It’s easy to spot the attendees of a Thunder Lizard Web Design World conference in Seattle. Each July, you can catch them congregating in and around the cavernous meeting halls of the Westin or the Sheraton Towers wearing those distinctive name badges with the firebreathing green dragon, (or the famous long-sleeve black T-shirts festooned with the same flaming reptile on the back). They are generally carrying large canvas book bags holstering a spiral-bound conference guide the size of a small booster seat. Bound inside are outlines of each of the event’s in-depth presentations, the speakers’ handouts, and evaluation forms for each of the sessions. And, as a group, they tend to be wearing something else rarely seen at Web and computing events these days. The look of satisfied customers — people who have invested a not insignificant amount of tuition in the form of a registration fee to learn all they can from the visiting faculty, experts culled from leading design studios and Web firms around the USA — and actually gotten their money’s worth.
It was Thunder Lizard’s first-class reputation for staging such info-potent, inspiration-rich events that attracted Fawcette Technical Publications of Palo Alto to acquire the Seattle company founded by Messrs. Steve Broback and Steve Roth back when a product called Pagemaker was inducting new trainees into the ranks of desktop publishing. This year’s Web design summit is back on the block just as the online world appears to be getting back on track. Synchronize your watches. In software chronology, this is probably the first time that every single major web development tool has revved at virtually the same time, all the new Macromedia tools, Dreamweaver MX, Flash MX, and Cold Fusion MX, as well as Photoshop 7, each having come out with new versions.
To snatch a peek behind the curtain at the proceedings getting underway July 21-24 at the Sheraton, Seattle24x7 talked with six-time Conference Chair and digital design guru/author Jim Heid as well as confabbed with Kelly Goto, a user experience expert, author of “Web Redesign: Workflow that Works,” and an original Seattle native back by popular demand, about what’s on top of this year’s agenda.
Seattle24x7: Kelly, you just presented at the Flash Forward symposium in NYC before coming to Seattle for Web Design World. How would you compare the two conferences?
Kelly Goto: Flash Forward focused a lot on innovation and experimentation. A good deal of discussion was on how FlashMX enables a different kind of site to be built with Flash that is more dynamic and more object-oriented. My focus was on new possibilities for types of Web redesign that still tout usability and user experience as being the primary goal as opposed to being cool or the “Wow” factor.
Generally speaking, I think conferences are good because they can open the mind to new experiences in a way you just can’t get by reading books and watching TV. Designers are looking for inspiration and to network with people and find new tools and new processes to create something that they’re excited about. Developers’ conferences also seek inspiration but a different kind. Developers need to understand different processes and how things are put together in different ways to make things work the way they should work.
Jim Heid: Web Design World is loyally aimed at the designer, the Web architect, the person who is really making the visual or architectural decisions behind creating a site.
Seattle24x7: What makes Thunder Lizard events work as well as they do ?
Jim Heid: I think the single thing that differentiates a Thunder Lizard conference from most other conferences is the role played by the Conference Chair and that’s not just “me” because there are a number of conference chairs for other events as well.
A lot of other conferences operate on a model where they will put out a call for speakers, and they will wait for proposals from speakers to come in. They will then pick and choose the ones that they want to include and have a conference.
The Thunder Lizard model has always approached it from the reverse. They hire a Conference Chair — a person who has experience and knowledge in whatever field that conference is about. It’s almost more akin to writing a book. The Conference Chair develops an outline of what the current issues are, what the technologies are, what the challenges are that attendees are facing and then goes out and finds speakers who address those topics. Along the way, he or she asks speakers for their ideas. What is your hot button topic? What are things that people are coming to you with? What kind of problems are your customers or your clients having? By doing that, you can focus your editorial for the event. Rather than just saying, “Hey world, send us your ideas and we’ll pick a dozen of them and they will become the sessions, you say, these are what people need to know, these are the products and the tools and the challenges they need to know about. Let’s find the best speakers to talk about this stuff.”
Seattle24x7: One of the key areas in this year’s conference is Web usability. One of your topics Kelly is called “Redesign Redefined.” The brochure states, “Times have changed, and Web design workflow must change accordingly. It’s essential to incorporate iterative design cycles for site redesigns in measurable, documented steps.”?
Kelly Goto: Yes, right now I’m focusing more on fast-turn iterative design. Essentially it’s based on the agile methodology (as explained on www.agilemanifesto.org ) including a concept called extreme programming. People don’t need to redo their entire look and feel at once. You can have smaller niches and rapid-turn projects that focus on smaller areas that they can improve.
For instance, we work with a wireless service provider. And they have small initiatives to get users to purchase in a certain time frame, say five clicks or less. Well, there are different initiatives that are going to improve their user experience. They don’t need to redesign their whole site. So they focus on different aspects of what’s working and what’s not working and improve that.
Seattle24x7: Is it more user-friendly to make smaller, gradual changes than to lift the curtain on a whole new site?
Kelly Goto: Well, that depends on your audience. Most people don’t like change. So if you can tell them when there’s going to be a redesign you can get their opinion and feedback and get them excited about it. It can make it easier to implement change.
