Webmaster Jam Session 2007

September 26, 2007     

Last weekend I attended the Webmaster Jam Session. This is only the second conference I’ve attended, but compared to RubyConf 2006 I got quite a bit more out of this one. Despite being pretty broad, I learned something in every session—even ones I already consider myself expert in. And more importantly, with two session tracks I was able to consistently find something interesting.

What really struck me was the quality of speakers at such an inexpensive event. Most of the speakers have been very high profile for years, so it was cool to get to meet so many of them. My only regret was that I did this thing on the cheap and had to leave before the wild party, but I did have fun Friday night (I can’t remember the last time I was at an open bar party).

The highlight was definitely talking to the other attendees. Compared to RubyConf the diversity was incredible, ranging from developers to designers to business strategists. If I talked to you but didn’t get your card, feel free to get in touch.

The Sessions

I pulled into valet parking at 9:55am Friday morning, and left at 4:30pm the next day. In between I attended 12 of 14 possible sessions:

The Dawning Age of Experience

Jared Spool is a great speaker, he got a lot of laughs and came with great insight. He really drove home the power of user experience with several relevant examples.

One thing I wasn’t really aware of is how mediocre the iPod hardware is compared to the competition. I’m the kind of guy that might put up with an inferior interface in exchange for better sound quality, so it’s particularly telling that I wasn’t even aware of the iPod’s technical shortcomings.

Jared also had a great story about NetFlix vs. Blockbuster which was even more amusing due to Blockbuster’s high hateability factor.

Designing for Hackability

Brian Oberkirch was also a charismatic and entertaining speaker. His session was all about exposing APIs to develop a community around your app to build extra value you never would have thought of. Twitter was the quintessential example with their 10x API/Regular traffic ratio.

This was probably the session that introduced the most new ideas to me, since I don’t use twitter or that many APIs in general. Nevertheless, a lot of the interactions Brian discussed really seem like the future, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on new APIs coming out.

Behind the Curtain

Garrett Dimon’s session was all about the intricate details the highly iterative development cycle of his pet project (an issue tracker). Although a lot of the details were too specific to be generally applicable, it was a fantastic view of the small decisions that lead to great design.

Most of the time we just see the end result of application design, the simplicity of so many great apps is often overlooked which is why you hear a lot of this kind of nonsense. As a fellow developer its gratifying to see someone I respect putting this kind of effort into their app, I also picked up a few process tips along the way.

Garrett also took some great pictures of the event.

Measure Twice, Code Once

Rob Jones gave a pretty broad talk on the state of analytics and how to maximize the value of your design. Admittedly I’ve never gone too deep into analytics, so it was particularly interesting to hear what an expert had to say about the current state of the art. Analytics and quantifying the results of our work was conspicuously absent from the dot-com bubble in the 90s, and I think it will be increasingly important in the years to come.

Typography: Beyond the Font

Jeff Croft was one of the main guys I came to see. His writing and commentary on web design have often resonated strongly with me.

Jeff’s presentation was a rapidfire rundown of css-based typography. It was framed with classic typesetting terminology on one side and CSS nitty-gritty on the other, but the meat was all about visual design for the web. Although this was about 90% review for me, I really felt like he hit the right level of coverage of the most important topics. Like a good college program, this presentation informed the listener of the right questions rather than bingeing on trendy throw-away answers.

The Broken World

Molly Holzschlag was the highlight of the conference for me. For one thing, I’ve been aware of her work since she was writing for WebTechniques, which makes her the most famous person at the conference (by my standards anyway). More importantly though, she’s a phenomenal speaker (I didn’t know that!), and she has a really good view into both the world of Internet Explorer development and the W3C—the two most important entities in our industry. Her talk was all about what’s holding us back as designers in the world of web standards.

Though she’s been consulting for Microsoft for two years, she remains fiercely independent and didn’t really pull any punches. Of course, Molly gives Microsoft a ton of credibility with web designers on the ground—it’s obviously not in their interest for her to be a shill. But I hope for all our sakes that she’s able to continue making a difference at Microsoft, and IE8 comes sooner rather than later.

Great talk about a depressing subject.

