Visions of the future #1
Three experts explain where they think web design is heading
“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.”
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.”
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