With a much-needed weekend of relaxation and sleep between me and Web Essentials 2005 (WE05), I can now look at the experience in hindsight and see what I took away.
The main benefit I got from the conference was exposure to some of the most brilliant and influential thinkers working on making the Web better. People like Tantek Çelik, Molly Holzschlag, Jeffrey Veen, Eric Meyer and Douglas Bowman all proved to be quite accessible and good-natured, playing the part of punters as much as presenters. Getting glimpses of the problems they’re working on, and what they take for granted, set a powerful benchmark for me to strive for in my own work.
Since I spend my days staying on top of the Web, I already had a pretty strong grasp on most of the technical topics that were covered. I had hoped for a little more in the way of cutting-edge, experimental work, but the level presented was closer “state of the art”, or “best practice”. As a result, there weren’t many purely educational opportunities for me at the conference; but for those who showed up with little or no knowledge of things like AJAX and microformats, the experience would have been truly enlightening.
There are two powerful impressions I took away from the conference. The first was a vision of accessibility as a first class citizen in the daily considerations of Web designers. Having never actually seen a screen reader in action, let alone used one to fill in a form, I found my mind boggled at some of the work that accessibility experts are doing today.
I confess I had expected professional accessibility experts to be little more than “standards inspectors”, ticking off WCAG guidelines and tut-tutting presentational markup to justify exorbitant consulting fees. Instead, I got to meet and learn from many pragmatic, technically-minded, code-savvy experts who spent their days exploring the divide between W3C guidelines and real-world assistive technologies like screen readers and screen magnifiers. The best example of this would have been Derek Featherstone’s impressive, accessible crossword puzzle, a feat of CSS and DHTML wizardry—from an accessibility expert!
All up, a wholly inspiring and eye-opening two days. If I took one thing away from WE05, it was a sense of my blind spots. With a comprehensive look at the state of the art in Web design from every angle, I knew immediately what I had to go home and study up on so as not to be left behind. Worth the money and airfare? Yes, but perhaps not for reasons that you’d be able to justify to your employer.