Design is in the Details

Bryan Veloso and Dan Rubin gave a hilarious talk on simple ways to make design more effective. It was split between an ultra-rapid cleanup of foxnews.com and many easy Photoshop techniques as applied on a variety of beautiful websites.

I loved is the informal approach they took with their discussion. In addition to friendly jabs at each other throughout the presentation, they really revealed a lot of tricks of the trade without making a big fuss about it. Some of the details they showed really make the difference between a basic design and really top-notch work. A lot of professionals might want to keep secret these kinds of easy and effective techniques, but Bryan and Dan let it all hang out.

Awesome job guys!

Web Design Roundtable

A great open Q&A session with most of the presenters from the other sessions I attended. The questions that were answered were answered well, and the range of opinions really covered a lot of angles. Of the panelists whose individual sessions I did not attend, James Craig was the most hilariously outspoken. I also enjoyed the passing of a dish of red hots around the semi-circle. Hangover cure?

Content Strategy and Web Design

D. Keith Robinson is another blogger I’ve been following for a long time, and his session really reminded me of the days when he used to post insightful process-oriented design tips regularly.

In particular, Keith addressed the most pervasive client problem that I face daily—solutioneering. That’s when a client comes to you with a solution rather than a goal. Although Keith said it’s a made-up word, I got the gist the second I saw the giant slide pop up. The hilarious thing I discovered later is that the term has already been coined as a sort of uber-buzzword. Check out some of the links on the Google search. However I did find one apropos article that uses the term as god intended.

It wasn’t all just great terminology though, Keith gave a lot of good practical advice. Hopefully he’ll post his slides so we can all increase our chances of basking in the glory of good content delivered in a timely fashion. Slides are now available

Unlocking Value Through User Experience

To be honest, this was my least favorite panel. I could tell Nishant Kothary and Jose Martinez Salmeron really knew their stuff and had a lot of insight, but the panel kind of jumped all over the place and I ended up spacing out. I didn’t take away much from this one.

The Contextual Web

Nick Finck covered the context of design in general, and went in-depth into the mobile space. I got a lot of out this session because I really haven’t thought a lot about the context of web design. I’ve always been really focused on desktop browsers, and to a lesser extent basic accessibility. Nick’s talk gave me a practical way to start thinking outside the desktop and actually got me excited about mobile web development. Now if that feeling sticks around once I actually dive in, Nokia ought to buy Nick a new Porsche.

Managing Web Design

Michael Lopp gave an inspired talk on management of the design process. There was an incredible amount of insight here, but the most surprising slide was something like “the team is smarter than the individual”, where he made the point that having more input will result in a better product. This runs contrary to the infamous notion of design by committee, but he draws a distinction between people that should be there and those that shouldn’t. In other words, if there are conflicting goals to be met in a product, they need to be reconciled by the interested parties rather than dictated by a single perspective.

All in all a very illuminating talk, and I’m hoping the slides for that are made available as well.

After that I had to run out in a hurry, so unfortunately I missed Jonathan Snook’s presentation which I’m guessing was great judging by some of his commentary at the roundtable session that morning. And of course I missed Mr. Featherstone also. Ah well, maybe next year…

Debra Herlihy says…
October 1, 2007 at 9:58PM

The event was awesome. I was able to attend last year where CSS guru’s such as Eric Meyers and Andy Budd where speakers. I am glad the sessions focus on design and informational architecture. Awesome experience.

Gabe da Silveira says…
September 28, 2007 at 1:35PM

I was in the south tower and the wireless was from the hotel. However there were about 10 hotspots showing up, which I presume were for different rooms. I didn’t read the fine print to see whether it was free or not, I just clicked okay. Nothing showed up on my bill in any case; it’s possible I charged my wireless to someone else’s room…

Zaki says…
September 28, 2007 at 4:39AM

You were one of the lucky ones that didn’t have to deal with the problems at the Adams mark, i talked to a few people and found out that the entire north tower didn’t have water for several hours. The free wifi you speak of… was that from Adams Mark?

Other than the hotel issues, the conference was awesome and a great learning experience, especially with all the high-profile speakers.