Web Essentials 2005: Day One

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It’s very late and my fellow SitePointers are very drunk, but it’s been an excellent day here at Web Essentials 2005 (WE05) in Sydney.

As promised, here are my from-the-hip reviews of the first day’s sessions that I attended. All of these sessions will become available as podcasts, and no doubt a lot of the examples and presentation materials will become available online in the coming days.

Update: I mistakenly attributed something to Maxine Sherrin that was actually in Molly Holzschlag’s session. Fixed below using Çelik-approved markup!

Before the day got started, conference runner Maxine Sherrin said a few words of introduction. She did take a moment, however, to point out that there are still very few meaningful certifications for Web professionals, and that we still lack a meaningful standard nomenclature for how we describe our work in this field (are you a designer? a Web author? a content producer? a technologist? a programmer? an application developer? …or something else?). Food for thought.

State of the Web, 2005, Molly Holzschlag

As the keynote speaker, Molly spoke in glowing terms about the major presenters at the conference, basically doing what any good keynote speaker should: making the attendees feel good about the time and money they have spent to be here.

She did mention that Web standards have broken through many barriers in the past year, gaining a foothold in the consciousness of even the most pragmatic of Web designers; however, standards still have a long way to go by her reckoning.

Molly then spoke about silos of thought, a metaphor she used to describe the disparate bodies of knowledge that must come together to build modern Web sites and applications. She then pointed out that we still lack a meaningful standard nomenclature for how we describe our work in this field (are you a designer? a Web author? a content producer? a technologist? a programmer? an application developer? …or something else?). When our area of expertise is so important, why don’t we have specific and useful language to describe it? For me, this tied in with Maxine’s point about a lack of meaningful certifications.

If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that the killer applications that are on everyone’s lips today arise from those silos of thought coming together in unexpected ways. And that it’s this trend that’s fuelling the semantic web (as distinguished from the Semantic Web)—ingenious uses of existing standards to make things happen now, not when the W3C gets around to finalizing the recommendation.

The Elements of Meaningful XHTML, Tantek Çelik

Tantek did focus mainly on how particular XHTML elements should be used to achieve semantically meaningful goals, but he went beyond the basics. Here, in rapid-fire form, are the ideas he put forward:

  • <address> is not for street addresses, it’s for the website contact information
  • When quoting someone, you should put <cite> around that person’s name, and <blockquote cite=”url“> around the quote itself.
  • <del> and <ins> are perfectly suited to updating blog posts after the fact
  • The semantics of tables can be made very specific (and very stylable in standards compliant browsers) using the axis and headers attributes of table header and cell tags, respectively.

And when the individual tags of XHTML fail you, you can combine them to create even richer semantics—a technique Tantek has dubbed XHTML Compounds. All up, nothing terribly earth-shattering, but plenty of good ideas for achieving richer semantic meaning in your markup.

At the end of this session, an evacuation alarm went off (quite suspiciously) just as Tantek was asked to answer a tough question about the browser compatibility of one of his examples. Everyone was ushered outside to wait for the fire department to check out what was apparently an explosion of dust at a building site next door. Of course, because we were now outside, we all got a good lungful of that very dust—much coughing and sneezing ensued. Here’s hoping it wasn’t asbestos!

Beyond Usability: Designing The Complete User Experience, Jeffrey Veen

Jeffrey gave a hugely entertaining and inspiring talk, but when it comes down to it all he really did was give a quick summary of classic user-centric design principles, such as top-down vs bottom-up design. These principles apply as much today as ever, but if you’ve had any kind of Human-Computer Interface training in the past, this was really just review.

From Comp To Code: Pulling A List Apart Together, Eric Meyer

My expectations were right on the money on this one, although Eric didn’t present a single line of code. What he did do was take us through each of the decisions he made in translating a designer’s Photoshop comp into a CSS page layout.

At each stage, he would observe a characteristic of the target design and eliminate CSS layout options that couldn’t produce the desired outcome. For example, a full-width footer and arbitrary column heights meant that CSS positioning wouldn’t work, leaving the floated box techniques of faux columns and liquid bleach to be considered.

I came away from this session with a vision of a design process with a “CSS architect” who makes decisions about what techniques to use based on the requirements of the design, and then hands the coding and browser-specific fixes/hacks over to the code monkeys. Eric even went as far as to suggest that this architect role could one day be fulfilled by an automated expert system.

Improving Accessibility of Forms, Roger Hudson

This session was actually a lot more basic than I was expecting, but the experience of watching Roger struggle to get a modern screen reader to behave for the demo was enlightening in its own right. Lucas Chan, one of our PHP guns, walked out describing the experience of navigating the Web today with a screen reader as “maddening”—and that was just with the relatively simplistic examples presented in this talk.

Some quick take-aways:

  • A <label> tag surrounding a form field and its label text is ignored by many screen readers
  • A <label> tag with a for attribute pointing to the ID of a form field works a lot more often
  • Nested <fieldsets>, though endorsed by WaSP, are ignored by most screen readers
  • Radio buttons cannot be browsed using a screen reader without making a selection

It’s a shame this session was so crushed for time, but I think it made its point.

SVG—The Power And The Passion, Dean Jackson

It’s a bad sign when the most engaging part of a presentation is the prize giveaways at the end. It’s an even worse sign when the presenter gives away the best prize (a signed book by ZeldmanTim Berners-Lee and an original signed CSS spec manuscript) to a friend in the front row by asking “What primary school did I attend?”

