CSS Workshops at SXSW 2010

This past Summer I worked on chairing the CSS Summit through Environments for Humans.

The CSS Summit was an all-day, one-track, online conference dedicated to everyone's favorite web design technologywith seveal experts in the field including Stephanie Sullivan, Jason Cranford Teague, Nicole Sullivan, and other great speakers on CSS.

It was a big hit and I think one of the reasons it was more of a focused effort to get past the basics of CSS and dive into more advanced, focused material.

It's no one's fault really that CSS isn't delved deeply at many conferences and there isn't one reason why it happens. CSS doesn't work in a vacuum. It is only one part of what makes a great Web site.

Also as a speaker, sometimes you don't know your audience skillset and tend to cater to the basics so as not to risk losing people.

So, when Hugh from SXSW asked me if I would be interested in chaperoning part of SXSW, namely the CSS workshops, I jumped at the chance.

Looking through the CSS submissions in the panel picker, I picked out what I believe are some real gems.

Workig with the speakers of these panels to make it the best possible workshops, I believe we have a solid line up of CSS goodness:

CSS Frameworks Shootout by Beau Smith.
Joined by Nathan Smith, Joshua Clayton, Chris Eppstein, and Nicole Sullivan, the Smith moderates a discussion covering the different flavors of CSS frameworks as well as address the merits of SASS.
CSS and Fonts: Fluid Web Typography by Jason Cranford Teague.
Doing a solo workshop, Jason covers the latest news about Web typography and how the make the most of the new developmenets. (After having tech edited Jason’s book, Fluid Web Typography, I know he is perfect for this presentation.)
CSS3 Design with HTML5 by Stephanie Sullivan, Zoe Gillenwater and myself.
In this workshop, we intend to cover the latest in cross-browser CSS3 development (typically involving patching up IE until the next promised version) as well as see how web developers can use HTML5 for engaging user experiences.

It’s nice to see the rise in popularity and buzz of CSS3. Thanks in a large part to browser vendors implementing parts of the spec before its even finished, but I digress.

If you intend to come to SXSW Interactive this year and have a hand in CSS coding at your place of work, check out these panels Saturday afternoon.

And if you can't make it to Austin this year and still want to learn more about CSS, I'll be giving an online CSS3 workshop next week.

Roundtable with Jeremy Keith, Steve Krug and Christopher Schmitt

At last year's Voices That Matter Web Design Conference in Nashville, Peachpit's Nancy Ruenzel sat down with Steve Krug, Jeremy Keith and myself for a roundtable discussion.

Below is the video and transcript of the conversation called "Web Kaffee Klatsch".

Nancy Ruenzel: I am here today with four of our authors at the Voices that Matter conference in Nashville.

To my far right is Christopher Schmitt, who is author of the book Adapting to Web Standards: CSS and Ajax then to my near right, Steve Krug, author of Don't Make Me Think, and then to my closest right, Jeremy Keith, who is the author of Bulletproof Ajax.

We are just going to talk a little bit about some of the themes we have been hearing at the conference today, and boy, I have been getting some interesting insights, but also hearing a little controversy, some pot-stirring going on, not just among the speakers, but also the audience, and the audience is asking some pretty good questions.

I do not know if you guys agree, but the things I am hearing are things like are standards eroding because of proprietary software? The things I am hearing are, is usability becoming so simple that we do not need usability consultants any more? Are there web trends that are going in no directions, directionless web trends?

Let us start with you, Christopher. In your session, somebody asked you how far one could go in sacrificing code for innovation.

Christopher Schmitt: That was an interesting question because he was getting around to the point of, if I just have semantic markup, but how far should I or should I not go to add additional markup, like an additional span and divs or other elements in order to pull off an effective design.

My belief is that if you just need a little bit to get you over the edge, that is fine, but just do not have 10 classes or 10 divs or 10 spans or 100 spans or whatever to pull it off. As long as the base of your markup and content is semantic, great.

If you can pull it off without adding any additional divs or spans, more power to you, but we are not there yet with CSS and HTML.

Jeremy Keith: The thing with the attitude that your markup should be perfectly pristine and you should be able to accomplish everything just using the standards, I think that attitude would be totally justified if we had CSS3 and if we had perfect browser support for all this stuff, because then there would not be any excuse for adding in extra markups. But we are not there, right? We do not have that situation, so it is perfect--

NR: But Jeremy, you are on the web standards project.

JK: Yeah, yeah.

NR: You have been involved. So what is taking you guys so long?

JK: Well, you know, we push, but the mission of the [inaudible] has changed. It is not really about pushing for implementation and browsers so much, because we have a pretty good baseline. It is more about educating the developers to use this stuff. There is a bit of a lag there.

It used to be about hammering at the gates of Netscape and Microsoft and trying to get them to support this stuff, but they are actually all on board with supporting it. It is taking longer than we would like, but they are committed to it at least.

So, there is no point pointing fingers at them when they are actually okay with the idea of Web standards ,at least.

NR: Right.

CS: I think now we are at the level of trying to finalize the next level of standards, and you just cannot go harassing browser vendors for those standards when they are not responsible for making them. And also, making standards is a long process. The term that is tossed about in online circles is "glacial."

[laughter]

CS: It is going to take some time, but we are still in this practical sense that we do what we need to do to get the effects that we need to have.

NR: Right.

JK: So that means adding the occasional superfluous divs, superfluous span, and it does not mean just because we have to add some extra markup means that there is no point in writing semantic markup and we should all use tables for layout and font type.

It is a pragmatic thing. It is like, "Oh, I wish I did not have to, but I have to put in this extra bit of markup."

NR: Well, should we be using Ajax at all, for example? I mean, it's--

JK: Not a standard as such. I mean, not as a proprietary technology that came from Microsoft, but I guess, that idea of de facto standard when something gets used enough becomes standard.

I think, Ajax is now going to be a W3C standard. It's a--

[crosstalk]

JK: And [inaudible] and Dean Jackson... Essentially, documenting was already there. Looking at the existing behavior, turning it into the spec. But, yeah, it's one of those cases where a proprietary technology becomes the standard, because it's that useful.

NR: For people listening who may not know what Ajax is, in a nutshell, how do you describe it to your beginners.

JK: My nutshell explanation of Ajax is, communicating with the server without refreshing the whole page. If you agree with that definition, then, Flash is Ajax and framsets are Ajax, and Java applets... anything could [inaudible], which obviously kind of tongue-in-cheek. But, it is interesting; a lot of the same set of design and usability challenges that cropped up with Flash and with frames and frameset are returning with Ajax.

It's kind of a jokie thing to say, "Oh, frames are kind of Ajax," but they actually bring up a lot of the same issues like bookmarking and the back button, and that sort of things.

NR: That's interesting.

JK: It's not that new. I mean, in a way it is. It's a really revolutionary way of making Web sites in one sense. In another sense, well we've been using this kind of stuff for kind of a long time.

NR: So this is in some way is a reinvention, in other way is an evolution.

CS: Yeah, it's a new tool that we have at our disposable. It's not suddenly a whole new Web just because we got this new tool in our toolbox. You can't throw away the old rule book just because you got some new technology. But the implications of Ajax are kind of exciting.

NR: So, you did a precon workshop on that yesterday...

JK: Yeah, that was good.

NR: And you had a lot of really good questions. What were some of the other questions you had?

JK: Well, it was interesting, because it was a half-day workshop - which I like, so it was condensing it all down to just a couple of hours. And I've given a full-day workshop before so I took that full-day workshop and crammed it down into about some of the early stuff, explaining how to do JavaScript and stuff.

And one of the other things that I took out initially was accessibility for specifically screen readers and stuff. You know what? I won't cover that today. Which is a great parable for how accessibility gets treated in most projects anyway. Time's oppressing. I think we should just take out the accessibility concerns.

But it came up help anyway, because somebody asked a question, and I was talking about providing feedback, visual feedback, and he said, "Well, what about a screen reader. How do they get the feedback?" I was like ah OK. We're going to go there. And I started talking about screen readers and it actually, it's a fairly depressing discussion because we're not... it really is a tricky situation where the current state of things is not great. There are some great hacks out there to kind of fudge your way around and Jazz Langland and Steve Faulkner have been doing great work and researching in finding these things, but the disparity between where browsers are at and where screen readers are at is still pretty broad.

In the future, you know, we've got our jet packs and our flying cars, it won't be a problem because there are things like REL, which is W3C standard specifically for making rich applications on the web and everything will be wonderful and we'll all be tripping through the meadows.

NR: Right, right.

JK: For today if you want to use Ajax to work well with screen readers it's tricky. It's really quite tricky. So it's just interesting that I wasn't planning to actually cover it because I thought I'll leave it out, and it ended up actually being a big topic of discussion.

NR: So you can't really ignore it. It's there. It's kind of like the elephant and the--

JK: Because I was talking about design challenges, and you got to talk about the challenges of Ajax. That's got to be one of the biggest challenges there is. Now I couldn't really take it out. It had to be covered.

CS: Well, that's good that accessibility is still an issue. You know someone brought it up and... Is that part of the accessibility issues with flash or is it... Is flash better towards accessibility?

JK: Flash now is better. Flash now is better. It's funny, because I had my perception of Flash frozen at Flash 5. That's when I used to use it. And I had mine, "Oh, yeah, it's got all these things you can't do it in Flash, and the problems it has."

And it wasn't until I sat down with my friend, Aral Balkan, who's really good Flash programmer, and talked to him that I realized that Flash has gotten really good.

The funny thing was, he had a perception of JavaScript that was frozen in 1999.

NR: Interesting, interesting.

JK: ... familiar so he was....

Yeah, and I was educating him on what you could do with JavaScript these days, and he's educating me on what you can do with Flash.

I'm so glad I used a screen readers at this point, because Flash is that bit closer to the operating system level, they're able to build in a lot more hooks.

You have to know where to look--add the accessibility support; that could make it easier for authors to do it straight out of the box, but what you can do with Flash generally is better than what you can do with Ajax.

