Lessons Learned In Nashville

I recently got the opportunity to attend An Event Apart, which took place in Nashville, TN, and thought I would share a couple of pieces of insightful information that came up. Naturally, the web design field is a trove of ideas and methodologies, and oftentimes the toughest part about being in such a capricious environment is knowing when to jump on a good idea, and when to nod your head in agreement and continue mission.

This event had an interesting mixture of both, at least from my end.

Josh Clark, a mobile interaction and UX guru and also the man behind the scenes at BigMedium, had a lot of things to say about the ways in which we perceive our user audience. Not surprisingly, his talk focused on the upward trends of mobile browsing. It should be no shock that as mobile devices get smaller (and bigger, see phablets), the number of people who use them increases exponentially. The technology that drives mobile devices is also being found in more places, like washing machines and refrigerators and even in the watch on your wrist. The point with his talk is that we need to stop assuming that our content is always going to be viewed on a particular device or at a particular screen-size. The fact of the matter is that we truly have no control over this aspect; it does us a disservice to assume that we do. We need to stop saying that we “know our users won’t visit our site on a mobile device.”

Being in an amalgamation of front-end designers, I had to make some arguments that I was left wondering had any influence on their thinking processes.

Bootstrap happened to be the scapegoat of the event. Nearly every speaker had something to say about the framework, and oftentimes negatively so. For those that don’t know, NC State has adopted Bootstrap (or actually, its own flavor of Bootstrap) as a package with which to provide various elements to improve consistency across the university’s web front as it pertains to our brand.


Bootstrap isn’t evil

Bootstrap itself is a CSS and JS package that essentially provides a grid framework that predetermines what kinds of layouts can be made using what many refer to as “presentational classes”. This is where it starts to lose favor with designers, many who concern themselves with wanting complete and utter control over their markup. I certainly agree that the importance of using semantic markup to ensure content accessibility is paramount. I also agree that ensuring classes describe the meaning of the content, rather than describing its appearance, is a valuable and admirable goal.

But the root of the matter isn’t that Bootstrap is never a good idea. What matters more is context.

This really all goes back to what I said about knowing when (and when not) to jump on a good idea. I feel like the universal bashing of Bootstrap is one such instance where the masses have decided to jump on a “good” idea. This isn’t fair and quite honestly, it’s disingenuous.

Bootstrap has a place, just as all frameworks do, in our work. Where we run amok is when we decide that Bootstrap is the answer to all our problems. But even in that light, it might make sense to apply it across every site, just as NC State has done. And this was where I diverged with my fellow “Event Apartniks”. Few seemed to understand where this might make sense.

Don’t limit yourself to a specific set of tools independent of your project. Instead, use what makes sense.

Bootstrap fulfills a very important purpose in our development process. Consistency is important not only for our brand, but also our image. Bootstrap provides this consistency at virtually zero cost.

When a prospective (or even a current) student visits the NC State website, or any of the hundreds of websites that are maintained across campus for the sole benefit of its student body, it needs to look the same. I’ll illustrate this point with an example.

Let’s say you visit your bank’s website to check your balance. You do this frequently because you like to stay on top of things. In doing so, you become accustomed to the way the site looks.

But then, a new feature is announced that allows you to, I don’t know, see your credit score using a separate service. You check it out, and immediately notice that everything is different. The navigation at the top isn’t the same as the one on the bank’s main site. The header seems changed somehow. Now. you don’t feel comfortable on this different site because it seems compromised. You’ve been taught to always be on the lookout for phishing scams that could potentially hijack your browser and take you somewhere you don’t want to be.

This is where consistency lends itself to effective design. It might not matter to the designer that doesn’t want to make his or her sites all look identical, and to that I wholeheartedly agree. To stay relevant and competitive, you need to stay unique.

Looking forward

On a final note, Bootstrap may have a contender. The CSS Grid, which is a specification that is still under development, and supported by eight percent of browsers, aims to provide an answer to all of those nagging questions about presentational classes and lumpy, weighty grid frameworks. Instead, the ability to lay content out in a grid using pure CSS (not tables in HTML) is provided upfront. To make a long story short, this may be the technology we need to get the best of both worlds, and finally get rid of the annoying scapegoating.