The Internet has been evolving for 20+ years, so isn’t it time websites got onboard? Since the Internet made its public debut in the mid-90s, basic website structure has remained virtually untouched. Still tied to the same print-based paradigms and catalog-style navigation, these outdated formats now shackle designers to a limited framework that prevents them them from truly exploring the advantages inherent in the digital medium.
Websites suffer from the ultimate skeuomorphic insecurity, trying to be something they’re not, by emulating the print paradigm. These shackles to print also inspires bad user experiences. Think of the ADD-like behavior visitors adopt as they jump from page to disjunct page trying to find some semblance of a path on journeys without easy-to-reach goals. Bottom line, websites are broken, but not lost. At long last, Web designers have now begun shedding old handcuffs and defining a new form of website: intuitive, guided experiences that actually help the user achieve his or her goals. Here’s how.
Websites are finally taking a cue from mobile developers.
The stagnation of website design stands in stark contrast to the innovation seen in mobile app design. Due to the unique navigation in Path, Clear, and Rise, and the visceral, satisfying feeling we get from our favorite apps, mobile app developers are redefining what it means to interact with digital content. These unique interfaces and visceral feedback are what make our favorite apps so satisfying and addicting. They also hold the key to what’s missing from today’s web design.
Going forward, more websites will embrace visceral design to evoke satisfaction we receive from our favorite mobile apps. Loren Birtcher’s pull to refresh, the pleasing sounds of Tweetbot — these will be emulated and baked into Web design to create memorable experiences. The infinite scroll, pageless feel to the apps is also something that the Web could use more of. Sites like the newly revamped Flickr have created immersive experiences, and user delight, through the use of endless scroll.
When you’re not jumping from page to page, it’s easier to get engaged with digital content. Website designers should look to mobile innovations for inspiration to push the boundaries of what it means to use and move about a website. The browser tech is there, the connection speeds are there. It’s time to take advantage of what’s available to us to deliver new and unique experiences that resonate.
Websites will tell better stories.
Forget a loose collection of pages that have little to do with one another. Think instead of narrative arcs and storylines. Stories are how we’ve communicated since the beginning of time, and are still the most effective way for brands to communicate with consumers. Websites need to embrace storytelling and leverage the attributes of the digital medium to tell story that people will care about. Pageless, long scroll design allows for the development of these stories, while on-page interactive elements such as rich media, y-axis animation, drawers, etc. provide opportunity for users to explore within the context of the broader narrative.
Sites like Desk.com create rich experiences that lead users through a narrative to an ultimate conclusion. Google Glass engages and inspires users through rich imagery and emotionally expansive experiences that let users go as deep as they want. These stories lead to an outcome — a satisfying conclusion that meets the needs of the user and site owner.
Websites will be more aware.
We’re not calling for the singularity here, but websites should know what their objectives are and provide feedback within that context that allows owners to optimize results. Currently, websites are nothing more than collections of pages that have little to do with one another. This means there is rarely a cohesive user experience that leads to a goal. That’s why marketers use landing pages instead of driving traffic directly to corporate sites. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Websites tomorrow will have clear goals for each user type and the design will guide users to their ultimate goal.
At the same time, sites will provide real time and contextual feedback to owners about current conversion rates and optimization opportunities. When websites have a goal and know the desired outcome, they’ll be able to make relevant, proactive recommendations based on understanding where the breakdown in the user experience happens. It’s not quite Skynet, but websites should be able to tell marketers and owners where there’s a breakdown and suggest how to fix it. This doesn’t exist today, although using tools like Crazy Egg, Qualaroo and KISSMetrics can at least elevate understanding above simple page stats.
Websites will feel native on any screen.
The line between mobile apps and websites will continue to blur, and web designers will create experiences optimized for any screen, rather than the reductionist mentality that exists today. Responsive design is a hot topic, but too often responsive equals reduction — simply stripping away content, navigation and functionality to deliver an experience as fast as possible. It makes sense for now, but as mobile speeds improve, websites will use responsive design to deliver the highest and best experience for that screen size, rather than the simplest.
Google’s Chromebook site does a great job with this. Not only is the site responsive, but the navigation and page elements smartly rearrange to create an optimal experience on the phone without stripping away any of the richness of the desktop experience. This means leveraging interactions that make sense for the device, changing text links to buttons for mobile, using swipes instead of clicks, and more. Call it Responsive+ if you want, but whatever it is, designers need to push the flexibility of design delivery to create the best experience for any screen, not the most reductive.
Smarter sites are the future of Web design.
What do Nest, Square, Nike, and Google have in common? Besides being the category leading brands in their respective spaces, they are pushing web design forward and creating more business value by engaging their users through forward-thinking web design. Sites like Nest and Square are heralding a new era of website: Smart Sites.
The onus is now on us as designers to embrace these trends and finally push web design into the future. We need to join our mobile brethren in creating truly memorable, satisfying experiences. We need to create story-driven user experiences that are truly rewarding for users. We need to stop designing collections of pages that create disjunct, ADD-like behavior. And finally, we need to find a way to bring this design to the masses.
Smart design shouldn’t be limited to the most elite teams and companies. As designers of the web, we should seek to find ways to create better experiences for everyone. As we improve the design of the web, utility and value increases for every user. It’s the ultimate network effect win. So it’s time to insist on smarter sites. It’s time to build on the work done by Google, Nike, Pinterest, Square and Nest. Owners, designers, everyone needs to embrace this evolution. The future of the Web depends on us.
[Image Credit: nshepard on Flickr]