NR: Yeah, yeah, well that's another reason why we all have to keep up. We were talking about this at the lunch table today. There were a couple of designers who had traveled from Washington, DC, working for the government, and they wanted to know, gosh, do we have to do everything in Flash? Or could we stay in PHP and MySQL, etc? Because it takes so long for us to convert the pages and that's a lot of hard work, and where is Flash really going?

A lot of people are at this point, where they're trying to figure out - where should we put our energies?

JK: Which is, I guess, where Microsoft and Adobe are hoping to...

NR: Yeah, yeah.

JK: ... capitalize on that with things like Silverlight and AIR and say, "Here is the solution to all your problems."

NR: Exactly, yeah.

JK: "Here's the magic pill you've been looking for."

CS: [sarcastically] Never heard that before.

[laughter]

CS: Yes, we have no memory of anyone ever promising that kind of thing.

NR: No, no! Right, right.

JK: [sarcastically] Oh, wait. No, we did and it really panned out well, didn't it?

NR: Yeah.

JK: We're all here just glowing.

[laughter]

NR: Right, exactly.

JK: I think the people who have been around the block a few times are a bit wary of all the hype.

NR: Yes, indeed. And for those of you listening who don't know what AIR and Silverlight are, AIR is... I guess you'd call it a technology around...

CS: Miracle technology.

NR: ... Miracle technology [laughs] around the Adobe integrated runtime. And I am not a technical expert so I can't tell you what that means specifically, but I can tell you what the programs that are out there on Adobe's sites will show you. If you go to adobelives.com, you can find sites that will give you applications where you can run them on your desktop, and bring information to your desktop, as if you were on the Internet.

So basically, it's removing that fine line between the desktop and the Internet.

CS: Actually, I had a product where Adobe AIR just came in perfect for it. We had to break through the browser wall. A browser can't... you just can't make a browser go search your hard drive - you can only pick out one file, and then that file will get uploaded or whatever you want to do with it.

We had a project where we had to, for quality assurance, we had to burn a lot of DVDs for a project, and we had a lot of human error creep in to the mix, because our workers weren't applying file names, or full names, appropriately. We had a spec written out, and you could check for it, but it was kind of hard to read and hard to retain, and people just didn't want to do it.

So what we did was we built an Adobe AIR application. We only had about ten workers working on it, and we had the web knowledge, so we would be able to quickly build an Adobe AIR application, hand it out to distribute it. Quality went up...

NR: That's great!

CS: ... And workflow went faster, because people didn't have to spend more time fixing their mistakes.

NR: Ah, OK, that makes sense.

CS: So in that way, I love Adobe AIR just for being small internal applications, for large companies and software. I think it has a great niche for that.

NR: Yeah, the first thing that came to my mind when I saw it was widgets - I don't know why. I was just thinking widgets; thinking of what my iPhone does with weather, and calendar, and movies, etc. It just makes applications so much easier to use.

JK: Yeah, but I think our widget ideas were a more little abused than most, where you have the website and you can go to the website if you want, but there's an alternative, which is that you download the AIR version that sits on your desktop and is nicer and smoother and whatever.

But I don't see anyone building solely Adobe AIR applications where there is no HTML website version. I see it as complimentary.

A lot of the demos that Adobe are showing are things like 'well, here's an example of an eBay widget' that would sit on your desk, or an example of, I don't know, a Flickr widget or something like that, or people are building Twitter clients.

They're all these alternatives to using the website version, but I don't see anyone building a purely, 'You've got to use AIR or you can't use our product at all,' situation. I don't really see that happening.

NR: Exactly, yeah. That could be limiting. Any comments about Silverlight and what you see them doing so far? Anybody have any word...

JK: We're not allowed to compare it to Flash, because it's nothing like Flash!

[laughter]

NR: And with that, Steve, you had some good questions in your session today. Of course, one of the things I was reading between the lines so I don't want to put words in your mouth but, was 'If this is so easy and it's do-it-yourself, in that you can get so much information from even interviewing, or observing, just a few people, do we need usability consultants in our lives?'

[laughter]

NR: What does this mean for all those professionals out there who make a living doing usability consulting?

SK: Get run out of down on a rail!

[laughter]

SK: Yeah. One of the things that I worked on in the book, and one of the things speced out, was I have to have a page that's a whole page that's blank except it says, "If you can afford to hire a usability consultant, by all means, hire one."

[laughter]

NR: Just as your disclaimer, right.

SK: Exactly. Which I believe. The fact is there are umpteen bazillion Web sites out there, and there are, at max, 10,000 usability consultants. Basically, any web presence can use some usability testing. So I think there's plenty of work to go around. I don't think it's taking work out of anybody's mouth.

NR: But the nugget that I took away, and what we were just talking about a little earlier, is you really don't need to have this statistically sound, or quantitative analysis. You can garner insights from observing just a few people, and take those anecdotal insights and really make important changes in what you're doing, right?

SK: Yeah, I mean, I am going out on a limb on some of this. But I do believe it from what I've seen.

JK: But, isn't it true then that the role of the consultant, usability consultant, what you need them for is to interpret and analyze those results?

SK: Uh, no.

[laughter]

SK: In the sense that, if I'm encouraging people to do their own usability testing, what I'm encouraging them to do, is to do something they haven't done before, which is to watch some people use the stuff.

What I'm saying is what will come out of that is some huge problems that are so obvious, and so impossible to get by, will emerge immediately. It's like shooting ducks in a barrel.

That's why I do live user tests. If I'm doing a presentation that's long enough I will do a live user test at it, because I know it's going to work. I can take anybody, it's like a parlor trick or something.

Give me a URL, give me a volunteer. I'll make up a task based on looking at the URL for a minute and we'll do a user test. We'll have a person try and do that test.

When I do them in my workshops it's like the person whose site it is, is sitting there the whole 15 minutes, they're sitting there feverishly writing stuff down. Inevitably they want me to give them the Camtasia file of the test.

Because unless your site is clean and is in really great shape there are major usability issues. On the other hand, once you've gotten it clean then that's where the usability person who has the experience--

JK: Fine tuning it, yeah.

SK: Yeah. And if you can afford it, the usability person can come in and without even running tests... Basically if you're a usability consultant and you're doing a round of user tests, before you do the user tests you're basically doing an expert review because you've got to use the site yourself.

NR: Right, right.

SK: You can, if it's not going to make you look bad, you can basically tell them a bunch of things that are wrong. The great thing would be to fix them before you actually do the user tests.

JK: Best bang for your buck there.

SK: Yeah, exactly. Then you're learning more from the participants. I think the usability professional should be... as I said this morning, Jakob Nielsen said this four years ago at the Usability Professionals Conference, that the usability professionals shouldn't be doing the user tests.

It's like having the neurosurgeon winding bandages. It's silly because almost anybody can do it. It doesn't take that kind of skill. The usability professional should be tackling tricky issues and helping people figure out how to do innovative interfaces, and teaching people how to do their own testing, and thinking deep thoughts.

NR: Right. But not necessarily in the trenches asking those questions. I think it'll come to that. Yeah, so that is the UPA, yeah.

SK: But on the other hand, nobody wants to see somebody else doing part of your job, most of the time.

NR: No, no.

SK: Especially because the testing is a fun part.

JK: Everyone should... It's also a wonderfully humbling experience as a designer to watch somebody touch your site. Every designer should go through it. It should be mandatory.

NR: Wonderfully or terribly?

[laughter]

JK: It's heaven and hell.

SK: That's one of the reasons why I really want people... I want people to do it themselves, and I want everyone involved in the project, including stakeholders and check-signers and whoever, to come and watch--because you've never seen this before. It's so eye opening, so educational and so team building.

JK: Yes, completely.

SK: It's a great experience. The fact is that if you can do this without spending a lot of money on it, it's one of the most valuable things you can do.

JK: Yeah, it's funny, we do a lot of usability testing at Clearleft, we're a user-centric design company. I'm amazed every time.

SK: Exactly!

JK: I should be used to this by now. Why am always so surprised. But every time we do small, I mean really small, cheap, quick and dirty, user testing, the benefits you get from that are so humbling and so slap-your-forehead obvious.

SK: Exactly. I always say the insight to cost ratio is huge.

JK: Yeah, it's amazing! But every time! You'd think you'd get used to that.

[crosstalk]

SK: It's true. It's kind of foolproof, in a way. The stuff is always surprising. That's what you're looking for, you're in it for surprises.

NR: The 'aha!' moment.

SK: There are always surprises, like nobody noticed that?

JK: So can I put in a blatant plug at this stage?

SK: Yeah.

JK: So we like to do a lot of user testing. It's like what I was saying about the accessibility thing, right? When it comes to the budget, sometimes one of the first things to go, they'll say 'well we'll have to cut user testing because it's too expensive.' Because sometimes it just costs so much to do it.

So we wanted to do quick and cheap user testing. Looked at the tools that were out there, didn't really see anything that great, so we ended up making our own.

We all use Macs, and we realized--this was Andy Budd's idea, thought it was really great--pretty much every Mac these days has a built-in iSight camera, like the iMac and the MacBook.

You can do screen capturing; there's lots of applications for that. You can capture the video from your iSight camera.

SK: And there's a microphone built-in.

JK: Yeah, and there's a microphone built-in. Let's just put the two together.

There's an application that just does one really simple thing, which is you start recording, you have someone using the web site, and meanwhile you're recording their face and their audio as they're using it. You can be asking them questions as they're doing it.

At the end, you export that as a merged video file. The idea is that it will be cheap. It will be less than $50. Called Silverback, silverbackapp.com, I have to plug the URL. It will be out very soon.

The idea is that, as I say, it is going to probably make some people obsolete, or some software or jobs obsolete, maybe. Because I think all you would need is a copy of Silverback and a copy of Steve's new book.

NR: There you go.

JK: And the medic...

NR: And the medic. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SK: And the medic, OK. True. There is that.

SK: Wait, wait, wait.

[laughter]

SK: I don't think that's going to make anybody obsolete. I don't think anybody who is currently able to afford to pay a usability consultant to do user testing for them is going to buy a copy of anything and start doing their own user testing. They've got money for all that.

