Handing back control
An Event Apart Seattle was most excellent. This year, the AEA team are trying something different and making each event three days long. That’s a lot of mindblowing content!
What always fascinates me at events like these is the way that some themes seem to emerge, without any prior collusion between the speakers. This time, I felt that there was a strong thread of giving control directly to users:
Margot described this in terms of vulnerability for the brand, but the kind of vulnerability that leads to trust.
Sarah talked about it in terms of respect—respecting the privacy of users, and respecting the way that they want to use your services. Call it compassion, call it empathy, or call it just good business sense, but providing these kind of controls in an interface is an excellent long-term strategy.
In Val’s animation talk, she did a deep dive into
prefers-reduced-motion, a media query that deliberately hands control back to the user.
Even in a CSS-heavy talk like Jen’s, she took the time to explain why starting with meaningful markup is so important—it’s because you can’t control how the user will access your content. They may use tools like reader modes, or Pocket, or have web pages read aloud to them. The user has the final say, and rightly so.
In his CSS talk, Eric reminded us that a style sheet is a list of strong suggestions, not instructions.
Beth’s talk was probably the most explicit on the theme of returning control to users. She drew on examples from beyond the world of the web—from architecture, urban planning, and more—to show that the most successful systems are not imposed from the top down, but involve everyone, especially those most marginalised.
And even in my own talk on service workers, I raved about the design pattern of allowing users to save pages offline to read later. Instead of trying to guess what the user wants, give them the means to take control.
I was really encouraged to see this theme emerge. Mind you, when I look at the reality of most web products, it’s easy to get discouraged. Far from providing their users with controls over their own content, Instagram won’t even let their customers have a chronological feed. And Matt recently wrote about how both Twitter and Quora are heading further and further away from giving control to their users in his piece called Optimizing for outrage.
Still, I came away from An Event Apart Seattle with a renewed determination to do my part in giving people more control over the products and services we design and develop.
I spent the first two days of the conference trying to liveblog as much as I could. I find it really focuses my attention, although it’s also quite knackering. I didn’t do too badly; I managed to write cover eleven of the talks (out of the conference’s total of seventeen):
- Slow Design for an Anxious World by Jeffrey Zeldman
- Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World by Margot Bloomstein
- Designing for Personalities by Sarah Parmenter
- Generation Style by Eric Meyer
- Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS by Rachel Andrew
- Designing Intrinsic Layouts by Jen Simmons
- How to Think Like a Front-End Developer by Chris Coyier
- From Ideation to Iteration: Design Thinking for Work and for Life by Una Kravets
- Move Fast and Don’t Break Things by Scott Jehl
- Mobile Planet by Luke Wroblewski
- Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean