Recap of the 2014 Design4Drupal Conference

In between helping candidates get new jobs at NTI, I ended up taking a break and heading to my coding roots. In the past, I’ve developed and implemented several Learning Management Systems (LMS) for Fortune 500 companies, built interactive media, and constructed many a website using .NET, Java, Javascript, and Rails. I have to say I miss it, but still use Moodle and Java quite a bit. Last week, one of my friends suggested I attend the Design4Drupal Boston 2014 conference in order to know the community a bit more (for coding, not recruiting). After seeing the website, I was intrigued to learn more and signed up a few moments later.

The last time I touched Drupal was for a client a few years back and haven’t had the chance to touch it since. I thought since I’m currently working on revamping the LMS and the website interface for it, why not attend, update my skill set and meet some people who actively engage with Drupal. Let’s just say I enjoyed the results.

The sessions mainly focused on the UX aspect of Drupal, from beginner to advance. There was many a lecture as well as hands-on aspects that entertained every level of experience. New ideas were abound and ways to push the product toward efficiency were debated. It was a community experience that even though I was away from home a bit, I was welcomed back again. I also lucked out since every session I attended brought forth some concepts that could immediately be applied back into the workplace.

The first session I attended was focused on rethinking UX research by Christine Perfetti. Senior Director of User Experience of Acquia. A prolific speaker who engaged and challenged the audience into thinking about the best practices for successfully evaluating and improving websites from a MacGyver frame of mind. A very timely topic as my manager emailed me a few minutes earlier looking for some criteria surrounding UAT testing for a Knowledgebase NTI is implementing this week. As I furiously took notes, I thought about how I could conduct the research with remote candidates through observation and instantly it was integrated into our plan.  Thus far, it has become a key element to changes to the system.

Christina Inge presented a very passionate lecture on understanding clients. When I heard her speak, it bridged the gap between the clients wants, needs and the designer. Enaging the audience, she provided the tools to drive smoother communication, project management, and how to handle the tough issues. Extending on the same root concepts, John Picozzi and Dave McKinley from Oomph discussed the trials and tribulations of client needs and how Drupal has become a mainstake in the business. They went on to discuss giving back to the Drupal community through involvement, Module development, and evangelizing the tools that have helped out so many designers and developers.

Since I haven’t touched Drupal since Drupal 5, I thought it would be fantastic to get a hand-on approach as a reminder of what Drupal could bring to the table. Christopher Wells, John Paul McNeal and Patrick Corbett of Redfin Solutions leveraged the Acquia Dev Desktop as well as to show to beginners and intermediates how to start up your own site. The 2-hour, hands-on workshop guided me and my fellow classmates through how the Acquia Desktop. The team from Redfin was very knowledgeable, patient, and resourceful as they guided the group to success. I found myself getting acclimated to the Acquia Desktop and transferring my knowledge from Moodle, SumTotal Systems, Eclipse Workbench and the .NET Framework to this new tool. I simply loved it, found it intuitive to use and was able to build an internal microsite during the class. As I investigated the site, I found a few ways to link Moodle and Drupal. Off to the lab to expand on my creation!

The second day of the conference was compelling and served up with lectures regarding the user experience, layout design patterns, design systems as well as one topic that surrounds NTI’s area of expertise, the accessibility experience.

The keynote speech was headed wholeheartedly by content strategist Steve Fisher who leveraged his conversation with the audience to welcome them into his world. Sharing the visual imagery and cynical humor surrounding his family using hula-hoops, to zombie attacks, and kissing dogs, Steve segued into how to connect the mind and heart when creating the vision behind a web project and allow for creativity. A compelling lecture to go out there and create and drive for the future.

One of the things that struck me during this conversation with Steve was his demonstration of the Lend-an-Eye App, which serves as somewhat of a seeing eye dog for visually impaired individuals. NTI helps individuals with disabilities strive to gain successful employment. It’s always a challenge getting everyone through our training due to the disability. Not only did Steve provide motivation through his speech, but also just helped out a few hundred visually impaired individuals get through our training programs at NTI. Thanks Steve!

Steve set the pace for the day as I experienced layout designs in the following session with John Ferris from the Aten Design Group. John leveraged his knowledge of CSS and Grid Frameworks to prevent the common layout issues from occurring. Using applied examples, John was able to showcase to the audience intrinsic ratios and coding for success. In fact, that night I changed some code on the site to reflect what he taught. Through his
technique, John was able to provide knowledge that I can automatically leverage in building my interface for my next Learning Management System.

I met up again with Christopher Wells from Redfin Solutions regarding a session on front-end performance. By sitting in on the session, I was able to plan out the execution of my next site a little more methodically. Chris provided some ideas surrounding when to use scripts only when you need it and how adding inline Javascript and jQuery can save some valuable load time. He even reintroduced a trick that I haven’t used during my Macromedia Director days, which is the use of sprites, one single file with multiple images on it and then leveraging positioning to show the correct image. Chris definitely provided some thought on how I will approach my next project and reducing load time.

As a common issue with over 400 Americans with Disabilities coming through our doors on a weekly basis, I had to go to Dan Mouyard’s presentation on the Accessible Experience and Designing for Everyone. However, I was interested in the sessions for Twig and Kalabox as well. I’m still happy I attended Dan’s session. Dan engaged the audience with visual imagery and hands-on exercises to discuss what it is like to for a disabled individual to experience the web on mobile and desktop devices. He further addressed the considerations that should be made when developing your design for the masses.

I followed Dan’s presentation with a session by Erik Baldwin from CLoud NYNE Design on Twig Prototyping with D8’s REST API. I thought it was great conversation surrounding a method of rapid prototyping. I found Twig fairly easy to learn and flexible enough to implement.  Twig definitely makes the code more digestible. Through the conversation with the audience, I think Erik chose well to present on such a topic and determine ways to prototype in a more efficient.

In my final session of the day, I headed to ''Responsive Javascript'' where Rob Bayliss of Last Call Media spoke of issues which I can see dawning in my near future. Managing a disabled population, NTI has different needs depending on the disability of the individual. Sometimes an individual may need to work off of a mobile device or with a combination of a desktop and a mobile device. I’ve always found it difficult as Rob imparted some knowledge on how to leverage Javascript to create designs that are more responsive.

Unfortunately, I could not attend the third day of the conference due to a prior commitment, but did attend the after party Saturday night at General Assembly where I met quite a nice group of talented individuals from a variety of professions. I’m looking forward to my next conference and contributing to the community. Time well spent and was happy to be a part. 

You can continue to follow the NTI evolution as we will be posting updates to this article as well as the experiments to bring a re-evolution to NTI Technology to life on @technology_nti at Twitter.

Mike Sanders is the Senior Director of Talent Management Services for NTI where he oversees the Training, Call Center, and Recruiting departments.  In the past, Mike was the Manager of Training for Canon North America, worked for a few Financial Firms, and has built Interactive media, Websites and Learning Management Systems for several Fortune 500 firms and start-ups.


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