JK: That's true. We hope the people who have never done...

SK: People are doing it.

JK: Yeah. The people who have never done this stuff before will now start doing it.

SK: Exactly.

CS: I have a question about computing error in your conversation this morning. It was a little bit like how many people should do user testing or something like. Should you do a hundred or more to get a lot of great data...

SK: Statistical significance.

CS: Or should you, you mentioned in your talk that you're in there for the insights. So is one better than the other, or when should you use one, when should use one or what--

SK: Well, there are times when the kind of question you're trying to answer requires statistical significance, or some larger sample of people if you're trying to benchmark. We have this version of our application and people use it all day long and we want to figure out whether this new version of it is going to enable people to process 100 more claims a day than the original version. Then you've got to do quantitative testing. You've got to measure time on task for each person and you've got to balance all the variables so the data is consistent between the two trials and all that stuff.

But that's a big deal and it's expensive. And that's what they usually refer to summative research. What I'm talking about is a whole new branch, which is formative research, which is when you're in the design process and you're basically just trying to get insights into what's not working in your design. You don't need any proof. The kind of problems usually is the interesting thing when you do it. It's the kinds of problems. People say, well how can you tell what's a serious problem or not. Everybody watching the test says, "Egh!"
, it's a serious problem. It's not hard to figure out.

The other thing that I was saying this morning is I recommend that people do three or four people once a month, they spend one morning a month and do three or four people. Because you do get diminishing returns after you've watched four people do the same tasks. And more than that, if you do three or four people, you're going to turn up enough serious problems that you should fix that it's going to keep you busy for a while. You don't have to grind out a lot of problems, because it takes a lot more time to fix these problems than it does to find them.

NR: Well, I think the latest development list we had, the Pierson Technology Group was at least 200, and...

SK: Well, see, I don't give people the big list any more. I won't give them the punch list, because it's a distraction. And people can go ahead and they can check off 75 of the really easy to fix things on their punch list, and ignore the two that are really hard that nobody wants to look at because they know they're problematic. Whereas those two are probably the ones that's it's really most important to fix.

NR: So how do you prioritize?

SK: I get away with a lot of crap.

[laughter]

SK: I stopped doing written reports a couple of years ago, or what I call the big honking report. I will do it, but I tell the client up front I'm going to charge you twice as much if I have to write a report. Instead, I do it in conference calls, which I think, I hope it will catch on. Because it's much more effective than a report, and reports take a long time to do. The other thing is... what did you just say?

[crosstalk]

CS: What does the client take away from this?

SK: Well, they get this conference where I tell them what I think where the most serious problems. And I say that I'm not going to tell them more than the most serious problems. And then when they can prove to me that they've fixed those, I'll give them more. I don't really do that, but I tell them I'm going to do that.

NR: You're forcing them to prioritize the big ones, right?

SK: Yes. I'm prioritizing for them. But that's only because when I'm doing that I'm doing expert reviews so I'm not doing any user tests. I'm just going in and using myself. But if you do the user test, I think as a group, I say do three or four people in the morning, buy pizza, everybody debriefs over lunch, by the time lunch is over you're done for the month. I don't think, in my experience so far, there's not a whole lot of argument about what were the most serious problems that people saw. They are kind of obvious.

And you have to iterate it. You have to do it every month and then you plan as you're going to fix stuff and you're going to do it again the next month, or you're going to do it two weeks depending on what kind of cycle you're working on. The iteration is important and that's why you don't have to worry about, you're not trying to catch all the problems in one round of testing. That's why you can get away with three or four people because you know you're going to do it again. So the problems will keep...

NR: So why do so many companies not do this if it is so easy to work it into a regular schedule?

CS: I think most people know what the problem is....

NR: They think they know.

CS: Or they don't think there is a problem. They need to go back to the humbling experience it is if you use user testing.

When I talk to designers or screen designers, one of the things I tell them and I don't do it in a very nice way because it really hurts them to hear this is that, designers get wrapped up in the ego of, like, I made this, this is beautiful, this is great. And it's kind of hard when they should do a bit of testing and see whether people like it--

SK: That's why you have to bring them and have them watch.

JK: It's also much nicer to have a complete stranger say to you there's a problem here, or point out a problem, then someone at work because then politics comes into it. It does become an ego issue like, I think I'm right, you think you're right and one of us must be wrong. Having a complete stranger, a complete third party coming in and pointing out this is really obviously a problem.

CS: And they also pain, I spend 20 bucks before...

[laughter]

SK: You said something earlier, and it made me think that all the web designers and developers - are they now actually getting older and things are going to change? It's no longer every Web developer and designer is 24 years old.

It's now they're 34 years old. It's like a big stack of 34 year olds. Is that going to change people's take on all this stuff?

JK: They probably won't go snowboarding as much.

[laughter]

CS: I'm not sure. We'll see. That's the beautiful thing about this industry. The barrier to entry is just so low that we should be surprised by the young talents coming out that they're going to take over and do something that we never would have thought of. Today's generation, like the whole concept of privacy online is totally flipped from the older generation. Where we say, no you can't have any of my private information except for when I allow it, whereas the younger generation comes out and says, everything is private except what I did...

SK: I actually checked because I went to talk with a school in London, and these kids used a lot of social media and stuff and I tested that. I asked which one of these two approaches would you agree with and it was very much, data is public unless you specifically want to keep it private and just don't publish anywhere. But by default everything is public.

And I actually find myself agreeing more with that point of view, but most people I know my age very much not like the ideas. No, no, there is this private sphere and you don't want to publish that much or you ought to publish it in a very closed kind of way.

I find myself agreeing more with the younger generation.

NR: Young at heart. Always.

SK: Young at heart, yeah.

NR: Well, you know, and that also goes along with the phrase that you coined last night, can we say that you coined this? The voices that matter, "ambient intimacy."

JK: Oh, I didn't coin that.

NR: Who coined that?

SK: Oh, that was Lisa Reichelt. Lisa Reichelt coined that.

NR: OK. Let's give her her props, then. All right.

JK: Yeah, I guess that the value a lot of people get from this social stuff - because when you try to describe it, and I'll take the classic example is Twitter. You try to describe Twitter to someone who's never used it and they say, "Well, where's the value?" Well, none, there, I mean, there is no value, as such, if you're looking for that."

[laughter]

JK: How does that benefit you? It won't, it won't in any concrete, tangible way. But, in the way it keeps you sort of very loosely in touch with people, just know, "Oh, Fred had a sandwich last night. That's good to know."

[laughter]

NR: This is really, you could call it private information or you could call it public. And kids, you know, my daughter...

SK: It's the banal information, but that's really important. All this banal, sort of flea-picking kind of stuff is really important to societies. And, if you take that away, where people have no interaction, even if it's very basic and banal stuff, then it's... Society really doesn't work that well.

So, having those loose, very loose connections, actually brings a lot of benefit. It's just not the obvious sorts of benefit we're used to thinking about.

CS: It's one, like, it's not really a major benefit of Twitter. When Twitter first made its big boom, I guess it was SXSW a couple of years ago, I had to go do some work and so I had to take off--so I went to a restaurant and I just Twittered, "Hey, I'm at this restaurant and doing some work." And I didn't actually end up doing any work because a lot of my friends saw me on Twitter and went to the restaurant and then I had to like eat for another hour.

SK: So Twitter is great for surfacing in serendipity like that. Just surfacing serendipity is exactly what the Doppler guys go for. That's their stated mission is that you say you're going to visit somewhere and someone else says, "Hey, I'm going to be in town." Doppler tells you this.

But, Twitter's actually really good for that in a very unplanned kind of way. And the amount of times, yeah, things have happened...

NR: So, you're calling that surfacing serendipity?

JK: I guess so.

[laughter]

NR: I'm just loving coining all these terms.

JK: That would have been Matt Jones.

NR: Matt Jones. OK.

JK: Matt Jones had the best description of serendipity. He was quoting from someone else, he didn't come up with this but it was, "Serendipity is looking for a needle in a haystack and finding a farmer's daughter."

[laughter]

JK: That was a great definition.

NR: Good one. So, we didn't coin these terms here, but we're using them and we're enjoying them.

And we are running out of time, so does anyone have any final thoughts or final plugs they want to share other than I would like to plug all of your books. If folks haven't read them, please do go out and get them. If you've already read them, then I encourage you to subscribe to Safari Books Online, which is Safari.Peachpit.com, where you can search across all of their books and all of the books that we publish. And all of O'Reilly books and Lynda.com videos and our videos and for a whole library fee, a monthly annual subscription fee, you've got instant solutions from the top experts.

And I want to thank you all for being here.

CS: My pleasure.

JK: Mine too.

NR: Looking forward to yet another.

Head Conference, The Virtual Conference

Over the weekend about 100 people were hanging out in my apartment.

They weren't there for a Halloween party or to give me tips on interior decorating (I'm keeping the Coolio poster no matter what anyone says).

The crowd was viewing me through my webcam on my laptop while I was presenting in my apartment as part of the Head Conference, a virtual conference.

Think of it as a string of webinars (if you can stomach such a term) set to the schedule and diversity like any other Web conference. It was billed mostly as a green conference since attendees and speakers didn't have to burn jet fuel to reach a singular location.

I viewed it as a nice, geek-filled weekend at home logging onto the Internet and getting quality content without the burden of sifting to find the good stuff.

Dodging into the different virtual rooms reminded me of an actual conference just as if I was leaving one room to go to hear another speaker in another room at "real" conference.

Sessions ranged from web standards, accessibility, web application development, Flash, Flex, to scalability. So the chances were high you would learn something new rather than being shown Web design presentation cliches that seem to crop up in conferences these days.

Designing Around CSS presentation at Head Conference

For my presentation, I covered the topic of Designing Around CSS. Specifically how common, everyday CSS techniques can be used to build something relatively complex if and when used appropriately. I had great time interacting with the crowd by telling my stories, answering questions, giving away books and hopefully instilling some inspiration to the one hundred in my apartment.

Christopher Schmitt Voices That Matter Interview at SXSW 2008

Along with fellow co-authors Kevin Lawver and Kimberly Blessing, your hero was also interviewed at the recent SXSW for Voices That Matter podcast.

