Front End Design Conference 2018

The 10th anniversary of Front End Design Conference kicked off with Ethan Marcotte's talk “The Map and the Territory” where he presented the idea that we should be meeting people where ever / when ever they are using an example we all know well, maps. He touched on designing for sustainability in web design, once again hitting on the subject of performance and progressive enhancement. As always, his storytelling abilities resonated with the audience in the best way and left everyone eager to learn from other presenters how we can best design for reach.

“What works is better than what looks good.”

In my current role at Listrak, I'm wearing a lot more hats than just front-end designer, which has given me some of my first exposure to leading entire projects with teams outside of our company. With this in mind, I definitely took different things from the talks as I had the previous year, listening in particular to tips on project management, communication and team structure. Rob Harr of Sparkbox talked about how their team runs Discovery Projects as a key element of their process. This phase happens before any work takes place and involves a great deal of discussion. He talked about the key people who should be present during these conversations and some tactics for recording information. It's a little late for me to implement some of these things into my current project-at-hand, but I certainly have some strong strategies in my pocket for the next time around.

Another talk that really resonated was from Kuan Luo who spoke about “How to Kick Ass While Wearing Many Hats”, a problem that many of us face. Some of her points I had heard previously – being T-shaped and understanding what makes up your T. She dove in a bit deeper, explaining how we should make lists for ourselves of what's for us and not for us, and use that to embrace our skills and where we're at. Our industry more than many others is always changing which causes the future to be a big unknown; but that also gives us the ability to keep transforming and changing our own skills.

I extended my stay in Florida a few days after the conference and got to visit a few places that will stick in my memory for a long time. Clearwater Marine Aquarium (most well-known for being home to the stars of Dolphin Tale) works to rehabilitate and give permanent homes to animals harmed by careless humans. Blind and broken-shelled turtles, dolphins scarred from third degree burns, missing limbs and missing mamas – all in a beautiful facility filled with knowledgeable and friendly staff. Big Cat Rescue is a sanctuary for big (and small) cats surrendered or rescued from circuses, drug raids, or as attempted pets. Many of them can’t return to the wild since they don’t know how to “cat” (abused, declawed, injured) so Big Cat Rescue is their permanent home where they receive lots of specialized attention and care. And finally, ZooTampa – for a reasonable additional charge, the zoo offers many different up-close encounters and the chance to learn a little more from the animals' keepers themselves. I was able to see an elephant training session, feed a rhinoceros, and get a tour of their veterinary facility all before seeing the exhibits. Zoos can be a controversial subject but it's clear that Zoo Tampa puts the safety and well-being of their animals first and foremost.

CSSDevConf 2017

I got to cross another location off my bucket list by volunteering at CSSDevConf this week – New Orleans! Over two days, the other volunteers and I showed guests around the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter and were able to attend sessions and keynote talks when we weren't on shift. The lineup of speakers was an absolute dream.

Mina Markham opened the conference with her Pantsuit Design System presentation – a little remix this time, called “Saving the World with CSS”. It was just as moving as the first two times I saw her give it. Everyone cried. Standing ovation. The usual.

Chris Hawkins gave a presentation on "Removing Unwanted CSS" from a web project which was really applicable for me and challenges I face on a daily basis. I work with legacy code that's been in the hands of multiple developers, and although some of the strategies discussed are only doable with a larger front-end team, it was helpful hearing how to actually work through these things.

Dave Rupert hosted a session called "Let's Talk Burnout", which turned into a group therapy session that I think we all really needed. Hearing struggles of others and their coworkers helps us realize that it's not the first time someone experienced the things we feel when it comes to working in our field – some have felt it much more deeply. We shared coping mechanisms and strategies for seeking help if needed, whether amongst our family, friends, and peers or professionally.

A reoccurring thread through many of the talks was the topic of performance. I had seen presentations in the past on performance, but they mostly circled around process and were heavy on the technical aspect. Jason Pamentel spoke specifically on the topic of variable fonts and how typography on digital systems is a very different animal. Performance has to be the first design consideration in any project because simply put, if it doesn't show up, nothing else matters. Harry Roberts dove into some more tactical solutions in his keynote including some easily accessible competitive tools, real stories of why speed matters, and how to make performance a priority.

“Don't prioritize your own metrics over your users' experiences.” - Harry Roberts

The conference ended the best way it could – with a full speaker panel and open Q&A from the audience. Hearing insight from the different speakers on one another's topics showed us that while many have like-opinions, there are just as many with varying ones and that's completely okay. I asked a question about dealing with impostor syndrome and below are some of the very honest responses I received in return:

You have to understand that you know what you know. You've worked hard at building up a skillset. You got the job done and keep getting paid, so you must be doing something right. So someone is recognizing that you did the skills you said you could do.
Almost everyone suffers from imposter syndrome. You need to realize that there are people who are actually imposters. This means you know you don't know everything and is a good thing as long as you don't let it wear you down. If you think you know everything, you stop learning.
We never get over it. The thing that helps me speak with authority is that everyone is a specialist in something. It feels like everyone knows so much stuff, but I'm the expert on making tables. Even though I may not know as much as I would like to, I am proud of the things that I do know about. Take comfort in that you have gotten good at something, and that you can get good at those other things.
It doesn't matter how long you have been in the industry. The only way you can get up in front a room to come in a room and say something of value. I always try to focus on hoping that someone is going to say something in a Q&A will teach me something. This makes it better because this keeps you honest and helps with burnout because you know you'll get something every time you give something. These events really keep me happy in my job.

And Mina's response, which returned a lot of laughter from the crowd:

I'm actively having imposter syndrome as I sit here next to Harry Roberts and in disbelief. The way I dealt with it is that I reminded myself that I was hired for a reason and that I'm still here. So I drowned the outside noise of measuring yourself against someone else. That was a big lesson to just focus on what you know how to do and that you are accomplishing the task I was given and that people are happy with the work that I am doing.

