atMedia: Real world application

Paul Boag

Yesterday I posted my thoughts on each session as I went along. Today I have decided not to post on each individual session but rather sum up the overall lessons to be learnt from this year’s show.

I have really enjoyed this year’s conference and have unsurprisingly learnt loads and met some great people. The trick is to now take what I have learnt and apply it to the real world.

This blog and podcast has always been aimed at two specific audiences:

  • Those that run and manage websites but aren’t web developers
  • Those that are web developers, but don’t have time to keep up with all the latest trends in this constantly evolving industry

A lot of what is written about web design is full of techno-babble and therefore incomprehensible to anybody who isn’t an ubergeek. The same is often true for web design conferences and atMedia was no exception. Discussions about WCAG 2.0, microformats and the DOM can often seem to have little relevance in the real world simply because they are not clearly explained in real world scenarios.

Bearing all of that in mind I have attempted to summarise the key issues raised from atMedia in such a way that they are relevant to the daily experience of the boagworld audience.

atMedia for website owners…

Pragmatic Accessibility

Probably the most depressing session at the conference was the one that discussed accessibility. I won’t bore you with the details, but sufficed to say the new accessibility guidelines that are currently being developed have some serious issues.

Many website owners have traditionally simply asked their web design agency to "make their site compliant with the accessibility guidelines". All they cared about was ticking the accessibility box so they didn’t get sued.

The lesson from atMedia is that you need to change that thinking. Accessibility needs to be more about finding the right solution for your users, rather than conforming to a generic checklist.

Are you more likely to be sued if you take this approach? No, not if you respond in a timely manner to any accessibility problems that your users identify.

Sites that work together

In the two atMedia conferences I have attended there has been more and more discussion about sharing information across multiple sites and in a variety of different ways. Whether it is turning contacts into downloadable business cards that can be taken into outlook or allowing events you show on your site to be published on other sites. Whatever the situation there are more ways than ever to share information. Not only is this an excellent way of getting your message in front of a larger audience it is also a great way of creating closer integration between websites.

Although this is still an evolving area I would encourage you to start thinking about what information on your site might be worth sharing and possibility some of the ways you would like to share it.

Also it is worth noting that there are a lot of other sites out there that allow you to integrate their content into your site. For example it is now easy to take Google maps and plug them right into your pages. In the closing panel of the conference the idea of sharing content between sites came out as the big area of growth over the next year, so it is definitely worth your attention.

Internet Explorer 7

Probably the most pressing issue for web site owners is the release of IE 7 within the next two or three months. It is vitally important that your site is checked in this new browser as changes to the way it works could mean that your site appears broken. Fortunately this is relatively easy to check by downloading the beta version of IE 7 and simply visiting your site. If you do spot problems, now is the time to contact your web design agency. But don’t worry, the fixes shouldn’t be that difficult or expensive.

More than just web pages

Without a doubt, the biggest shift in thinking between last year’s conference and this one, is in the area of web applications. What that means is that your website can now be more than just a collection of pages, but rather has the potential to behave more like a piece of software on your desktop. How does that apply to your site? Well, that depends. Let’s say that you have an events section. Instead of allowing users to click through a series of pages showing lists of events and then detailed information on an individual event, you can now show it as a calendar very similar to the one found in outlook. The key is that it is no longer necessary to wait while a new page loads but rather that information can appear instantly in the same way it would in a piece of software on your desktop.

Now it is worth saying that it is early days for this kind of technology and you might want to wait for the cost of development to come down. However, it is worth having a long hard look at your site and thinking about where it might be appropriate to add richer interactivity.

This isn’t the most straightforward of concepts to grasp so if you are left wondering what I am talking about then don’t panic. We will cover this subject in more depth later. However to get you started check out Google maps and then compare it with a site like Mapquest. Notice how on Mapquest everytime you zoom in or out the page reloads, while in Google maps it all happens without the refresh.

Don’t underestimate branding

Although this isn’t a new concept, it was really driven home in one of the sessions: you get what you pay for. It came up in a discussion about design and that great web design takes time. Often web design companies will cut corners on design in order to stay within a clients budget. This is unfortunate as research highlighted at the conference demonstrated that users make their mind up about a site based largely on how it looks. Once those first impressions have been formed it is very hard to overcome them no matter how good your content is.

The lesson to be learned here is that when you are looking at a web design companies proposal take particular note of how much time is dedicated to establishing the look and feel of your site.

