Earlier this week, I attended (and spoke at) Artifact Conf 2019 in Austin, TX.
Artifact is literally my favorite conference of all time. I attended the first one in Providence, RI six years ago, and met the person who hired me for my first real developer job there. They ran a second one the following year, then stopped.
Every year since then, I would periodically email co-organizer Jen Robbins begging her to run another one.
I’m pretty sure I did the Carlton Dance when she told me they were going to run a five year anniversary version this year.
Today, I’m going to recap the conference: key takeaways, the overall theme, and so on.
The changing nature of our work
When Artifact first ran six years ago, we were all still trying to figure out how to best make the web work on a variety of devices. Accordingly, that was the main focus of the event: how to design and build for all the screens.
Since then, a lot has changed. Standards, best practices, and common conventions has emerged. The web platform has evolved a lot, too.
This year, Artifact was all about how to design and build for all the people.
This, to me, puts the focus of our work back where it belongs, on the people who use the things we build.
Unfortunately, the talks were not recorded. I wish they were, because I gave the best talk I’ve ever given in my life there.
I’m going to summarize some key themes for you, though. This stuff is important.
Tim Kadlec really set the whole tone for the event. His opening talk focused on how much the average website has grown in size over the last few years, and the impact that has on people in developing countries, low income areas, and so on.
To put it bluntly, performance is an ethics problem.
Chris Coyier talked about something I haven’t heard many folks discuss: how changing technologies have expanded what a front end developer is expected to do.
So many things that used to be part of the backend developer role are now part of the front end skill set: routing, data management, security, etc. Our “haystack,” to use Chris’s terminology, has gotten bigger, and I’m not sure its sustainable or realistic to expect one person to do it all.
Jen Simmons did something I’d never have the guts to do: live-coded a layout she’d never seen until the moment her talk started using CSS Grid.
It was a really interesting look at how new technology has made stuff that used to be hard to do easier. It also gave everyone a really cool look into Jen’s design and development process.
Dave Rupert explored how much our best practices have evolved since we started this five years ago.
So many of the “must use” tools from 2014 are now obsolete. We don’t need things like Modernizr, Fast Click, jQuery, Masonry, and so on anymore. Native web technologies handle all of that stuff for us.
My favorite quote from Dave, though, was, “Your website is a manifestation of your organization’s problems.” 👏👏👏
Elle Waters gave one of the best talks on accessibility I’ve ever seen.
It was really two talks in one. The first 10 minutes were a tongue-in-cheek presentation on how to build an inaccessible website. I really hope she blows this up into a full talk, because it was amazing.
Then, Elle looked at how to bake accessibility into the design and development process instead of making it a big “after the fact” project. The gist: use the 80/20 rule, spending your time on the things that will have the biggest impact on your users.
Divya Sasidharan and I actually met at the very first Artifact conference. For us to both be speaking on stage this year felt like a “coming full circle” moment for me.
Divya dug deep into JAMStack, demonstrating how webhooks, automations, “serverless” (really just servers as a service), and CDNs work together to create a lightweight, scalable, and very performant web experience.
I love this approach, and use it for all of my new projects.
Dan Mall talked about how designers and developers work together (and how they can do so better).
The vibe of the whole talk: less time making beautiful design comps, more time having conversations. Design in as low a fidelity as you can get away with to get your point across, then start making alongside your designers so you can talk about it in real time.
David Dylan Thomas
David Dylan Thomas gave one of my favorite talks of the event, digging deep into cognitive bias, and how our brains make stupid, irrational decisions all the time.
Then he explored how we can use those biases as a force for good instead of exploiting them through dark patterns. I highly recommend checking out his other work!
I was there talking about the Lean Web. If you regularly read my articles, you probably already know what this is about.
I felt among kindred spirits at Artifact. When I who in the audience felt that modern web development is too complicated, almost every single hand shot up.
Kim Williams talked about inclusion in the work environment. We often talk about inclusive design, but not about how structuring inclusive work environments leads to more inclusive sites and apps in the first place.
She explored how feeling safe and welcome lets us do our best work, and improves everyone around you.
I challenged Mina Markham on Twitter to work in at least 42 Beyonce references in her talk. I’ll be damned if she didn’t pull it off!
Her talk covered a lot. Designers can write code, developers can also design, we all just make websites. Accessibility is important. Looking different in different browsers is a feature, not a bug. Good design can be influenced by cultural exchange, but should not be cultural appropriation.
I can’t even begin to cover it all.
Jason Grigsby has been evangelizing Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) for years. This talk looked at the decisions you can make on how many PWA features to use, and when you should or shouldn’t use them.
For example, PWAs support notifications, but 90-something percent of users just dismiss them and without even reading them. Context around when and why you ask to use that feature greatly increase the likelihood the user will click “Yes.”
Should your app work offline? Should it hide browser chrome? Jason explored so much in this talk. I spent a lot of time Duck Duck Going after his talk.
Sarah Drasner explored a bunch of really crazy things you can do in the browser with some emerging technologies, aided by some libraries and frameworks.
She showed off things like VR, designing in 3D, and texture based visuals. She explored what sort of specs could emerge around these in the future, too. Imagine being able to add grass-like texture to an object with the
.grass class, for example.
At every single Artifact, Brad Frost has served as the “summarize the whole event” closing speaker.
He does an amazing job of tying together all of the talks from the event, summarizing key points, and providing a “path forward” for attendees.
At this year’s event, the biggest take home message: more communication.
Artifact is a unique kind of conference
Artifact is an amazing event.
The organizers (Jen, Ari Stiles, and Christopher Schmitt) deliberately keep it smaller. It’s about 200 people, versus the 400 or so that you see at something like An Event Apart. This means that people you meet on day 1, you run into constantly on day 2.
It’s intimate. It’s conversational. I met some amazing people there and made new friends. ❤️
Jen, Ari, and Christopher have an amazing attention to detail. The badges had a schedule on the back, and could be decorated with stickers showing your preferred pronounces (he/him, she/her, they/them), if you’re looking for work, or if you’re hiring. They had quite spaces, great food, and lots of local flavor and culture.
But the biggest gift this conference gives is the environment it creates. Artifact is welcoming, friendly, and approachable. For a somewhat introverted person like me, it’s just perfect.
The Speaker Experience
This was my first time speaking at a real conference. I’ve done meetups, but nothing of this size before.
First, I found it easier to talk to a group of 200 than a group of 30. You can stare off into the audience without making eye contact with anyone in particular.
Second, it is infinitely easier to be a social awkward at a conference when you’re a speaker.
I normally have a terribly hard time walking up to people I don’t know, introducing myself, and starting a conversation. When you’ve given a talk, it’s so much easier because people come up to you to talk about it.
I also had the pleasure of meeting a few people who, like me, struggle to start conversations with new people, and it was easy for me to put them at ease, show them I’m an awkward goofball, too, and have a great conversation.
Jen, Ari, Christopher… thank you so much for inviting me to speak at Artifact this year. It was a truly magical experience!