Web Design Predictions and Lessons from the Past Revisited

Jeremy Pratte
June 06, 2012
User Experience Design

Since 2006 I have attended many conferences on the subject of web design and development (of course I’ve also learned a lot on the job). I thought it’d be a good idea to revisit some of the predictions, tips, tricks, and best practices of the past to see how they have panned out.

From my perception – your mileage may have varied – 2005, 2006 were the years that the idea took off that websites, like desktop software, needed a serious kick in the usability pants. Indeed, the idea, taken further, really argued that websites, and/or web applications, should actually be more like desktop software. I got into this industry, officially, in 1999, but it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that I began to see websites as something more than an online brochure. A conference I’d attended the summer of 2006 in San Francisco was all about usability and user testing. This is when the notion of “Well if the users can’t use it very well it must be their fault somehow” underwent a serious siege, the battering ram of User Experience (UX) knocking it to pieces. Ushered in was the era of user-friendly websites. Technology still had some serious catching up to do, though, for all of those ideas discussed at the time to truly come to fruition. After all, the current version of Internet Explorer at the time was 6. But at least the conversation got started and some of the basic ideas were possible. Of course this all definitely panned out. The user testing craze has mostly died down, though. And I think this is because there’s a lot of data and knowledge out there from past user testing; a lot of ground work has been laid and practices have become standard that were born from rigorous user testing. But User Experience now has its own acronym: some have even had it incorporated into their job title: “UX Designer” or “User Experience Specialist” and the like.

In December of 2007, I went to a WebBuilder conference in Las Vegas. Many more ideas were discussed, building on the premise of UX. “Web 2.0” was new and still, um, trending, so to speak. Among those ideas discussed was the notion of a “rich web experience.” Things like reduction in page loads (server requests) by using Ajax modals, right-click menus, drag & drop, and deep interaction with information were discussed. All this was largely adopted of course, but caveats. Lots of what was discussed was only possible with JavaScript and/or Ajax at the time. Now, however, much of that can be done with HTML5 and CSS3.

Web no-nos discussed at the time were pop-up windows, tiny targets, “pogo stick nav,” and too many links. Those indeed have thankfully been purged, for the most part, but partly because of the mobile revolution. Those “anti-patterns” were bad enough for a desktop experience, but they would have been unbearable in a mobile environment. Interestingly, some of the good ideas discussed I think have gone away, partly because of the mobile revolution, too, like slide-outs and in-place zooms. Of course, on a mobile phone, most of the time you can zoom in and zoom out the entire page.

Social media and social design got more than a few nods at the time. There was a perception that those things would become extremely important in the future but few realized exactly what direction it’d go in. There was a particular focus on blogs then. Of course blogs are still saturating the web; there was a notion of companies having sites that were blog-like, or leveraging blogs as part of their overall web strategy, because of the traffic that could bring to their website and/or product. Maybe even more importantly was the idea of customer interaction. But what’s happened is that the concept has been moved to Facebook walls and the Twitter dimension. Facebook at the time was barely a blip on the social media radar and Twitter existed then but few knew about it. Along with the new-fangled Facebook, Amazon, YouTube and – yes – MySpace, was in this discussion. We were told to design for the users’ personal value first and then build the online community around it. But what I’m seeing now, especially with Facebook, and literally with Google+, is a lot more emphasis on the personal value, as real-name accounts are entirely about you and your circle or circles around you. There isn’t a lot of interaction with strangers any more, except on Twitter. Facebook, as has been said, is where you go to lose friends, and Twitter is where you make new ones.

At any rate, the social media model, generally speaking, has panned out, but it’s more about fan pages, tweets and advertising rather than comments and links on blogs.

User testing garnered a mention or two at the 2007 conference, but not much more than that. But as the discussion of user testing was coming to an end, the discussion of web fonts was just beginning.

