What would you say if I told you I just read and analyzed over 350 articles from A List Apart in less than six weeks? “You’re crazy!” might have passed through your lips. In that case, what would you say if I was doing it for a grade? Well, you might say that makes sense.
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As a part of an Independent Research Study for my undergraduate degree, I wanted to fill in some of the gaps I had when it came to working with the World Wide Web. I wanted to know more about user experience and user interface design, however, I needed the most help getting to know the industry in general. Naturally, my professor directed me to A List Apart.
At first I wasn’t sure what I was going to get out of the assignment other than the credit I needed to graduate. What could one website really tell me? As I read article after article, I realized that I wasn’t just looking at a website—I was looking at a community. A community with history in which people have struggled to build the right way. One that is constantly working to be open to all. One that is always learning, always evolving, and sometimes hard to keep up with. A community that, without my realizing it, I had become a part of. For me, the web has pretty much always been there, but now that I am better acquainted with its past, I am energized to be a part of its future. Take a look at some of the articles that inspired this change in me.
A bit of history
I started in the Business section and went back as far as November 1999. What a whirlwind that was! I had no idea what people went through and the battles that they fought to make the web what it is today. Now, I don’t mean to date any of you lovely readers, but I would have been three years old when the first business article on A List Apart was published, so everything I read until about 2010 was news to me.
For instance, when I came across Jeffrey Zeldman’s “Survivor! (How Your Peers Are Coping with the Dotcom Crisis)” that was published in 2001, I had no idea what he was talking about! The literal note I wrote for that article was: “Some sh** went down in the late 1990s???” I was in the dark until I had the chance to Google it and sheepishly ask my parents.
I had the same problem with the term Web 2.0. It wasn’t until I looked it up that I realized I didn’t know what it was, because I never experienced Web 1.0 (having not had access to the internet until 2004). In that short time, the industry had completely reinvented itself before I ever had a chance to log on!
The other bit of history that surprised me was how long and hard people had to fight to get web standards and accessibility in line. In school I’ve always been taught to make my sites accessible, and that just seemed like common sense to me. I guess I now understand why I have mixed feelings about Flash.
What I learned about accessibility
Accessibility is one of the topics I took a lot of notes on. I was glad to see that although a lot of progress had been made in this area, people were still taking the time to write about and constantly make improvements to it. In Beth Raduenzel’s “A DIY Web Accessibility Blueprint,” she explains the fundamentals to remember when designing for accessibility, including considering:
- keyboard users;
- blind users;
- color-blind users;
- low-vision users;
- deaf and hard-of-hearing users;
- users with learning disabilities and cognitive limitations;
- mobility-impaired users;
- users with speech disabilities;
- and users with seizure disorders.
It was nice to have someone clearly spell it out. However, the term “user” was used a lot. This distances us from the people we are supposed to be designing for. Anne Gibson feels the same way; in her article, she states that “[web] accessibility means that people can use the web.” All people. In “My Accessibility Journey: What I’ve Learned So Far,” Manuel Matuzović gives exact examples of this:
- If your site takes ten seconds to load on a mobile connection, it’s not accessible.
- If your site is only optimized for one browser, it’s not accessible.
- If the content on your site is difficult to understand, your site isn’t accessible.
It goes beyond just people with disabilities (although they are certainly not to be discounted).
I learned a lot of tips for designing with specific people in mind. Like including WAI-ARIA in my code to benefit visually-impaired users, and checking the color contrast of my site for people with color blindness and low-vision problems. One article even inspired me to download a Sketch plugin to easily check the contrast of my designs in the future. I’m more than willing to do what I can to allow my website to be accessible to all, but I also understand that it’s not an easy feat, and I will never get it totally right.
User research and testing methods that were new to me
Nevertheless, we still keep learning. Another topic on A List Apart I desperately wanted to absorb was the countless research, testing, and development methods I came across in my readings. Every time I turn around, someone else has come up with another way of working, and I’m always trying to keep my finger in the pie.
I’m happy to report that the majority of the methods I read about I already knew about and have used in my own projects at school. I’ve been doing open interview techniques, personas, style tiles, and element collages all along, but I was surprised by how many new practices I’d come across.
The Kano Model, the Core Model, Wizard of Oz prototyping, and think-alouds were some of the methods that piqued my curiosity. Others like brand architecture research, call center log analysis, clickstream analysis, search analytics, and stakeholder reviews I’ve heard of before, but have never been given the opportunity to try.
Unattended qualitative research, A/B testing and fake-door testing are those that stood out to me. I liked that they allow you to conduct research even if you don’t have any users in front of you. I learned a lot of new terms and did a lot of research in this section. After all, it’s easy to get lost in all the jargon.
The endless amount of abbreviations
I spent a lot of my time Googling terms during this project—especially with the older articles that mentioned programs like Fireworks that aren’t really used anymore. One of my greatest fears in working with web design is that someone will ask me something and I will have no idea what they are talking about. When I was reading all the articles, I had the hardest time with the substantial amount of abbreviations I came across: AJAX, API, ARIA, ASCII, B2B, B2C, CMS, CRM, CSS, EE, GUI, HTML, IIS, IPO, JSP, MSA, RFP, ROI, RSS, SASS, SEM, SEO, SGML, SOS, SOW, SVN, and WYSIWYG, just to name a few. Did you manage to get them all? Probably not.
