The Future of Web Design. #41 #cong16

By Alastair McDermott.

Ancient History

I was in college studying software engineering in the late 90's. One of the things that was notable about the field of software engineering is that it did not have a lot of formal processes. It was still developing as a profession, as an industry. "Software engineering" only started to become use as a term in the mid to late 60s, and the Software Engineering Institute was founded in 1984.

Compare that to something like civil engineering which can be dated to structures like the Pyramids in Egypt, the Parthenon in Greece, the Appian Way in Rome and the Great Wall of China. Other professions like accounting have thousands of years of history, dating back to ancient Mesopotamia. The relatively modern concept of double entry book-keeping traces back to 1494! 

Web Design Hasn't Left The Hospital Yet

And yet when we compare it with such a new field as software engineering, web design is still in its infancy. In fact it's a newborn baby, still in the hospital, not having been released home yet!

When I look back at the first website that I was built on 1996 - on Geocities - web design had been really only been around as a concept for about 2 years! Table-based design had just become a thing, allowing us to build amazing web pages where the content didn't have to be simply full-width lines of text, but we could create columns! JavaScript went mainstream around 1996. We got CSS around 1998 but that didn't hit general acceptance until mid-2000 when the Netscape vs. Internet Explorer browser wars took off, and we had those awesome "This Page is Best Viewed with ______" badges. 

Got Mobile?

As a result of an explosion in mobile devices in the mid-2000s, especially the iPhone appearing in 2007, it was necessary to build mobile-friendly versions of websites, usually small and feature-limited. Touch screens killed the concept of on-hover, which contributed to the slow death of Adobe Flash. We got responsive design in 2010, where websites instead of having separate mobile sites, they could now adapt to the size of the display that they are shown on. Even now in 2016, not every website is responsive.

Hitting a Moving Target

We are learning fast about web design, we have improved the tools that we are using, we've improved our understanding of user behaviour bigly. 

But in technology, we have a moving target. Since 2007 and Apple brought out iPhone, and a realistic ally usable full screen mobile computer, we have had real mobile devices. We've had that less than 10 years at this point. The web design industry often scrambles to jury-rig solutions to these new challenges before addressing the changes with new standards. This will continue to be the case long into the future.

Website Providers Are Learning

Given this technological march forward, it's no surprise that web design is still changing rapidly and new tools are becoming available. Web designers and web design companies are becoming more educated, and developing and improving  new processes to build sites. They are starting to understand their customers better, and their customers' needs better. And learning about web user behaviour. 

This explains some of the reasons why there's a lot of websites that don't meet their customers' needs or visitors' needs - because this is all still new. The information has not had time to spread.

The Rise of The Geek

One of the issues is that, particularly in its infancy, web design was the remit of the technical person, of the software engineer - because they were the only people with the skills to use the tools we had available at the time, and understand the technologies behind websites.

So the early websites were mostly build by non-marketing people, by engineers and people lacking in design skills. We had a lot of functional, boxy websites that were not very pleasant to use.

That's the past of web design. It shapes the future.

The Short-term Future - Better Websites from Design Companies

We are all the time understanding users better, understanding the website owners better, their needs better. We are constantly improving our knowledge of many different aspects

Firstly, web designers and web design companies are going to self-educate themselves about issues like usability, but also about the business of delivering web design as a service.

We're also seeing automation tools and templates improving to the stage where a lot of business owners are choosing to self-service, to choose a DIY model where they build their own website. This is often because of costs, and sometimes because of negative experiences getting work done in the past. 

At the low end of the web design business, cheap websites from low cost providers will always be there, because it's very easy for someone with minimal experience to pick up the tools and build a site that is somewhat functional and professional in appearance. But they're not going to build a site that's equivalent to one built by an experienced professional, but often this is good enough, particularly for a business in its first couple of years of startup and likely to pivot to another business direction.

The other problem is there are a lot of web providers out there who haven't self-educated on the usability and marketing side, but they have learned about the sales process of selling websites. Often they're very focused on delivering specifically what the business owner asks for, and letting them drive the discussion about the functionality of the site, rather than playing the part of an expert and fiduciary, and identifying alternative options that might deliver better return on investment for the business owner.

The Long-term Future - Templates, Patterns, Automation and - Ultimately - AI 

In software and web design, we have had the concept of design patterns for years now. In fact, these patterns are some of the reason we don't see a lot of innovation in web design. It's good for usability - website visitors know what to expect, don't have to think about where to find what they're looking for. This usability is good for sales.

These design patterns have a marketing or sales equivalent. 

"Save The Cat"

Hollywood scriptwriters like Blake Snyder have shown us how effective formulas can be when it comes to creating blockbuster movies with the monomyth and the three act structure: call to adventure/setup, road of trials/confrontation, return/resolution. 

With our developing knowledge and understanding of online visitor behaviour, needs and psychology, we are getting better at creating marketing copy and online sales funnels. 

The number one goal for most businesses is to have a website that generates sales. There is already a movement toward websites that are complete online sales funnels and to automating the entire sales processes. These systems are going to get better and automate more of the process as we get more data about what works in online sales.

One of the recent trends has been split testing, where different versions of a web page are created and tested to see which converts visitors best. Traffic to the page is split amongst the different versions and the winning version is chosen after tracking performance of each page.

Long term, tools will ultimately allow fully automated split testing, which will incrementally improve sales without human intervention, building an optimised website for the business.

What's Left for Us Humans?

The great thing about this future is that while much of the "grunt work" will be automated, web design will still remain a function of marketing, and will still require an in-depth knowledge of a business. Every business is different, and that makes the opportunity. This is the interesting work of web design, where true value is added. Let the robots handle the messy bits.


© Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie