The Things of the Future

The future of web design can be saved if web applications are built not only for humans but for humanity, and made to last. To solve deeper problems, technology may need ask more from its users.

Ninety percent of everything is crud.

— Sturgeon’s Law

When the archaeologists unearth the things of today, they may be forced to agree with Theodore Sturgeon. We have produced an awful lot of crap. Razors with ever more ludicrous numbers of blades. Luminous cans boasting of the calorific scarcity of their sugar water. Future generations may conclude that modern commerce was built around posturing and one-upmanship, with genuine innovation confined to a few niche sectors.

It’s tempting to think that we webfolk should be spared from this accusation. But before we break out the high fives, are we really the innovators we think we are? Or are we part of the problem?

Mass-market product design—and yes, web design as well—has seen its value slowly diluted. For every breakthrough web app, a hundred banal Groupon clones are greeted by copy-and-paste clamor from the usual sources. We have become a community overexcited by things that don’t matter. In the words of author and economist Umair Haque, many of our dominant businesses and products have become pedestrian, predictable, and pointless. Leaders who buck the trend are rightly celebrated but lamentably scarce.

Thankfully, this downward slide of pseudo-innovation has no future. Public perception of business is near breaking point. Just 12 percent of the British public holds a high opinion of business executives—a figure that has halved within a decade. In the US, 84 percent of the public blames business leaders for the recession. Public attitudes are shifting away from consumerism and instead demanding change, accountability, and social responsibility from business owners. With growing concern over privacy and intellectual property, the big businesses of the web are no more immune to public distrust and press indignation than the industrial corporations.

On a more personal, immediate level, we’re stalked by the shadow of a second recession and environmental ruin. We have neither money nor energy to waste on trivial things. Those luminous cans with their limited-edition packaging appear even more pathetically wasteful. Another photo-sharing app is meaningless to regular people who are busy worrying about their jobs and finances.

Designers and builders need to scout out different paths than the ones that landed us all in this junkyard. So what principles will guide the future of product design? And what role will the web and its designers play?

Refinding Humanity

The product landscape is littered with things that are lifeless and drained of personality. In contrast, the things that resonate with us on a human level are the ones we return to and rave about to patient friends.

Messaging—how our applications communicate with people—is a fine starting point in our quest for personality. Good naming helps. It’s hard to love something that answers to Office Pro 8500A e-All-in-One Printer. But conveying a likeable verbal persona throughout an application requires a deep focus on all elements of the content puzzle, from strategy to microcopy, from tone of voice to error messages. It’s a complex recipe that’s easily overcooked. The digital scrap heaps are filled with products that tried too hard, irritating us with faux amiability (as seen in our most hated paperclip, Clippy) or descending into wackaging, the infantilized copy that plagues rounded typeface web 2.0 apps and juice cartons alike.

To make deeper connections between products and their users, we should search for ways to humanize the functionality of our applications. For example, take the A Bit More button on the Breville Die-Cast Toaster®—a subtle master stroke that frees a weary world from mornings of undercooked toast. Or BankSimple’s Safe-to-spend function, which answers the single question on our minds when we check our balances: How much do I have left?

The designers of these humane functions saw an opportunity to wrap technology around the human. In doing so, they reversed the roles found in decades of bad design. A well-designed product makes tiny, beautiful sacrifices for its users.

But can we go deeper? Could our apps become more appealing if we let them off the leash? We learn about our friends’ personalities by seeing how they behave in different circumstances—what might happen if we allow our devices and applications a little behavioral variance? Digital technology has become two-way. Devices not only display information but can learn about users through sensors and analysis: where they are, what their social ties are, and so on. Combine this power with applications that let users state intent—“I’m off to the movies with Kushal”—and designers have plenty of opportunities to create pseudo-emotional responses. So let’s imagine a Twitter client that knows you’ve been in the pub for six hours and suggests you don’t send that sleazy tweet. A mobile phone that grins as you both stagger off a rollercoaster. An MP3 player that rolls its eyes as you queue up “Living On A Prayer.” If we can escape the constraints of our old mental models, technology could move from being a tool to being a companion. A pet. Even a friend.

Do Make Me Think

Technology can even become a mentor when we most need help. The preeminent apps of the future will help us tackle so-called wicked problems: those that have no clear solutions. Apps could help us reduce our energy bills, chastise us for not recycling that carton, or encourage us to lose those pesky love handles. Given the growing global importance of wicked problems like climate change, obesity, and an aging population, designers may soon find that better technology becomes essential to our very survival.

While the usability movement has rightly focused on making technology fade into the background, in certain cases we may want to reverse that strategy deliberately. To tackle the wicked problems of the next few decades, designers may need to build applications that encourage users to question their own attitudes or behaviors.

These discursive apps needn’t be complex. Weightbot, a simple iPhone weight-logging app, uses careful design to help people manage their weight. The app is structured to suggest daily use—skip a week and those blank days sure stand out—but it also rewards good behavior, tantalizing users with graphs showing how far they’ve come and when they might hit their goal. In the near future, networked discursive apps might spot patterns of infection and advise feverish sufferers not only how to manage their symptoms but also how to prevent spreading the disease.

Products That Last

The design industry dwells, of course, at the heart of a particularly complex wicked problem: sustaining the planet’s diminishing resources. That this is a challenge for designers of physical products—cars, bridges, packaging—is clear, but it’s a mistake to think sustainable design is irrelevant to the web. Although our raw materials of bits and pixels are essentially infinite, sustainability goes beyond conserving resources. Web designers should adopt the mindset of building things that last.