Perhaps the biggest focus then was content. Content, content, content! “Content is King!” Dynamic content, interactive content, user content, you need CONTENT, people! Websites aren’t online brochures anymore! Now, of course, that was all well and good. Content is still important but we’re realizing that the word is about as useful as the word “sports.” Ultimate fighting is considered a sport. But… so is professional poker.

It wasn’t until 2009, at a conference in New York City – actually called Future of Web Design – where I first heard a talk on actual content strategy. This was by the witty Kristina Halvorson from Brain Traffic. It was time to stop relegating a website’s content to an afterthought; it needed to be an integral part of the overall design process. “Greeking” the copy needed to come to an end, as that was a mistake that had often led to broken designs once real content was inserted later. Prioritizing, what content needed to go where, and what content got the most attention and what didn’t and how to leverage that knowledge was all discussed in a way I hadn’t seen before. The industry has now taken this to heart and I think Halvorson deserves a lot of credit for that.

Also in NYC I observed HTML5 and CSS3 get a lot of discussion. It wasn’t until then that one could actually start using them in a practical sense. Terms like “progressive enhancement” came to popular use in that era: the idea that we can still make sites look nice and usable in older browsers but it was time to move forward with new features that only the newest browsers would display. “Today’s 10% will be tomorrow’s 40%.” It was time to start designing websites for the future, not the past. We were encouraged to start using fade effects, enriching form elements, utilizing drop shadows, CSS gradients, and RGBA for color. We were encouraged to stop using images for navigation, or other elements that could be developed with pure CSS, something I’ve personally taken to heart. But the whole web development community has definitely moved forward with all of these notions. And now with Internet Explorer finally doing auto-updates, along with Chrome (and, somewhat, FireFox), the doors are opening to these things more than ever. But 2009 was the first time I started using or attended a talk on JQuery, which offered an easy-to-program form of JavaScript that is a nice way to achieve cross-browser effects without a need to get into something as heavy as AJAX, or take the risky plunge into full support for the “progressive enhancement” philosophy, or… use Flash.

I think it’s fitting that the 2007 conference had a talk on Flash that went horribly wrong (imagine the websites you’re intending to discuss not actually loading up), because in the next one the rumblings of the death of Flash began. There was talk of using the HTML5 <video> tag for presentation of video content instead of Flash for more compatibility across devices (which is ironic because one of the advantages of Flash had been presenting web media and apps in a cross-browser compatible way). To replace the need of Flash for animation, CSS3 animation was mentioned.

It wasn’t until 2010 that I actually saw CSS3 animation demonstrated, though. Its cross-browser compatibility was limited then, and unfortunately it still is. But the high potential of it was recognized. The coding skill needed to create them was and is intense so, like Flash, an application would still be a useful tool for any developer who is not a coding savant.

In 2010 and 2011 concern for designing and developing for the mobile environment kicked into high gear with two conferences I’d attended (both An Event Apart). This coincided with an exponential growth in the mobile web which shows no sign of stopping today. Other things were discussed but mobile was the hot topic. The iPhone was well-established by then and Android phones were taking a big bite out of the Big Apple. As I have discussed in my recent blog posts, things are fast-moving and uncertain in addressing this problem. This area of web design and development is still very much in flux. (Mobile versions of sites? Designing for mobile first? “There IS no mobile web?” Responsive design? Nix the layout?) If you consider that, in the period of less than a year, at the same conference (AEA), you learn how to make a mobile version of the site, then later learn that mobile versions are maybe a bad idea, you get an idea of the chaos. Even the leading idea, Responsive Design, has weathered some pretty serious criticism, notably the idea that sometimes mobile users, myself included, like to be able to zoom in, or zoom out, of a webpage at their own discretion, depending on the content. It’s almost like thunderous applause suddenly stopping and everybody mumbling "Uhh, wait a minute..."

So now where were we, web designers and developers, in 2012? Where we usually are: uncharted territory. I suppose we’re used to that by now, aren’t we?

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