On January 30th, over three hundred developers and designers descended upon the Hyatt Hotel in Vancouver, Canada for Web Directions North.
The conference kicked off with a keynote by Jeffrey Zeldman, one of the founding members of The Web Standards Project. Jeffrey’s presentation covered a 10-year history of the project, the obstacles faced and its achievements to date. He also gave an overview on selling Web Standards to clients, a task that many in the audience face on a constant basis. He concluded the sales pitch with “SEO made easy. SEO made honest,” a reference to the clean code that CSS based sites use.
He briefly mentioned the version targeting that’s being implemented in IE8, a rather controversial subject that we blogged about very recently, and has been covered by many others. I’m sure the developers from the Internet Explorer team who are here at the conference are fielding quite a few questions (and hearing quite a few objections as well).
Second up was Josh Williams, who told his personal story of how he moved from being a designer to an entrepreneur by creating a saleable product and working for himself, rather than clients. When he asked the audience how many had worked on a project for a client that was doomed to fail, despite their best efforts, more than half the hands in the room went up – a telling sign of the ingrained knowledge and instinct that many developers and designers have from their long-term exposure and experience in the industry.
Jonathan Snook, a fellow Canadian and co-author of “The Art & Science of CSS“, gave the crowd an overview of all the major AJAX frameworks, most of which he has personally used.
One of the most popular sessions in the day, which had people dragging chairs in from other rooms, was Jared Spool’s session entitled “What makes a design seem intuitive?”. Through numerous, humorous examples (including one where Avis marked the OPTIONAL form fields with an asterisks (*), thereby stumping users who thought that a “Middle Name” was mandatory). Jared made the point that intuitive design happens when the knowledge gap between current knowledge (what users already know), and target knowledge (what users need to know to accomplish a task), is small.
He showed examples of GTalk, Yahoo Messenger, AOL Messenger, Skype and other messaging clients and how they dealt with the knowledge gap required to setup their respective clients. Strategies ranged from requiring users to know firewall and port settings off the top of their head (bad), to auto-detect features (good), to contextual help that assisted them in making jump the knowledge gap (good), and help links in GTalk that took users to generic help pages that had nothing to do with the task at hand (bad). He made the point that tools like wizards, such as the one that manages the Mail Merge function in Microsoft Word, are an ideal way to walk people through otherwise complicated tasks which would otherwise require a great leap across the knowledge gap.
Overall, the first day was a great success with solid information and very good organization.