A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

For a Future-Friendly Web

It is time to move toward a future-friendly web. Our current device landscape is a plethora of desktops, laptops, netbooks, tablets, feature phones, smartphones, and more, but this is just the beginning. The rapid pace of technological change is accelerating, and our current processes, standards, and infrastructure are quickly reaching their breaking points. But while this era of ubiquitous connectivity creates new challenges, it also creates tremendous opportunities to reach people wherever they may be.

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No one knows what the landscape will look like even just two years down the road, so it would be foolish to say that we can create anything that is truly future proof. But while there aren’t cut-and-dried prescriptive solutions for dealing with this increasing diversity, there are things we can do as web creators to better prepare for what’s in store.

We must acknowledge and embrace unpredictability to become more future friendly. We need to abandon comfortable assumptions that say disruption is temporary and that, given time, things will normalize. With more and more connected devices emerging every day, we’re entering an era of perpetual diversity and constant change. These facts require us to rethink the content we create and the contexts in which people interact with our products and services.

The rise of relevance

People’s capacity for bullshit is rapidly diminishing. Americans on average get firehosed with over 34GB worth of content a day, so out of necessity they’re finding ways to reduce their exposure to noise. Automatic bill payments reduce the flow of junk that once clogged physical mailboxes. DVR, Netflix Instant, Ad Block Plus, and BitTorrent allow people to sidestep time slots, video advertising, and filler content. Tools like Instapaper, Readability, Safari Reader, and Flipboard offer readers an escape from the bombardment of social widgets, blogrolls, animated ads, and obnoxious overlays.

Mobile is also a huge catalyst in this rise of relevance. Most Americans sleep with their mobile phone, where it becomes the last thing they touch before they go to sleep and the first thing they reach for when they wake up. Because we have such an intimate relationship with our mobile devices, we expect them to be extensions of ourselves. We count on them to deliver only the content and utility we desire at precisely the instant we request it. There’s simply not enough time, bandwidth, or screen real estate to trouble ourselves with extraneous noise.

As web creators, we need to embrace these trends to create worthwhile experiences that respect users’ time, or risk getting tuned out.

Laser focus

So how can we deal with increasing device diversity and decreasing attention spans? Perhaps the most significant thing we can do to become more future friendly is to focus. We must pinpoint what really matters to our users and our businesses.

Over the years, we’ve become the virtual equivalent of hoarders, tacking on content and features without stopping to clean house. As a result, sites and services have become obese and sluggish to adapt to this fast-moving landscape. Users bear the burden as they slog through slow page loads, awkwardly huge navigation, sidebar clutter, and a kitchen sink full of half-baked features.

To remedy these problems we need to analyze our content and establish strong content strategies to ensure our content is meaningful to our users and our businesses. Every product feature, every line of copy, every included script needs to have purpose and needs to be relevant to a growing number of contexts. We need to be ruthless in stripping away cruft to deliver strong, focused user experiences.

Former Ford and Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca asked “Where is it working?” when determining which automotive features, products, and initiatives to stick with or scrap. We need to apply Mr. Iacocca’s test to our web products and services and ask “Where is it working?” when we consider content and functionality. Does this really enhance the user experience? How does this make good business sense?

Shedding dead weight frees us up to develop core features and content that users really want and that sets our products apart from the competition. And from a user perspective, focused sites and apps offer clarity, faster page loads, and streamlined user flows.

Users have very little patience and even less so on small mobile screens. Unless you focus your design, users will simply give up on your product before they even know what it can do. —Marcos Lara

If we want to be agile enough to keep up with all this change, we need to shed some weight. Focusing our experiences makes it easier for our content to go anywhere, which is important because it is going everywhere.

Content like water

Whether we’re prepared or not, people are already interacting with our creations on devices that in many cases didn’t exist when we originally built them. This realization led mobile interaction designer Josh Clark to proclaim that we need to think of our content like water that can be poured into a multitude of containers.

Fighting a losing game

In many ways organizations simply react to whatever gets thrown at them: new devices, browsers, native platforms, social media channels, and more. We’re starting to look like Lucy Ricardo on the assembly line, frantically trying to keep up with an increasing number of channels. Instead of chasing down the platforms du jour, we should recognize the fact that our content now needs to reach a lot more places and turn inward to invest in our content infrastructure. It’s an investment in the future.

The need for agnostic content

Creating more fluid content requires migrating away from WYSIWYG-centric, word processor-emulating web publishing tools, and into systems that are more modular, platform-agnostic, and enriched with metadata. Better content management tools and robust APIs generate more portable data that’s better prepared for the future without being overly dependent on a specific technology.

Content portability ensures that the content can actually live and thrive in all platforms to which it gets distributed (even those that do not yet exist).  —Daniel Jacobson

NPR’s COPE (Create Once Publish Everywhere) system has become the poster child for next-generation content management systems because it separates content from presentation and as a result is able to reach a host of web, native, and display environments. While authors can still write markup, content gets stored by the CMS in a language-agnostic format. By avoiding storing “dirty” content (content that contains markup and presentation styles) and keeping everything modular, the content becomes more portable and can get served up in the format best suited for the particular context. Best of all, NPR doesn’t have to completely overhaul their system to account for whatever platforms are bound to emerge.