Below is the video the publisher made of the interview along with the transcript I’ve recently produced to go along with it.

Micahel Nolan: Hi, I am Michael Nolan, senior acquisitions editor for New Riders and we are here at South by South West at Austin, Texas and I am with Christopher Schmitt, the author of Adapting to Web Standards, which is a book about CSS and ajax for big sites. 

And, Chris, what inspired you to write this?  This is your third or fourth book isn't it?

Christopher Schmitt: This is my eighth book. 

MN: Your eighth book.

CS: I think it’s my eighth book, but I am not sure.  I lost count.

What inspired me was that I was at previous South by South West and I came across the panel that talked about how to deal with Web Standards in a large corporate structure (slides, mp3, transcript) and I was just kind of floored. We need this type of information—expanded upon, of course. It was only an hour panel, but expand it to talk about the technologies, the processes and the team workflow.

MN: What are the challenges a big sites faces?  I mean, give me an example of a big site you might be talking about.

CS: Well, in the book Kevin Lawver talks about—he works for AOL—he talks about all the stuff he went through to deal with the front page of AOL.com, which is sort of a portal page. And he actually did a lot of analysis upfront with other sites to discuss, you know, what was the text ratio to the graphics of the document. 

He talked a lot about—at that point when you talk about a large site like AOL.com you are dealing with a lot of traffic that a single web developer working for a small website like me, a small local bank site if you say or a small local business that wouldn’t get the necessarily the same traffic that AOL.com does.  So, the books that you find alot or the tutorials you find online are great tutorials on how to develop sites for a single, small case scenario where there will be one developer, one designer or one designer and one developer build the whole thing or maybe there's two people. And the code that goes into it or the graphics, the hosting, you know, works great in that area, but when you deal with a large scale company when you have various specialists—not everyone is a generalist—you have to deal with lots of technologies that you have to deal with lots of bandwidth you have to force down to people and not having a lot of code that is compressed. Basically, you are wasting a lot of bandwidth to deliver it and deal with JavaScript all these technologies. It doesn't scale very well between a small site—

MN: So, in this book propose methods for scalability.

CS: No, we don’t propose methods.  We actually talk about methods that people are using. 

We talk about—you know, HTML is pretty much always going to be HTML. We talk about HTML basics for semantic markup, which is always great. We also talk about CSS, but also talk about CSS in terms of how to manage CSS files for large Web sites. 

If you do a small website maybe we will have one CSS file that control everything for a max of 100 pages or if you are very lucky like, maybe, 1,000 pages or so. But when you are talking about 10,000 pages and you have various hands in the pot as well,  it's kind of tricky because how do you manage who has control of what CSS file.  And then you have various subsites or intranet sites, then you have to determine which CSS rules dictate which designs. 

Then we move on to the JavaScript. JavaScripts is great, but if you just dealing with some simple validations on a small site you can get away with mutiple. separate scripts.  But when you are dealing with large Web sites you have to deal with JavaScript libraries, you have to deal with compression of libraries since they are large files and then we move on to JavaScript frameworks and how to deal with those.

And then we have a great chapter by Kimberly Blessing, who talks alot about Web standards and how to actually get that into a work flow for a dynamic, large group. Because when you are working, you just want to get the work done because you always have a pile of it on your plate. You have to go through it

But a lot of times there is poor documentation. if there is any documentation, people might not know the best way of doing things. And so Kimberly's chapter is great for explaining the purposes of Web standards and a large scale environment and how to do it. It's a great way to cap the first part of the book.

In the second part we have a lot of examples like the AOL one that Kevin Lawver wrote. We also have one for Tori Amos' site.

MN: Tori Amos?

CS: Yeah, we actually have it. We decided, you know, to mix it up a little bit in there. We talk about something a little bit more creative, but also high-profile.

MN: A large, large scale site.

CS: We talk about that a lot. And then we also have an interview that Mark Trammell did with the people that personally developed Yahoo!'s front page and all the stuff they went through.

MN: So, you had this book actually started of works the way a big. large scale site does in that this was a team effort. It wasn’t just you.   

CS: Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, we had the idea of the book and, I know, that just with a the team, I don’t have every skill set. There are other more people that know lot more details about it. It was really great because the panel I went to Kevin Lawver was on it. Kimberly Blessing was on it. They were really great friends of mine—

MN: And the panel became a book.

CS: Yeah, the panel became a book and I was so grateful. I was, like, "hey, you have this great idea, we just need to expand upon it. Would you be in on it?" And they all said, "yes," which is really great.

And I am also missing two other people on the panel, but I totally forgot their names. I'm sure they are going to hunt me down.

MN: They might not.

South by South West is always good source for us find books, the right authors. How long you have been coming to South by South West?

CS: This is my fifth year. And it was like 2,400 people, five years ago. Now I think I heard the number was like seven thousand or so.

MN: It's tripled in size, yeah.

CS: Yes, it's tripled in size. You know, it's kinda hard to find lunch.

MN: It is hard to find lunch. What else do you miss about the old days of South by South West?

CS: I miss if you want to talk to someone, you could actually track them down. Now it's more like surfing or like fishing, I guess, in a way—not that people are fish—, but if you see someone, that’s great, you know, just don't plan on it.

MN: It wouldn't be surprising if you came and you miss seeing—

CS: Yeah. Actually, people were talking about. They realize now that we are like a bit more than half-way done, if not more. They realize they are not going to se people because we are missing them in all this flow.

MN: But, on the other hand, there is flip side, of course. In the fact that it's so huge to me, it has more richness, more texture, more things going on.

CS: But you can get more people coming from different point of views, different histories. There is a vibe in South by South West that you don't get at any other conference.  

MN: What is vibe for listeners? Can you describe that?

CS: Well, I think it comes from our industry being so different than other industries. I don't know a lot of other industries, but from talking to my brothers, my family members and my friends who don’t work in this industry. Other industries are very closed. They keep their secrets close to their hearts, chests.

This one, you know, if education is so—people are blogging what they've learned, you know, some Web design tricks or techniques. It's very open and sharing. You don’t really get that type, of you know, talking about other places. And, I think, South by South West with the components of film and music, where it's creative expression, it's a natural tie-in, too.

MN: And then it is Austin which is such a wonderful city. It's so fun to hang out in for few days.

CS: Yeah, I think South by South West Interactive is definitely helping keeping Austin weird—er.

MN: Oh, that’s good.

So, speaking of conferences, you are going to be at our Voices That Matter Web Design conference.

CS: I'm totally stoked about that one.

MN: Yeah, we are, too. It promises to be quite exciting. That is going to be in early June in Nashville, Tennesse, which is a similar to Austin, not quit as weeird, perhaps. But a great city full of creativity and music and all the rest of it. We look forward to see you in there.

Thanks, Chris.

CS: Oh, thank you!

Do You Want a New Blog Design, for Free?

In September, I’ll be taking part in IZEAFest in September in downtown Orlando. I’ll be on a panel called “Blog Design Makeover” along with Scott Allen and Matt Blancarte.

IZEAFest Badge

Here’s the panel abstract:

Ugh, default templates are soooooo 2002. Jump into 2008 with the latest tips and tricks on presenting an aesthetically pleasing blog and watch as three design experts critique blogs, then give them a makeover. After all, looking good never goes out of style.

Extreme Blog Redesign

Feel like your blog is the shack in a neighborhood of mansions? Have a solid foundation but need some remodeling? Now’s your shot at having our panel of experts give you the blog redesign of a lifetime…and ultimately the building blocks for success.

Have your blog to be made over at IZEAFest’s “Extreme Blog Makeover” panel. Three blogs will be chosen.

Submit your blog for consideration!

Will I see you there? I’m looking forward to returning back to my stomping ground.

Summer of Web 2008

I'll be in Florida baking in the warm weather and humidity of August as part of the Summer of Web 2008 at the Unversity of Florida. More information comes from their official Web site:

Summer of Web 2008 is a half-day conference created to bring the UF Web community together and back to Web basics. Food and drinks will be provided, and there will be several prize drawings.

Summer of Web's full intent is to bring speakers, both internal and external, to discuss the daily issues seen across the Web community. Topics will include the Print to Web initiative, effective writing for the Web, evaluating analytics and the importance of Web standards.

Speakers will come from a variety of Web backgrounds including consultants, developers, instructors and communications specialists. Among the speakers are Web professional and Gator alumnus Carl Smith and other members of the nGen Works team, UF's associate vice president for marketing and public relations, Joe Hice, instructional designer Jennifer Smith, and expert CSS developer and author Christopher Schmitt.

When & Where?

The event will be on August 8th, from 8:30 a.m. to noon at the Emerson Alumni Hall Teaching Classroom.

Who is attending?

This event is for University of Florida Web professionals of all types. If you are someone who writes content, moves pixels, develops Web applications or falls anywhere in between, you're welcome to attend — just make sure you RSVP as spaces are limited.

The Stephanie Sullivan Interview

Stephanie Sullivan is always in motion. As a CSS expert, international speaker and corporate trainer, she is in demand and shows no signs of slowing down.

We recently wrapped up an interview in which we covered a lot of ground. We talked about women in our industry, her perception of education, the CSS layouts she built for Dreamweaver, her travel tips, her geek romance with Greg Rowis and much, much more.

For full disclosure, she's also a co-lead with me on The Web Standards Project Adobe Task Force. So, "how does she put up with me" was one question I didn't ask.

Stephanie Sullivan

Christopher Schmitt: How would you describe yourself?

Stephanie Sullivan: Oh me? I'm a dork.

I'm not sure if you're asking me to describe myself in the business, or personally.

Personally, I'm pretty high-energy and active. I've always been involved in sports. I've got a fairly quirky, nutty sense of humor—which is where my dork comment comes from. I'm an extremely compassionate people-person. I can't stand suffering, which likely explains my reason for continuing to give free help on forums. I'm pretty ADD as well. Meaning—I have a hyperactive brain that requires near constant stimulation.

It also seems to be quite attracted to multi-tasking, which is not always the best way to function!