Surprisingly, our love of the cutting edge makes this more difficult. It’s understandable that we all want to design for the latest sparkly devices and shiny technologies. However, the thrill of the new distracts us from our true target: designing apps that work with tomorrow’s technology.

It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem. Bill Buxton1 famously claims that all technologies have a thirty year ramp-up period. Alert web designers can read the signals: we stand on the brink of an explosion of diversity. We’ll have to design for input methods that include touchscreen, voice, and GPS alongside the trusty keyboard and mouse. The web will sprawl onto screens that range from three inches to fifty, from cheap pixellation to super-high definition. Bandwidths will vary between blistering and glacial.

Astute web designers should be considering these issues today since our applications will live in the future, not the present. The Future Friendly campaign recognizes this:

Disruption will only accelerate. The quantity and diversity of connected devices—many of which we haven’t imagined—will explode, as will the quantity and diversity of the people around the world who use them. Our existing standards, workflows, and infrastructure won’t hold up.

Future Friendly is, at heart, a manifesto for sustainable web design. It acknowledges that we’ll have to find new ways to work, but it also suggests the payoff. Built the right way, web applications will have a longer shelf life, reach users wherever they may be, save our clients, and enhance the reputation of our industry.

In Search of Value

Future Friendly endorses the idea of building things that matter, not things that clutter. And thus we reach the critical issue of the web’s future: differentiation that’s genuine, not illusory.

So many of today’s products, both physical and digital, try to stand out from the noisy market by brand differentiation. The whiskey for the discerning man; the mail client for Linux geeks. Luke Williams of Frog Design argues2 that, far from clarifying the marketplace, this microdifferentiation increases cognitive clutter. Instead of positioning ourselves apart from our competition, we should instead aim to make the competition irrelevant.

Designers can only do this by building differences that users can feel, not just read about. It’s simple to rip off another website’s brand, tone of voice, or even features, but it’s very hard to duplicate the experience another product offers. To make a true mark on the world, web design must focus on the value it offers users. We should strive to create the next Wikipedia, Dropbox, or Instapaper—products that are impossible to relinquish once they’re part of everyday life.

Sadly, many businesses still underestimate the importance of delivering meaningful value. We can help to illustrate the problem with the following equation:

Total value = business value × customer value

An application must offer something superlative to both the business and the user; if either of the terms in the equation is zero, it’s a waste of our time. Yet so much of our industry is focused on the business side alone. Just look at the job descriptions, the entrepreneur porn that so many start-up types are addicted to: exit strategies, pricing, pivots, who’s bought whom. Important stuff, sure, but it’s only half the story.

We can redress the balance by influencing business to focus on our natural territory: looking at what’s in it for the customer. Designers shouldn’t be satisfied with clones and fast follow strategies that slipstream innovative companies and hope to pick up some of the crumbs. We must ask searching questions about the things we make and what they each offer their users. We must be strong in our conviction to put humanity at the heart of what we do.

We must give in to the lure of the path less followed and reject the notion of replicating what’s come before. This means testing our designs with real people, not just relying on data. It means questioning every assumption and shortcut, not falling back on pattern libraries. It means risk, bravery, glorious embarrassment, and everything that’s good about life. It means harder work and a few arguments. That’s fine. What some may label arrogance, we will recognize as simply a need to have pride in what we do.

But this isn’t just artistic flightiness. Focusing on making great things also gets results. In 2006, consultants Teehan + Lax created the UX Fund, a $50,000 investment fund split across ten companies who have a reputation for delivering great customer experiences. It outperformed every major index. Data from the UK’s Design Council suggests that businesses can see a return of £225 for every £100 they invest in design. Put simply, people will pay for great things.

It’s comforting to know that designers can draw on this economic ammunition if we need to, but to see design as a purely commercial pursuit is to overlook its full power. Great web apps spark unmeasurable emotions: loyalty, trust, love. When the time is right, we’ll have to convince our clients and bosses to look beyond the metrics and to put faith in their intuition to do the right thing.

While you and I have lips and voices
which are for kissing and to sing with,
who cares if some one-eyed son of a bitch
invents an instrument to measure Spring with?

— E.E. Cummings

To do the right thing means to recognize that the business-user relationship is joined by a third axis. Great products also meet the needs of society as a whole. So we should design for the good of the web, for the good of design, for the good of the world. Successful web businesses echo the philosophy behind the web, using open standards and APIs to allow people to build great things on top of their products. Designers have a powerful opportunity to bring the open, collaborative mindset of the web into commerce, working together toward a higher goal of profit through shared prosperity.

So the future can be saved. If the web design community can make things that help not only business, not just individual users, but everyone on the web, we can arrest our slide into mediocrity. Create valuable, wonderful things and the economics will follow. In this new environment, we’ll see personal success defined through the success we bring to other people’s lives. In tough times, the right response is not division, but solidarity. I can’t wait for this future, and I hope to meet you there.

  1. Bill Buxton, Sketching User Experiences, (Morgan Kaufmann, 2007).

  2. Luke Williams, Disrupt, (FT Press, 2010).

Cennydd bowles

Cennydd Bowles is a design manager at Twitter in London and a columnist for A List Apart. He has over a decade of experience advising clients large and small on the benefits of customer-focused design. He writes for his popular blog and co-authored Undercover User Experience Design.

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Illustration by Rose Blake · Portrait by Paul Blow