Completely Rethinking the Web
In: Columns > Innovating the Web Experience
Published on May 18, 2005
It’s Spring 2005. April showers, May flowers. The hope of a new year bursting forth all around us. It’s a time for optimism and new beginnings and hope. But, despite more than 10 years of development, of spring after spring bearing promise, we are left to accept one incontrovertible fact:
The Web is broken.
Sites are clumsy and not optimized for each customer. Interface devices are woefully inadequate. Despite the power of the Web and the potential of ever-evolving technology, our execution is collectively dreadful. For all of the good things we’ve done and the gains we’ve made, the Web in general remains a very poor experience.
We’ve tried to organically improve the situation but ended up with redesigns piled on top of redesigns. Countless books tout knowledge and insight on how to make the Web a better place. Good people consider the problems of their sites or the Web in general and try to work toward a better solution. But it’s just not enough. We’re still mired in a dystopian Neverland. The next step—the step that will give us real, meaningful improvement and bring the medium to par with the potential of the technology—will require something more.
We need to completely rethink the Web.
Our conceptual model of Web design is broken
Most time spent on Web design happens at the point of site design. Most people who consider themselves part of the Web design industry are working at the site level. That means there are millions of companies and individuals each trying to solve similar problems anew. That is incredibly wasteful and short-sighted.
Each company or individual investing in site design is buying usability and user experience. Design teams are dutifully grinding out personas and scenarios and matrices, trying to figure out how best to communicate to the people they need to reach. In some cases they use specialist agencies, firms and consultants to provide proven insight and experience. But even in those cases, each site owner is making a one-off investment in design direction. Why do we even need this layer?
The individual site is not the most important thing. To the corporations that fund and maintain them they are, but users don’t care about your site.
They use the Web to:
Those are the only four reasons people are using the Web. And each person accomplishes these things in different ways, having different needs.
For example, elderly people prefer:
- Larger text (so they can read it more easily)
- More text (because they are more likely to read on the Web than younger people)
- A more clear, linear direction to and through their online experiences
These preferences are generally in direct contrast with young people who have grown up on the Web. And yet, companies are trying to straddle a very uncomfortable balance of designing for both of these extremes and everyone in between. “Trying to make everyone happy makes no one happy” is an appropriate truism.
Although some companies have relatively targeted demographics, many mass-market companies need to cater to most of the consumer spectrum. No matter how hard they try, they will not be able to craft an experience that works well for everyone. The result is experiences that do not really satisfy anyone and—particularly in the case of the elderly—make the Web largely unusable.
Consider these scenarios:
What if—through thorough research—a limited set of personas was created for people who use the Web? These personas should be based on interaction and presentation issues, narrowly focusing in on how people want to experience the Web, like font size, data density, thin or thick navigation structure, image-heavy or image-light. There could be a setting on each browser or computer to set how a user wants to experience the Web—a simple toggle that translates the data, information, and structure from the company’s site into an optimal experience. Instead of companies dictating—often poorly—how we experience their information, users could customize their experience.
What if—through thorough research—a limited set of online environments could be defined and optimized for a particular human behavior or category? For example, rather than every online store operating differently, the development of an optimal environment for buying products could provide a foundation for individual companies to use. Then, companies could focus on products, pricing, content, organization and functionality. Individual companies cannot reliably create an optimal task environment, and the variance between the experiences provided by different companies weaken the overall opportunity for each other. Having optimized environments based on different tasks and behaviors would create a Web that works exponentially better.
Enriching the user experience
Either of these can be applied at the browser or desktop level. Identifying how different people interact with applications should only be done by a few companies that invest in thoroughly solving those problems. And because of the consolidation of resources, they could solve those problems correctly. Site design—which now makes up the majority of time and money spent on Web design—can become a process of content collection, organization and creation, with a minimal amount of visual design and assembly.
Instead of designing, creating and deploying a site at the business level, content and specifications can be prepared and pushed forward, converted by the browser or application into the interactive form that each individual customer has specified is preferable.