A little more focus would likely do me well. Business-wise, I'm pretty tenacious, driven and I constantly challenge myself to learn new things. I don't believe there are boundaries on what I can do—unless I set them myself.

I refuse to believe, unlike some in my industry, that being a woman affects my ability to succeed. I am constantly looking for opportunities. There are few glass ceilings here—but there are many glass hats.

Women and Our Industry

CS: A few glass hats is an interesting comment. Do you feel that women, generally speaking in our industry, are holding themselves back? Possibly blaming others for a lack of whatever success?

SS: The term "glass hats" came up in a discussions with Jeffrey Zeldman recently. I really liked it, so I borrowed it from him—thanks Jeffrey!

I do think it summarizes what happens to some people, including women. Obviously, this entire subject is huge and we could write a book on it. I'll try to summarize my thoughts since I've spent a good deal of time mulling it over recently.

I led a panel of five women at this year's SXSW Interactive called "What Women Need to Succeed." Obviously, I don't speak for all women everywhere. I am coming from my own perspective based on what I've seen, learned and experienced.

I eluded to my study of the brain, personality, etc over the years. And speaking in generalities—likely using the 80/20 principle here: 80% of women are like I'm describing, but 20% are not—many women tend to have different dominant personality traits than men. In fact, there are scientifically proven differences in the structure.

Undoubtedly, women are every bit as smart and talented as men. But the way we process information is sometimes different.

One example is that the corpus callosum of a women's brain is larger—for those of you that have forgotten anatomy class, this area is located between, and connects, the two hemispheres of the brain. I've heard it compared to a "superhighway" where we can easily dash back and forth between the two hemispheres of the brain—multitracking.

The smaller corpus callosum in men's brains is likened to a one lane road causing them to do all they can in one hemisphere before moving to the other side to work from that perspective. This doesn't make one of us better or worse. This makes us different.

For those that have had children like I have, this may explain the mother's ability to do ten things at once while the dad feel's frustrated and overwhelmed by it all. But, as usual, I digress...

I believe the "trouble" some women have in this industry is really no different than any other industry—in fact, I think ours is likely better in some ways since it's a newer industry with many younger people. In general, the men in our industry are intelligent—how many non-intelligent people really want to be, and love being a geek, right? And I say that in a most loving, admiring way with all the respect that term should elicit.

My guess would be that if we ran the numbers, the median age would be lower than many other industries. And these men, for the most part, were raised by working mothers. Few of them are bigoted or controlled by a major dose of sexism. I believe what is more likely at play here is related to the differences in the way we interact and promote ourselves.

Many women are less aggressive. Women tend to do good work and then expect to be recognized for it. Most do not want to have to do "that locker room thing" where you tell people what you've done—some would call that a form of promotion—at times exaggerated.

For the same reason—waiting on the earned recognition—women don't tend to ask for what they want. We wouldn't want to make someone else feel bad.

Women are not generally taught how to focus righteous anger in the workplace when they feel a door has been closed. Many lapse into victimhood or get visibly angry instead of focusing that anger on doing more and doing better—like an athlete does. I'm not referring to anger based on something done that's inappropriate—that absolutely should be shown as anger.

In other words, many of us have self-limiting beliefs and behaviors—and this can certainly include men as well. As women, we can learn to use these difference as strengths—multi-tracking can be a wonderful thing. And we can also learn to change the areas we choose to change. I've chosen to confront and defeat many fears along this journey.

One place many women excel is in creating and maintaining relationships. And that can certainly be a big plus in the business world. But I've also noticed—at conferences which I obviously attend a lot of—that many times the women there don't interact as much with the men. They hang back and don't introduce themselves. And from the men, I see the same thing toward the women.

To be blunt, some have told me they don't want to be seen as "hitting on a woman" because they're being friendly. So this is where our sexes can come into play.

In truth, I'm uncomfortable when I meet new people. I'm rather loud, so many don't realize this. When I'm at an event where I don't know people, I'd much prefer to just sit back and observe. But I recognized early on that there are as many deals made over a beer as in the board room. Thus, I push myself to walk up, introduce myself, and get to know people. This is what I mean by "choosing to change." When you need to bring someone in as a sub-contractor on a job, who do you think of? It's not the people you don't know—so forming relationships is important.

All this is not to say that every woman will succeed to the level she desires. Nor will every man. I've often wondered what men's self talk is when they don't reach the level of the company they envisioned. They can't blame it on their sex, so where do they focus.

Sometimes, you can do all the "right things" and still not make it to the place you wanted to be. Sometimes people are in the right place at the right time with the right opportunity—and yes, it could have been you instead. But it was them. That's just life.

But I think women can learn behaviors that will give them more opportunities to make it happen. Opportunities to create the life they want to live and career they want to have. Being successful in work is not the only thing that means we're a successful person—I certainly took it slow at the beginning due to raising my boys.

I used to collect quotes. They were randomly attached to my signature file. One of my favorites from Thomas Edison said, "Opportunity is missed by most people because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like work."

And another which Earl Nightingale quoted, but I don't know if he originated it is, "Luck is when preparedness meets opportunity. And opportunity is everywhere."

We need to take the opportunity to meet and talk to people—to form relationships. We need to take the opportunity to go above and beyond what's expected of us in our work—and we need to give back. To help other people expecting nothing in return. Those things have never let me down—they've always come back to me.

I've always loved the last line of the song "Can't Stop" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, "This life is more than just a read through." That it is. Live it and make it happen. You don't fail till you quit.

CS: In 2005, there was a panel that addressed the issue of "Where Are the Women of Web Design?" which seemed to be a telling point about the industry's gender slant. But what underscored that panel was, I believe, the 2007 A List Apart survey. In the survey only 15% of the people who filled it out were women. There really aren't that many women here. Pretty much like Georgia Tech, if you ask me.

Realizing that there are fewer women in the industry by a wide margin, do you think the lack of women in the workplace gives an appearance that women can't succeed in this industry? Is there a cultural barrier that tells women to stick away from geek-related industries that is at fault?

SS: When I meet women and they ask what I do, I can get some really odd looks while explaining. Responses vary from the incredulous, "You write code? How in the world did you get into that?," to the woman that finds it interesting that a woman would work in such an industry, to the ones whose eyes just glaze over and roll back into their heads. End of conversation.

Women do culturally look at certain types of jobs. When I was younger, I wouldn't in a million years have thought of doing this. But I grew up in a different era obviously. I'm older than many here. I would hope that at this point, it's a bit different. That said, I have a son in college and I don't know that any of his female friends are considering geekdom.

I'm not sure many schools encourage kids to look at their brain type and make career decisions based on that. Yes, I took a test in college and they gave me a list of things I might like—but none of them interested me at all. So either the test sucked, or my knowledge of myself was so lacking that the results were skewed.

I recently asked a friend of mine, whose 21st birthday is today, her take on this. This is one woman's comment, of course, but she's "of this generation" so her comment was interesting to me. To quote her, "I hear girls chat about it. They're turned off by nerdy men and dont want to be thought of as nerds by men."

Wow. That took me back! Clearly, this generation of women does not realize how sexy smart geeks are.

I don't know about you, but I'm certainly bothered by the perception that women will be thought of as "nerds" if they work in this industry. I personally prefer to be called a geek.

So today, are we still fighting with the "Cosmo girl stereotype" within this age range? It certainly gives one pause.

Learning Web Design

CS: How did you first get involved with Web design?

SS: Well, it's probably not the usual story.

When I was a teen, my dad talked me out of trying to be a brain surgeon. I did quite a few things after thatnurse, model, travel agent, corporate image consultant—but nothing I loved.

After taking 10 years off to raise and homeschool my boys, I was ready to re-enter the work force. But there was nothing I'd done before that I wanted to do again.

I have always studied the brain—brain quadrants, personality traits, brain lead. I decided this time, instead of just "trying something," I'd look at some of the things I knew about my brain, and find a career that utilized them. My brain loves puzzle-type thinking—detective work, figuring things out, research.

I thought maybe code would take advantage of those things. The only code I'd ever heard of was C++. I decided I'd learn that—until I mentioned it to a friend and he told me I was crazy.

He said C++ would probably bore me and suggested I learn the code they build the web with—HTML. I'd never heard of it.

I took one class and figured out a classroom wasn't my preferred modality to learn in—too fast or too slow. I learn well on my own so I bought books and did online tutorials for about 15 hours a day for well over a year. Did I mention I'm driven?

I also took advantage of forums where I'm sure I drove people nuts with questions. And that's another reason I now run a forum—to give back to the community and bring other people along. I vacillated between design and code over that time, since I enjoy both—but I found that even though I had previously done traditional art on paper, illustration and design on the web were different. I felt I had to focus on one or the other.

Since I'm a major tweakaholic—I can never leave a design alone—I found I could save money by hiring someone else to do the design and simply art directing. But that's probably more than you're asking. Did I mention I'm blabby?

CS: Heh, that's quite alright. Honestly.

What interested in you in becoming a brain surgeon? How much convincing did your dad have to do to keep you from being a brain surgeon?

SS: My father was a family practice physician, so likely the attraction to medicine was because that's what I was exposed to all my life.

Due to my interest in the brain, I was really drawn to that particular specialty of medicine. Sadly, the reason he talked me out of it was very sexist—and yes, he has since apologized.

He basically said that with the number of years I would have to go to school, with internships, residencies and such, by the time I was ready to practice, I would be about 30.

He supposed that about that time I would want to have children, that I would likely raise my children myself and since medical school was so hard to get into, I should leave that spot for "a man that would use it."

I thought it sad to give up that goal, but yet logical at the same time. It was a big mistake for me though. I had no goal outside that and became a nurse instead. I took nursing in a special program offered to four students my senior year of high school. I didn't love that at all and later left the medical field altogether.

CS: And you eventually found your way to Web development. A year long, self-imposed Web education seems quite an unusual route to go. When was this?

SS: I lean toward the unusual. Or maybe, I lean toward the intense. Either way, it was about 1999.

