Reflecting on Elements

 · 4 mins read

This week I had the pleasure of attending Elements: The Web Conference at Penn State. It was my second time attending this national conference, which draws attendees from all across the U.S. and even Canada! Full disclosure, I was on the planning committee this year, but I would have gone to the conference regardless of my committee status since it is local for me.

I had a fantastic experience there. The keynotes were all wonderful, with themes that tied the two day-event together very elegantly. As many others have commented, it was clear this year that the conference moved beyond the typical “5 Fast Steps to Modernizing Your Web Design” sessions and into humanizing the experience of being on the web. Presenters seemed to be more focused on what it means to be someone who influences web experiences and how our work affects those who use what we create.

One of my key takeaways came from Eric A. Meyer’s keynote on Monday afternoon. Meyer, who basically invented CSS, told a really emotional story about the experience of trying to navigate a hospital website while his daughter was being airlifted there. His message was clear: be sure to design for what he termed the “stress case” (rather than the commonly-used “edge case”) because designing for those stress cases, and taking into consideration a user’s mind-state during that stress case, makes experiences better for everyone on the web. It was a very strong keynote, and his words of wisdom translate into knowledge I can put to use immediately as I work on new course designs for the fall semester. (Side note, I also had the pleasure of chatting with him over breakfast on the second day of the conference, which was very cool!)

My other top takeaway is courtesy Scott Dadich, the EIC of WIRED. He talked about the process of working on WIRED’s covers as a designer, which for a long time were very lock-step as far as look and feel, until one day, as a joke, he broke the mold. Dadich shared with us that when the design was accepted and sent to print, he felt sick over it. Venturing so far from the norm made him feel wholly uncomfortable. But he persevered and it worked out, and he ended up revamping the entire design standard over time. What I appreciated most about this story was that Dadich was a realist. He acknowledged that discomfort and stress are part of doing big things. You can “take what’s already good and ‘ruin’ it,” but we need to make sure we’re already really good at whatever it is before we try to break it.

Aside from the excellent keynotes (we also heard from Scott Stratten and Debbie Millman, who both also gave absolutely wonderful keynotes as well), I sat in on some great sessions in the education and training track and tried to push my own knowledge boundaries by attending a session in the programming track about xAPI, a personal interest of mine. Sean Putman gave a great introduction to what xAPI is and its potential for tracking learning analytics. It was introductory-level enough that there was some small overlap in what he was presenting and what I already knew, which helped ground my knowledge and helped me feel like I learned more by the end. Vygotsky would have been proud.

I also had the privilege to present in the education and training track on a project I worked on with some colleagues across the university last semester called “CaptureStudio.” The presentation was more on the idea of designing learning experiences with the end user in mind (the students) than the actual tool itself. While past presentations have been more focused on the tool, this time I attempted to use the tool as a demonstration of how we took technology and figuratively wrapped it around the learning objectives we were working with, as opposed to the typical model of matching activities to available off-the-shelf technology tools. I’ll save the details of designing that learning experience for another time, though.

Overall, I had a great time at Elements (@econfpsu), and if you’re looking for a low-cost event with all meals provided and a great community of professionals who really understand and strive to improve the experience of being human on the web, I highly suggest you attend. Next year’s conference will be June 12–14, 2017, so save the date!