We don’t use abbreviations in school because they aren’t always clear and the professors know we won’t know what they mean. To a newbie like me, these abbreviations feel like a barrier. A wall that divides the veterans of the industry and those trying to enter it. I can’t imagine how the clients must feel.
It seems as if I am not alone in my frustrations. Inayaili de León says in her article “Becoming Better Communicators,” “We want people to care about design as much as we do, but how can they if we speak to them in a foreign language?” I’m training to be a designer, I’m in Design, and I had to look up almost every abbreviation listed above.
What I learned about myself
Prior to taking on this assignment, I would have been very hesitant to declare myself capable of creating digital design. To my surprise, I’m not alone. Matt Griffin thinks, “… the constant change and adjustments that come with living on the internet can feel overwhelming.” Kendra Skeene admits, “It’s a lot to keep track of, whether you’ve been working on the web for [twenty] years or only [twenty] months.”
My fear of not knowing all the fancy lingo was lessened when I read Lyza Danger Gardner’s “Never Heard of It.” She is a seasoned professional who admits to not knowing it all, so I, a soon-to-be-grad, can too. I have good foundations and Google on my side for those pesky abbreviations that keep popping up. As long as I just remember to use my brain as Dave Rupert suggests, when I go to get a job I should do just fine.
Entering the workplace
Before starting this assignment, I knew I wanted to work in digital and interaction design, but I didn’t know where. I was worried I didn’t know enough about the web to be able to design for it—that all the jobs out there would require me to know coding languages I’d never heard of before, and I’d have a hard time standing out among the crowd.
The articles I read on A List Apart supplied me with plenty of solid career advice. After reading articles written by designers, project managers, developers, marketers, writers, and more, I’ve come out with a better understanding of what kind of work I want to do. In the article “80/20 Practitioners Make Better Communicators,” Katie Kovalcin makes a good point about not forcing yourself to learn skills just because you feel the need to:
I already have skills that someone desperately needs. I just need to find the right fit and expand my skills from there. Brandon Gregory also feels that hiring isn’t all about technical knowledge. In his article, he says, “personality, fit with the team, communication skills, openness to change, [and] leadership potential” are just as important.
Along with solid technical fundamentals and good soft skills, it seems as if having a voice is also crucial. When I read Jeffrey Zeldman’s article “The Love You Make,” it became clear to me that if I ever wanted to get anywhere with my career, I was going to have to start writing.
The writers on A List Apart have opened my eyes to many new subjects and perspectives on web design. I particularly enjoyed looking through the game design lens in Graham Herrli’s “Gaming the System … and Winning.” It was one of the few articles where I copied his diagram on interaction personality types and their goals into my notebook. Another article that made me consider a new perspective was “The King vs. Pawn Game of UI Design” by Erik Kennedy. To start with one simple element and grow from there really made something click in my head.
However, I think that the interview I read between Mica McPheeters and Sara Wachter-Boettcher stuck with me the most. I actually caught myself saying “hmm” out loud as I was reading along. Sara’s point about crash-test dummies being sized to the average male completely shifted my understanding about how important user-centered design is. Like, life-or-death important. There is no excuse not to test your products or services on a variety of users if this is what’s at stake! It’s an article I’m glad I read.
Problems I’ve noticed in the industry
During the course of my project, I noticed some things about A List Apart that I was spending so much time on. Like, for example, it wasn’t until I got to the articles that were published after 2014 that I really started to understand and relate to the content; funnily enough, that was the year I started my design degree.
I also noticed that it was around this time that female writers became much more prominent on the site. Today there may be many women on A List Apart, but I must point out a lack of women of color. Shoutout to Aimee Gonzalez-Cameron for her article “Hello, My Name is <Error>,” a beautiful assertion for cultural inclusion on the web through user-centered design.
Despite the lack of representation of women of color, I was very happy to see many writers acknowledge their privilege in the industry. Thanks to Cennydd Bowles, Matt Griffin, and Rian van der Merwe for their articles. My only qualm is that the topic of privilege has only appeared on A List Apart in the last five years. Because isn’t it kinda ironic? As creators of the web we aim to allow everyone access to our content, but not everyone has access to the industry itself. Sara Wachter-Boettcher wrote an interesting article that expands on this idea, which you should read if you haven’t already. However, I won’t hold it against any of you. That’s why we are here anyway: to learn.
Looking back at this assignment, I’m happy to say that I did it. It was worth every second (even with the possible eye damage from reading off my computer screen for hours on end). It was worth it because I learned more than I had ever anticipated. I received an unexpected history lesson of the recent internet past. I was bombarded by an explosion of new terms and abbreviations. I learned a lot about myself and how I can possibly fit into this community. Most importantly, I came out on the other end with more confidence in myself and my abilities—which is probably the greatest graduation gift I could receive from a final project in my last year of university. Thanks for reading, and wish me luck!
Thanks to my Interactive Design professor Michael LeBlanc for giving me this assignment and pushing me to take it further.