The counterarguments in these posts and in other comments from readers can be summarized in the following four ideas:
- We still need lots and lots of Web design. Poorly designed sites are the norm, and people are currently using these sites, on desktops, tablets and mobile. Few businesses can afford to get away without having a Web page. Most Web pages are still not responsive. So how can someone declare Web design as dead? There’s so much work to do.
- Commoditization, templates, and automation are signs of poorly understood Web design, not that there’s no more work left for us to do. In fact, we are called to fight commoditization with thoughtful, original Web design.
- Mobile is not killing the Web. There can’t be an app for everything. More and more users are accessing the internet through their mobile phones, which means more and more people is able to do Web browsing. How can mobile be killing the Web?
- It’s harmful to declare that Web design is dead, because it prevents us from discussing it and continuing to improve it. Web technologies are alive and well, and we can’t close the door on what helps us perfect our craft.
Some of these arguments were already addressed In Conversation with Josh Tyson from UX Magazine, but I’ll go over all of them again, because they certainly deserve attention. Please check the links I included, they provide really good context.
Content Is King, but Content Is Not Tied to Web Anymore
Do you use Flipboard? Or Pocket? Or Google Play Newsstand? You may be reading a lot of content (maybe even this article) on them, but they are not Web pages. They look like them, but they aren’t. You can’t control the design of an article in them—in fact, users expect uniformity from these apps, so they are less distracted by branding and layouts and can focus more on the actual content.
Content (and function in the case of tools) will never die. It’s at the center of all of our human experiences. Craving interesting things to know and do is part of our nature. Technology is doing the best it can to remove more and more barriers between us and the content. Ten years ago—when Web design was everything we could see—our consumption of digital content was tied to a chair and a desktop. Today, we carry it in our pockets. Tomorrow, we’ll project it virtually on our walls or hear it from a digital assistant. Or who knows. Content is fluid and finds new ways of replicating itself, as the technology which supports it evolves.
In this context, Web is just a medium—one that is increasingly losing influence to mobile. Sure, you read a lot of Web content on your smartphone; I bet that you found most of it through one of your social network apps, or Google. We are already pretty used to this notion, where these ecosystems are distribution channels and the Web is still the endpoint of content consumption.
But what happens when the distribution channel decides to become the endpoint as well? It’s happening, but perhaps you haven’t been paying attention. For instance, users are now hosting more videos directly on Facebook than on YouTube. This is expected to happen with written content as well. Nothing prevents Facebook or Twitter (whose mobile apps already provide embedded browsers) from starting to host the content natively and provide a faster, more cohesive experience.
This is a logical move for the ecosystem owner: Why not own more of it? If audiences are already spending most of their time here, why just be a hub? It makes good business sense, even though I don’t necessarily consider it a good thing. Users are not worried about this shift: marketers and designers are, because it messes up our current model of content distribution and consumption. Speaking of which …
Our Notion Of "Web Design" Limits Our Craft and Our Mindset
We need to abandon the idea of Web design because it carries too much weight and inertia. But we—designers—are the ones who need to change. Web technologies are just fine. And they will continue to be fine because, from the very beginning, they were conceived as fluid, flexible, semantic technologies which privilege content and adaptability. It took quite a few years for us to adopt the notion of responsive design, but Web technologies have always been responsive. Our designs weren’t.
The same shortcomings are happening now with what we call Web design, and even with the idea of responsive Web design. These notions have become a mental shortcut that still assume the Web as a given, something that will always exist and that thus must be the center of what we do. The problem with this is that we easily get lost in discussions about which carousel is better, and stop noticing that in many cases the Web is being skipped completely for other media.
Responsive Web design forced us to think about our flexibility as designers, in terms of screen sizes and methods of interaction (that’s how “optimized for 1024x768” ended up being a ludicrous statement). Well, the same needs to happen now in an even broader sense: we need to question our assumptions of Web, and even visual design, being the center of all digital interactions and content consumption.
