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Voices That Matter Interview with Bulletproof Author Jeremy Keith

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Jeremy Keith, author of Bulletproof Ajax, talks about Ajax, microformats, and his fondness for the mandolin in this interview with Voices That Matter Conference Manager Barbara Gavin.
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Interview with Jeremy Keith

Barbara Gavin: Why don't you start off by telling us a little bit about what you're working on these days?

Jeremy Keith: I work at Clearleft, which is a small consultancy design agency in Brighton, in the UK. I tend to be involved in the hands-on, nitty-gritty [activities]: writing the markup, the CSS, the occasional bit of JavaScript. Lately, we've been doing quite a bit of work for startups, and some interesting projects have come our way. It's been good fun. Frustrating, of course, because dealing with browser issues is always a hair-tearing experience. Still, pretty exciting stuff.

One project in particular, a site called Edenbee, has gone into beta, and I'm really pleased with how the site has turned out. The site is based around environmental issues—social networking for environmentally conscious people who want to improve their carbon footprint and their lifestyle. It has a nice feel to it. I think I'll be using the site myself.

Barbara: That's probably the ultimate tribute, when your design consultant wants to use your site!

Jeremy: When you finish some sites, you're glad to see the back of them, and you never want to see them again. It's definitely a good sign when you're at the end of a project and you actually want to keep on using the site.

Barbara: I think it's wonderful that you're working in such interesting fields as environmental and carbon-footprint issues.

Jeremy: Quite a few sites are coming out concerning those topics. And these sites are not competing, because as long as people are talking about this stuff, it's all good. It's not like your typical business field, where people are trying to beat out the competition.

Barbara: What are some of the recent trends that have surprised or gratified you as web design has matured as an industry?

Jeremy: It's nice to see clients realizing that simplicity is good. Although designers have been saying for a while, "Simplicity, simplicity—it's what you take out that matters," it's difficult to get clients to accept that less is more. But I'm starting to see them understand and even ask for that. It's also gratifying to see a drop in the number of requests for gradients and rounded corners. [Laughs] We used to get requests for proposals saying, "It needs to look Web 2.0" before even establishing what the site was for, who the audience was. Sometimes it's the right thing to do, and you want to have those elements, but generally we're pretty sick of them.

Barbara: I understand that you're doing a pre-conference workshop on Ajax for the conference. Tell us a little bit about that, and about the microformats session.

Jeremy: The workshop is based on my book Bulletproof Ajax, and it's pretty low-level stuff for Ajax. When people think about Ajax, they tend to think of sites like Gmail and Meebo, and big application-like things. But I'm going to focus on how Ajax can be used to enhance existing sites and documents, to make the user experience better. Demystifying it, because there's a lot of FUD around Ajax being this complicated thing, and it needn't be. In a couple of hours, you can learn everything you need to know about the technical aspects of Ajax. Design challenges are a much bigger issue. I can only cover so much in one workshop, but I definitely want to touch on the design challenges, the accessibility challenges—there are quite a few problem areas that I want to mention. But essentially I'll cover the nitty-gritty of what Ajax is and how you can use it on your site.

In the conference itself, I'll talk about microformats, which is what I talked about in the New Riders conference in San Francisco, and I really enjoyed it. I'm passionate about microformats. They're easy to teach and talk about, so it's very gratifying to explain them from the ground up and see the light bulbs [go on] over people's heads.

Barbara: Why should someone use microformats in their design? What kind of benefits do microformats bring to design work?

Jeremy: Microformats are so simple that the question is not, "Why would you use them?" but rather, "Why wouldn't you use them?” You're writing markup, templates, and documents, and you have to choose class names because you're going to be attaching CSS to your documents. The fact that these predefined class names give you added benefits makes the choice easier.

You can throw them in even if you don't know why you're doing it at the time. The classic example is Dan Cederholm, when he was building the website Cork'd with Dan Benjamin. He knew about microformats, and he thought, "Well, I need class names anyway," so he threw in these hCard and hReview class names, with no idea of how they would be used. As it turned out, they did get used—very much. There was never an API for the website, but people were able to build mashups using Cork'd because these microformat class names were in there, so effectively the web pages on the site were acting like an API. People were able to mash wine reviews with vendor information and make some cool mashups. So even if you don't know what the benefits are, it still makes sense to use those class names.

But the benefits are there, especially for the two sort of "flagship" microformats, hCard and hCalendar. Obviously, if you're publishing contact details on a company website, you want as many people as possible to be able to get in touch with you. If you use hCard, not only can people read your contact details on that web page; they can convert the contact details to vCard, which they can export to address book or mobile phone and take with them. It's much the same with hCalendar; you're not only publishing the event on a web page, but this markup makes the event much more portable—people can put it into their calendars, take it with them on their phones. So there's a whole bunch of benefits to publishing with these microformats—probably more benefits than have even been discovered yet.

Barbara: Are there other talks that you're interested in attending or hearing?

Jeremy: I see that Joshua Porter is going to be on the bill. He's fantastic. We share a lot of interests, about social networking and network theory, and are reading a lot of the same things. He's a super-smart guy, and I enjoy reading his blog. I'm looking forward to hearing him speak. Actually, just about everybody looks good—like at the conference in San Francisco, which was a nice mix of hands-on CSS stuff and blue-sky design thinking.

I'm looking forward to seeing Dan Brown, too. I think that he and I need to organize a field trip into Nashville to go to a mandolin shop. He plays the mandolin, and I play mandolin and bouzouki. Nashville sounds like a Mecca for mandolins. And anybody else who wants to come along, of course—anyone who's into getting a new mandolin.

Barbara: That's a wonderful idea. Will you bring your own instrument over?

Jeremy: Well, here's the thing, you see. I'm thinking that I won't bring my own instrument over—I'll get one while I'm there. It'll be a lot cheaper and the quality will be a lot better.

Barbara: You'll have to do something at the hotel for the attendees who don't make the field trip.

Jeremy: Maybe Dan and I could arrange some kind of duet. [Laughs]

Barbara: That would be marvelous! I think that would make it a conference to remember.

Jeremy: I'm putting Dan on the spot now. You're going to have to ask him about that. [Laughs]

To hear the original audio podcast of this interview, please visit the Voices That Matter: Web Design Conference website.

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