Ten years: the final chapter
As part of our A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. We start with a special guest: Carl Thien, an Attendee Apart who’s been to ten shows in the past ten years! And if you missed parts one, two, or three, have a look back.
In 2006, I attended my first An Event Apart conference. Several months earlier, I had attended Steven Pemberton’s Advanced CSS workshop at the Nielsen/Norman Group User Experience 2005 conference. I remember how pissed off people were that everything presented could not be used, as there was no browser support. I soaked it all up like a sponge.
I worked at Cambridge MA’s Quantum Books, a technical bookstore in the MIT area, which used Miva Merchant as its e-commerce platform. I hacked Miva and created a pure CSS store, which earned Miva Merchant developer of the month. The timing was perfect, as I had heard about a social networking site for people over 50 that Jeff Taylor (founder of Monster) was starting with the goal “to be bigger than Google.” Under Reed Sturtevant, I became a member of the founding developer team at Eons—my first big break!
In 2006, I’d been freelancing for four years, but up until that point I’d been working from home. Things seemed to be going well enough to afford renting an office, but the local area was thin on the ground. I found a print design company that had a spare desk, and finally I had a place to go.
That year the focus was Microformats, a brilliantly simple way of making an API for personal data. But in 2016 the focus for me is SVG, particularly for icons. Due to lack of support in browsers, this was a rather esoteric format in 2006, but now I use it more than I use HTML. 2006 was also the year that Mike Davidson called me a “browser polygamist,” and the start of a fascination with browsers that led to my working at Opera.
Ten years ago, I lived in Paris, where I designed websites and built a designer-friendly content management system. Back then, I believed that digital interfaces would always sit inside a big box on my desk. I naïvely assumed the web would always be tied to screens. Now I design digital interfaces for phones, living rooms, cars, clothing, jewelry, and asthma inhalers.
Ten years ago, my watch couldn’t tell me the weather. When I asked my living room to “turn on the lights,” it ignored me. I watched my favorite TV shows in agonizing weekly intervals, an hour at a time. When I needed a car to take me somewhere, I had to go into the street and wave my arm at yellow automobiles. Keeping in touch with friends required individual communication via phone call, email, or ink scratchings on a sheet of wood pulp. A tweet was the sound a bird made.
Ten years ago, my primary phone plugged into the wall. People left messages on a recording device which sat next to it. I occasionally typed text messages into a cell phone, using a keyboard labeled 0-9.
Ten years ago, there were two screens in my life: my PC and my TV. Now I have eight. When friends went out to dinner, none of us looked at our phones, ever. When I browsed the web, I didn’t see the same ad following me everywhere. There wasn’t a microphone in my living room allowing one of the world’s biggest companies to listen to everything I say. I didn’t feel beholden to my bracelet to walk a certain number of steps per day.
Technology has changed the whole fabric of our lives in just ten years. Through it all, An Event Apart has shined a bright light not only on the best techniques for crafting that technology, but the values that should shape it. Thank you, AEA, and happy birthday. You look just great.
Ten years ago, Basecamp was starting to roll. We’d released it on February 5, 2004—same day as Facebook, coincidentally—and by 2006 we could tell we were really on to something. However, it was such early days in the software-as-a-service world that the biggest challenge we had was convincing people to trust their data with an online service.
Times have really changed. I think we had six or seven employees total at that time, and we’d also just released Getting Real, our first book, sharing some of our unorthodox work methods. Overall, the mid 2000s were especially exciting times. We had a good feeling about the future, but we had no idea what it would hold. We moved quickly, and we were changing minds. It was a great place to be.
I was living in Greece, finishing my second year studying electrical engineering, and had realized I hated it. So I switched to computer science in 2007, which I loved. I had been dabbling in web development and graphic design for about a year, and had a few clients for whom I did some embarrassingly underpaid freelance work. I was also running a discussion forum with a friend that two years later would become a company, which I left in 2011.
At the time, I firmly believed that tables were the best option for layout, and would even argue with those who advocated for CSS layout. Way to be on the wrong side of history there! I did use CSS for everything else, though I didn’t really understand it very well. I was also into server-side coding, PHP & MySQL, and had just been starting to enjoy releasing scripts for others to use by writing vBulletin plugins for our forum and then releasing them on their mods site. It took about one to two more years to start being more interested in the frontend.
Looking back, it’s funny how much things have changed over the last 10 years, both in my life and for the web.
In 2006, I was thinking about forms. You know those things that you used to fill out on web browsers before bio-metrics became a thing and you could just thumb-print your way to purchases? Forms used to run on computers, which are really big versions of phones that people who sit at desks all day still use. Yeah, I didn’t think you’d remember. But I had just written a book on the topic of web forms and was off giving talks on how to fix them in order to reduce digital angst around the planet. Good thing no one has to suffer through those kinds of experiences ten years later. Right?
2006 was the year I first attended SXSW interactive, and I was working on the army.mil web team. We were knee-deep in a project to rebuild the entire website; the dev team was building a “from scratch” content management system, and we were redesigning the largest military website at the time to be completely standards-based—no tables! It was so much fun. We were a rag-tag group of super-enthusiastic young designers who genuinely wanted to make something great. We were all learning as we were making.
I came from a print design background, but this team taught me “how to code” and all the wonders of web design. My role included a little bit of everything from writing markup and making Photoshop mockups to creating content. One of the most memorable moments for me was getting to photograph Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester for a feature website I was working on. She is the first female soldier since World War II to receive the Silver Star and the only woman to get it for engaging in direct combat. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the entire experience was the opportunity of a lifetime.
When I started writing, I’d convinced myself 2006 was a fairly, well, normal year: I was finishing up my first year of freelancing, happily chipping away at some fun projects for a couple local clients, and for New York Magazine. I’d just finished contributing to my first web design book the year prior, and was contributing to A List Apart, Digital Web, and a few other publications.
But the more I think about it, 2006 was on the edge of a few, well, somethings. I was a year or so away from joining forces with my friends at Airbag Industries, Greg Storey and Ryan Irelan, though I didn’t know it; I was two or three years away from co-authoring the third edition of Designing With Web Standards, though I was clueless about that; and I was four years from coining the term “responsive web design,” though I didn’t know that, either. The year didn’t seem like much at the time, I suppose—but looking back, I’m grateful for it.
I was blogging a fair amount, as was the fashion, and amongst various travelogues and short observations, I chronicled the evolution of S5 and posted one of my most popular articles, about unitless line-heights. Even today, I see occasional links to it with comments like “MIND BLOWN”. It’s a useful reminder that whatever we think of as too basic to comment on, someone else is discovering for the very first time.
2006 was also the year I wrote a series of posts about how I thought the W3C should change itself. Very few of my recommendations came to fruition, but I like to think the community outreach ideas found a home in a least a few working groups.
Of course 2006 is the year AEA really got rolling, and the year that we decided to go from one-day shows to two-day conferences. It’s still a little dizzying to look back and realize how far we’ve come in ten years. And it’s the year our eldest daughter had her tonsils and adenoids surgically removed for the first time, a procedure that allowed her to finally speak without pain. Thanks to years of sign language, she jumped straight to nearly complete sentences, and has been highly articulate ever since.
2006 doesn’t seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugs, worrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive friendly platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were apparently surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.
I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.
Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)
Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.
Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.
I was reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, a delightfully written text that anticipated and suggested design rules and thinking for our present Internet of Things. It’s an fine book, and one I helped Adam bring to a good publisher. (Clearly, I was itching to break into publishing myself, which I would do with two partners a year or two afterwards.)
In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.