The Future of Web Design is in Our Hands
For the past 20 years, the Web has evolved via a single portal (the desktop browser) and a single paradigm (the page).
In the last two years both have been obliterated by the proliferation of new Internet-connected devices and browser technology.
The Web as we know it is undergoing a transformational shift in how information is delivered, created, and consumed.
There has never been a more exciting time to be a user experience designer.
New technology platforms are opening up opportunities to create innovative human-computer interactions that make things more usable, more useful, and more desirable. And they necessitate a change in the way we think about design and user experience.
The Mobile Boom
It’s no secret that the mobile market is exploding, impacting everything from the devices themselves, to the infrastructure that supports them, to the amount of time users spend online. The improvements to connectivity speeds, device capabilities, and falling price points will only accelerate this trend. The time spent on mobile devices is now at parity with the time spent listening to the radio. According to Andrew Keen, soon distinguishing between desktop and mobile will be anachronistic. It will be simply the Web everywhere.
As mobile has emerged, a wide and compelling variety of new user experiences have flourished. Clear and Rise have famously turned content into interface by eliminating navigation entirely. Flipboard pioneered the marriage of traditional print design with elegant mobile UX. Along with Pinterest, they’ve set a new standard for interface design.
Path’s navigation and Loren Brichter’s pull to refresh are but two highlights in the move toward navigation that provides satisfying and addictive visceral feedback. Google’s push into machine learning and UX shows the potential of our mobile future through Google Now.
While these innovations are impressive and exciting, most web design has struggled to keep up with the diversifying screen sizes and use cases presented by the ever-dizzying array of new devices. Responsive design has been the firewall, but too often it is being leveraged for triage, rather than for delivering an optimal experience.
As designers, we need to be leveraging responsive design to deliver the optimal experience: a combination of usable, useful, and delightful. We’ve been calling it responsive+ at digital-telepathy, to ensure we’re thinking expansively about the experience we’re delivering. Feel free to borrow the term if it suits you.
Appification of the Web
Mobile proliferation, responsive design, and improved browser capabilities are three trends converging on a single end point: the appification of the web. Appification is the neologism we use to express the need for mobile designs that fit the context and use cases unique to smaller screens and our interface with them.
Website design can respond to deliver optimal experiences across devices based on screen size and context. Fingers, for example, are a bit clumsy as pointers, and so appification turns text links in the desktop browser to buttons on a tablet. Appification can create the app-like experiences users love on mobile, while delivering usable, useful, and desirable experiences on the desktop.
The Rise of Storytelling and Visceral Design
Forget a loose collection of pages that have little to do with one another. Think instead of narrative arcs and storylines. We’ve communicated through stories since the beginning of modern civilization. As web designers, we need to embrace the core importance of story and fuse it with the unique attributes of the digital medium to tell stories people care about.
Traditional web design, landing page dogma, and our desire to deliver the bare minimum via the mobile web have all led us to the wrong conclusion. They suggest the best web experience is a collection of short, singularly focused HTML documents, loosely coupled together under directories that are easy to digest and act on.
You only need look at the most successful online brands to see that more immersive experiences are winning. Google’s long form pages for Glass and Chromebook, and The New York Times’ Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek are just a few examples of this trend.
Long scrolling pages with rich, story-driven user experiences are captivating users, and creating value for everyone involved. These storylines create an experience and journey to objectives users care about. It’s the antithesis of the transactional-based approach of traditional web design.
The tools at our disposal for storytelling are plentiful. On-page interactive elements such as rich media, y-axis animation, drawers, etc. provide opportunity for users to explore without leaving the story, and create visceral interactions which satisfy and satiate, creating a gut-level desire to experience them again and again.
Examples, like the Medium case study by Teehan + Lax create a rich experience that puts the reader in an immersive storytelling experience that draws users in and puts them firmly in the moment through imagery, interactions, and emotionally resonant storytelling.
A story-driven, crafted, visceral experience creates real value for teams that get it right. Design has been the primary driver in the valuation of billion-dollar companies like Square, Pinterest, AirBnB, and more. But this design is not just high aesthetic: what these companies do well is weaving a story into their products, creating surprise and delight through thoughtful interactions aimed at the gut and heart.
By bringing a more intuitive approach to our design, and being thoughtful about the stories we’re telling as well as the microinteractions that deliver those satisfying experiences, we can create massive value for our teams and the users we serve.
The Internet of Things and Explosion of Access Points
Web content is now consumed on more screens and in more sizes and resolutions than ever before. There’s also no doubt this is just the beginning. It’s incumbent upon designers to think about content delivery and user experience through these various lenses so that users, regardless of how they access the brand, receive a usable and delightful experience.
Video game consoles, tablets, handheld devices, smartphones, smart watches, fuel bands and fitbits, Google Glass, thermostats, running shoes, and more are creating new demands for designers. Content and design need to be malleable and accessible to the user no matter the interface.
This reality is already creating significant changes in our approach to UX. It’s not uncommon to see a single brand have different UX approaches for their Android, iPhone, iPad, web and mobile access points. YouTube is a great example. From its simplified iPhone Capture app, integrated Android application, mobile page design–the list goes on. The YouTube UX team has created custom experiences to suit the user’s context and device screen size.
Designers need to work ever more closely with engineers and product designers to understand the entirety of how content and data will be accessed so they can design thoughtful UX that makes the devices as useful and usable as possible. Let’s not forget desirable, too. This goes beyond simply designing UX flows for smart watches. It gets to the level where UX paradigms are encoded in APIs so that new devices can smartly pick up and leverage the content, allowing end users to manipulate and interact with devices in the most optimal way.
Implications for Interface and Experience Design
As methods of manipulating content and associated experiences expand and diversify, the potential for interface design become more and more incredible. Take, for example, the current leap from mouse to finger. The mental leap doesn’t seem large at first—they’re both pointers after all. That facade lasts only as long as it takes to start breaking down the component parts of the interaction to realize the great implications that change has on usability and experience. Now UX designers need to design for and consider various modes of interaction and manipulation across devices and use cases.
From the Leap motion and Kinnect gesture control interfaces, to Siri and Google Now voice-driven UIs, to the Pebble watch and beyond, the web will continue to be accessed in ever more complex and diverse ways. Access points are one thing, but contexts are completely different. The use case and context of a user accessing Siri while walking through the mall is different than the same user accessing the virtual assistant while driving. A user accessing content through Kinnect has his or her whole body at their disposal, while Leap motion sits on a desk in front of a terminal.
Designers need to think through and understand the various ways users will want to interact with their content, beyond swipes and clicks, to create experiences for these use cases that far exceed the traditional point and click paradigms of today.
Take Advantage of Transformational Change
The web is undergoing transformational changes right in front of us. Now is the most exciting time to be a UX designer. Screens are the dominant form of interacting with content. New platforms and devices are changing where, why, and how we reach the web. UX designers can get ahead of these trends by rethinking what it means to design content and experience for users. Reframed in the broader ecosystem, the term website feels incredibly limiting and dated.
Story-driven design, pageless architectures, visceral interactions and considerations, and experiences tailored for various devices and modes of engagement will be the hallmarks of the designs that win as the web continues to evolve. Making these shifts in our work will be our hardest challenge. It will require new standards and breakthrough thinking. It will be the most exciting and innovative period of UX design yet. To paraphrase one of our favorite ‘80s songs: put on your shades, it’s going to be bright out there.
Image of man holding mobile device courtesy Shutterstock.