SVG is an exciting technology ready to break through, if only it had a strong voice out there spreading the good word. Dean Jackson seems like a really nice guy, but he is not that voice.

I learned one thing in this session: apparently SVG is supported by a lot of mobile phones.

Redesign Redux: 10 Steps for Success, Kelly Goto

This session really wasn’t aimed at people like me; consequently, a lot of it went over my head. Offering her top ten tips on managing Web redesign projects—ranging from marketing to project lifecycles—Kelly was certainly an engaging speaker. She just covered a lot of stuff that I am not much into in a real hurry. Our manager Mark, however, thought the session was excellent, so it probably just wasn’t aimed at me.

Oh, and Kelly held up a rarely occurring bug in my Prius as a failure to engender customer trust. Now that’s low.

Zooming Out From The Trenches, Doug Bowman

Doug spent over 30 minutes of his 75–minute session telling us that he was about to make some predictions about the future, while slide after slide of gorgeous photography flicked by with vague one-liners like “nature as a system”. When he finally got around to making those predicitons, however, some of them were quite interesting.

Ideas for upcoming revolutions—like projected, interactive media, wireless connections and unlimited power sources for small devices, the sharing of private information like location, and accessibility for the poor and disadvantaged peoples of the world—gave us plenty of stuff to go away and think about.

Doug’s take on the future of CSS, sites with hundreds of style sheets for many device types (e.g. using CSS3 media queries) and user-selectable style sheets that could be applied to sites that support a standard “style API”, was as eye-opening as his caveat that someone could have a better idea and sweep all this XHTML/CSS/JavaScript stuff away overnight.

All up, I’m hearing a lot of inspiring things at this conference, and meeting a lot of really cool people, may of whom have really insightful things to say about what we’re doing here at SitePoint. I think I can already say with some confidence that SitePoint will be back next year for WE06.

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  • http://www.crystalcleardesigns.com ccdesigns

    Thanks Kevin. There is some great stuff here. I can’t wait for the podcasts to be posted. I wish I could have made it down there for this thing – I used to live in Sydney and I have to say I wouldn’t have minded to get out of Colorado for a week ;)

    I look forward to your coming blogs on the conference.

  • Mike Empuria

    This is above and beyond the call of duty – writing your blog whilst everyone else is partying! Thanks for this review Kevin it’s going to make choosing which podcasts to listen too much easier.

  • anty

    I would love to be at the WE05 but at least I have you posting this. Thank you very much!
    And I would like to know more about the “style API” idea, is there a link to a blog or something similar?
    Can’t wait for the podcasts, I’ve begun hearing podcasts only because I want to get as much information as possible form the WE05.
    greetings!

  • Dean Jackson

    Thanks for posting your review of WE05 day 1.

    The book I gave away was signed by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, not Jeffrey Zeldman (who I’d love to meet one day, for reasons described below).

    Kevin, could you say what you’d liked to have heard from my SVG presentation? I completely agree that SVG needs a powerful voice to spread the message and I agree even more strongly that I’m not that voice. I’m involved in the technical development, not in envangelism. I had originally intended to give more of a tutorial but I decided that the best way to find the voice the community needs is to give them a glimpse of what is possible. That’s how people like Doug Bowman, Dave Shea and Zeldman got hooked on CSS and went on to become the voices of the technology. None of these gurus are in the W3C group developing CSS. There is plenty of room for people like that in the SVG world. I obviously didn’t inspire you, which is a shame, but I doubt I would have had any more luck by giving a tutorial, even though it would have been a much easier topic for me to present. Anyway, I’d be interested to know what you would have liked to hear.

    Thanks.
    Dean – dino@w3.org

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  • Tantek
  • wendy phillips

    Dean, I’m afraid I have to agree with Kevin on the SVG presentation. I was keen to learn more about this and its practical applications, but the content lacked structure and was more of a ramble – it didn’t go anywhere. Others I spoke to felt the same. It costs a lot to get to these conferences and I’m not sure I will get to go again so I really need to get the best value for my company’s dollar – I also need to take something back to the rest of my team in order to justify going.

  • vargz

    Building on what I had experienced at last year’s WE04, Day 1 of WE05 didn’t dissapoint. It’s difficult to choose a standout session/speaker as they were all informative or inspiring in their own way. One thing I did notice was the content had stepped up a level, and I guess this will be the trend for each WE conference to come. It’s a good thing.

    Anyway, time for my 2 cents on the SVG controversy. I know little about SVG. I sat in on Dino’s presentation pretty much by accident, but I was glad I did. I knew little about SVG prior so for me it was a good insight into the possibilities for this technology. I think the ‘Geek-O-Meter’ rating of 5 (as on the program) was misleading (it was more a 2 rating) but may explain the change Dean spoke about from a tutorial to more of a preview and the dissapointment of those above, who were expecting more of a practical implentation then demonstrations.

    I think Dean held true to his style (having heard him speak before) and as he says himself, he isn’t an evangelist. He has presented SVG as a technologist. As the format matures, it will be up to us to find useful, practical and inspiring ways to use it. I know im excited about the possibilities. So thanks Dino, for your informative and entertaining session on SVG :)

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