For instance, Amazon and their tabs vs. no tabs situation. One day I went to my Amazon site and there were no tabs. Well, when I came to Seattle, I lectured on it. I announced to the audience, “Look, Amazon has changed their structure! But when I went to the Web site, the tabs were still there. I thought I had gone insane. And I said, no really you guys, yesterday there were no tabs! It turned out that they had actually introduced the new design on select servers and were tracking people’s patterns to see if it changed their buying habits.
An E-mail went out from Amazon to every single subscriber that stated, ‘We’re thinking of redesigning our site. Here’s what our site might look like next year if we continue to use tabs. We’d like your input.’ After they were satisfied that it wasn’t going to ruin their company, they launched the new initiative. Since then, they’ve gone back to tabs. People didn’t like the directory structure after all. I think what Amazon realized is that they didn’t have to have so many tabs They could pick tabs based on customer behavior. A really advanced idea.
Seattle24x7: Along these lines, another cornerstone of this year’s conference is Web access?
Jim Heid: Accessibility has become a really big thing in the Web world these days. In part, because businesses are realizing that there’s a potential market there but also, in very large part, because of Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is a motivating force that government web sites and a lot of web sites that receive federal funding meet certain disabilities requirements.
Seattle24x7: How has the new generation of products, the MX products in Macromedia’s case, enabled the designer to improve Web usability?
Jim Heid: In the case of Flash, there are features that aid in improving keyboard navigation for web sites created using Flash. Keyboard navigation is a very commonly used method for blind users in particular. Rather than being able to point and click at things, they use a product called a ScreenReader which reads aloud the contents of the Website, and then they use the keyboard rather than the mouse to click on buttons and choose options. That kind of thing was very difficult to do if not impossible in previous versions of Flash. FlashMX has made great strides in that area by allowing developers to associate keyboard shortcuts with different buttons and objects, and to create ways in which ScreenReaders can read the contents of a Flash site in ways where they couldn’t before.
Kelly Goto: Jakob Neilsen has been working with Macromedia to redesign Flash as a program to be more accessible and user friendly.
Seattle24x7: What Seattle firms have the two of you worked with? Who impresses you?
Kelly Goto: I grew up in Mercer Island, and I left when I was 17 to go to school at Northwestern. I’m a big fan of Tim Girvin. I’m a lettering artist and so I’ve always been a big fan of his work and his gorgeous design studio with all of its Asian influences. Another company I know and admire is Werkhaus Design and I’ve worked with Phinney Bischoff. I started lecturing when I was at Phinney.
Jim Heid: There is a fabulous Flash shop in Seattle called Smashing Ideas. They do magnificent work. Glen Thomas is their principal and he has spoken for us at past conferences. Another outfit is Photobition, also known as Ivey Seright. We have worked with them in the past and some of their trainers have also spoken at ThunderLizard events.
Seattle24x7: Kelly, how is your book doing?
Kelly Goto: My book, “Web Redesign: Workflow that Works,” came out last August and went into reprint in December. I think it’s been translated into about seven languages now.
Seattle24x7: What are the differences in workflow that you’ve noticed between Seattle and other cities where you’ve designed Web properties?
Kelly Goto: At one point, our NW Federal Credit Union client asked us, “Well, when can you guys get us this?” (laughter). I’m used to living in L.A. for ten years and [getting requests like] “Can you do this in a week?” We’d get a group of people together and we wouldn’t sleep for a few weeks. People [in Seattle] got to work at 8:00 and they’d leave at 4 or 5, on Fridays they’d want to go hom eearly at 4. In L.A. I got used to starting work at 9:30 in the morning, and then working to 2 every night. I didn’t understand it and it was a difficult pace for me to get accustomed to. Seattle was so even-keeled and calm and the clients were very understanding from my perspective. The people were great.
Seattle24x7: One of the companies that has been conspicuously absent from Web Design World has been Microsoft?
Jim Heid: It’s one of the few sandboxes that Microsoft doesn’t play in, if not outright own. Obviously Microsoft can be a player any place it wants to be, but it doesn’t have a program like Photoshop, it doesn’t have a very sophisticated Web design program like Dreamweaver. FrontPage is very popular in corporations that use other Microsoft tools, but as far as the design end of things, Microsoft is not a very big player in that space.
There may be some political issues there too. Microsoft wants Adobe to have Photoshop for Windows. So if Microsoft comes out with a Photoshop killer than all of a sudden Adobe doesn’t have any incentive to do Photoshop for Windows and then all the Photoshop users end up going out and buying Macs. So I think there’s a political tightrope that Microsoft walks there too.
Fawcette is doing a conference in August in Vegas, the Builder Conference, that will have a lot of that back end stuff including Microsoft. In the front end stuff, Microsoft is not there.
Seattle24x7: Thanks all. See you at Web Design World 2002.
Note: Seattle24x7 readers are invited to register to attend Web Design World July 21-24. Visit www.webdesignworld.com
Larry Sivitz is the Managing Editor of Seattle24x7.