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Future of Web Design 2007

RuPy in Poznań wasn’t the only event I attended recently. The other one was one day conference Future of Web Design 2007. It was held in London by Carson Systems, the people behind Vitamin.

Future of Web Design logo

Since some time I had a vague feeling that the web design has somewhat slowed down. (And I’m talking about general design, marketing and development here, not only graphic design for the web.) Web standards CSS are now obvious. Usability is a must. Accessibility awareness is better than ever before. Ajax for the sake of Ajax or “web 2.0 compatibility” is gone. So what are we left with? What are current trends? Are there any? I was heading for London to find some answers.

There is no single hype that everybody is talking about, as web 2.0 was two years ago. People are now more focused on writing useful applications and exploring web’s potential rather than inventing buzzwords. And I’m happy with that. Yet, there are some trends.

Web applications with personality

If you just thought about former porn actress presenting crippled search results, fear not, I don’t mean that kind of personality. Instead it’s something that makes Flickr or Basecamp so pleasant to use. It’s definitely hard to create an application or a website that has a character. Sometimes not even suitable. Many decent applications lack this property and we still use them. del.icio.us, with its focus on pure functionality was a quoted example.

What makes up a personality? There’s no “one and only” feature that makes us humans, nor there’s such in a case of web apps. Surely, it’s about graphical elements (typography, colors, icons), but also about voice — the way an app speaks to its users. Ryan Singer of 37signals gave examples of how simple shift from artificial “error notification” to a helpful tip of how to fix a mistake could make a difference. Even the visual style of such a note is significant. Big, red text with exclamation is like screaming at your users. It’s hard then to expect them to like such an app or just feel well with it. An application with personality has views and human voice behind it.

In a mini panel with Ryan Singer, George Oates (flickr) and Denise Wilton (moo.com) LinkedIn was brought up as an example of an app that seems professional but not friendly. It has dry language and is more about connecting professionals than people. Ryan pointed that it doesn’t have sign out option and therefore it doesn’t care about its users.

That make me think if all web applications should have a voice at all. I will be still using del.icio.us or LinkedIn even if I don’t care about their voice. But I admit I smile each time I look at the cow from the logo of Remember the Milk. It has no actual value but makes me like the app and… stick to it. So for sure it’s worth considering whether your app should have own personality when you create one.

Cross-media marketing

After morning sessions there were few presentations that had a common message: product sites could bring great results when they’re an integral part of cross-media efforts. Notice the “integral” part. Many times website is just an add-on to a marketing campaign — another way of displaying the same message. But it’s very much like showing black and white movies with no sound in television: it doesn’t explore the full potential of the medium. And one of the biggest strengths of the web is its interactivity.

Few presenters showed how to unleash this potential: Nat Hunter (Airside), Joshua Hirsch (Big Spaceship) and my favourite: William Rosen (Leo Burnett) and Rei Inamoto (AKQA).

Rosen showed a marketing campaign done by Arc Worldwide (subsidiary of Leo Burnett) for US Department of Health. The purpose of entire campaign was to promote physical activities among American teens. The idea was to distribute 500,000 yellow balls through entire country. Each ball had a unique ID. When you received a ball you could play with it, submit the ID on verbnow.com website and pass it to another kid. The website allowed to track what happened to balls; few changed their owners over 30 times. Some were passed to celebrities, so kids could play the same ball as JUMP5 or Greg Raposo (OK, I have no clue who these guys are, but I’m not an expert when it comes to American teen-pop celebrities). Teens could do something interesting with the ball and then describe it on the website as well.

What caught my interest was a natural integration of the website with entire campaign. verbnow.com was used to elicit kids’ engagement. In this case internet wasn’t drawing kids away from sport. It rather provoked to do something interesting on fresh air and then share it with others. Very simple, very smart.

Rei Inamoto from AKQA had one of the most brilliant presentations I ever saw. It was fueled with inspiring content from AKQA’s portfolio. I’ll give you just one example: marketing campaign for XBox 360 game, Perfect Dark Zero. The main character in a game is a female assassin, Joanna Dark, devoted to kill all the leaders of some corporation, one by one. When you enter the website, you have an appointment with Ms Joanna. She ask you for a name and email of some individual you know. If you enter an address of your friend, he will receive an invitation to the special website. This website will display him a movie from a morgue as seen from a perspective of the dead body. Dead body with his name on a label. When your friend will realize his unexpected decease, you’ll receive a notification from Joanna: mission accomplished. Twisted, immoral, sick. You gotta love it.

What was so innovative here? Again, the idea wasn’t completely new. 3 years ago I blogged about a marketing campaign for Audi that also used personalized movies. Yet, the surprise of realizing that you just asked for an assassination of you friend is… attractively anxious. Combining email, web and immersive, game-like experience with your real world relationships gives astounding effect.

