08 November 2006
Claudia Chow, IdN magazine
Claudia Chow, IdN magazine

What are the latest trends in web interface design? What are the new processes to have emerged? The new icons? The new visual language? How much of that is driven by technology, by end-user needs or by commerce ? What can we anticipate happening over the next six months or so? We ask Sony's Eduardo Sciammarella and Tomato Interactive's John Warwicker for their opinions.

1. Interview: Eduardo Sciammarella, Sony VisualFlow

IdN: How does VisualFlow work with the web?

Sciammarella: At the moment VisualFlow does not work with the web, although the next version will be network-enabled whether it be for the web or another network. VisualFlow is primarily a media browser that allows for dynamic browsing of multimedia content. Portable media devices such as Sony's digital cameras and memory stick walkman will drive the increased use of multimedia content for most consumers. With this increase in the number of image, sound and other media files, users will require a better tool to browse and manage this content than the current window and folder interface. VisualFlow is a dynamic multiscale interface for browsing and playing multimedia contents. The next version will include network support to allow users to upload/download files from a network.

IdN: As the web merges with portables, how do you think web interface designers can best prepare for this transition? What do they have to keep in mind when designing interfaces for this market? Is there a difference?

Sciammarella: Web interface designers have to forget about the computer. As I mentioned before, Internet-enabled phones will be used by people who don't like or care to bother with technology. Any interface should be as simple as using the phone to call your friend. Of course, the most common answer is to say voice recognition, and yes, this will be important, but voice alone is not an answer for all circumstances: there are certain things that are better left unsaid. In the past, cell-phone makers have tried to make a phone's internal functions easier to use, but they have largely failed, insisting on having menu items refering to roaming or DIN number or a hundred cryptic variations of the above. In general, when designing for consumers, designers should focus on quality of time. A person's time is the most valuable thing they have; when they spend their time attempting to use a phone for this, that or the other, what's important is to make the experience an enriching one. This is not to say that it has to be embellished it can be simple and direct or it can be entertaining and mysterious. Above all it should be well-considered.

IdN: What are the new trends in web interfaces in terms of visual design, user-interface design and use of new technology?

Sciammarella: I think the biggest trend in interface design is that it is becoming the domain of the common user. In the past it was only well considered by trained designers and not so well considered by programmers. The advent of the web brought about the beginning of amateur designers, but this trend has increasingly picked up with simpler and more robust web-authoring tools such as Flash. Just as everyone has the ability or inclination to "design" the interior of their home, the same goes for the web. On the other side of that are those that are deemed the real designers and they address the public or corporate interiors/exteriors.

But these real designers are no longer in control: they cannot set the agenda it moves and it is culture. It is becoming a city and from time to time an exceptional designer will build a magnificent site like the Empire State Building or the Acropolis, but an empty building is a dead building; what brings it to life are the rhythms of the day and the people who inhabit it.

IdN: How has the process and planning of website design changed in the last six months ?

Sciammarella: I am not directly involved in designing websites, but from what I can discern a lot has changed or will be changing. Living in Japan but being an English speaker has given me an insight into how provincial the web still is. For example, because my default language setting on my browser is Japanese, I cannot access Microsoft's Mactopia English page on the Internet. I have to change my language preferences and only then can I see the page in English. Also I have had many experiences trying to sign up or ship something from a website to my home in Japan; many sites don't anticipate foreign addresses. As the web shifts from being an American-centric experience, websites must think globally in terms of language and cultural factors.

In addition, as I mentioned above, the web is fragmenting and content needs to be device-independent, that is to say you should be able to access your portal whether on the PC, PDA or phone. This is a fundamental shift, again, away from the application, i.e. the browser, and towards the data. Data needs to know which device it's being delivered to and render itself accordingly, or vice versa.

IdN: How has that affected the end result?

Sciammarella: The end result is a process, a system or an experience rather than any number of layouts of pages. Increasingly data will interact to position itself with respect to other data according to rules set by the designer or the user of

IdN: How much of the change has to do with technological issues, end-user needs and commerce/business needs?

Sciammarella: This is a big question and it's one that is often missed by designers. As technology moves forward we are finding that service is what users really care about. Not hardware or software but the experience or the practical result. These service concepts require a strategic approach in thinking of process and procedure. All components need to be considered as to advertisers, merchants, users, network systems, distribution networks and touch-points. I think that the two driving forces will continue to be commerce/business needs and user needs; technology will also continue to drive forward, but it is increasingly in danger of being irrelevant to real people. Technology is getting to a point where it possible to do almost anything within reason, the question is what do real people want from it, how will it bring about an improved quality of life, and will that want be a sustainable economy?

IdN: Do you think true international use of the Internet will change the web interface/visual language?

Sciammarella: As I mentioned above, the global direction of the web and the businesses that underly it will have to address localization issues. These issues reflect every aspect of their business from design of the website to management, marketing strategies and distribution. At the moment I think that Japan is becoming a popular culture engine for Asia, and this is impacting in the West as well. Design language is travelling from Tokyo to most of Asia, then London and then the West Coast. In another aspect, visual languages like video will become more prevalent. Story-telling is the closest thing there is to an international language. In Japan, the use of cartoons for product information and manuals is widespread. In the West, high-end video commercials and how-to videos are the equivalent of Japanese cartoons. Video and story-telling will become a larger part of the web.

