08 November 2006
IdN Magazine
IdN Magazine

In North America, one cannot watch television or ride a bus without seeing dotcom ads. For all the commercial hype over these sites, an actual visit proves that all too often they are of disappointing design. In the mad rush to service the on-line masses, new sites have benchmarked the likes of Amazon.com as the path to success. As a result, few stray from formulaic layout and navigation methods, creating a sea of cookie-cutter blandness. This perceived need to sacrifice creativity is one of the factors that define the current crop of websites. Limitations of the web as a medium is another, the lack of content a third.

To gain a better perspective on this topic, we asked six designers Rei Inamoto of R/GA , John Warwicker of Tomato Interactive, Matt Griffin of Deepend, Stuart Sharpe, Tom Nicholson of Icon-Nicholson and Peter Spreenberg of MOVE Design "to participate in some navel gazing ..."

As with the processes of most other industries, the design of a web interface is dependent upon three standard components: the product, the target audience and available technology. It is the complex interaction of these components and the upcoming trends in the industry that will dictate the future of interface design.

With its rapid spread across geographic, political and social boundaries, the web promises to be a significant force for change in the future. The consequence of this expansion is an exponential growth in new users going on-line as their communities become exposed and the inevitable meeting of those cultures and the culture of the web. It is through this expansion that the web has the potential to create what Warwicker calls a "greater parity between nations".

One obstacle to this is the web's West-centric development. In the past, the Western Hemisphere, particularly the United States, has been able to dictate the global development of many key industries including technology. Being the creators and the leaders in its development, these nations have also set the standards and precedents that shape the web today.

While it is necessary for these new cultures to adopt certain standards where practical, it is important that they remain distinct, for it is through a celebration of the heritage of each culture that assimilation and culture death can be prevented. One only has to look at the web's profound influence on the societies of industrialized nations to realize that this is more than just an issue of on-line presence. By submitting to the established norms that exist on the web, local identities have to be sacrificed to sustain the globalization of Western values.

The web that exists today is the product of a predominantly Western development and fits within that particular historic and cultural context. Similarly, the web that evolves from the relationship with a new culture should be representative of that particular culture. It is these relationships the reciprocal transfer of information between the web and disparate cultures - that will contribute to the creation and development of a truly international culture.

The second consequence of this expansion, the rapid increase in new users getting connected, is occurring everywhere, both locally and internationally. With this increase comes a widening gap in the once homogenous audience of web pioneers. On one side there are the "Tech-Knows" and on the other are the "Tech-Know-Nots". Besides knowledge and familiarity, this division is based on a number of factors such as purposes of use and level of expectation. The early adapters, who represent a shrinking proportion of the audience base, have experienced the various stages of the web's evolution and have now become web-savvy and sophisticated, demanding a more fulfilling on-line experience.

The new users, who represent a growing majority, are logging onto the web by the millions - an explosion that is not going unnoticed by businesses and is being mirrored by the level of commercial interest in the web. After having proven itself in terms of usefulness, stability and security, the web has now become a part of mainstream culture. Consequently, sites such as Yahoo are catering to this less-experienced crowd with sites based on simple structures, familiar visuals and standard navigation systems. These interface designs have become standardized for users who are more interested in what the web can do for them than in the web itself.

Realization of the web's potential as the most efficient means of delivery has translated to an increasingly marketing-driven environment for the designer and an increase of commercial presence and influence on the web. The need to utilize the Internet as a positive revenue stream has forced companies to re-evaluate the way in which they develop the web. While some have taken the more business-structured approach, others are re-writing the business books. The struggle to maintain a creative edge is becoming more difficult as the focus shifts to commerce.

Transaction sites are designed to be fast and accurate and tend towards standardization and predictability for the user. Entertainment sites are designed to seduce their users with a rich and provocative interface that supports the type of content. A user-centered approach has become an important factor for both types of sites. As the gap between the experienced and new users grows, this use-dependent approach to interface design will be of increasing value to development planning.

Catering to both of these types of sites and their users is one of the latest web-technology developments, Broadband. Its popularization is facilitating delivery, making data-intensive sites and others a practical reality. Another development that has already made an impact in other parts of the world is the emergence of Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and WAP-enabled devices, allowing users to access networked text-based information conveniently from almost any location.

By changing the method and speed of data transfer, these technologies have created new opportunities for designers in different ways. With the spread of Broadband, more people will be able to experience the most sophisticated sites as they were intended. In conjunction with developments in other fields, such as the use of digital video in the film industry, Broadband will give designers the potential to provide their audiences with immersive environments that are as engaging and gratifying as other forms of media.

But WAP goes in the opposite direction. Due to low access speeds, this technology limits traditional creative input by the interface designer. However, this limitation creates a challenge for designers to find and produce the most appropriate interface for this new medium. Another potential design opportunity that WAP provides is an occasion for the interface designer to collaborate with hardware designers, if not the opportunity to design the device itself.

These are both welcome developments, but there are still a number of technical issues that continue to thwart the efforts of designers. Among these issues, one that was mentioned more than once is the lack of HTML and DHTML standards between the browser platforms and the inordinate amount of time and effort that is wasted on the development of browser-specific content. Though this redundancy is unlikely to end, some relief to workload is provided by an incidental benefit of Broadband - decreasing need to design a low-bandwidth site for slower access.

When asked to comment on the increasing complexity of developing a website and its effect, the unanimous response was that it was having a negative effect on the quality of the final product. It has become difficult for lone designers to create world-class sites. This complexity has created the need for specialists in different areas, and their collaboration. This in turn has necessitated an increasingly stratified organization to manage the development. As more people are involved, the designers become further removed from the clients and ideas have to pass through multiple filters before they can be implemented. This has a tendency to dilute the vision that maintains the integrity of a project, impacting the quality of the final product. As far as some designers are concerned, it doesn't improve the situation at all, now that marketing is becoming increasingly influential.

Using the analogy that Tom Nicholson provided, as with a film production, it is no longer the talents of individual star designers that will determine the success of a project, but the ability of a director to gather and guide great talent that works together well.

In conclusion, what seems to be of overriding concern is the dwindling presence of good, thoughtful interfaces in the current crop of web designs.

Like the others, Warwicker believes that web design is still driven by technology, and that form still overwhelms content. There is a consensus that interface design should be less about interface or any particular component piece. Ideally, all aspects should form a cohesive message that bonds the site into a whole seamless experience that is appropriate for the purpose and audience. Paradoxically, the better the design of the interface the less it will be noticed by most people. As Rei expressed it so eloquently: Design is a thought. A thought should be visible. Technology, on the other hand is a method and a method should be transparent.

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About this article
The above article by the IdN editorial team appears here with permission.  (C) 2000 IdN.

About IdN
IdN magazine is a digital design magazine published bimonthly, primarily catering to content creators and aesthetes throughout the world. It is currently available in four editions in two languages, English and Chinese. It is the only publication of its type in the Asia-Pacific region and has become a rendezvous and showcase for digital artists worldwide to share their experience and experiments and to publicize their latest endeavors. IdN's highly respected and trusted printed media will continue to play a crucial role in the content-creation community, and our growth will accelerate through our continued diversification into the Internet and electronic media.