Vi­sions of the fu­ture #1

Three ex­perts ex­plain where they think web de­sign is head­ing

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“The web I grew up with is like a fancy book, with count­less pages all con­nected to­gether by strange magic. Now the web is be­com­ing more of a ser­vice; a pre­sen­ta­tion-ag­nos­tic repos­i­tory. In the next 10 years, more peo­ple will ac­cess web pages through voice and cam­era in­ter­faces, not browsers. They’ll ask Google Home or Siri to find an­swers on the web for them, in­stead of man­u­ally pars­ing pages. My job as a de­signer will be to bring the same ac­ces­si­bil­ity and clar­ity to in­for­ma­tion in th­ese new con­texts as I vis­ually do now.” Caleb Mis­cle­vitz, web de­signer at FINE (weare­fine.com) “A longer term trend is the re­duc­tion in the num­ber of de­vel­op­ers needed for the day-to-day cre­ation of ba­sic dig­i­tal stuff. There’s an app called RBA (Robot Process Au­to­ma­tion), which of­fers the abil­ity for peo­ple within or­gan­i­sa­tions to cre­ate their own bots, that do parts of their job. It’s re­ally the abil­ity to kick off a process that au­to­mates a small repet­i­tive thing, and then it learns and im­proves as well, based on a ma­chine­learn­ing back­end.” Jim Bowes, CEO and founder of Man­i­festo (man­i­festo.co.uk) “The fu­ture will be less about de­sign and fea­ture set up, and more about con­tent au­thor­ing and strat­egy. There may be a sit­u­a­tion where web de­sign as a spe­cific role no longer ex­ists; pri­mar­ily be­cause of web de­sign tools on the mar­ket. The fu­ture of web de­sign jobs is us­ing web de­sign to support an­other pur­pose; e-learn­ing is a good ex­am­ple of this.” Leon Brown, ed­u­ca­tion con­tent de­vel­oper at Next­point (next­point.com)

A lot of the chal­lenges we’ve seen around con­ver­sa­tional in­ter­faces align very closely with the chal­lenges around in­clu­sive de­sign

em­ployee that much bet­ter? I think that’s go­ing to be­come very per­va­sive over the next 10 years.”

There’s a sim­ple way to get on board with this shift in ap­proach, he adds. “Right now, when peo­ple start a project they say: ‘Okay: de­sign lead, you go over there and do your ser­vice de­sign thing. Data lead, you go over there and look at th­ese num­bers. And we’ll meet back in a cou­ple of weeks and talk. But I think that’s a big mis­take.” In­stead, de­sign­ers and data sci­en­tists should be peers in the same team, bash­ing ideas out to­gether.

“At Fjord, we’ve found some of the most valu­able op­por­tu­ni­ties for de­sign come when our de­sign­ers in­ter­view a bunch of peo­ple and they have th­ese re­ally in­ter­est­ing in­sights into how they think and feel, ” he ex­plains. “And then we com­pare that to a data set.”

For in­stance, they once re­searched shop­pers in a gro­cery store. “They all said: ‘The line is ter­ri­ble, I can’t be­lieve we’re wait­ing so long in line.’” When Fjord an­a­lysed the se­cu­rity videos, though, it re­alised the queu­ing time was quite short: around 45 sec­onds. “Yet shop­pers were spend­ing an hour and a half in the store, try­ing to find what­ever they were look­ing for. So we re­alised it was ac­tu­ally more of a wayfind­ing is­sue than a line is­sue.”

In other words, while the hu­man thinks one thing, the data of­ten says some­thing dif­fer­ent. “The truth may lie some­where in the mid­dle and that’s where you get some in­ter­est­ing de­sign features”, ex­plains Shet­ter­ley.

“Ap­ply that to the web, and you find that peo­ple tend to re­mem­ber the last worst ex­pe­ri­ence, yet don’t nec­es­sar­ily bring up the small an­noy­ances that go on for­ever. But you can track those us­ing data, so mix­ing those two to­gether be­comes re­ally valu­able.”

Con­ver­sa­tional in­ter­faces

Un­der­stand­ing how your users think and what they need is go­ing to be key to know­ing how to im­ple­ment new tech­nolo­gies. And that cer­tainly ap­plies to an­other major cul­tural shift on the web; to­wards con­ver­sa­tional in­ter­faces. Be­cause the big­gest prob­lems here won’t be tech­ni­cal ones, they’ll be hu­man ones.

