I remember the moment I fell in love with web design: I landed on an agency website called 2advanced. I was immediately blown away: stylish intro animation, futuristic visuals employing lots of panels and strokes, blocks of solely decorative text, the avant-gard sound effects, and the quirky navigation that took a moment to figure out. It was all very impressive, refreshing, and motivating. I remember soon after a lot of websites started doing similar things. Flash was a big deal, and no one was following any standards.
Every website that followed 2advanced tried to stand out in some way. Designers weren’t afraid to experiment. You could trace a parallel to UIs that were being designed for games. Flash did not force any specific guidelines (and was relatively easy to code), so people were experimenting a lot. Some were quite outstanding. I remember every week there was a new website everyone was talking about and trying to mimic. But like any fad, there was also a lot of junk: poor typography, indecipherable navigation, and the biggest culprit of all — the absence of content.
Soon after, everything changed drastically. This thing called web standards started to become popular and everyone wanted to jump on that train. Web standards were on the opposite approach of the ideas that sites like 2advanced popularized. Because of the HTML and CSS specifications (and the different ways that browsers interpreted these) web design started to become very simple. Our focus shifted to content and less on the visual side of the design. It was a big learning curve for everyone. Browsers were advancing and people experimented to figure out which parts of specs had support for each version of popular browsers at time (we’re talking Internet Explorer, early days of Firefox and Opera).
With the shift to web standards, design on the web started to become very similar everywhere we looked: the use of web safe fonts, flat colors, logos on the right side, a sidebar with navigation, and footer links to show that the CSS and markup were validated. Websites became a lot easier to use; it was no longer necessary to install a plugin to be able to access the content. It was also a huge step for accessibility, something that Flash sites struggled with or overlooked completely. Around this time blogging was becoming very popular too. One theme called Kubric was developed from scratch using web standards, and lots of people were learning from it.
With all the great things that emerged with web standards there was something that got lost in the evolution of the web: the innovation.
We have evolved a lot since web standard became a reality, but it feels like it’s a very slow process. It’s great that we have tons of patterns and best practices for almost any kind of user interface we need to design. Things that have been tested extensively that we can rely on and that proved to be successful. But this has lead to everything becoming very similar.
Visual design innovation these days comes in very small doses: a new animation effect, or a new way to use clipping masks. When was the last time you felt wowed by a new website design? Every landing page or portfolio looks the same these days: using the same wow effects that don’t provide any wow anymore.
If we look to the mobile spectrum, we can see that it has evolved faster than web as a whole. Seeing new interaction models that make us scratch our heads became a norm. There’s a lot more freedom provided by the technology, and creators want to stand out. Building something new that provides an unseen experience is a goal in order to stand out.
We can argue that pushing things forward too much leads to bad interaction experiences, but it’s means to a desired end. In the mobile world there are several cases of experiences that people thought were terrible at first but eventually gained traction. Take Snapchat for instance, it offered a way to interact that was alien to everyone. At first you could not figure out how to navigate around the app, but by swiping left and right, and then up and down you quickly learned how to get around it. But providing an unfamiliar way to interact did not keep young people from adopting it and turning it into a successful app used by millions.
People like to be challenged, and they are not scared of experimenting, especially the young.
So why are we afraid of innovating on the web? It’s not like we don’t have the tools to determine if an experiment has succeeded. A quick ten-user test session on usertesting.com can help us figure out if something is working or not. We have powerful technology that is far from being explored, like WebGL, Web Speech API or Gesture recognition.
So why are we always relying on the same patterns and fallbacks?
It’s obvious that creating new ways to interact and new design languages is hard work, and it’s not something that can be done for every project. Trying new technologies is very time consuming: there’s a big learning curve without guarantee of success. But innovation is not possible without taking risks.
So let’s take some risks.
Originally published on automattic.design.