Your site on a mobile phone

Without a doubt delivering the web through mobile devices like mobile phones is going to be a big growth area over the coming year. Already there are three times more mobile phones than personal computers, the vast majority of which can access the web. The question is; do you need to worry about this yet as a website owner? Well to some extent that depends. The key thing that came out of this conference is that mobile users want very different content from a user sitting at a PC. The chances are a user isn’t going to want to know about your company history while shopping in the high street. However they might be interested in comparing prices if you run an ecommerce site.

Even if you have content which might be useful to mobile users the current barrier to entry is very high. With so many mobile phones out there and so many different browsing experiences, creating a good mobile website is very difficult.

My advice is simple… wait. Wait for the industry to mature and standards to emerge. Although the mobile web is an exciting area it is early days and now is not the time for the majority of organisations to enter the market.

atMedia for busy web developers…

New accessibility guidelines: Don’t worry YET

So you have just begun to get your head around the WCAG 1.0 guidelines when you hear that the second version is about to be released. Don’t panic, you don’t have to worry about them just yet.

To be honest, it became quickly apparent from the session on these guidelines, that they are in a mess and not yet in a fit state to release. Even the accessibilit

y experts are havin
g trouble understanding them so I really wouldn’t waste your time at this stage.

The emphasis should be on creating the most accessible site you can irrespective of any particular set of "rules". That isn’t an excuse to slack off, but it should be seen as an opportunity to be pragmatic about the approach you take to accessibility.

Time to learn Javascript

If I had one message from last year’s conference it was "now is the time to learn standards". This year the message is "get your hands dirty with Javascript". Javascript is, without a doubt, having a real renaissance and it is a skill you should definitely develop whether you consider yourself a developer or a designer. More and more of your clients are going to be asking for some of the cool functionality that is found on the so called "web 2.0" sites and as these are mainly driven with Javascript you will need to brush up your skills. But beware, make sure the techniques you learn are up to date and that you get your head around concepts like unobtrusive Javascript, graceful degradation and progressive enhancement.

Preparing for Internet Explorer 7

As I am sure you are already aware IE 7 is going to be launched in the next couple of months. What you might not know is the new browser is going to be pushed out through windows update so you can expect this to become the dominant browser very quickly. Obviously this is an excellent opportunity to get some extra work from your clients (unless of course you are an in house designer in which case it is just extra hassle – sorry!).

In order to make the process of testing and fixing sites as painless as possible Microsoft have produce a set of tools for preparing for IE 7. Among them is an expression finder, useful for finding all of those annoying IE specific CSS hacks which may no longer work in IE 7.

Open data

From Google Maps to Microformats, there are more and more ways to share data across multiple sites. This kind of data sharing was seen as the biggest growth area for the coming year, so it is something that is worth learning more about. I couldn’t possibly begin to cover the many opportunities in this post but it is definitely an area to start researching.

One of the simplest places to start is with the subject of Microformats. Microformats are simply a consistent way tagging content across multiple sites. Because data is marked up in a consistent manner it can be identified by other systems and used.

The simplest example is the hCard which allows you to markup your contact information on your website in such a way as to make it readable by other sites and applications.

I know it may all sound very confusing but it’s actually very simple and very powerful. Definitely worth checking out.

Pricing design

One of the sessions at the event focused on what makes design great. It was presented by some of the best designers around and yet their answer was incredibly simple. Great design takes time. You need time to consider and tweak a design. The creative process just can’t be rushed. If you are anything like me, the look and feel of sites that you work on don’t get the priority they deserve. With so many time consuming tasks within an average project, design is often the first to suffer when the budgets are tight or the deadline is looming.

Although it is not easy, the moral of the story is that if we want to make our designs truly exceptional, we need to build more time for design into our projects. If you work out how to do that without sending the budget through the roof then let me know!

Designing for mobiles

Although designing for mobile devices is a huge growth area and you may well find clients interested in mobile sites, proceed with extreme caution. The session here at atMedia confirmed my worst fears about developing for mobile devices. There are approximately 40 different mobile browsers and over 160 different devices. Support for XHTML and CSS is minimal and designing for the mobile web is a very different beast to designing for the PC.

And so it ends

So that’s about it. A great conference. Thanks to all that were involved in presenting and putting on the event. It was incredibly enjoyable and had a great friendly atmosphere. If you missed out on atMedia then don’t panic. The podcasts will be out soon and you can still come to d.construct in September (for a fraction of the price!).