5 things I learned at UI17

User Interface 17 is the annual conference for web designers, information architects, and usability professionals. Having just attended User Focus – a smaller, regional chapter meeting in Washington, DC – for a day (check out my seven minute clip and interview with Vanguard’s Ray van Hilst), I was pumped to make the trip to Boston to nerd out on all new things web, mobile, and design related.

All of these items deserve blog posts on their topic alone (well, maybe not #2 and #4), but for the essence of time, I’ll cut to the chase on my experience there.

1. Tabtops, phablets, oh boy! Responsive design ain’t a choice anymore.

I spent my first day of the conference immersed in a day-long workshop with the incredible Luke Wroblewski, well known for his “mobile first” approach to web design. The speed and diversity of smartphones, tablets, and laptops hitting the market are giving companies, designers, and content creators a challenge from hell. We already see the lines blurring between what a smartphone, PC, laptop, and tablet are defined as with the latest tabtops and phablets hitting the market, so designing for 4 or 5 different devices is a thing of the past. We need to be designing for the future. How do you keep up and design a pleasant user experience for your target audiences, who use very different devices with different surfaces, widths, features, and behaviors? Responsive design is our best bet. In this workshop I worked with my table, comprised of other designers and consultants from around the world, to create a multi-level menu with different “breakpoints,” prioritizing content based on size, shape, and behaviors allowing for the optimal user experience.

2. We have a certain “look” about us.

If designers and user focus geeks had their own mascot, it would have black-framed glasses and be wearing plaid. I guess developers and those Silicon Valley kids can own the hoodie. This, of course, was discussed with high importance on Twitter.

3. “When the marketing people win, a kitten dies.” – Jared Spool

Jared Spool, the user focus wizard and man behind UI17 himself, gave a great session on hyperlinks, a largely overlooked topic that needs to get more attention. He had every attendee in the room chanting in unison, “The back button is the button of doom.” When marketing teams choose to blast all the content they want you to see on the homepage, not the meaty content that the user is after, they’re creating a bad user experience. Essentially, we’re animals, and like the fox, we’re good at hunting (or “following the scent,” as Jared says), but don’t make us hunt for good content. Give it to us up front. [Check out Jared’s blog posts highlighting this discussion.]

4. Web designers get way better tchotchkes and snacks.

Amazing pens, journals, cupcakes, and whoopie pies. If you were looking to gain knowledge and a nice pre-holiday gut over the course of 3 days, UI17 was the place for you.

5. “For most orgs, their CMS looks like their database got drunk and vomited all over the screen.” – Karen McGrane

There was definitely not a shortage of Tweetable quotes at UI17. Karen McGrane discussed the need for designing adaptive content, not just mobile first, and training our content creators to develop content in the same method as journalists, where title, lead, description, full article, and audio files are a package deal for the multiple ways and channels through which content is shared. She used NPR as an example of an organization doing it right. This requires good metadata and a strong content management system as well as strong management. She stressed that, “We have to stop giving in when our authors demand a CMS that works just like Microsoft Word.”

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