Chattanooga Chew: Jawin’ with Aaron Gustafson

Aaron Gustafson is a former manager of The Web Standards Project and the author of the seminal book on progressive enhancement, Adaptive Web Design—second edition coming soon. He recently joined Microsoft as a web standards advocate after nearly two decades as a developer, designer, and consultant for companies including Box, Happy Cog, Major League Baseball, McAfee, The New York Times, SAS, StubHub, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and many others. We caught up with the busy educator to talk about the Chattanooga, “headless UI,” and falling in love with forms.

How and where did you get your start in design, web or otherwise?

In 1996, while in college, I started a music and entertainment magazine. I taught myself to do HTML in order to bring it online. I started as a print designer doing magazine and newspaper work. The web was an interesting new challenge. I got hooked pretty quickly.

We forget sometimes that not everyone lives in Silicon Valley or NYC. Give us an idea why you live in Chattanooga, TN.

Chattanooga is a beautiful place. It’s got tons of outdoor activities, not too much of any one season, is affordable, and the people are really nice. It took a little while to get used to being called “Sir” and “Sugar,” but it’s grown on me. We’ve been here seven years so far, and folks thought we were crazy to give up the Northeast for the South, but we love it. It’s also got a growing tech scene, which means lots of people to share with and learn from.

You recently joined Microsoft. Be honest—how Borg-like is it, really?

I’ve honestly been floored by my experience as a Microsoft employee thus far. This is the first job I’ve had (apart from working for myself) where I wasn’t told what to do when I started. I was treated as an adult and a professional, and left to my own devices. I had a good idea of what my role entailed in general, but the specifics were up to me. That level of respect was refreshing, to say the least.

And I continue to be impressed with how collaborative Microsoft is. I wasn’t expecting it. Accomplishing your own goals obviously helps you come review time, but there’s a big emphasis on helping other people reach theirs, too—even folks in different departments! Having witnessed the dysfunctional culture of many large organizations over the years—the fiefdoms, the infighting—it was really exciting to see such a strong desire to have everyone working together.

You’ve been giving a talk called “Falling in Love with Forms.” We can guess the topic from the title, but what do attendees take away from it? How can we love forms after all they’ve done to us?

Forms get a bad rap. They require a lot of code, styles, and validation algorithms to make them work well. I get why folks dislike coding them. But they don’t have to be painful. We can break complex forms down into simple, repeatable patterns that we can use over and over to meet the needs of the specific form we’re building. These patterns also help us iterate more easily, to improve accessibility, and adapt the visual display based on available screen real estate. In the talk, I cover a handful of useful patterns, accessibility, and even get into some of the new HTML5 validation stuff. Attendees come away with a ton of actionable information—and I give them a CodePen to dissect the patterns further, as well.

What excites you most these days?

I’m fascinated by the “headless UI.” In other words, I’m interested to see what happens when more and more of our interactions with a computer are accomplished purely by voice. I can’t wait to see how natural and human we can make our interfaces. When you think about it, it really compels us to boil away the cruft and pursue elegant simplicity. I think we’ve got a lot to learn, but I’m looking forward to those lessons.


Aaron was one of twelve amazing speakers at last week’s An Event Apart DC. For more insight into what AEA is all about, enjoy the numerous free presentation videos on our site. And for your free monthly guide to all things web, design, and developer-y, subscribe to The AEA Digest.