UX and de­sign agency Sigma ( wear­e­sigma.com) has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties for some of its larger clients. “And a lot of the chal­lenges we’ve seen around con­ver­sa­tional in­ter­faces align very closely with the chal­lenges

around in­clu­sive de­sign: men­tal mod­els, lan­guage, con­fi­dence trust, and so on, ” re­veals head of ex­pe­ri­ence, Chris Bush.

His MD, Hi­lary Stephen­son, points out that con­ver­sa­tion in­ter­faces fun­da­men­tally change the game in a way we haven’t re­ally seen be­fore in web de­sign. “It’s a big step mov­ing away from a tra­di­tional screen-based in­ter­face, where peo­ple can take their time to nav­i­gate around and look at sup­port­ing in­for­ma­tion, poli­cies, terms and con­di­tions”, she ex­plains.

“When you’ve got a screen, you’ve got some­thing that’s giv­ing you cues con­stantly and keep­ing you on track, but for con­ver­sa­tional in­ter­faces, it’s all in your head. That makes ex­ploratory in­ves­ti­ga­tion much more dif­fi­cult for peo­ple”, she con­cludes.

That’s not to say there isn’t a gen­uine place in the mar­ket for them. “For ex­am­ple, con­sider places where peo­ple are us­ing their hands a lot, such as pro­duc­tion lines, man­u­fac­tur­ing and lab­o­ra­to­ries”, says Bush. “In­ter­faces that al­low peo­ple to keep their hands oc­cu­pied when they’re in­ter­act­ing with sys­tems of­fer clear ad­van­tages.”

But many dan­gers are lurk­ing, too: “AI and ma­chine learn­ing have more ground to cover in ethics, pri­vacy and trans­parency than they have in im­ple­men­ta­tion”, com­ments Stephen­son. “The on­set of the Gen­eral Data Pro­tec­tion Reg­u­la­tion (an EU di­rec­tive that be­comes en­force­able in May 2018) will en­cour­age pri­vacy for de­sign in the dig­i­tal com­mu­nity, where we re­ally start to think about what we’re ask­ing peo­ple.

“And where we do ask peo­ple to give data, there should be a very clear pol­icy

of us­age, on re­ten­tion, on peo­ple’s right to with­draw that data. It’s quite hard to do that in a con­ver­sa­tional in­ter­face.”

Web an­i­ma­tion

If chat­bots take off, copy­writ­ing skills may be­come as im­por­tant to the in­dus­try as vis­ual de­sign skills are right now. And here’s an­other cre­ative skill that’s go­ing to be in­creas­ingly in de­mand: an­i­ma­tion.

Yes, we once dis­missed UI an­i­ma­tions as tacky, an­noy­ing and ob­tru­sive. But re­cently they’ve made a come­back, as a use­ful way to pro­vide in­stant feed­back when a user takes an ac­tion and to guide them through a process.

Why the turn­around? Tommy Ma­son, web de­signer at cre­ative mar­ket­ing agency CAB Stu­dios ( www.cab­stu­dios.

co.uk), cred­its Google’s Ma­te­rial De­sign and other an­i­ma­tion frame­works for rais­ing stan­dards. “With­out that, peo­ple weren’t look­ing at the small in­tri­ca­cies like the tim­ing, how fast it was com­ing in, go­ing out, so all th­ese move­ments that were hap­pen­ing on the screen looked very un­nat­u­ral, ” he says.

His col­league, se­nior de­vel­oper Mike Burgess, agrees. “UI an­i­ma­tion has al­ways been there, ” he says. “But it’s been about find­ing the bal­ance be­tween mak­ing it look so­phis­ti­cated and mak­ing the user know their in­put has been reg­is­tered, that they’re pro­gress­ing through­out the site.”

Be­cause of the new pop­u­lar­ity of UI an­i­ma­tion, it is cre­at­ing a new de­mand for skilled prac­ti­tion­ers, he adds. “You can now spe­cialise in an­i­ma­tion on the web, and it’s be­com­ing more recog­nised as an art in it­self. We live in a dig­i­tal world where peo­ple scroll through 300ft of con­tent a day, so the more and more we progress in tech­nol­ogy, the more this is go­ing to keep es­ca­lat­ing.”

VR and AR

An­other skillset that’s in­creas­ingly in de­mand by web de­sign stu­dios is 3D. That’s most ob­vi­ously the case when it comes to vir­tual re­al­ity - some­thing Matthew Clay­potch, de­vel­oper ad­vo­cate at Mozilla, be­lieves is go­ing to be a very big deal. “Some de­vel­op­ers view VR as a niche or a fad”, he says. “But I’ve given vir­tual re­al­ity demos to chil­dren, and they take to it like wa­ter. All th­ese kids are go­ing to be brought up in a world where this stuff ex­ists, and we’d be fool­ing our­selves to think that they won’t ex­pect that go­ing for­ward.”