Striving toward clean, flexible data gives our products and services a better chance at being viable in the future, even if we find ourselves interacting with holograms and hover car dashboards ten years from now.

A progressive approach

“Content like water” overflows into web experience design and construction. People are accessing the web on an increasingly diverse range of devices and the fact is capabilities, form factors, and resolutions are not going to normalize.

And while gizmos will get faster and more powerful over time, the decreasing cost factor of Moore’s Law is in full effect and a new Zombie Apocalypse of inexpensive, “good-enough” web-enabled devices is upon us.

Technology pros know about Moore’s Law but often forget a critical aspect: it’s not just about increasing power, it’s also about decreasing cost. —Scott Jenson

Because the barrier to entry is so low (free OS and dirt-cheap hardware) we’re seeing a proliferation of cheap connected devices. So while iPad 5 will certainly be more capable than iPad 2, we need to consider a huge diversity in capabilities: the good, the bad, and everything in between. Because behind all these screens are people—people who want to interact, explore, learn, and enjoy.

To deal with such diversity, we need to take progressive enhancement to the next level. Right now it’s common to detect for bleeding-edge features, but we need to take it further and apply progressive enhancement to things as basic as screen size, bandwidth, JavaScript support, and performance. By abandoning comfortable assumptions, thinking mobile first, and building up a core experience, we’re able to create a solid foundation that can support more platforms while optimizing for best of breed browsers and devices. While there are certainly situations where more focused experiences make more sense (Angry Birds on an old Blackberry just isn’t the same), progressive enhancement is a smart default that allows us to take advantage of the web’s ubiquity to reach more people.

Structured content

It all starts with markup. Even the most heinous browsers can digest semantic markup. Authoring semantic HTML5 code opens doors to enhanced experiences (displaying the right virtual keyboard based on HTML5 input type is just a small example of what’s possible). Dealing with the inconsistencies of myriad devices reminds us that fundamental, clean, meaningful markup is one of the best ways to reach many platforms.

The device landscape is constantly changing. Capabilities are constantly changing. Properly structured content is portable to future platforms. —Stephen Hay

Style flexibly

We’re finally realizing that the web isn’t a 960-pixel-wide box and are taking steps to return the web to its inherently fluid nature. Thankfully, responsive web design provides concrete techniques to accommodate multiple screen sizes while maintaining some level of control over layout and presentation. What’s perhaps more important, responsive design gives us a much-needed language with which to talk about designing beyond a single screen size and context.

Responsive web design isn’t a panacea for the diversity challenges we face (nor did it ever claim to be), but it’s an important step. We still have to tackle content hierarchy issues across contexts, source order, input methods, media, cross-context interface conventions, and much more.

Address context, exploit opportunities

While flexible layouts are extremely important, mobile and other emerging platforms are so much more than different screen sizes. Each context provides its own unique opportunities and limitations which require careful consideration. Providing universal access to content is incredibly important, but that doesn’t mean we should only serve one-size-fits-all experiences to all users.

Understand user context

Users are interacting with our creations in more ways, and user context can dramatically influence intent. We shouldn’t exclude content or functionality simply based on the user’s device, but we should be cognizant of the user’s context and use it as an opportunity to enhance and prioritize. Ask questions. How can a user on the go benefit from my service? Why would someone visit my site on their TV? How might a laptop user interact with my site differently than a tablet user? Asking these questions helps us establish priorities and avoid missed opportunities.

Take advantage of device capabilities

Some of our current browsers support touch events, geolocation, or accelerometers, and hopefully browsers will soon have access to even more device APIs. All these features provide opportunities to enhance the user experience based on the device’s capabilities. For example, we tend to forget that mobile phones are communication tools capable of making phone calls and sending text messages. How can we use these features to better engage our audiences?

Today, certain devices can make phone calls, but perhaps tomorrow’s devices can tap into Kinect-esque gestural events, speech input, and even other yet-to-be-conceived capabilities. Our emerging multi-screen world provides exciting opportunities to interact among screens. Let’s tap into all these features and contexts to take the web to new and exciting places.

The future is ours to make… friendly

Future-friendly thinking encompasses lots of ideas: web standards, content strategy, progressive enhancement, responsive design, and more. However, it’s far bigger than any one approach, technology or technique. It’s here to help us think beyond our current project scopes and help us prepare for a future filled with innovation and constant change.

As we enter the age of ubiquitous connectivity, the browser-based web finds itself in a very interesting place. One one hand, its long-term relevance is being challenged, but on the other hand, the browser is the one consistent feature across all of these connected devices. There is the very real risk that the browser-based web can’t keep up with the times, but there’s also a tremendous opportunity for the web to serve as the glue that holds this connected world together. It’s up to us to ensure the web’s long-term viability.

While the road ahead will be difficult, it’s 100% necessary. We’ll need to rethink our processes, tools, and systems, but most importantly we’ll need to communicate and collaborate like never before to address the myriad diversity challenges we will face. It’s an exciting opportunity to redefine what the web is and what it can do.

Let’s plan for the unknown and celebrate the ubiquity of the web. By crafting meaningful content and adaptive experiences, we’re better prepared for what lies ahead. The future is ours to make… friendly.

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