There were more examples of how to employ web interaction together with other communication channels. It can make your marketing message much more effective. You could summarize it with the phrase: People don’t have offline or online lives — they just have lives.

Technology

There were two presentations from conference sponsors: Adobe and Macromedia. I expected these to be marketing pitches and I was pretty right. Yet, it’s good to know what big names plan to offer to the web crowd.

Jon Harris presented Microsoft Expression — a new set of tools for designers and front-end developers, and Silverlight — plugin for delivering rich media content. For me it’s an attempt to get some piece of a market cake from Adobe. Expression Web is positioned as a competitor for Dreamweaver.

It’s interesting that Microsoft recently endorses new products as alternatives to tools from other vendors, rather than better versions of their own products. During a break I talked to the nice lady from Expression Web stand and even she advertised the program as an alternative to Dreamweaver rather than a FrontPage successor. It seems that Microsoft suddenly realized that it has competitors. Or it was forced to realize.

The other product from Microsoft was Silverlight. It looks like a response to Adobe Flash. Jon Harris showed some nice effects, but I’d have to play with it myself to write more.

Silverlight is advertised as a cross-platform software. Apparently, Jon Harris was the only presenter who had to connect a Windows machine in order to show his slides (everybody else was on Macs). But let’s not be petty.

On Silverlight’s website there are links to plugins for IE, Firefox and Safari. Well, if Microsoft will release a plugin for Linux browsers (not to mention Opera) I’ll start to think seriously about its cross-platformness.

Adobe doesn’t have to compete in rich media plugin market or web design tools market — the company owns both. While Microsoft is focused on getting back to the web game, Adobe looks for new opportunities. Its new product, Apollo, is a runtime for desktop apps based on web technologies: HTML, JavaScript, CSS plus Flash and PDF. I think it has huge potential. There is a lot of people who know web technologies and would use this knowledge to create standalone applications. If Adobe will push Apollo runtime through Flash Update, it can quickly become the most widely deployed software platform, that will allow to run applications on Windows, Mac and Linux.

Mike Downey who presented Apollo demoed a desktop client for eBay. The app looked nice, but I think it was a bad move to show something that provides no additional value and should in fact run in a browser. But there are plenty of more practical use cases, like applications working on local files (think media players) or requiring offline access.

While Apollo is unlikely to be fast and rich enough to create, let’s say, a Photoshop-like application in the near future, with its Flash capabilities and standard-compliant WebKit rendering engine for HTML it could become an interesting platform for developers with web background. Sadly Mozilla wasn’t fast enough to make this happen with XUL.

Specialization

It wasn’t really o major topic, but it was brought at least twice: during Andy Clarke’s presentation performance and the ending panel: whether we will stay omniscient “web professionals” or end up in small boxes of specialization. The message was clear: it’s not possible anymore for a single person to know enough about graphic design, usability and coding to stay ahead of curve. So called web professionals will inevitably have to choose small areas of expertise.

I agree with this conclusion, but I don’t like it at all. I don’t think of myself as a developer, designer or architect. I just make websites. One of the biggest attractions of the web as medium is its diversity: there are so many different ways of using it. And I’m sure we unleashed only a small fraction of its potential. That’s why I don’t like to think about specializing in a next few years. Actually I’m now focused on some area (front-end development), but I love to learn about server-side frameworks, trends in graphic design or other innovations on the web. So much fun stuff to discover, so little time…

For me the conclusion is: specialize, but don’t close yourself in a small box. It’s nice to be considered an expert in some area (and it really helps to pay your bills), but the web has so much more to offer. It also changes very rapidly, so it’s very likely your current skills will become obsolete in a next 3 years, just like mastering Netscape 4 quirks, essential in 1999, has no value today. But that’s the very reason I love the web: it always has something new up its sleeves.

See you next year?

It was definitely worth to take a flight to London and attend FOWD 2007. The best recommendation is the fact that I still didn’t covered all interesting ideas heard there (like an insightful presentation on managing change by Ryan Freitas from Adaptive Path). For those who missed it, there are slides and podcasts on conference’s website.

As for a final word: I was looking for an inspiration and I found it there. Five stars.

Comments

  1. It’s alway very exciting to see, what’s happening on the Web ‘bleeding edge’ and what are the newest trends. What I’m a little bit afraid is that all this very quickly changing technology is a hard pill to swallow for the typical users.

    When you consider the fact, that it look almost 20 years for typical users to get used to graphical user interface (although some of them still have problems, I’ll tell you), by when they will get to all the fancy Web 2.0 Ajax-driven thingies like dynamic dropdowns, in-place editing etc.

    On the other side, why we are still limited to 5 types of primitive widgets in the browser in the standard web form? It looks like a dinosaur teleported to 25th century.

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