An Event Apart: Content First

by August 9, 2011

In his opening keynote at An Event Apart in Minneapolis, MN 2011 Jeffrey Zeldman talked about the skills and opportunities that should be top of mind for everyone designing on the Web today. Here's my notes from his talk on Content First:

  • The way we put our Web sites together is kind of backwards. We can steer our clients and bosses to more rational ways of working.
  • Before any design work happens, a committee of stakeholders usually writes up a set of feature requests for the site. Sometimes this leads to turf battles. IT department requirements and CMS capabilities also impact what can be done.
  • After all these things are done, then a design team is typically brought in (after all these decisions have been made). Usually this is too late.
  • Web pages can't look the same in every browser. Users are in charge of how they view the Web: form the browser they use, to font settings, etc. But know they have even more control.
  • It’s not just the visual experience that you might not be able to control. Through tools like Instapaper and Readability, people are time and design shifting to experience your content the way they want.
  • Every device does not need to have the same experience. Trying to maintain the same experience in all devices is dated. It is an obsolete approach. People understand different devices provide different experiences.
  • It used to be a Web best practice to make all content one click away. "Lather your pages with the scent of information." But this takes away a lot from the content, which is what you are really there for.
  • This experience is even worse on small screen devices where there is even less space devoted to content.
  • Design that does not serve people does not serve business. When you do things that are anti-user, you are designing anti-user patterns. Example: services that spam your address book without you knowing it.
  • Content precedes design. Design without content is decoration. It used to be that you worked on look and feel before you thought about content. But it’s actually very hard to do design without content.
  • When the Blogger team asked for design templates, it was really hard to create anything appropriate devoid of content. Doug Bowman made a universal template that was minimalist and ended up on 20 million blogs. It was the best solution for the problem of designing where you don’t know the content. But it’s one of the only success solutions to this problem out there, which illustrates how hard it is to design without content.
  • A design that understands and supports content is always going to be better.
  • You need to at least understand the principles of semantic mark-up and know what is possible with HTML and CSS. You should learn about HTML5 elements and know the basics of semantics. It is a fundamental baseline skill. You have to know what the basics are and how they work.
  • Progressive enhancement is a universal smart default. Most of agree that it’s a best practice to create an experience that can reach everyone.
  • Many times when we say mobile we are often talking about small screen. Small screen design adapts by adjusting layout and media to fit on smaller viewports. If you are primarily a content site, you might need a small screen strategy not a full mobile strategy.
  • Great mobile thinking takes into account the special things you can do on a mobile device.
  • Responsive design is progressive enhancement taken to the next level for the Web we have now (many devices, many different ways to interact with content). Layouts that adapt themselves to devices can be implemented in many ways. Fluid grids, flexible media, and media queries are just one way to implement the idea.
  • HTML5 has design principles that also apply to Web design. Pave the cowpaths = make things work based on how people expect it to work. Find a way to make things work even if people try to “wrong” thing. Fail predictably. For example, HTML5 has an audio and video tag in response to the wide use of embedded videos on the Web.
  • HTML5 is made for apps. It's the first HTML designed for a World beyond pages it prompts us to think beyond the "document" model. Every Web site is now an application.
  • You can start using HTML5, CSS3, and Web fonts now. There are strategies for having the right fallback experience.
  • Mobile will usher in Web standards and usability in places they never succeeded before.
  • Everyone should start with an experience and content strategy not a turf battle over features.