Interview: Aarron Walter

Interview: Aarron Walter

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In: Interviews

By Nick Finck

Published on October 28, 2008

Digital Web: Aarron, thanks for taking the time to sit down for an interview with us, I know you’re a busy man so let’s get right into the questions. First, give us some insight into your background. How did you get started on the web?

Aarron Walter: I actually studied painting in undergrad and grad school. Towards the end of my graduate studies I took a Photoshop class so I could learn to work through painting ideas quickly on the computer, but as it turned out I became more interested in the digital images I was making than in my paintings. I wanted to make my images interactive, so I started learning Macromedia Director and Lingo. Director gave me the opportunity to engage the analytical and creative parts of my brain simultaneously, which was something I wasn’t getting from my studio. I started making some really bizarre and kind of creepy CD-ROMs, which ended up landing me a job at a small design agency in Philadelphia called Peec Labs. That’s where I was introduced to the underpinnings of the web, and got to work on some cool projects for David Bowie, Universal Studios, and various other fun clients.

DW: How would you describe what it is you do? What kind of work have you been doing as of late?

AW: In January of this year I started a new job as the lead user experience designer for the Rocket Science Group. We make a web app called MailChimp, which is an email design and delivery tool that has a fun personality. My first task when I started the job was to rethink the entire interface of the app to make it as usable and efficient as possible, without totally breaking the workflow users were already accustomed to. I also got to define the creative direction of the app. It was a huge undertaking, but was a lot of fun. Perhaps the coolest part of my job is that I work with a bunch of really smart people who bring so many good ideas to the table. It’s incredibly satisfying to dream up cool ideas and know that we have the team to make it happen.

One thing that I have learned working on MailChimp is that the soft side of usability is equally as important as empirical data. Of course designing an efficient workflow is priority one for us, but we’ve found that injecting a sense of humor into the user experience transforms happy users to excited evangelists. The funny easter eggs we’ve tucked into various nooks and crannies generate incredibly positive responses from our users. We often find screenshots of our app on personal blogs, on Twitter, and in Flickr accounts because people love to share the great experience they have with our app.

DW: I hear you are an instructor as well, correct? Tell us about where and what you teach?

AW: I teach a few courses at The Art Institute of Atlanta, one of the very few colleges that has been teaching web standards since 2002. I taught there full time from 2001-2007, and now I am teaching adjunct. This past spring I taught a course called Findability, which was the inspiration for my book, and this fall I am teaching History of Communication Media, a theory course in which we explore how we evolve with our media.

Teaching is not an easy job, but it’s so important and certainly rewarding. It requires that you not only know your subject, but that you know it well enough to break down core principles into a series of lessons that span an entire academic term, all while keeping the big picture clear to your students. I feel like I learn as much as my students do with each course I teach.

DW: You also recently published a book entitled “Building Findable Websites: Web Standards, SEO and Beyond.” Tell me a little about this book, is it just another SEO book or is there more to it than that?

AW: My book Building Findable Websites came from my Findability class, in which I teach students a holistic approach to communicating on the web so they can reach their target audience. As I was looking for a textbook for the class I was rather disappointed that no books considered all of the communication methods we use on the web. They all just focused on SEO, which of course is an important means of reaching your audience, but most books didn’t take into account social networks, viral marketing, microformats to make content re-discoverable, and all of the other tools at our disposal. Most of the books on the market also didn’t explore the role of web standards in making websites more meaningful to search engines.

At SxSW in 2007 I met Michael Nolan, Senior Acquisitions editor for New Riders, and I pitched him my idea for the book. He recognized that the topic of findability was not being thoroughly explored, and gave me the chance to write the book. All of the techniques and strategies in Building Findable Websites are centered around three key goals:

  • Help your audience find your website
  • Help your audience find the content they seek in your website
  • Turn one time visits into repeat visits so you can create a relationship with your audience

I see this book as a bridge between Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability and Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing With Web Standards. Morville deftly explores behavior and theory around how we search and discover things. Zeldman’s book is the bible on using standards as the foundation of our craft. Building Findable Websites presents practical techniques with ample code examples that embody the findability theories Morville’s book presents.

DW: SEO to me has always been a love/hate thing. Several SEO experts seem to suggest ways to manipulate and deceive search engines into getting better placement. A few, and I mean a very few, SEO experts seem to really get that it’s about good content and good semantically structured web standards. Where do you fall? Which group do you feel you fit into and what do you have to say about the other group’s tactics?

AW: I am an advocate of using SEO techniques as a means for improving the user experience. We should never do anything in the pursuit of top search rankings that will negatively impact the usability, accessibility, or the credibility of our site. Stuffing title tags or copy with keywords to the point that they no longer have value to your users undermines SEO efforts by making your site less attractive to your audience. Focus on great content first to ensure that when your audience does find you, they’ll stick around on your site.

There’s an awkward and unfortunate divide in our industry between the SEO and standardista camps. Standards advocates often misunderstand SEO as a deceptive art, while SEO types might not see the value in what standards has to offer. There is a big overlap in SEO and standards. Web standards ensure we clear our content of search indexing roadblocks such as obtrusive JavaScript and inaccessible media. They also help clearly communicate the information hierarchy of our content to search engines so our meaning is discernible, which can result in positive page ranking improvements.

We need to see each of the sub-disciplines of our industry as equal contributors to a website’s success. To do this we need to actively learn more about each facet of our craft so we can develop a respect for what our colleagues do and communicate better with each other. We all have to approach our work with a strong sense of ethics, and stay focused on improving the user experience. SEO gets abused, but so do all disciplines when practitioners focus too much on technique and not enough on the goal.

