The MinneWebCon User Experience

Spoiler: MinneWebCon is a hidden gem of technology conferences

I’ve been to several conferences in my webdev career, and the MinneWebCon conference was beautifully executed right from the moment I arrived to the moment I realized that I had to head back to my day job. :-) I wanted to write a narrative about everything I experienced. Since this was my first time at MinneWebCon, my primary goal was to soak it all in.

I left Rochester, MN at 6:30 am and somehow beat the traffic to arrive at the U of M campus and McNamara Alumni Center at 8:10 am. I knew exactly where to park, because the organizers sent me an email telling me the best place to park. Check!

I checked in, grabbing my badge and the free book from Karen McGrane “Content Strategy for Mobile”. Apparently, I took the last copy. Sorry about that. Good timing for me. :-)

I grabbed some coffee to start the day off right. I was told that the keynote would start in the Memorial Hall. I headed down there, and I was immediately awestruck at the beautiful architecture. It is an amazing venue, and you just have to be there to appreciate it. I was greeted by a MinneWebCon volunteer — Justin (from Jostens). We chitchatted for a bit. Afterwards, I grabbed a breakfast pastry before finding my seat. Let me tell you that food is important at conferences. They didn’t skimp on that. Check!

The other important thing about conferences is the networking and getting to know people. I ran into an old acquaintance right from the start. Meghan is her name. I think that it helps to have someone there that you are familiar with. You have a frame of reference to start reaching out. I saw more familiar faces during the course of the event.

The keynote speaker was Maggie Koerth-Baker, and she gave a nice talk about the real inventors of the light bulb. Hint. It wasn’t just Edison. She touched on the theme of failure and how it plays a big role shaping the future of technology and the Web. Got it. My take is that embracing failure is good, as long as you learn from your mistakes.

Next, I had to decide which session to attend first. I was encouraged to break out and try something outside of what I normally do. I am a hands-down web developer/designer, so I figured that branching out to the UX tracks would be the best way to do that. I really wanted to learn Angular JS, but I figured I could figure that out on my own. Sorry Daniel. :-) To make it really easy on myself logistically, I went with all the sessions from the middle track.

My first session “Writing content that works everywhere” presented by David Poteet really resonated with me. His main clientele is higher-ed, and I work in a higher-ed institution, so his examples of bad content writing made sense to me. His main message was ”cut the fluff”. You are actually doing more damage to the clarity of the message by filling your pages with “fluff” words. People don’t realize how important content is. It’s the reason people come to your website (mobile or desktop). I now understand why a content strategist needs to be at the table from the beginning when making website decisions.

Break time! I don’t need to tell you why we need breaks. :-) Apparently, coffee was being served all day till 3 pm. Yeah. Luckily, all the restrooms were close by. As I was about to step back into the session room, I saw another familiar face (Leah — from the Nerdery). We chatted for a bit and I headed back to my chair.

The next speaker was Amy Kristin Sanders who talked about the American Disabilities Act and websites. What does it mean? Well, it means that 20% of your audience has some form of disability and that we should make it a priority to make our websites accessible to all audiences. Vision and hearing are not the only forms of disabilities. We should strive to make our content available, not only for our English speaking audience, but for ESL as well. Content should be easily translatable. Multimedia should be close-captioned in variety of languages and a transcript provided. I had never considered those angles before. My take is that by improving accessibility, you are also improving usability.

Lunch time! Remember Meghan? Well, I have a lunch buddy. Remember those days in high school when you wanted to sit with the cool kids at the cafeteria table, but always got rejected? Well, that didn’t happen because I had a lunch buddy. Yea! And she’s cool too. Of course, we picked the best table because it was showering down with sunlight on a cold Minnesota day. There were caps available at the table for those of us who don’t tan so well. The organizers thought of everything. :-) To top it off, the lunch items were delicious. What? It wasn’t a buffet? Oops.

After the lunch, Lisa Welchman gave a talk about Web governance. I had no idea that she worked on the very first Lotus Notes client, and that she is a pretty good singer. I used to work on Lotus Notes development earlier in my career, and I also like to sing. I liked her already. From her diverse background, she led us on her journey through 25 years working in the Web industry. Eventually, the importance of “governance” came up, and why it is so important for organizations that grow large to have it. She closed with a rendition of “Baby, it’s cold outside”. Yes, it sure is.

Food coma started to kick in. I fueled up on coffee and headed to the next session. Fred Beecher, Claire Bailey, and Heather Wydeven talked about “Mentoring the next generation of UX designers”. This really resonated with me because I consider my myself a UX person in my heart. I make websites, and I do the web programming, but something about the “emotional” connection we have with our users really gives meaning to the work I create. That is what UX people do, and we need more of them. Claire and Heather are incredibly lucky to have Fred Beecher and an organization like the Nerdery give them their first break in the industry. We need more forward thinking places like that to fill in the gaps that formal education cannot provide aspiring UX designers. From following Fred on Twitter, I know that the applications for their apprenticehips fill up fast. The Nerdery cannot be the only place that is willing to give aspiring UX designers their first break. It simply doesn’t scale. That is why I am asking all the influential people in the hiring process of all companies to commit in doing more mentorships/apprenticeships. There is a need out there. Lots of new people want to do UX. Lots of companies are hiring for UX. There is both a skills gap and a lack of quality organizations that UX talent wants to work for. That leaves for two sides that are routinely disappointed. The only way it becomes a win-win for both sides is for companies to take risks and show UX people why they should work for you. One of the best ways is to provide an environment that allows aspiring UXers to fail. Mentor someone. You might be surprised what they give back and what they say about your organization to their friends. Word of mouth advertising works.

The next session, “Beautifully functional: Activities that inform features and aesthetics” by Brant Day and Emily Schmittler is another UX session I attended. They both work at the Nerdery, a place that has a high UX maturity level. So I definitely was interested in what they had to say. Brant is the Visual Designer and Emily is the UX Designer. They talked about how important their partnership was with the UX activities that eventually informed the visual aesthetics of websites. All too often, designers create visuals without understanding who their audience is. It was pretty cool that they played off the “Parks and Recreation” TV show in their examples.

By this time, I was thinking to go to the session about “Programmers can UX too” by Eryn O’Neil. I faced the dilemma of staying and having to go through the traffic snarl heading back home to Rochester. The other choice was to leave this wonderful conference early and get back home in a reasonable time frame. From what I heard in the Twitterverse, I probably should have stayed and risked a 3 hour commute back home. Doh! I wished Star Trek transporters existed. As a web developer, who aspires to be a UX designer, this session really would have resonated with me. I guess, I’ll just have to peruse the slides instead.

In closing, I wanted to leave you with a quote from Maya Angelou. She said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It was a wonderful experience that I would gladly do over again.

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