It was an honor to be chosen as a volunteer for CSSDevConf and I hope to be able to help in future years. Ari and Chris have created an amazing community and this event is really something special. I left feeling refreshed, excited to share what I learned, and of course, full of beignets.

Presenter Slides: https://blog.cssdevconf.com/slides-and-resources-from-css-dev-conf-2017-new-orleans-8e2a5edb06b0

Actionable Analytics

This past week I attended an event hosted by Seer Interactive in Philadelphia called Actionable Analytics. It definitely pushed me a little outside my comfort zone but I've been so anxious to learn all I can about data in regards to marketing and how I can leverage it to do my job in a smarter way. Getting to visit Seer HQ was a great treat on top of the event – I've been a long time follower and their building speaks to the care and respect shown to their employees, guests and customers. Everyone was extremely friendly, there were plenty of office dogs to greet me, and even a rack of thank you cards available to grab in the stairway.

“Don't let bad things happen to good data.” - Lea Pica

The biggest takeaway for me was in regards to what data to display in reports to others, and how to display it in the best way. Rather than showing stakeholders a “data puke” dashboard, we should be concentrating on what people are actually doing and the actions we want them to be taking. Gauging what level of information is of interest will help to lead reporting as well. Some numbers may be of interest to marketing team members or designers – for example, foundational or indicator metrics, while return metrics, showing the dollars and value added to campaigns, may be more important for management. We should also be working to give our data a story; asking “why” and giving red numbers action plans fosters a curiosity-based approach. Showing images of the actual web experience and paying attention to coloring can also make a huge difference in reporting.

“If a problem can't be solved on paper, no technology will help.”

SEO Training in NYC

I’ve been wanting to do a deeper dive into SEO and how I can leverage best practices to better do my job and I fell into a great training opportunity with Captivate Designs in New York City this past week. For two full days, Nicole McCullum showed me and another class participant the ins-and-outs of SEO and some real-world examples using our companies. 

I had heard of several of the tools previously and knew some vocabulary, but what to do with it all? How to apply it to being a front-end designer? As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the hot topic at most front-end conferences lately is page speed; and this training was perfect for showing me how I can do my part to assure that what I’m designing and building is the best it can be for the end user.

“Fix what’s broken first, before taking additional steps to improve SEO.”

I left the training able to put together a findings report for my team on what I learned we could improve, approximate timelines, and some competitive data. I have goals set for what I will improve throughout our CMS migration project and what I hope to see fixed in the short- and long-term. We received a lot of information, but I’ve gained a lot of confidence in knowing what aspects of SEO are in my wheelhouse and what our team may need to rely on specialists for.

Generate NY 2017

Generate Conference NY was the perfect follow-up to FEDC last week in Florida. I'd been looking forward to the speakers in this line-up since it was released last year and they didn't disappoint.

Sara Soueidan opened the conference spouting out solutions she's found in her practice that can help lead to more inclusive and accessible products (audible ooh's and aah's filled the room, seriously). In my experience as well as what she described, accessibility is either an afterthought or not seen as important. Sara used examples that even non-code savvy designers can appreciate such as being sure to not write HTML in all capital letters as a screen reader will then read the individual letters rather than the word. She ended her talk with the statement, “let's build products that care about people”, which I underlined and starred in my notebook, because it really is just that simple.

Keep changing how you're working or you'll get locked into seeing things only one way” – Jon Burgerman

I'd been looking forward to seeing Mina Markham speak since I came across her Medium article about the Pantsuit UI pattern library last summer. Not only am I a huge Hillary Clinton supporter, but I was immediately drawn to the creative behind her campaign: the typography, the consistency... even if you didn't stand with her you can't say that wasn't some of the best political design yet. But anyway, Mina spoke about the whirlwind of the 18-month campaign and how she managed to deploy one consistent UI to multiple codebases and departments. She shared her teams' workflow of “(re)define, implement, test, iterate” and how they had to quickly understand that done is better than perfect, especially in such a fast-paced, “impermanent” environment. During the last few minutes of her talk, she shared what the final moments of the campaign were like for her and her team, showed beautiful photographs from inside HQ (that I could barely see through teary-eyes), and assured us that if given the opportunity she would do it all again.

If you're thinking “who am I to push for this?”, you're probably the right person to push” - Steve Fisher

Tying back into FEDC was the major common thread of staying user-centric (even if time is limited), remembering that our work is about people, and embracing fluidity. Multiple speakers referenced that we should be answering the 5 W's (who, what, when, where, why) before even thinking about the how, goals, or measurements of the project. Jen Simmons spoke about the advances happening in designing with CSS grid (again, ooh's and aah's audibly heard in the room) and reminded us that we need to remember our roots of graphic design and not see that as a limitation.

These conferences are also a great reminder of the wonderful community that comes with being a part of the web industry. I've mentioned before how the Central PA area doesn't have a very large network in comparison to a larger city like Philadelphia or New York, but the community created at events and even online is fantastic. I love being able to see the people I admire speak to one another via tweets of encouragement.

Equally important sidenote to above: Nicole Dominguez tweeted this thread shortly before the conference ended: 

... And I'm so glad she did because I was in the same room and rather than say anything, I just cringed to myself. She is completely spot on in her criticism of the comment made and it needed attention. I was again glad to see that some of the people I follow in the industry commented their distaste in this behavior and shared screengrabs of the conference's' Code of Conduct, asking if the organizers were made aware. I don't often go to after parties or events at conferences for this reason amongst others, and as unfortunate as the incident was, I'm glad that when all I could do was cringe, another woman in the room spoke up.