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Rustbelt Refresh Recap 2015

The @aztekweb crew attended one of our favorite industry conferences Rust Belt Refresh for the third year in a row. For those of you who don't know about Rust Belt Refresh, it's one of the most informative and well-run web conferences you can attend. And best of all, it's held right in the heart of Downtown Cleveland (so we can walk there).

Here is a recap of some of our favorite takeaways:


Derek Featherstone

Extreme Design

Josh: "Extreme Design" sounds like building a website while riding a BMX bike on the back of a great white shark. But it's not. It's actually about designing for extreme user cases — "stress testing" your site, in Derek's words. It's a bit like using personas, but instead of imagining a typical user, you imagine one on the very edges of the population curve. That user might have low vision, extreme color blindness, huge hands ("design for Andre the Giant"), or no hands at all. Designing for these extreme cases is a challenge, but in the long run it creates a better design for ALL users.

Justin: In his RustBelt Refresh presentation ‘Extreme Design’ Derek Featherstone asks us to consider proximity and pattern of use for users with accessibility issues in our designs. Using ‘chunks’ of information in close proximity can help users with and without disabilities class information together better. Derek suggests using the 'Straw test', a test where the designer uses their clenched hand to form a small straw spaced hole and inspect very compact spaces of a design. This type of grouping is especially helpful for users with low vision or other vision-related disabilities. ‘Extreme Design’ is designing for extreme cases of use and accessibility. When we design for extreme cases we catch most of the users in the middle as well which is an added benefit to considering ‘extreme’ situations. A great early stage example of designing for extremes is the headers prototype Featherstone shared. This unique design pattern brings table headers down right next to the table cell, this not only helps vision-impaired users but also the general population associate the data properly.


Designing on the Z-Axis

Dave: Wren's talk was an excellent reminder of the purpose of animation in design. That it should never be gratuitous, and it should always enhance the interaction.

Justin: This was a great talk by a designer that is in touch with the changing nature of the web. Wren noted early on in her talk that “Simple websites are being eaten up by square space and easy website builders — complexity and informed decision making is why we hire humans.“ With this change in web development we are now designing products and interfaces not just simple content websites. The z-axis comes into play as applications and websites become ‘deeper’ and require more layers of interaction. Wren makes the point that using layers can help us simplify design and reflect hierarchy in complex applications. We should always be ‘designing for information not just screens’.

Jim: Wren provided many examples of well thought out design with layers for mobile devices. Subtle and quick transitions make it easier for users to comprehend what is happening.


The Path to Performance

Josh: Website performance is something I know we should be focusing on big time, but it just never seems to really happen. Katie's talk renewed my interest and resolve to make this more of a priority at Aztek. She mentioned two books I need to read, "Designing for Performance" by Lara Hogan and "Responsible Responsive Design" by Scott Jehl, and she also mentioned her podcast which I intend to start listening to. The most useful and interesting thing I took away was her claim that a 20% increase in speed is the threshold of "noticeable" improvement.

Justin: Performance can no longer take a back seat to other development requirements. We can help by first explaining why performance matters to the client. Discuss performance from the sales stage onward and with the full team. Show your clients their competitor’s page speeds as a real world example. “If the user does not see your page it does not matter how good it looks.”


Emotional Intelligence in Design

Josh: Beth was funny and engaging as a speaker, and it was interesting to hear about all the challenges she's overcome in her career. I appreciated her concern for the emotional journey of the users she designs for, and I'm glad that this issue is getting more focus as the web matures.

Dave: Beth's examples of how users can be emotionally affected in ways the designer didn't intend was refreshing. Celebrating a mother's day sale when your user recently lost their mom can have an undesirable outcome. And while that example was a bit of a downer, her talk was filled with humor and wit.


Letting Go of Workflow Baggage

Dave: I loved Ben's constant openness and willingness to share his knowledge with our industry. The idea of doing the project price sheet with the client so they can see first-hand how their wishlist drives the scope and priorities was a huge idea. It was also refreshing to hear him say that even he has to say to clients, "I don't know the best way to do your project best — yet. But you and I can figure it out together." Clients sometimes expect us to the all-knowing, all-powerful, best practice wielding experts of the Universe, Ben reminds us that in reality, we don't know everything, and we certainly don't know everything at the beginning of a project.

Also huge was his concept of how to shape the "drag" on a project by influencing project stakeholders who are sabotaging their company's own project and turn them into advocates. It starts with a little exercise to identify these stakeholders and it takes a little extra energy to convert them. But, as ben demonstrated, it can have huge payoffs for the project and team involved.

Justin: The developer and the client often have very different starting places in the design process. These difference in thinking, culture, and project management can cause ‘drag’ on a project. We need to work with clients and find the best process ‘our workflow should be as responsive as our sites’.

Finding who will actually work on the project, and who is a saboteur or an advocate are points that Callahan uses to reduce the ‘drag’ on each project that his team works on. He mentions using the language of the client to help reduce confusion and move them toward an efficient way of working together.


Content-First Design

Jim: I want to work with Stephanie Hay. Her quirky fun attitude towards developing content without even thinking about the interface is really refreshing and inspiring. I enjoyed the idea of designing the conversation on the spot with no focus on the interface. It's a refreshing take on process which I can't wait to implement.

Dave: My favorite idea from Stephanie's talk was the notion of tackling content and site requirements like a conversation. If you just talk through a website interaction as if you were dealing with a "real" person in real life, you will expose what needs to happen, how the tone of the copy should work, what parts you hadn't thought of yet, and so on. It's so simple I felt stupid for not having been doing this all along. Furthermore, this is a cheap, low-risk way to design and develop content — no expensive software or tools needed, all you need is a text document.

Also, providing answers the moment users are ready for it. Again, obvious but important to remember. Sometimes, interfaces overlook the time and place the answer is actually relevant.


Compassionate Design

Jim: Eric really hit home that you have to try to think of all outcomes for any user. While you’re trying to make something pretty and beautiful, remind yourself someone else might not look at it that way. Do your best to cover all sides of your product you’re trying to present.

Josh: I'm very grateful to Eric for his brave and touching discussion. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to deal with the loss of his daughter, and for him to turn it into an educational opportunity for the rest of us, to teach us how to design more compassionately for people in crisis, is quite an accomplishment. His claim that there are no "edge cases", only "stress cases", was very compelling to me, as was his mention of the "10th Man Protocol" from "World War Z".

Did you go to Rust Belt Refresh this year? What were your favorite tid-bits? If not, we hope to see you next year.

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