Perception of Education

CS: You must have an interesting perspective on our industry than a typical design student going through college might have. What perceptions do you have about this industry that others might typically have? How does it compare to the other industries you've been in or exposed to?

SS: Well, likely my perceptions are different coming from a non-traditional path.

Quite frankly, my overall perception of education itself is probably different. I believe that life is about learning. The day you stop learning is the day you start dying.

My reason for home schooling my boys was not to sequester them from the world—they had plenty of friends—, but instead to create thinkers. School is great if you have the type of brain that can memorize well—and spew back accurately. You'll be seen as brilliant. But what if you're more of a non-traditional learner or thinker?

Like Einstein, you could be thought of as almost retarded. My boys don't have learning style challenges, but I still wanted them to learn as part of life—not as part of sitting down at a book because someone made you.

My older son was 11th in the nation in debate one year. When he was about 12, because he loves writing, he was published almost weekly at a website for kids called Neopets.

My younger son, at 11, was trying to invent a maglev elevator for the new, super tall buildings in Asia. Nowadays, he's in public high school—says it's boring—and does lots of online research and reading about physics and science on his own time. I believe this is because he likes to learn and challenge his mind. And before you think he's too boring and geeky, yes, he loves video games and plays WoW and other games regularly with friends.

That train of thought obviously colors my own thinking about this industry. I don't believe that because someone got a degree in something related to our field they know any more than someone that did not. In fact, I hear all the time how behind many of the programs in schools are.

Our industry is fast-paced. Large institutions, like schools and universities, find it difficult to change rapidly enough. For this reason the WaSP EduTF, SoDA and Opera are all working on curriculums that schools can use that are actually useful for the graduates using them. Being self-taught, as long as you're thorough about it, is not a bad thing at all.

CS: What activities did you do with your own children that you found worked best in facilitating this desire to learn rather than memorize?

SS: My approach was to use life as a learning tool.

For instance, there is a lot of pressure put on parents to "make their kid smarter" than the other kids on the block, in the grade, wherever. As evidenced by things like, "I'm the proud parent of a honor roll student" bumper stickers, etc.

When my boys were young, it was very difficult not to succumb to parent peer pressure and grab the flash cards so that Cameron could recite more letters, colors, read first, whatever. As other parents brag about how their child can already read certain words at four, you get an intense feeling of, "Hey, my kid is smart too!" and you really want to prove it.

However, brain studies show that, especially in boys, brain development of speech and reading areas can be slower. Pushing them to read before their brain development in that area is complete can make them feel that they're stupid. The fact is, it will develop.

There are signs to watch for to know when they're ready for it. If a child is kept out of school, not taught with books and just plays in nature till they're 10 years old—within that first year in school, they typically catch up with all the other kids. So pushing them younger, to me, is not the answer.

For that reason, I waited—sitting on my hands—until Cameron started asking me things about the sounds letters made. Until he was asking me what certain things spelled. Only then did we dive into it all. But it was still just done as a part of life. I didn't own a single phonics book or flash card. We simply read lots of books—we always did. We talked about the road signs and everything around us. Life was his phonics lesson. Both boys are tremendous readers and writers now.

I typically followed their interests. I let their inquisitive minds lead our learning. Books—not curriculum per se—and the internet contain everything you could want to know. Learning how to find it is key.

I have a funny story about learning English that I love to tell. It's about Cameron again—probably because he's the oldest and all my experimenting was done on him. In second grade, all he wanted to do was math. Constantly. He did tons and tons of math on the computer with learning games and in little work books I'd get at the book store. At the end of the year, as expected, he tested 99th percentile in Math and about 75th in English.

I wasn't bothered by it. I figured that in third grade, we'd just do more English and catch up. Who says that doing every subject every year is the way it should be done?

I got a little English workbook from the bookstore—one of those that parents can use for supplemental learning—and sat him at a table with it. Sitting with a book was not really our usual way. And especially with something he was showing no desire to learn. But I was afraid he'd get too far behind, so I made him.

After three days of this, he was in tears while I tried to force him to do it. And I thought—this is not why I home school my kids. When he's ready, when he sees the value of it, he'll learn it. That's always worked before. I closed the book and put it away never to be seen again.

About two months later, he was playing one of his favorite games on the computer—Escape Velocity Nova, I think—and he discovered that there was a message board where all the players were talking to each other. He got really excited and he called me in. "Mom, I want to post here. I'll tell you what I want to say, ok?" I said, "Nope. You type it. You spell it. You use proper grammar. When you're all done, you call me in. I'll spell check and proof it and then you can send."

He would have liked me to do it, but he was so excited by the prospect of discussing this with other people that he saw the value in doing those things. Every day, he would type up his posts and I would use them as his English lessons. Within about six weeks he was above grade level and within about three months he didn't need me for that at all anymore. It was only a couple years after that when he started writing for Neopets.

That was the long answer to your question about what worked best for us. It was using their desires and interests. Using life as it happened around them. Exposing them to different things like the month we spent in Italy traveling by car in the countryside. Teaching them how to find the answers to their questions. That's what creates an inquisitive, but self-sufficient mind in my opinion.

CS: I definitely agree with that. How about your own Web education? What kind of tutorials and books did you find the most useful?

SS: When I was at the very beginning, I got a Visual Quick Start Guide for every program I had. I found them to be a great reference allowing me to jump around and easily find what I needed—I rarely read a book cover to cover.

For code and design though, I found myself using Web tutorials more. Much of my learning came from talking friends into letting me build their business a Web site, and then figuring out how the heck to do what they needed. And generally, after I had exhausted other options for figuring things out, I went to forums for help.

In fact, that's how Community MX came about. We wanted to quickly disseminate information—instead of wait for a publishing cycle—as well as provide forums to point people to further information that might help.

We've tried to create what we wished was there when we were learning. It's been going for over five years now, and at this time, we've got over 2,600 tutorials on Adobe-related products as well as the Web in general.

CS: What's the forum that you run?

SS: The forum where I'm a list mom is called WebWeavers. It's Dreamweaver-related, but we don't ban any general web-related question there either. It's a great group of folks, many of which have been hanging out there a long time. I also work the forums at Community MX.

CS: How did you get involved in speaking at conferences, workshops?

SS: I started by writing at Community MX and Adobe's DevNet Center. Then Ray West asked me to speak at TODCon and later, I spoke at Macromedia's MAX conference.

The past 18 months, I've been on the road almost non-stop due to writing the 32 CSS layouts contained in Dreamweaver CS3. I've had a lot of opportunity to talk about that, and CSS in general, in a large variety of settings all over the world. I've also been traveling doing training for corporate web departments.

Built-in CSS Layouts

CS: For those that might not know about layouts, can you describe what they are and how one can use them in Dreamweaver?

SS: The CSS layouts in Dreamweaver are simply solid, structural layouts accessed through the File > New menu. They contain no design—they have grey backgrounds on the div's to show their placement—and no graphics.

Most sites online are basically either one, two or three-columns with or without headers and footers, so those are the types of layouts you can choose from. They come in 5 flavors: fixed, liquid, elastic, hybrid and a couple absolutely positioned—not my fault—they made me do those.

Since there are so many ways to skin the proverbial CSS cat, I commented them heavily so users would understand issues they might encounter as they adapt them to their design.

It's a great learning tool for someone just starting with CSS for layout and a quick start for those that are already comfortable. I used to have custom snippets I used as quick starts, now I simply use these.

The CSS layouts don't come with a user manual and for that reason, Greg Rewis and I wrote a book last year. Mastering CSS with Dreamweaver CS3 was published this year in New Riders' Voices that Matter series.

Greg is the Group Manager, Creative Solutions Evangelism for Adobe and past product manager for Dreamweaver—though he was originally one of the founders of GoLive.

It's a project based book with six chapters. The first chapter is simply a review of the CSS principles that we felt were important for people to understand if they're going to build sites with CSS. I call it a review, because there are entire books written on what is contained in that chapter.

Each of the other chapters uses one of the CSS layouts to complete a web project. We teach Dreamweaver and CSS as you progress through the book. The projects are progressively more difficult and build on each other.

We found that most CSS books used text editors. Most Dreamweaver books have a small chapter devoted to CSS. But there was not a book showing how to use Dreamweaver to its fullest potential to create standards based, accessible web sites.

Since Dreamweaver has the majority of the WYSIWYG market, we wanted to fill that gap for people. To teach them how to use it for good and not for evil. We're getting great feedback from people using it.

CS: How did you come about to writing the 32 CSS layouts?

SS: I was asked by Macromedia—now Adobe—to bid on the project. I was extremely busy that day, but wanted to respond in some way before the weekend. I quickly read the spec and shot back an email that said something like, "Off the top of my head, here's what I see."

And then I listed things in no particular order as they came to me—A, B, C, D... M, N, O, P— I didn't expect the list to be so long, but as I mentioned before, I do so much support for CSS and Dreamweaver on lists that I have a good idea of what trips new users up. And that's basically what I was quickly throwing at them.

I have no confirmation, but I would guess that my knowledge of the product, and what can confuse its user base, contributed to winning the bid. There are plenty of people that know CSS.

International Speaker

CS: I would say that's a pretty good reason to pick you for the project!

You've just come off a long speaking tour overseas. What events were involved and where did you go?

SS: I was in Cologne and Amsterdam for Adobe Live. London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle for the Creative License tour. Barcelona and Chicago for Adobe MAX.

I did four dates in Scandinavia where part of my responsibilities included a short session for agencies on the business value of Web standards. I had the pleasure of speaking again at MultiMania in Belgium and just got back last week from Sydney, where I did two sessions at WebDU.

CS: Your passport must be blistered with stamps by now. I hope you love traveling. Have you picked up any tips when flying?

SS: Always fly business class!

Yes, I do love seeing new places. Edinburgh and Munich were two of my favorites this year—though nothing has yet surpased Tuscany for me.