DW: What are the key takeaways for SEO from your perspective? Do we have to buy the book or can you give us some insight?

AW: Stop thinking of SEO as the only way to connect with your audience, and start seeing it as an important piece of a broader campaign to make your content findable. When we hyper-focus on SEO (or any step in the project lifecycle) we no longer see the project lifecycle holistically, and therefore can lose sight of what’s important in a project. There are a plethora of smart things you can do to make sure your site is findable and search engine friendly. I wrote a quick reference cheat sheet that you can download for free at It lists out the important steps you don’t want to overlook when working on a new or existing site.

DW: You are a member of the Web Standards Project’s Education Task Force and are leading up the WaSP Curriculum Framework project. Can you tell us a little bit about the project and what the goal of it is?

AW: The WaSP Curriculum Framework is a modular series of courses that teach foundation concepts in six key learning tracks: foundations, front-end development, design, user sciences, server-side development, and professional practices. The WaSP recognizes that there is a disconnect between the web industry and education. Education institutions are struggling to play catch up with the fast pace of the web, and are still figuring out where and how to integrate web courses into their programs. The WCF will empower educators by providing the learning competencies, assignments, exam questions, readings, and relevant resources needed quickly get up to speed with the industry.

The WCF is a bit different from typical curricula in that it is designed to be a framework. Given the velocity at which web technology unravels, we recognize that required skill sets can change rapidly, and that the best way to keep this material useful is for the education community to enrich it with their expertise and experiences. In this way, The WaSP Curriculum Framework will be a “living curriculum” that we hope would be a knowledge base of required skills.

The framework will include guidelines to help educators around the world develop assignments and learning modules that address issues specific to their classrooms. These independently developed teaching materials can then be submitted back to The WaSP Curriculum Framework for review and potential inclusion in the project. We are also actively working on connecting with other organizations and institutions to create as comprehensive a curriculum framework as possible.

We’ll be releasing The WCF in the spring of 2009, but we’ll continue to add courses and content as the industry changes.

DW: So is this a framework intended to be adopted by schools and universities around the country? Is the intent to replace their existing web curriculum?

AW: The WCF will be released under an open Creative Commons license so any school, university, or training program around the world can use it free of charge. We recognize that many schools will want to use our courses to fill gaps in their programs, which is why we’ve designed it to be modular. Each course does have prerequisites listed so administrators and educators can determine what students need to know before enrolling in a particular course. We also hope to see the WCF used to start brand new programs in schools too.

DW: Opera recently launched their Opera Web Standards Curriculum, how does this affect the work being put into the WaSP Curriculum Framework? Are these two Curriculums going to compete? Are we doubling up efforts?

AW: Chris Mills at Opera has done an amazing job heading up the Opera Web Standards Curriculum. It consists of a broad series of articles that are the perfect, practical compliment to the pedagogical materials in The WaSP Curriculum Framework. The articles in the Opera Web Standards Curriculum are being used as readings in The WaSP Curriculum Framework. It was just serendipity that Opera and WaSP were headed down the same path but taking different, complimentary approaches to solving the challenges of education. We are happily collaborating and we think the result will be some extremely comprehensive teaching and learning materials.

DW: I also heard that the Information Architecture Institute is working on a Educational Curriculum as well. Will this be integrated into the WaSP Curriculum Framework?

AW: The Information Architecture Institute also has a really exciting education initiative underway. They are in the early stages of researching the types of content they need to include in their educational materials, but WaSP is staying in touch with the IAI so we can find ways to share and collaborate that will benefit educational institutions.

DW: Managing the the WaSP Curriculum Framework project must be a huge undertaking. With work, teaching, and having some aspect of a personal life, how do you find time?

AW: I’m trying to answer that question for myself right now! I’m really busy with a lot of fun things at the moment, and it feels great to be working on projects that I feel will have a positive impact on the industry I love so much. I am way over-booked right now, but I am plodding along, taking each task one by one and staying focused on the broader goals!

DW: Why do you do it? Why do you put so much passion into the curriculum? What are you personally hoping to achieve by doing this?

AW: Though we are all on separate paths in life, all of us are in search of happiness. Being an educator is certainly not something you do for the money. You do it because it has a positive impact on people, and truly changes lives. That brings me a happiness that is lasting and meaningful. The work my talented colleagues and I are putting into The WaSP Curriculum Framework has the potential to help a lot of students, educators, administrators, and employers on a global scale. We find that to be very worthwhile, and wonderfully rewarding.

My hope for The WCF is that it will help ensure students enter the workforce prepared for the challenges they’ll face so they can excel at their work, and enrich the web community.

DW: You’re a good man, Aarron. I appreciate your enthusiasm and dedication to the community at large. Thank you for spending time with us today.

Related Topics: Web Guru, User Experience, Usability, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Search, Education, Community

Aarron Walter is a designer, developer, teacher, and author. He is the lead UI designer on MailChimp, teaches at The Art Institute of Atlanta, and the author of Building Findable Websites: Web Standards, SEO and Beyond.

Nick Finck is a 13-year veteran of the web and considered a web craftsman by trade. His skills traverse web design, web development, user research, web analysis, information architecture, and web publishing. Nick founded his first web consultancy in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, and has since created web experiences for various Fortune 50 and 500 companies including Adobe, Boeing, Blue Cross / Blue Shield, Cisco, CitiGroup, FDIC, HP, IBM, Microsoft, PBS, Peet’s Coffee, and others. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington and is a co-founder of Blue Flavor, a web strategy company that focuses on people-centric solutions. More information about Nick can be found on his web site,