IdN: From a web standpoint, what do you think will be the next technology that affects the way we design and what we design (the way Flash did)?

Sciammarella: I don't know if there will be one product like Flash ... I think that the web will soon come around to being a environment like any other computing environment and therefore traditional software development tools will come into play. Probably the most significant tools will be those that offer powerful programming power.

2. Interview: John Warwicker, Tomato Interactive

"I think that there are several main issues here.In general, the web resembles the early days of both print and desktop publishing in that form has overwhelmed content. And I think that it is the content issues that have to be developed. It is not how you are saying it but what you are saying that will start to mutate both the shape of the information, the experience of navigating through it and the structure, form and aesthetics of the interface.

"The speed of the web effects what is being done and undoubtedly with this increasing it will increase the probability for more immersive and engaging environments. However, there are basic, and at the moment, severe limitations on both the aesthetic and the structural form of the web. The screen, whether it be computer, HTDV or domestic TV has a very limited resolution, the colours shown are limited, the light-projected as opposed to light- reflected experience also has severe aesthetic limitations. The physical condition of viewing the web is also poor and none of the PDAs or electronic books that are coming out remedy any of these problems. In fact, they exacerbate them.

"The combination of both these points has created a poor environment that is only countered by perceived need and desired services. Sure, there are enormous benefits to receiving information wherever you are, but the quality of the experience in terms of aesthetics, structure and form is poor.

"Economics plays a major role in all of this. To function as a contemporary company, Tomato depends very heavily on the web both as a source of income, a communications tool and as an information provider. The profound influence that it is having on society, where shopping can be done from wherever you are, is already having an immense effect on the economy of the First World. The fundamental problem here is that no-one can have an understanding of the physics of this new cultural, social and economic dynamic. It runs parallel to the existing systems developed from the 19th-century industrial revolution. It adds uncertainty and process to the established system of predictability and progress in a complex that effects every single one of us. And this complex is here to stay. It was always here, but we chose not to recognise it, and the magnitude by which it effects our lives is logorhythmically greater than at any time in our history. It even threatens to change the nature of society and the nature and effect of government.

"From a non-American point of view, globalisation over the past decade has meant the exportation of American values onto the world. I see this changing. America no longer has the influence it once had. I think that the next few years will see a greater parity between Asia, Europe and America in terms of financial and cultural output and reception. This re-balance will not happen overnight, but I think that the fundamental weakness at the core of American society is the issue of cultural identity. As a visitor on many occassions to the States, I ve always been struck by the fact that America is not one country as we understand it in Europe and Asia but a project of many cultural groupings existing in the same geographical space but not necessarily in unison or harmony. In a sense, it has been a project that has been formed within a social and political system that has had aspiration at its core and, being such an industrially rich country, it has been able to fulfill and champion this aspiration. But like all aspirations, the reality is only partly true. There is not necessarily a sense of itself as a truth (the richness and diversity of its people) but as an artifice that contains elements of the truth. The web has made this artifice visible.

"This is not to say that either Europe or Asia escape this condition. The social, political and financial impact of the web is going to be very interesting in the Asian countries that have not had a recent history of individualism, such as China.

"But as involvement in the web becomes more globally compounded, the greater onus is on the individual and their peer groups rather than an all-over mass-market approach. In Europe especially, that has been shaped and shaped again by the wars of the last millennium communality through region remains irrespective of the borders that have been drawn on a map. Unlike radio or television, the web is configured by community irrespective of nationality. This is globalisation at the beginning of the 21st century.

"We live in a world of acceleration. What or who constitutes a community constantly changes. It is becoming sexless, ageless and not determined by political geography. A predictable future is now subject to the physics of uncertainty, and the future is continually upon us. And we are in a constant process of negotiating this.

"This acceleration has brought both individual change and choice. It has also brought about an intuitive, intellectual and emotion literacy in terms of media and the message. The present situation is in the main governed by the literacy of technology and not the literacy of content. The narcotic of technology has made us dependent and craving for its fix, but as the psycho-geography of every individual absorbs the effect of the contemporary world in all aspects of daily lives, the issues for some will be the balance (with cultural, social and financial values) of content with delivery as oppposed to delivery and some content attached.

"I think the greatest area of potential is in education. And by this I don't mean between the ages of three and 21. Education and re-education is a contemporary necessity and the ability of the web to efficiently and effectively contextualise is of enormous benefit. The problem at present is the form and structure of the search engines that act as different engines without literate purpose. So one area that I see as crucial to the whole interface/navigation issue is intelligence, both in terms of the 'front-end' experience and the aesthetics, structure and form of the content.

"The form and content of any medium are profoundly interlinked; just because the web is a new form does not excuse its generally poor content and aesthetics. The technological developments are just that, developments of delivery. There are bigger issues, but like anything, the markets will decide what is of greater importance to them. The job of the designer/editor/writer is to create something new. It always has been and always will be."

About this article

The above article by the IdN editorial team appears here with permission. FRESH:FACE OFF is extracted from v7n6 issue of IdN magazine. (C) 2001 IdN.

IdN magazine
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.