For instance: if you were appointed to design the UI for Waze and the first thing you do is start designing screens, you would be hopelessly lost, because the crucial part of the interaction with Waze is the aural interface, not the screen itself. When you call yourself a Web designer, there are simply too many pre-conceptions you have to shake off in order to tackle a broader challenge.
Web design was conceived in an era when we didn’t have geofencing, iBeacons, or NFC. The rapid progresses in core mobile technology is doing more—in orders of magnitude—for the user experience than further iterations on current Web patterns. People are consuming content in a myriad of new ways. And our tools and methods are not quite ready for them.
All we have are hammers, and we want everything to look like nails.
One can expand the notion of a Web designer in order to include everything else, but then the concept becomes useless, because it ends up defining nothing. And certainly, naming this professional scope in terms of a specific medium doesn’t help much to adopt a cross-medium mindset.
In fact, calling yourself an Interface Designer will do much more for your craft these days. It forces you to acknowledge that there are numerous interfaces out there that are not Web or visual, and some that are not even digital. You still need to be expert in every medium you design for, so none of your Web design skills are going to waste.
Is this a matter of naming then? In part, and it’s not trivial. Names and definitions are powerful: they set our expectations and boundaries, which in turn determine what we do and where we look. Anyone involved with information architecture knows it from experience.
Distribution and Discovery Are Problems
When we design a website or an app, we put the best of our expertise to it, interview users, tackle problems, craft great visuals, embrace multiple screen sizes and then … hand it to someone else for distribution. Design it and they will come is our undeclared mantra. We don’t think too much about how our design is going to reach users. In fact, the very concept of user experience assumes that there are already users out there, ready to experience whatever we do.
But the growing irrelevance of the Web as we know it is directly tied to the problem of distribution and discovery of content. Facebook and other social networks have built abstraction layers on top of the Internet that allow for (supposedly) easier distribution and discovery of content (before them, remember, your best bet was Google Adwords or buying a banner in another portal). On top of that, mobile operating systems and their curated marketplaces for apps have become an easy, central, and—most importantly—safe place for users to discover more content and tools.
As designers, we have left the problem of making people figure out the existence of what we create to others, so most of us are not directly aware that distribution and discovery of content is what’s really driving changes in platforms, ecosystems and technologies. It was not some problem about the Web itself which made social networks or app stores appear. The Web was doing quite fine at that point (the standards, technologies and most of the practices we use today already existed in 2007). It was — once again — the content, using new technology to find better ways of distributing itself.
And now we are again faced to a similar challenge: now that distribution and discovery have been tackled, their abuse has brought to light the problem of content relevance. We are being flooded with information, requests and advertising, and this is not a problem to be solved with Web design. Our baseline are saturated, overstimulated users. In some cases, the solution to effectively deliver value to users will be skipping the Web channel altogether (if in doubt, look at the homepages of mobile-only companies).
That calls for an open mind. Many designers and marketers were quite comfortable with things as they used to be. Entire businesses, revenue models and careers have been built around capturing clicks, putting banners in front of readers, and persuading them to hand over their email addresses. When you are comfortable, you want things to stay the same.
This point of view still carries some steam because, obviously, Web design hasn’t suddenly stopped happening. I agree that there’s much work to be done, but the standards and the best practices are already there. And the fact that we haven’t been following them thoroughly says more about us than about said standards. But while many businesses will in fact need to update their Web standards in order to thrive, many others will simply be abandoned by users or rendered useless by new distribution channels, no matter how much design is put into them.
It’s thrilling to see that many designers are taking the time to meditate and question what they do, even while in the midst of doing precisely the kind of outdated work I'm describing (I, for one, have a huge Web portal to design right now). When we don’t make these pauses, all we can do is project the past linearly into the future—and that’s why so many designers still envision a future full of Web design. Changing and adapting is always hard. But design has been doing precisely that for centuries. If there's a discipline that should embody flexibility and adaptability more than any other, it’s design.
Image of red fractals courtesy Shutterstock.