I recently released a piece about the vanilla web. It was a piece I had written and iterated upon for over a year and never released, it comes across as an angry rant. Which to a degree it is. But a heartfelt one.
To me the web is a disappointment not because of what it is, but because of the gap between what we have created and what we can create. I want to take some time to think through why this has happened.
What is a website?
The term ’website’ is an umbrella term for digital magazines, complex applications, functional tools, galleries, games, news platforms etc. Many of the sites we build are created from complex amalgams of these things. However each of these things is distinct in how the user expects it to behave, and distinct in how we have to design it.
A functional site, one where users ’do’ things has to put functionality and usability above brand enforcement and/or emotional design.
A site dedicated to providing researchers with complex interrelated data has to put navigation, search, and clarity of reading ahead of big visual experiences.
A site designed to grab the attentions and emotions though, that must be where colour, proportion, typography, and movement rule supreme. And it is here where I believe we, the web industry, is failing to be as bold as our sisters in other industries.
I keep asking myself if we are trying to achieve too much? Where you have a site that tries to be all things will you always be relegating yourself to a compromised design? If the design intent is so broad as to become vague, is it not then impossible to create something breathtaking?
I mentioned in the previous post that designing for the web is hard. I do have to ask though if that is because we have a harder job, or if we are making our lives harder than they need to be? Are we taking on too much, and expecting the things that we build to deliver too much? Do the briefs that we work to conquer ask so much of us that we compromise our own designs through too wide a vision?
Or are we, as a collective, trying to solve the wrong problems? Paul Adams, VP of Product at Intercom, recently wrote about the Dribbblisation of Design and he’s picking up on a trend that spans one side of the design pendulum – the ‘like’. Sometimes called the ‘up vote’ and other times the ‘gold star of self fulfilment’ – the output is always the same. We have a generation of ‘designers’ producing ‘work’ to please an anonymous mass rather than to create exceptional sites, apps, posters, or magazines that meet broader needs. It’s shallow eye candy and it leads to bad design.
The other side of the design pendulum is when the brand identity and emotions of the design are entirely stamped on by overbearing accessibility and functionality requirements. Just as the Dribbblisation of design is a bad thing, so is the desperate desire for UX designers to get themselves onto uxarchive.com. The disease is the same, the results no matter which way you go will result in a broken solution.
And I wonder if this is our problem? Are we in a swing state with the app world focussing on stunning looking but mostly unusable apps, and the web now so far into ‘usable’ that all the wonder has been removed?
Don’t forget your users.
Maybe we are focusing so much on user needs that we’ve forgotten the biggest need of all. An emotionally connective experience, something that keeps people coming back or sharing it with their friends, is the ultimate goal of anything we design and build. No matter how functional something has to be we can, if we let ourselves, ensure that we throw in some wonder. It may mean we have to sacrifice a little bit of what is often called ‘good usability’ but people are smart and they’ll figure it out. And if you are lucky enough to find yourself designing a site where engagement and enjoyment are at the top of the tree you owe it to yourself, your client, and everyone else on the web, to be brave enough to ignore the rules that were created for the common so that you may be in pursuit of the rare.
Rules exist to be challenged and replaced.