Digital Convergence: Insight into the future of Web design
Published on May 5, 2004
Much of what is written about the Web has to do with the problems developers encounter today, such as a lack of uniform standards and accessibility compliance. While on one hand that is appropriate—providing knowledge and skills for today’s challenges—on the other, this tight focus on the here-and-now is doing us a disservice. We continue to operate in a reactive space, one where the way we are thinking is not attuned to the opportunities of tomorrow. It keeps us on a perpetual treadmill, thinking and working in a tactical and compartmentalized way. We view the work we do narrowly, in the moment, not understanding the greater context, much less the startling changes that are just over the horizon.
The future of Web design is one of integrated specialization. Whereas the Web exists now as a major cultural force, something that has changed the human paradigm and demonstrably altered reality, its role will become increasingly smaller and more specialized. That does not mean that it will be any less complicated or less important. Rather, instead of being the brash virtuoso, it will join an ever-growing and complicated symphony.
Using the past as a guide to the future
The easiest way to understand where the Web is going is to understand where it came from. The Web is a synthesis of many, many (once disparate) human tools. My article There Are Only Four Things That People Do On The Web (PDF) describes how people use the Web to learn, feel, connect and trade. While this is, on the surface, a limited list, it actually incorporates a good deal of human motivation and activity and it informs the convergence of many different technologies.
For an excellent example of how the technological pursuit of optimizing human task completion has evolved, look at how we tell time. Today, we take it for granted. Digital clocks are incorporated into virtually every single digital product, from our VCR to our computer to our cellular phone to our microwave and beyond. It is the simplest of applications—but that was not always that case.
Initially, people had to tell time by simple observation of the world around them, making the telling of time an imprecise and subjective activity. Early tools, such as the sundial, began to create objective standardization but still lacked precision. They were also place-bound and people needed to be at a sundial to know the time. Later, clocks were developed, adding a level of precision to the telling of time as well as providing more accessibility to accurate time. Innovations, such as the use of audio cues like chimes to communicate time without visual contact, and alarms which connect the actual time to behaviors or activities that the owner needs to do at a particular time, represent thoughtful advances in design. Watches completely changed the operating paradigm by enabling people to have the correct time on their person, wherever they might be. This allowed formal scheduling and standardization of both private and public activity. However, clocks and watches suffered from a lack of precision in both operation and standardization. And all time-telling technologies up until this point were very labor-intensive, requiring trained, specialized practitioners. This changed in the early twentieth century with the quartz crystal, an innovation that used electricity to improve timekeeping, and did so more than every previous improvement combined. Digital timepieces later followed, further optimizing precision and adding a high degree of usability, readability and affordable mass production to timekeeping. In fact, telling the time is now taken for granted. Watches serve more as a style statement than fill an actual functional need. We are surrounded by the time.
The future of the Web will evolve similarly to the technology of telling time. Like timepieces, which deliver information to people, the Web is ultimately a delivery medium: it delivers information, experiences and communication. And we are at a point where we are struggling to produce—relatively speaking—rather simple products. That is not to criticize the work that we are doing, but rather to underscore the extremely immature stage the Web is in. The major issues that plague us, ranging from standards to usability to aesthetics to advertising to classification, parallel the challenges that faced clockmakers between the Renaissance and the invention of the quartz crystal. Like Web designers today, a veritable army of skilled practitioners worked on micro-sized problems to make incremental changes that would improve the clocks and watches so their performance would better match the needs of people. However, things changed quickly thereafter in timekeeping, with the quartz crystal and digital technology changing the traditional industry from an extremely important, highly-skilled and lucrative trade into a dinosaur almost overnight. Web design is in a similar evolutionary stage today.
What is going to be our quartz crystal? What new technologies, innovations or trends will re-define Web design?
Convergence: technologies are crashing together
It has happened so quickly: cellular phones, personal data assistants, cameras and the Internet are now all contained in a single product that is readily available and affordable. At the same time, personal computers, televisions, DVD players, digital recording technology and the Internet are all fully accessible in one single product that is readily available and affordable. At the same time, radios, telephones and digital positioning systems exist in a single component that is standard in automobiles from most major manufacturers. And the convergence is only going to accelerate in the years ahead.