Not only does this dramatically improve the user experience, it could ultimately save billions of dollars. Companies could shutter their usability labs, send most of their engineers home, hire fewer designers. It makes perfect business sense. And, before my design brethren take out their torches and pitchforks and round up the user experience posse to burn me at the stake for heresy, I submit to you that our jobs are already in far more peril than we realize. They have been commodified and are moving offshore. As technology continues to advance, inevitably there will be fewer of us needed to do the work that we do. Future value will reside more in research and strategic elements of design, one way or the other. These are areas that all of us can participate in with some training and experience.
This is a vision that dramatically changes how we conceive of the Web and digital technology, and provides an approach for making the most of that. Yes, it is revolutionary. Yes, it flies directly in the face of how we perceive and achieve Web design today. But it is a much better way. How can it actually happen? It just takes one company to develop a standard, or a tool, or an application that allows companies to provide far less Web site design and get a far richer Web experience output. The opportunity is too pronounced, the potential too great, for something like this not to happen. It is just a question of when, how, and by whom.
Desktop applications must replace Web applications
Apple is doing a lot of things right at the moment. Among its more innovative and successful solutions is the iTunes Music Store interface. A desktop application that behaves like a Web site, iTunes provides customers the best of both worlds: The speed and power of a thick client with the content access, communication power and transaction model of the Web. Even better, it behaves like a cross between the two, blurring the boundaries between Web and the desktop, encouraging customers not to make a distinction.
A lot has been written recently about RIAs and AJAX in particular. In fact, recently, I was the product designer for a major consumer Web application in Flex. This opened up some really impressive functionality that could change the category our application is competing in, and make our competitor’s application obsolete overnight. But the down sides proved so weighty that the application rapidly changed back into being a rather traditional Web application. There were some ridiculously long load times. We also had limited control over the visual presentation, given our development cycle and constraints in Flex. So while the behavior of our Flex application would have been much more like a desktop application than Web customers are accustomed to, there were some real drawbacks as well. It was not the ideal solution.
My business partner, Andrei Herasimchuk, has deep insight into interfaces and applications that span both the Web and desktop environments. In discussing these issues with him and getting his editorial feedback on this article, I’ve applied those lessons to my own thinking and innovation and come to some pretty clear realizations:
- Web applications only have one advantage over desktop applications: universal access and no need for a local installation.
- Desktop applications have many advantages over Web applications, including: more powerful, faster, denser information displays; more robust interaction models; lusher presentation environments; easier natural integration into customized information and personal data collection
- Given the ubiquity of connectivity—the ability to be online almost anywhere, at any time, on any digital device—the one advantage the Web has is reduced to a software issue. A client-side application can leverage the interactive powers of the Web just as easily as a server-side application
We’re very close to the tipping point. The boundary now is hardware. Once devices like flash memory (portable plug-and-play memory that fits in a wallet) have the capacity to hold software applications, the notion of Web applications will reach the point of imminent obsolescence.
What to do?
E-commerce should begin shifting away from Web applications and onto Web-powered desktop applications. Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, all major financial services companies, online dating—anything that involves a lot of data, interactivity, and customer control should use the Web simply as a tool to provide fresh information, ready communication, and software updates. By installing an application on the client, companies can provide a dramatically improved user experience and differentiate themselves from competitors. The Web today is just not powerful enough to provide truly successful experiences. I believe the guts, power, and engineering should live on the client side, not the server side.
The conversation about RIAs is on the right track but will ultimately arrive at the wrong destination. The time may come when the server side is limitless, ubiquitous, and as fast as an actual client, but it won’t be soon enough.
Synthesizing hardware and software design
How many of us on the software side work collaboratively with and influence the development of the hardware our applications work on? Very few of us. That is curious, since all of the software we create is being experienced through the filter of the hardware actually delivering it.
Sure, we take a look at the interfaces people are using and make design decisions about screen resolution and pixel size, but that is just a reactive approach and fails to make meaningful change or maximize the opportunities we have. User experience professionals now influence business in a broad way, receiving additional investments from employers and clients. Many of us are even taking on management consulting, participating in decision making to make businesses better. Yet, we’ve failed to integrate our work and domain appropriately into the hardware and physical product design—a domain much more similar and naturally complementary to our own.
