Ten big ideas from BlendConf 2014

I went to BlendConf again this year. As with last year, I left with a great mix of inspiration and new ideas. Here were some of my biggest takeaways:

1. Some sites aren’t worth saving; build something better instead

Honolulu Answers screen captureJennifer Pahlka from Code for America talked about different ways the web can be used to make government work better with everyday people. One really interesting idea: old, horrible government websites may not always be salvageable, so sometimes a better option is to start over with something fresh, clean, crowd-sourced, and more useful, like Honolulu Answers or Oakland Answers. Instead of trying to overhaul a bloated, outdated government site, they studied the data, Code for America figured out what were the top things people were looking for when they came to the official city site, then built a site designed to answer those questions clearly and quickly. My take away from this — which can apply to almost any organization — is that sometimes a redesign isn’t the best idea. Starting over with something entirely different might often be the better investment of time and money.

2. No one puts designers in a corner!

Paul Boag called on designers to break away from the idea that they are cogs in service departments and embrace their bigger, more vital role in the increasingly digial professional world. Digital work shouldn’t be “put in a box” or “bolted to the side” of business: it touches every aspect of business in 2014: it “impacts every part of the business from how we interact with customers to how we empower employees.” Boag pushed for designers and developers to shake off their passive tendencies and to aggressively push digital from the margins of organizations to a more central role, promoting a blueprint for designers to lead “digital transformation” within organizations big and small. “It’s time for fight or flight,” he pressed, urging to opt for the former.

3. With great design comes great responsibility

Mike Monteiro speaking at BlendConfNot to be outdone, Mike Monteiro reminded designers (by which is also includes anyone with “UX,” “UI,” or “Developer” in their title) that the work we do matters, and often in a way that impacts people in significant ways. Monteiro chided designers from being, among other things, lazy, things, timid, passive, greedy, cowardly, and reckless. He argued that good designers take risks, make mistakes, and face plenty of setbacks: “Never trust a designer who has never been punched in the mouth.”

He told the crowd to accept their responsibility for their work and its impact. Designers, he argued, have four fundamental responsibilities: to the world (don’t fill it up with meaningless crap), to the craft (represent the profession well; contribute to it with writing, speech, and teaching), to clients (you owe it to them to do good work and tell them when they’re wrong), and to yourself (your work defines who you are).

4. CSS motion is widely supported now (and awesome); but use it right

As a recovering Flash animator/designer, I’ve generally flinched at the notion of bringing motion and animation back into my projects. But Val Head showed how CSS animations are easy to use and widely supported by most browsers. She provided four key principles for web animations: stay flexible with how motion will react to user interaction, don’t create obstacles for users, remember readability, and take care that the motion matches the message you’re trying to send. She also used the phrase “number barf” multiple times, which may have been the highlight of my afternoon.

5. Inventive web layouts are easier now; why not use them?

Jen Simmons urged her audience to break out of their predictable design ruts and keep an open mind to different approaches, now that CSS and modern web browser are supporting stuff like CSS transforms, viewport inits, CSS shapes, and flexbox. Web design is losing a lot of its limitations; if anything, CSS and browsers aren’t playing catch-up anymore; designers are the ones who are behind and need to learn to better use the available tools.

6. “We want to feel as if there’s a real person in there”

Two chipmunk figures with the caption Researcher Pamela Pavilscak studies web users and finds that the happier user feels when on a site, the more likely they are to stick around and do something. But what makes web users happy? Her data show that when people experience a site that makes them feel autonomy (I can do this), control (I feel less anxious), and mastery (I’ve got this down), they feel happier on a site. Put more simply, if a site feels “easy,” a user is likely to feel happy about it. Web designs are built for the client or the company’s sense of what’s important, not what the customer wants or needs. As one user put it, “Most big companies sound like they are talking to themselves about themselves.” We want to feel like a real person is there, not a marketing robot. Pavilscak says we build sites with a natural “voice” that makes a better impression; or as Natalie Downe put it, “design as if we’re friends in real life.”

7. “You can’t always make the interface perfect, but you can make it usable”

Aaron Gustafson showed how we can make web forms and how to make them better for everyone, on big screens and small ones, and for those who can’t see screens at all. My key takeaway was that a few extra bits of detail in the structure of form elements can make a huge accessibility improvement. ARIA labels, of which I admit to being woefully ignorant, are simple and tremendously beneficial for users. Also, was I the last one to know about Web Standards Sherpa? What a tremendous resource!

8. A website should sell a story before a product or service

Content strategist Michelle Salater argued that the key to boosting user engagement or sales is to tell a good narrative. “Story creates the connection between prospects and your company”; it can compel visitors to take action or buy service or product. Salater argues that a good web narrative has three elements: a hook (tap into the wants, needs, desires of your prospect), a solution (show them how you or your product can meet their needs or solve their problem), and character (people or pets that can provide an emotional connection to what you’re offering).

9. Good branding is built with good questions

Christy Harner talked about how she works with clients to create a strong brand. Ultimately, she argues, it’s less about color and splashy logo design, and more about good interviewing. The brand is always tied closely with the founder’s identity, background, intent, and style. It should also be driven by the audience and how you want them to see you. And finally, a good brand considers the competition and considers how to contrast themselves with competitors. But all of that information comes from careful research and a lot of questions with the client — the more you listen, learn, and know about your client and their product, the better job you can do. Another key idea: include your clients in the branding process. It will help them feel invested and involved in its creation and less detached from what you ultimately create. You’re still the designer and expert, but it’s important to make the process feel inclusive if you want the client to feel heard and invested with what you design for them.

10. Bermon Painter has the best mustache in North Carolina. He also puts on a hell of a conference.

Bermon PainterI mean, you can’t really argue with this, can you?

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