I got to attend the An Event Apart conference in Chicago this week. An Event Apart is the in person version of the popular web magazine A List Apart, which bills itself as “explores the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on web standards and best practices.”

This is a different style of conference than what I am used to, and the change was refreshing in some ways. Normally I am used to a conference where they have somewhere between one and three keynotes over the course of the conference in a massive room. All other sessions take place in between 3 and 50 simultaneous breakout sessions. At An Event Apart there were no keynotes or breakouts. All of the sessions took place in the same room and all of the attendees saw the same session. It was great in that you did not have any angst to go through in picking out which session to attend (always stressful because you have the fear of picking the “wrong session “). The other benefit is that during breaks everyone is talking about the same topics, because you just saw the exact same session. Here is a quick overview and some thoughts from today’s sessions.

Secrets of the CSS Jedi Session

Eric Meyer is a CSS guru, it is hard to have a conversation about CSS with his name popping up as part of the conversation. He gave the opening presentation called “CSS Jedi “, in which he built around his demo of how to take an HTML Table of sales data and strictly using CSS was able to turn it into a bar graph. You can see the before and after on his web site here.

Key Takeaway
You can’t completely divorce the content from the presentation. We get really hung up on the “separate your content from the presentation” mantra when we talk about the value of CSS. I think everyone would agree that using CSS is the right thing to do, but his point was that you have to have some presentation built into your content, or you can’t do any styling. His example, which was very insightful, was that you can’t apply CSS formatting to a text file, because there is no structure to anchor to.

Writing the User Interface Session

Jeffrey Zeldman gave this talk on the importance of copy in the design process. “Design helps people read less” and “Copy is the easiest and cheapest part of you site to fix” where two of the key messages. It re-enforced the Copywriting is Interface Design section of Getting Real by 37 Signals.

Designing Your Way out of a Paper Bag Session

Jason Santa Maria is the creative director for Happy Cog Studios and this session was insights into his personal design process. Jason showed us a lot of the projects that he had worked on in the past (some of the stuff that he has done includes the current version of A List Apart, the new WordPress logo and the redesign of dictionary.com). The most remarkable part of his session was that he would show you the evolution of the design process. He would show you “before” images of sites, sketches he made in his sketchbook, early prototypes he called “Grey Blocks “, later drafts and finally the finished product. It was really neat to see evolution of the design process.

Search Analytics for Fun and Profit Session

Lou Rosenfeld is the co-author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites (an awesome book) and his talk was focused about how to look at search logs and gain insights into what your customers are looking for. He gave a great explanation of “the long tail” with real data from a search engine log.

Interesting points

  • Many search results are seasonal (searches for the word “football” are at a peak in September and October)

  • The #10 search result on a typical search results page (1-10) is actually clicked more often than the number 6,7,8 and 9 results on the same page

  • Don’t underestimate the value of a manually configured “Best Best” on a search result for common searches

  • Most search results fall into the Zipf distribution (where the name “the long tail” come from), but you should not ignore the queries that people do in the second half of the distribution. You can find some really interesting results.

The Seven Lies of Information Architecture

Liz Danzico is an information architect with Happy Cog Studios. Her presentation focused on the 7 rules that you can break, including: Navigation must always be consistent, There is a magic number sever (plus or minus two), and Users must get to all parts of the site all the time. One of the neatest things about her presentation was that to prove some of her points she would show a portion of a screen shot and ask you what it is. We (as human) develop a natural pattern recognition. Do you recognize what this is despite the small snip?:

Takeout Menu

Interface Design Jugging

Dan Cederholm walked us through a lot of interesting graphic and design issues. He did this via a guided tour of his sample site “Toupee Pal”. He then shifted gears and started talking about Microformats. I mentioned Microformats last week in Madison, WI during my presentation on Mashups. Check them out, they have now achieved sufficient mass to pay attention to them.

Attendee Party

I am not going to blog at the attendee party. I am going to hit “publish” and head over to Fadó Irish Pub. Look for another update tomorrow.