The things that work for me are to have:

  • an extra computer battery,
  • a power cord that works on a plane ,
  • a pillow clipped to my backpack—since I don't always fly business,
  • an airline blanket—it's hard to get those in coach these days,
  • my iPod—to avoid annoying seat mates as necessary—always put the earplugs in the moment you sit down, even if the iPod is off. No one knows and you can always remove them,
  • Bose noise canceling headphones,
  • eye drops for my contacts as the air in the plane is dry,
  • lip balm, for the same reason,
  • saline for my nose—I actually started having nose bleeds from the dryness,
  • business cards in case you meet someone cool, and
  • a book—though sadly, I nearly always work instead of reading.

The other thing I learned by flying so much is that even when the day is overcast, or dark and stormy, once you take off and get through the clouds, the sun is shining and it's gorgeous.

I was talking to a friend who does photography about it and she put my quote on one of her photos: "It's always a sunny day—sometimes it's just hidden behind the clouds."

I try to keep this in mind on crappy days.

CS: Definitely something to keep in mind as you go through airport security these days. I've recently begun speaking in countries outside of America, but not as much as you have. I'm wondering if your experience have you found that audiences are different in these different cultures?

SS: I have to speak slower in some countries due to the language barrier. And the "personality" of audiences in some countries is much more reserved—Finland and Australia come to mind.

But the questions and enthusiasm for our craft don't vary that much. Especially once people ask questions after the session.

CS: Do you speak mainly about CSS and CSS layouts? What do you find are the common themes in the questions from your audience?

SS: I do speak a lot on content, CSS and semantic XHTML—with a little bit of SEO as well. And yes, this year has given me many opportunities to talk about the CSS layouts I built. What I tend to cover a lot in my talks is basic CSS principles. I get a lot of compliments for my ability to make these concepts more clear. I find, again based on how much online support I do, that people are using CSS—but many honestly never learned it thoroughly or properly.

They started "trying some things," maybe by pulling someone else's page off the internet and mucking about, and now, oh dear it's broken and they have no clue why.

So I enjoy "cementing the cracks" in their CSS foundation. I like speaking on more advanced topics as well, but there really is so much that people need to learn about the basics.

Even when I train in a corporate environment, I find they nearly always choose to start with basic principles and work from there. For those switching from tables for layout, there's a paradigm shift that must occur.

The same thing applies to the many designers in the print industry that are being forced to move into designing for the web. Though they don't all need to know how to code, they do need to understand how it works and what's possible.

There's a great lack of understanding in our industry, which leads to a lot of frustration. Starting at the beginning and working into more advanced concepts gets you past that.

A Geek Romance

Stephanie and Greg

CS: Your co-author, Greg Rowis, isn't just your co-author, but also your fiance. How truly geeky was his proposal?

SS: Well, it was geeky enough to make the cover of wired.com. Does that count?

Greg and I didn't start out as "fiances writing a book." We talked at a couple conferences, felt our skills were complementary and that we could write a better book together—the one that wasn’t written yet—than we would write alone.

Through the course of the year of writing and speaking together, we found that we have great compatibility—we're both dorks—as well as complimentary personalities. Since our relationship was "major long distance"—I live in North Carolina and he's in Phoenix—we use a lot of tools to stay in touch. Everything from cell phones, of course, to Skype to IM to Twitter. Telepathy isn't quite as reliable.

Having him propose on Twitter was, for me, extremely romantic. People pay big money for the billboard in Times Square. Twitter is free and all my geek friends are there. It was like the geek billboard proposal.

CS: So, Twitter is a natural venue, if you will, for a proposal for the both of you?

SS: Oh, gosh yes. Probably too much. I thought Twitter was the stupidest thing when I first heard about it. "What are you doing now" in 140 words or less? I didn't get it at all. Left. Then a few months later I heard more about it and that time took the time to understand the way friends and followers worked and such.

Since then it's been the greatest way to get to know people a little better. People you met briefly at a conference. People that you wouldn't really IM with or call. Or people you're going to meet at a conference.

By the time I meet them, I actually feel like I know them a little bit. The ice has been broken. You learn who has a really quirky sense of humor, what's going on in people's lives. I absolutely love it since my office is in my home.

I've tried other social networking applications, but I haven't found any to be as useful and interesting as twitter. I've decided it's because too many of them try to do too much. Or the interface is complicated. Twitter is clean and simple.

As far as a natural venue goes—yes, probably. Greg and I see what the other person is doing when we're not in the same place using twitter a lot. I can see, while I slave away, that he's in Munich in the beer garden enjoying a Hefeweizen.

So the proposal was appropriately on Twitter and then he surprised me with the ring on the plane to South by Southwest—we connected in the same city.

Both, for me, were perfect for our relationship and very romantic. The criticism on some blogs—in response to the wired.com story—regarding the fact that he wasn't "down on one knee in person" I find just silly. They don't live my life and they're obviously "just not geeky enough to get it." It was lovely.

Web Standards and the Adobe Task Force

CS: How did you first get involved with the The Web Standards Project?

SS: I have been on the Dreamweaver beta for years now. I enjoy working with the engineers there testing, and helping to shape the product I use daily.

At some point, I was invited to join WaSP and be a part of the Dreamweaver Task Force. Basically, I was told I was already doing what needed to be done—making a lot of noise—so just to keep it up.

CS: What kind of noise did the WaSP DWTF make about Dreamweaver?

SS: Oh, mainly Web standards and accessibility workflow stuff. It's not like the engineers don't want to make a more standards-compliant product. It's just that they're engineers. They're into creating a product, and we're into writing the code, so they appreciate us noisy folks giving them feedback about it. They're really a great group of folks over there. Very open and willing to hear us.

CS: What is your role there within WaSP?

SS: I'm the co-lead of the newly formed Adobe Task Force (AdTF). Adobe—Macromedia, originally—was so responsive to, and appreciative of our input, we're now overseeing all Adobe products that go to the web in some way in light of web standards, best practices and accessibility.

CS: Can you point to the changes that AdTF has made to the product over its history?

SS: I honestly can't point to the entire history—you'd have to talk to Drew or Rachel about that—since I wasn't involved the whole time.

But the biggest changes I saw were related to web standards and accessibility. Moving Dreamweaver into rendering standards, writing cleaner code, removing deprecated elements and program "features" and giving people things like accessibility prompts so that it actually helps educate them on best practices.

Dreamweaver had accessibility options for a while, but now they're on by default instead of requiring people to discover them. Basically, we've tried to lead Dreamweaver into being a program that will write clean, semantic, accessible code and make it more difficult to write program or browser-specific crap so that new developers don't get tripped up.

The newly formed Adobe Task Force is taking that one step further. We are working with Adobe on all products that go to the web in some way. We also hope to have some best practices articles about using Adobe products to write standards based sites in the WaSP Learn section this year.

Guilty Pleasures

CS: You've stated your guilty pleasure is 80s music. What are some of your favorite styles and artists from that decade?

SS: Heh... there are tons. Everything from Bronski Beat, Nina Hagen, Lene Lovich, The Cure, Oino Boingo, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode, Simple Minds, The Divinyls, Thompson Twins, and so many more.

When I was younger, I was more into the punk version of the 80's, but now that I'm old, I lean toward the New Wave stuff. Age... it'll getcha.

CS: So, is 80s music in your iPod rotation constantly? Do you listen to other styles or, er, eras, he asks politely?

SS: Oh, heck, yea.

I love the 80's, but I'm not "stuck there." Most of the day I listen to contemporary music. My personal ipod was recently wiped out by my 16 year old who thought he was loading his iPod with all the songs on his computer. So I lost a lot of my favorite playlists.

Yes, smart people synch their iPods. But not me.

A lot of my music is on my old computer—now used by my sons and containing a lot of music I don't listen to. In light of that, I just drug what I wanted over to my iPod and handmade the playlists. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I have rather varied and eclectic tastes in music. I like everything from Damien Rice, The Dresden Dolls, Shiny Toy Guns, NIN, Drew Grow, Finger Eleven, Greg Rewis, Korn, Melissa Ferrick, Hellsongs, El Perro Del Mar, The White Stripes, PJ Harvey, The Killers, Sarah McLaughlin, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tori Amos, Death Cab for Cutie and sometimes I listen to Mark Trammell or Keith Robinson's mix tapes and muxtapes.

CS: How long have you been into beach volleyball? Do you find it it's a nice balance to work life?

SS: I guess I've played for about five years. I really wish I'd found it when I was young, but back then I mostly did free weights and played racquetball.

Beach volleyball is an awesome sport. I play at a sports bar here in town where we have nine sand courts and year round leagues. Before I started speaking and traveling so much, I was in great shape due to playing three times a week. But now, I'm playing one league a week—when I'm in town.

It's not so good for the body. I've got to do better.

CS: I assume by doing better you mean setting up volleyball leagues to all the countries you visit! Otherwise, you would be racking up those frequent flyer miles.

SS: Actually, by "better," I meant joining a gym and/or working out on the road.

I'm only here so much anymore—though I did just sign up for another year of volleyball leagues. But maybe just having a few more shots of tequila on the court would work just as well.

CS: Thanks so much for your time, Stephanie!

SS: Thank you, Chris!

Further Reading

Christopher Schmitt’s past interviews:

Kevin Lawver Voices That Matter Interview at SXSW 2008

Co-author of Adapting to Web Standards, Kevin Lawver, was interviewed by Michael Nolan from Peachpit at South By Southwest 2008 as part of a podcast series.

I noticed the interview didn't come with a transcript. So I decided to write up the dialogue from the interview, which is posted below the video. Enjoy!

Michael Nolan: Hi, I am Michael Nolan, a senior acquisitions editor for New Riders and we are coming to you from the 2008 South by South West Interactive festival and conference here in Austin, Texas.

And I am speaking with Kevin Lawver who is one of the co-authors of our book, Adapting to Web standards: CSS and AJAX for Big Sites.

Now, Kevin, of course, is very familiar with big sites because he works at AOL, but before we get to that, tell me about the International Day of Awesomeness.

Kevin Lawver: (Laughter.) It is a holiday that I invented that started started as a joke at work and it slowly built. I threw together a website for it and send it to some friends and everybody thought that it is a funny idea, but I actually started taking it seriously. My kid came up with the tag line.

MN: Which is?

