t argue with the sponsors, an impressive group led by Microsoft, Adobe, Digital Web Magazine, and CoffeeCup Software, the conference’s primary sponsor, with its VP of Operations, J Cornelius serving as event emcee.

The event was held September 21-22 at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in Dallas, a very nice venue with spacious convention facilities just across the street, connected by an enclosed crossing bridge. It was pretty cool.

Now I suppose those of you who routinely travel on business and/or pay upwards of $150 per night for a hotel room might be tempted to roll your eyes a bit at my going on about the hotel, but cut me some slack here; I really don’t get out all that often. This is a ‘nice’ hotel, but it’s not exactly The Ritz. However it was definitely the most expensive place I’d ever stayed on a business trip.

The point is, it was a very comfortable experience in all aspects, which made for a very pleasurable experience. The onsite restaurants ranged from medium-priced and decent, to very expensive and exquisite. We ate at all three: the decent sports bar for dinner, the so-so continental restaurant for breakfast and dinner, and the very fine and pricey top-of the tower signature restaurant for dinner our final evening.

Enjoying pricey meals on The Company’s dime was a different experience. All of my previous business trips had solely been training excursions to Atlanta, where most of the time I’d just eat fast food in my room since I was always there by myself. Being on this trip with Trey, and with the downtown location of the hotel (i.e.: no fast food joints in the area open after lunchtime), I at least had a legitimate excuse to spend some actual money on meals.

It was nice to see how most everyone else who travels on business lives for a change.

I mean, there was even a Starbuck’s onsite in the front lobby, so it was all good.

The conference got underway at 10:00 A.M. each morning, in tried-and-true format: an introductory keynote session followed by more specific topical sermonnettes from a variety of industry-respected speakers in your choice of the two large, featured conference halls.

Trey was much more familiar with the speakers going in than I was, as several of them have industry-related blogs that he follows on a daily basis.

Not surprisingly, the philosophies, suggestions for workflow model, and several of the code techniques, tips & tricks I heard during the conference had a familiar ring to them; most of them I had already heard at least being touched upon my Trey.

So I gained even more respect for his expertise; One thing is for certain: the guy I work with — my mentor if you will — knows what the heck he’s talkin’ about with this CSS stuff.

But what I think I enjoyed the most of all were the discussions on the future and theory of web design. It was fascinating stuff. Here are some highlights:
  • Jared Spool
    The opening keynote by Jared Spool, whose think tank company works with businesses on the concept of Interface Experience Design (IED). It’s that rare, invisible quality that, when successfully implemented, “integrates the user and the interface.”

    He gave a fascinating presentation on the successes and failures of some company’s web sites; how some worked and why they didn’t; why conceptually some products have been wildly successful while others with comparable function were total flops.

    His point was that successful IED isn’t all about look or ‘slickness’ as much as it is about feel and usability — the entire user experience. He noted that it’s non-introspective: most of the time it’s not even something that the user can even describe (“I don’t know ‘how’ I can do it, I just can”). He likened the phenomenon to air conditioning; you feel it, you enjoy it, but you really don’t think about it unless it’s not working.

    But the part that really rang my bell was when Spool noted that capturing, refining, and applying such a quality is a multifaceted, multidisciplinary process, involving not just one or two web designers, but rather an entire organization. The role of expedient experience design extends throughout the entire creative team. And that is a concept I really had never considered or accepted before.
  • Garrett Dimon
    Information architect Garrett Dimon took us through the process of designing a ‘bug tracker’ application (which he supposedly will be releasing to the public soon as an opensource project). He demonstrated all the various decisions involved with creating an interface that makes sense, which are akin to the decisions made in creating web site navigation. It was really interesting to see how his criteria changed throughout the process in determining which elements really mattered and which ones just sort of got in the way.
  • Rob Weychert
    Designer Rob Weychert offered his views on the differences between influence and inspiration; the art of availing oneself to new stimuli and truly original thought as opposed to merely following trends that often quickly become cliché.
  • Molly Holzschlag
    There were multiple sessions on the subject of web standards, one of which featured perhaps the most noteworthy of all the Jam Session guest speakers, Molly Holzschlag (who I’ll have an amusing anecdote about a little later). She is one of the world’s foremost web standards evangelists and is in great demand as a speaker on the subject. She has worked hand-in-hand with browser manufacturers (including a recent face-to-face meeting with Microsoft’s Bill Gates) and the governing body of the web, the W3 Consortium, to make extensibility standards consistent across the board — a noble task indeed.
  • Chris Bernard
    Perhaps my favorite of all keynote sessions was Classic Design and Web design featuring Microsoft’s Chris Bernard. Again it was a lot of philosophical banter about how the web communicates and attempts to do so in a continuation of the established principles and rules of classic design, from the birth of movable type to today, but geeze louise, didn’t it make me feel like I was back in Archie Boston’s Lettering class in Art School! All the talk about old-fashioned typography, The Bauhaus School and Gestalt theory really got the juices flowing for me.
And that was just Day One. But there was more, much more, including a really enlightening session on Web Accessibility by Derek Featherstone.

Feed Me
Day Two included sessions on web font usage, search engine optimization, more on CSS, further discussions on maximizing user experience in web design, and several other talks I only neglected to attend because I just couldn’t figure out how to be in two places at once.

Trey and I split up for a few sessions, with him opting for the more management-geared keynotes while I attended as many talks on CSS as I could fit into my schedule.

It was all a lot to take in, but even as the long days grew longer, the vibe, the ‘wow’ factor, the look on everyone’s faces — when they should have been totally burned out — instead were beaming with a look that said, “I want MORE!”

Well…there were always the parties…

Next: Work hard, play hard
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