At the same time, consider that Web design began as a relatively linear and controlled activity. People accessed the Web from personal computers, with a fairly standardized connection rate and a finite amount of interface and display devices. The majority of challenges were in dealing with the newness, uncertainty and changing nature of this new medium. From this initial period of controlled innovation we moved into the current paradigm of complex optimization. Even as we scrutinize micro-elements of Web design as we know it, we are faced with increasingly complicated challenges that are not yet touching mainstream developers, such as design for mobile interface devices. The design of applications and interfaces optimized for portable devices will emerge as the essential challenge—and area of opportunity—in the years ahead. And even though that shift in itself is significant, that is only part of the picture.
As digital products continue to converge, the Web will increasingly become just one component of more complicated products. Many of the difficult decisions that dominate today’s conversation about Web design will either be settled or be relegated to a position of much less significance. Furthermore, Web design, as a distinct field of professional practice, will decline in prominence and opportunity. Along with the Web becoming an integrated and smaller component of complicated digital products, the gap between the interface and application side will continually grow—to the point where the relative “jack-of-all-trades” Web designers of today will become extinct. At one extreme you will have the strategic professionals who will need a broad understanding not just of the Web, but of other products and technologies that are part of complex digital products. At the other extreme, there will be tactical specialists who will need a deep understanding of well-defined areas of expertise. It will be their job to implement high-level, complicated solutions but ones that are, nonetheless, only small components of the overall product.
Avoiding obsolescence as a Web designer
Happily, this can actually result in more opportunity for today’s Web designers. By learning more about adjacent disciplines and technologies, or focusing more deeply on specific aspects of what we do, we will be well-positioned to take advantage of the long-term evolution of the Web. The secret is in recognizing that major change is inevitable. The skills and tasks that are the current buzz will be of secondary importance tomorrow. Understanding and planning for that will keep us relevant in the moment while moving ably forward into the future.
One place to begin is by pursuing skills that are general and applicable to various media, not just to the Web. Technology changes at a rapid pace. The hot programming language of today may be extinct tomorrow. Certifications require constant refreshing as the push and pull of advancing technologies change requirements. There is little permanence in technology and it is extremely difficult to predict which facets of technology will survive or thrive in the future. It is also ripe for commodification, as we have seen in the recent mass off-shoring of software engineering and other high tech jobs. There is still value in technological expertise, certainly, but a good approach to skill-diversification is to move more toward the front end, where the basic approaches are much less vulnerable to change. Things like human factors, business strategy and marketing are not typical considerations of Web designers, yet represent skill sets that transcend the Web and scale up to more complicated products—while still retaining relevance in the Web domain. Even skills like information architecture, writing, and visual design can transfer well to other media if their principles are learned outside the limited context of today’s Web. If Web designers focus on technology and Web-specific applications, they run the risk of not adequately preparing their skill sets for the decade ahead.
Another direction is to focus on entirely different products. Most of us view—and design for—the Web as a medium that is delivered through a computer. Essentially the Web is the product. However, instead of being the product itself, what are the products where the Web is, or will be, just a component of the product? What about cellular phones, personal data assistants, or wrist devices, similar to a watch? What about major appliances and furniture, such as a refrigerator or a sofa? These are just some examples of products that will use the Web as just one of many integrated components. Learning about those products, even to the point of understanding their digital product design, is another very sensible approach for personal growth that will improve our abilities today and position us for success tomorrow.
The time is now
Things change, often in ways that we cannot predict. Certainly the watch-making industry did not anticipate the impact of the quartz crystal and this left many skilled professionals with unmarketable skills and experience, almost overnight. While Web designers of today are not under threat of sudden obsolescence, we must recognize our historical place. In 150 years, the things we are doing and the problems we are struggling through will be as laughable as the work of clockmakers 100 years ago. That is just the way the world works, particularly in technological disciplines during a period of late capitalism in the post-industrial age. Understanding this bigger picture will allow us to continue to focus on doing the good work necessary to solve the challenges of today while cultivating the knowledge and skills that will allow us to easily scale up to tomorrow’s technologies.
We may not know exactly what the future will bring but that shouldn’t prevent us from making the most of it.
Thanks to Frances Karandy for her editorial assistance.
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.