And don’t dis­count aug­mented re­al­ity (AR) ei­ther. It may have taken a while, but with the ar­rival of Ap­ple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore, things are pro­gress­ing fast. Se­bas­tian Wi­talec of Progress en­vis­ages a world in which the web will be­come part of our day-to-day vi­sion.

“You won’t have a screen any more, the web will just be part of what you see through your smart glasses or smart con­tact lenses”, he ex­plains. “So for ex­am­ple, you go to Water­loo train sta­tion and, rather than look at all the dif­fer­ent screens to find your train, your de­vice al­ready knows where you are go­ing and shows just the rel­e­vant times to you.”

Jim Bowes, CEO and founder of dig­i­tal agency Man­i­festo ( man­i­festo.co.uk), wasn’t con­vinced by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of AR un­til re­cently, when he saw a con­cept for Airbnb homes sug­gested by in­ter­face de­signer, Isil Uzum. “If you need to ex­plain, for ex­am­ple, how your ther­mo­stat works, your renter can pass their phone in front of it and see the rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion over­laid on the screen. That to me sounds like a gen­uinely use­ful ap­pli­ca­tion of AR”, ex­plains Bowes.

Open or pro­pri­etary?

All th­ese new tech­nolo­gies hold heaps of prom­ise. But it’s im­por­tant, too, to take a step back and look at the broader pic­ture. Will the open web ac­tu­ally sur­vive over the com­ing decades?

“We’re currently see­ing the emer­gence of a walled gar­den move­ment from some

When­ever some­one makes a move to­wards a walled gar­den ap­proach, there’s al­ways a bit of an up­ris­ing… That’s when we’ll cre­ate the cool new things

of the main play­ers, like Face­book and Google, ” points out Bowes. And this is prov­ing some­what of a dilemma for clients. “On the one hand, most of their cus­tomer jour­neys still hap­pen on their own web­sites. But they want to in­te­grate with things like ac­cel­er­ated mo­bile pages (AMP), which gives Google the abil­ity to cache ev­ery­body’s con­tent on their own sys­tems. Plus clients are ask­ing: what does it mean if we cre­ate a bot en­tirely in Face­book Mes­sen­ger? What if we want to break some­one out of that en­vi­ron­ment and make them down­load this thing, or do­nate to us, or buy from our shop? Th­ese are real big is­sues we have to face.”

But Bowes is among the op­ti­mists when it comes to the sur­vival of the open web. “What I love about the in­ter­net is that when­ever some­one makes a move to­wards a walled gar­den ap­proach, there’s al­ways a bit of an up­ris­ing, a punk back­lash against it, ” he be­lieves. “That’s when we’ll cre­ate the cool new things we don’t know about yet.” As one of the key play­ers lead­ing that charge, Mozilla has, for ex­am­ple, de­vel­oped A-Frame, an easy way to cre­ate vir­tual ex­pe­ri­ences on the web, and right now, it’s tak­ing on Ama­zon Echo and Google Home in the voice as­sis­tance space.

“We want to al­low for an open web­based sys­tem whereby you can build voice as­sis­tants”, ex­plains Matthew Clay­potch. “So we’re build­ing an open com­mons of voice data called the Com­mon Voice Project, which we’re us­ing to train an open and pub­licly avail­able speech recog­ni­tion model.”

It’s this kind of com­mu­nity-led en­thu­si­asm for new, open source de­vel­oper tools that gives us hope for the fu­ture of web de­sign. So count us among the op­ti­mists. Here’s to the next 300 is­sues of net, and roll on 2040!

Above Sigma has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of con­ver­sa­tional in­ter­faces, and it has some reser­va­tions over the prac­ti­cal­i­ties Left Will Google Home beat Ama­zon Echo in the bat­tle for voice as­sis­tants?

Above Pusher’s de­vel­oper tools make it easy to build re­al­time features into your ap­pli­ca­tions Top left Mozilla’s Com­mon Voice project aims to pro­vide an open source al­ter­na­tive to pro­pri­etary voice in­ter­faces Bot­tom left Progress’ open source frame­work, Na­tiveScript, en­ables you to build desk­top and mo­bile apps on a sin­gle code­base

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