On the other side, physical product designers do take an interest in user experience and interface design. It’s a natural extension of anything digital they are working on. But as individuals on the software side, we are not appropriately learning about and inserting ourselves in the hardware domain. Very few companies are making the connections between the two.
Apple’s magical marriage
Again, consider Apple. Long a provider of both software and hardware, the company is achieving new creative heights because the environment is finally right for their marriage of hardware and software. Apple is bringing to market hardware optimized for the lifestyle they design software for.
Consider the massive financial power of just some of the companies that Apple competes with:
- Microsoft (operating system, productivity applications)
- Dell (personal computers, servers)
- Sony (personal electronics)
- Google (desktop search)
- Yahoo! (digital lifestyle management)
- IBM (microprocessors)
Apple does it all, taking chunks of many companies’ market share.
On the business side, Apple is enjoying meaningful differentiation and bottom-line success because they are designing the entire digital experience—computers, electronics, applications and the Web are successfully fused together. On the consumer side—the user experience—Apple is not just delighting its customers, it’s creating the infrastructure for a truly integrated digital lifestyle.
Nay-sayers will point to Apple’s 5% market share in personal computing, but there could be a tipping point on the horizon that suddenly and dramatically changes that. The prevalence of Microsoft is largely driven by homogeneity in business computing. Can we really assume that Apple doesn’t have a strategy to try to capture that? While that may never happen, I’m sure we’ve all met Microsoft customers who sheepishly explain that they want to use a Mac, but everyone at work is on Microsoft so they have to, as well. The mind and heart share of Apple is certainly greater than just 5%; could greater market share be next?
Apple understands that hardware and software are not completely disparate, but part of the same continuum and benefit from a fusion in conceptualization and design. Rather than simply make hardware bigger and better and faster and more, Apple thoughtfully creates or evolves hardware to support the lifestyle and behaviors that software creates in the digital world.
Companies and products can change paradigms
For Apple, it is as much their synthesized approach to the digital product problem as it is their great design that is changing the way we think about personal computing.
And it is what we need to do. Instead of reacting to the fact that 17-inch monitors are now the standard, or that some percentage of people will be using converged data devices instead of cell phones this year, we can begin to really wag the dog. We can dictate how monitors and digital devices should look and behave.
For instance, if we are charged with changing the way people manage their financial lives, we need to ask, “How can digital technology best serve the needs of real people?” That might include new hardware solutions. Large financial companies could participate in innovating hardware, not just software.
At a recent financial services conference, a director at a major financial institution later told me that the institution has planned for an all-digital future. This is a multi-billion-dollar company. They shouldn’t be trying to contort their applications and solutions to the constraints of what hardware manufacturers are doing today. They should be pushing the hardware side to produce what they need, to create the customer experience that will give them a meaningful competitive advantage. That is where the real opportunity lies. So, even though the notion of a digital financial life began with the Web, it is actually only one piece of the puzzle.
Blue sky on a cloudy day
Web design is fundamentally broken. The focus of time and money is happening at the wrong place on the Web continuum. We are trying to accomplish robust solutions on the Web that are better handled on the client. We are not integrating with or understanding hardware—what the people who interact with our creations are physically experiencing.
We can address all of these issues, either as individuals or collectively, and lead the change that will prove inevitable. The result will be better digital experiences, and that is something everyone will benefit from.
Dirk Knemeyer is a Founding Principal of Involution Studios LLC, a digital innovation firm located in Silicon Valley and Boston. Dirk is responsible for managing the business and for providing design strategy, brand innovation, and training services to organizations around the world. Dirk is on the Board of Directors for the International Institute for Information Design (IIID) headquartered in Vienna, Austria, as well as the Board of Directors for the AIGA Center for Brand Experience, based in New York City. He is also a member of the Executive Council of the User Experience Network (UXnet). He has published more than 100 articles—many on the topic of design strategy—and regularly gives presentations all around the world.