KL: "Nobody is perfect, but everyone can be awesome" and—

MN: That’s a great tag line.

KL: It became the start of, the idea is to do something that you wouldn’t normally do.

MN: Then how did you do that, observe the International Day of Awesomeness?

KL: I dyed my hair bright blue which is something I always wanted to do. My friends and in high school and they had bright blue hair and I was always very jealous, but never had the guts to actually do it myself. So, this morning in my hotel I ruin two hotel towels putting it in myself.

MN: I bet they will be unhappy when they come in and pick up those towels.

KL: I will pay for it.

MN: (Laughing.) Looks outstanding. It’s awesome, in a word.

KL: I would hope so.

MN: Yeah, yeah.

KL: Would be a failure if I didn't.

MN: So, your presentation you say you've been coming to SXSW for several years. How long?

KL: This is my fifth.

MN: Your fifth year at South By. And what you have seen change in South By in those five years?

KL: It's so much bigger now. That we have—They just opened the third floor for panels last year and this year there are 12 panels going on at the same time and you have to give up all hope of meeting everybody. When I was here on 2004 my first one—

MN: Still possible.

KL: Yeah, I met, you know, a good 150 to 200 people and I felt like I had met pretty much every one there and that was open to being met and this time there is just no way.

MN: There is no way. One of my authors compared it to drinking from a fire hose and I thought that was a good metaphor for what SXSW has become, but, still, it’s fabulous. It’s like the best conference in the Spring, at least—

KL: Easily.

MN: —for Web designers and developers. I mean I just always come away with new insights and excitement.

KL: It’s a really good mix. It's not a super technical conference and it's not in a cubby hole. You got everybody together. You got designers and developers, entrepreneurs and writers, just lots of creative folks. So, for me the overlap is what is interesting.

MN: Have you attended any good parties?

KL: I don’t do the parties.

MN: You don’t do any parties?

KL: Because I just don’t handle being crushed by people. I am good with nerds because I am one, but, you know, in a bunch you cannot hear anyone talk.

So, we decided there are two types of people in the world. There are Bar People and Dinner Party People. I am much more a Dinner Party Person.

MN: So, we probably have had nice dinners with folks here.

KL: Yeah.

MN: So when we talk about this book, Big Sites, that’s what you are presenting about here at South By this year. Tell us a bit about your presentation.

KL: I did a panel with Thomas Vander Wal, Cindy Li, Jason Garber, and Leslie Jensen-Inman about working for big companies and then making a transition to maybe start-up life or doing your own thing or educational stuff. And we talk a lot about coping mechanisms and—

MN: What are some? What are some?

KL: I only ever worked for AOL. It has been my entire professional life.

MN: Yeah, that’s a big company.

KL: It's, yeah, huge. Fluctuates a bit, but it’s a very large company.

I think the biggest one is to to know what your strata is and know what your role is and you can kick all kinds of butt within that role and within that strata and make a big difference. But, above that or maybe below it or to the sides of it, you have to decide to let that stuff be. And you don’t have much control. There is all kinds of stuff that happens above you that you can object to and, you know, make sure that your objection is noted. But they are going to go and make their decisions without you and there is nothing you can do. You can either. You have two choices, you either get over it and move on or you leave. And I have done a pretty good job over 13 years of getting over a lot of different stuff—

MN: Moving on, yeah.

KL: And you sorta cannot affect that anymore.

MN: And who on your panel represented the freelancer or the small company?

KL: Both—Jason Garber now works for a start-up. He worked with me at AOL for a while. He works for start-up of 10 people. Thomas Vander Wal works for himself. He is a single-person company. Cindy Li does freelancing and works in a small design firm and Leslie Jensen-Inman is a professor at The University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. We had, they all had broad experience in different size organizations. So, Cindy Li has done the start-up thing and AOL—

MN: So, what are the particular challenges for a Web designer or developer in a large organization?

KL: If you work at, you know, mass market Internet scale building things it's a totally different exercise. You have to go out of the door being able to handle millions of request a day and you can’t really cut corners.

Like, if you are start-up, you can sort of just throw something out there. Slap it together, throw it out there and see what happens and then worry about the scale when you get there. If you get that network effect of, you know, an AIM, an AOL, a Yahoo or Google, you can’t do that.

You can’t just like say, "okay, eeeeeh, lets push it out and see what happens," because it will melt without getting even half the traffic that it possibly could.

MN: Yeah, understandable.

KL: So, you have to think a lot more about infrastructure and even, even on the frontend side you have to think a lot more about caching, geo distribution of content, you know, edge caching of assets and that kind of stuff. There aren't books on it.

And so when we, when Christopher, brought up the idea of doing the book. Well, lets do, you know a real explanation of how this works and how something in a very large company goes from beginning to—

MN: So, it’s about applying Web standards to, for a large Web presence.

What have you heard people talking about? What’s the buzz at South By this year that's new. Is there anything new that’s caught your eye?

KL: There is a lot more talk about OpenID this year. There seem to be a lot more business panels. There is one this afternoon on bootstrapping, which we have never had a panel on bootstrapping your own start-up before.

Honestly, I've been so busy doing my panel and a product that I built was up for a Web award last night, so I was little stressed out.

MN: Did it win?

KL: We won in the CSS Category. It’s a site called Ficlets. Speaking of a scale, it was the complete opposite. AOL let us go off as an experiment last year.

MN: Oh, so it’s an AOL site and you won a Web Award.

KL: Yeah, for the CSS category.

MN: That should be a nice thing to go back to Virginia with and tell them.

KL: Yes, it's a little statue.

MN: Great. That’s wonderful. It's really nice taking with you, Kevin.

KL: Yeah, thank you.

MN: And thank you for coming by.

KL: Yeah, no problem, it was fun.

Twitter-Sized An Event Apart Presentation Summaries

I'm not one that you might call a copious note taker. I burn out quickly listening to presentations and tend to focus on note taking rather than digesting what is being said.

Rather than long notes, I go another direction. In order to help remind me of what I witnessed during the two-day event known as An Event Apart Boston 2008, I decided to run through the presentations and write-up a Twitter-sized summary of each one.

Title Slide

Understandng Web Design by Jeffrey Zeldman
Web designers are very talented people who should get more respect. Calls user centered design something else: "Empathy Web Design".
The Lessons of CSS Frameworks by Eric Meyer
Eric examined nine CSS frameworks, but says they all aren't right for you. You should make your own or adapt them to your liking.
Good Design Ain't Easy by Jason Santa Maria, 30
Designers should be story telling. Talks about the history of print design and how that can bleed over to Web design.
Web Application Hierarchy by Luke Wroblewski
Give your users the "confidence to take actions". Telling people visually what to do on your site is good. Learn graphic design principles.
Design to Scale by Doug Bowman
We respect proportions. McDonald's scales, Starbucks sells experience, not Java. Quotes Paul Rand: "Simplicity is not the goal."
When Style Is The Idea by Christopher Fahey
Quoted Paul Rand, Stewart Brand, etc. Style encourages innovation. Style sells, style happens. Fashion has a vocabulary, does Web design?
Scent of a Web Page: Getting Users to What They Want by Jared Spool
Five types of pages users encounter: Target Contnet, Gallery, Department, Store, Home Page. Users have a purpose when coming to your site.
Debug/Reboot by Eric Meyer
CSS debugging is a good way to tease out things that might be trouble. Not many people use Link Checkers. Reviews his CSS Reset rules.
Comps and Code: Couples' Therapy by Ethan Marcotte
It's okay to admit mistakes. Covers three projects and problems he encountered. Treat everyone on your team like a client and prototype!
Principles of Unobtrusive JavaScript by ppk
Unobtrusive JavaScript is more like a philosophy. Use JS wisely for improved accessibility and Web standards-based sites.
Standards in the Enterprise by Kimberly Blessing
To get Web standards into large companies, you need to follow the Circle of Standards: train, review, document, repeat. Buy our book!
Designing the User Experience Curve by Andy Budd
People pay for the experience of Starbucks, not for the coffee. Pay attention to detail, pay attention to your customer.
Designing the Next Generation of Web Apps by Jeff Veen
"We are awash in data." Make data meaningful to your users. Another spotting of Napoleon March to Moscow infographic in a presentation.

The Nashville Voices That Matter Web Design Conference

I’ve recently returned from Voices That Matter in Nashville. As Jeremy noted earlier, this conference is a little different in that the common thread was that each speaker had written a book or is working on a book that will be published relatively soon through Pearson Education. If you don’t know who they are, I’m pretty sure you might have heard of New Riders or PeachPit books. 

This approach created a rather eclectic and engaging mix of topics in the crowd. One morning you are watching Steve Krug on stage having a conversation about usability and books. Then in the afternoon you have sessions from Kimberly Blessing talking about managing internal standards for Web development. 

As someone who is more of a generalist, working on almost every part of a site’s development, Voices That Matter was a refreshing change of pace on the conference scene. In fact, when I saw the speaker listing earlier in the year, I made a point to stay for the whole conference. 

In addition to the wide range of topics, the attendance is way lower than SXSW. So, if you wanted to follow up with someone at the conference, you could. You didn’t, like I had to for SXSW this past year, send an email to friends to haggle meeting locations and times. 

To help promote PeachPit’s Adapting to Web Standards, I was humbled to be one of the three CSS speakers that includes Charles Wykes-Smith and Zoe Gillenwater, I took the opportunity for my session to be a bit inspirational and showcase how several everyday CSS techniques, applied at the right time can create something visual interesting. 

Speaking of inspiration, there was the city itself, Nashville.

In taking it’s lengthy nickname “The Athens of the South” to the extreme, there’s a full-scale replica of Parthenon. As a reformed high school Latin geek, visiting the replica was a little bittersweet. If only the National Junior Classical League held their National convention there, I might have studied more for the Certamen.

Then there was Hatch Show Print, a printing house that’s been making music promotional posters since the late 1800s. The letter blocks they use today or pretty much the same ones they still use in music posters for R.E.M., Modest Mouse, Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson and so on. 

So, looking back at it, Voices That Matter was a wonderful, intimate conference. Hope to be back next year.