Beyond the "Death" of Web Design

Old hand tools on a workbench

A few weeks ago I made a career leap. I left an advancing role at a growing IT research & advisory firm to do user experience research here at Res.im.

Why? Well I’ve been covering different aspects of the web, application development and digital transformation in the enterprise long enough to want to get closer to the action. And Res.im has always built cool stuff that looks good, and I like that. I’ve also not-so-secretly always been a wannabe designer, but years ago I got pulled more to the fuzzy, human side of things. I spent my 10,000 hours studying human behavior, doing research, thinking too much, and writing — time my talented team-mates spent honing their design and dev chops.

But my reasons for moving to the web and mobile development industry aren’t just personal. Even after decades of progress on and around the web, this is an exciting time – especially when we expand our notion of “the web” past pages on screens to include the whole gamut of digital interfaces and experiences we can build.

Analyzing industry trends has been a big part of my job for the past four years. And because old habits die hard, I’ve spent a lot of the past few weeks getting a much deeper view of where the web industry is and where it’s going.

Web Design is Grown Up

One of the first things I read when preparing for my new role was a piece on the “death of web design” (just my luck!) in UX Magazine by Sergio Nouvel. It’s a good piece, riffing on a very common theme (googling “web design is dead” returned 47,500 results).

It’s widely perceived (and lamented) that the web is becoming more industrialized. Three of Nouvel’s five symptoms of web design’s demise reflect that shift: “commoditization by templates,” “web design patterns are mature,” and “automation and artificial intelligence are already doing the job.”

It’s true. What’s happening to web design happens in every successful industry. As it matures, foundational building blocks stabilize and people’s attention moves elsewhere, often higher up the value chain (at least for a time, until that particular foundation gets disrupted).

In data centers, for example, once servers became good enough for most applications (or rather, good enough to run virtual machines that are good enough for most applications) much of the attention has shifted to scaling them out and making them more efficient (e.g. Facebook’s Open Compute) and adding value higher up the stack, eventually in the form of services (e.g. Amazon’s EC2 and slew of other web services).

Today that same sort of shift is happening in web development. As in any other maturing industry, progress keeps building on itself — only more so, thanks to the rapid cycles of replication and evolution in software. Attention will continue to shift from solving last year’s problems to optimizing and refining those solutions, while finding new problems to solve and new ways to add value.

The Evolution of an Industry

In The Design of Business, Roger Martin describes a three-phase process businesses go through, from exploring ideas to exploiting them. The first phase is “Mystery,” in which products and services are built on vague hunches. The first websites were built on hunches and impulses. The second phase is “Heuristic,” in which products and services evolve based on principles or rules of thumb that have tended to succeed. The final phase is “Algorithmic,” in which people are able to exploit proven formulas for success. This is where things like Medium, Squarespace, and The Grid come along.

But while much of what we think of as web design and development is creeping into the Algorithmic phase of maturity, we should be reassured by an example in Martin’s book: the evolution of McDonald’s, which started with the renovation of a single restaurant on a hunch, and eventually developed and exploited a proven formula to expand globally. Even “mature” industries like fast food continue to innovate and develop new heuristics and algorithms. Dark roast coffee, veggie wraps, wheelchair accessibility and WiFi weren’t part of the original McDonald’s formula. Web design and development will similarly continue to evolve aesthetically, functionally, and ethically to keep up with changing social realities.

And that’s why I’ve come to do user experience research. There are enough digital building blocks – and enough talented people who know how to put them together – that there’s a growing opportunity to work more deeply on the human side of what gets built and why.

Finding New Ways to Solve New Problems

User-focused design is far from new but it’s never had such powerful platforms to build on, nor has so much been at stake. With more hours and dollars spent online we need to make sure we’re building the right products and features – and not just solving the same problems better but designing for new types of customers.

Exciting technical things are still happening around the web, not to mention mobile and other connected devices, wearables, augmented/virtual reality, and other burgeoning technologies that create new sorts of UX opportunities and challenges. There’s still plenty of mystery around the future of web and mobile products.

There’s a lot more to say about how to unweave those emerging mysteries of user experience, but for now I’ll just say I couldn’t be more excited to be part of it.




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