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An Event Apart speakers Jen Simmons, Kate O’Neill, Jason Grigsby, and Jeremey Keith took a moment to answer a few of our on what inspires their work and how to be a better UX designer.

What UX topic is your current obsession?

My current obsession is the integration of human experience. I believe the biggest opportunities right now are in looking at the ways online meets offline, customer meets user, employee meets candidate, global meets local, how the gig economy is shaking up the work landscape, and on and on.

This moment in history feels very chaotic, where automation, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies are rapidly changing our vision of even the near future. Meanwhile, 70-80% of CEOs think the next 3 years are more critical than the past 50. We’re clearly in a truly transformative time.

So there’s tremendous opportunity for UX professionals to put a stake in the ground on behalf of humanity, and advocate for integrated human experiences in the midst of machine-driven interactions and transactions, to make them as meaningful as possible.

Kate O’Neill is helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future by teaching business how to make technology that’s better for humans. She’s an executive consultant, keynote speaker, author, and “tech humanist” who advises corporate and cultural leaders — whether one-on-one, in board rooms, or in convention centers — on how to take a human-centric approach to digital transformation.

With my current focus on progressive web apps, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about two UX questions.

  1. What do people expect of something that they consider an app?

We don’t have consensus about what makes something an app versus a site. There’s even a question about whether or not it is a meaningful distinction. And yet, organizations that choose to build progressive web apps are going to need to answer for themselves what making something an app means.

  1. What happens when we lose the browser chrome?

Now that we have the ability to build web experiences that utilize the full screen, I have an even greater appreciation for all of the features that our browsers provide for us. When you remove the browser chrome, you’re forced to recreate browser features that we take for granted.

In 2000, Jason Grigsby got his first mobile phone. He became obsessed with how the world could be a better place if everyone had access to the world’s information in their pockets. When his soon-to-be-wife, Dana, met him, he had covered the walls of his apartment with crazy mobile dreams. To this day, he remains baffled that she married him.

What book has made the biggest impact on how you work?

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage isn’t just a terrific read. It also gave me an appreciation of how much the technological landscape of today mirrors the past. I think we all have a tendency to focus on our own time period in isolation, but by understanding the past, we are better equipped to face the challenges of the future. Standage’s history of the telegraph is a perfect example of this. It features techno-utopianism, moral panics, social networks, and a groundbreaking world-spanning communications network. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

Jeremy Keith lives in Brighton, England where he makes websites with the splendid design agency Clearleft. You may know him from such books as DOM Scripting, Bulletproof Ajax, HTML5 For Web Designers, Resilient Web Design, and, most recently, Going Offline.

What skill would you like to see more junior designers have?

I believe it’s important for an designer to understand the medium they are designing for, as deeply as they can. As a lighting designer for theater, I needed to understand dramatic structure, script analysis, and the difference between the quality of light from a leko vs a fresnel. I needed to know which lights to use when, where, and what options I had for buying color. As a print designer, I understood what matte coated paper would do to the ink compared to uncoated stock. I memorized the U.S. bulk mailing postal regulations. I chose whether to send a job out to a web press, an offset press, or a copy machine based on the conditions and costs. I knew how to judge when to do a duotone, or when to go one-color. I didn’t know exactly how to run all the various printing presses, or necessarily how to cable every theater, but I did have both technical understanding of these mediums and an artistic ones.

I fear that in the web industry, in this modern, computerized age, somehow we’ve completely separated the act of building something from the act of designing it. I don’t believe all designers need to code. But I do think all web designers need to understand our medium. We need to understand what CSS wants to do. We need to know its limits and its power.

We can gain this understanding by one of two ways — dig into the tech yourself, or collaborate with folks who will explain things to you. I learned lighting design by working as a theatrical electrician. I learned the printing industry from pressman and sales reps who guided my every decision. I learned sound mixing from asking a million questions at the rental house where I got our gear. We do these things together. Art and craft is handed down from one generation to another. By opening ourselves up to a lifetime of learning and asking questions, we can all become better web designers.  Especially since the web is so very young, we have to keep exploring and keep asking questions.

Learn about the medium of the web — not just as a user, but as someone who makes the web. Understand what CSS does. Don’t be afraid to experiment and break new ground. Seek out resources that will teach you the nature of this creature.

Jen is a Designer and Developer Advocate at Mozilla, where she advocates for web standards and researches the coming revolution in graphic design on the web. She’s spoken at events including An Event Apart, SXSW, Fluent, Generate, Future of Web Design, and Respond. Her talk, Modern Layouts: Getting Out of Our Ruts, was awarded Best Conference Presentation at CSS Dev Conf 2014.

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