The power of the web has not yet been unlocked

I love the web. I work as a web editor. Then when I get home at the end of the day I do some more stuff with the web. I think about it all the time. I like to believe that I get it.

But I recently read something so powerful that it has changed the way I think about the web.

Karen McGrane’s DrupalCon keynote is ostensibly a talk to Drupal developers about using the content management system for future-friendly content. I have no interest in Drupal, but this article engrossed me. It doesn’t really say anything new.

But it does contain a powerful explanation of the challenges web designers face as a result of the tremendous flexibility of the web. I knew about almost everything covered in the talk — but this was the first time it all clicked together in this way for me.

Old habits die hard

San Rock Art - Cederberg

Any web designer will know how difficult it can be to nudge a client away from an old-fashioned print mindset. We’ve all had to deal with someone who is obsessed with everything appearing above the fold, as if the fold were even a thing. We have all slaved over making a design look pixel perfect for someone used to designs being controllable to the nearest 1/300th of an inch.

For these people, usability is a secondary concern to how it looks. They have put no thought into how it should look on a mobile device, never mind how it will behave on a mobile device. (“Isn’t that what apps are for?”) No concept of the requirements to make webpage accessible to a visually impaired person using a screen reader. No thought into how to optimise the design for search engines.

In short, they don’t understand what it is that makes the web tick.

That’s not their fault. As Karen McGrane points out, the web represents a huge shift in the way we communicate.

Since caveman times, mass communication has been achieved using ink on rock or paper. Once you put it there, it was finished. And to get the message, you had to physically look at it.

Transformation from the print world

In that past 25 years, that has all changed. Now communication can be achieved over vast distances using zeroes and ones. It can be published and edited in a snap. And it exists not as indelible ink, but as fragments of data that can be adapted according to the particular circumstances.

This is a completely new way of thinking about publishing. It was therefore inevitable that the print mindset would persist on the web. And since the internet became mainstream, real-world metaphors have served us well. We send an electronic mail. We read a webpage. And we do so on a desktop interface.

Google Glass detail

Except that we now no longer do so exclusively on a desktop computer. Increasingly it’s on mobile phones. And tablets. More experimentally, there is Google Glass. And who knows what tomorrow?

Of course, we have known for a long time that web content can be delivered in a variety of ways. That is why there is a whole industry dedicated to search engine optimisation. It’s why any web designer worth their salt will take the care to ensure that their webpages are accessible. We have experimented with RSS, and we have tentatively dipped our toes into metadata.

But that stuff has always been a secondary consideration when compared with the sexy world of the visual display of webpages on nice big desktop monitors. The web has often been thought of as little more than an interactive magazine.

The massive explosion in the diversity of devices that can access the web is challenging these print metaphors to breaking point.

Diverse devices

We thought the web was powerful on desktop computers. The ability to go mobile with it in the past few years has propelled that to another level. But as technology advances, we will be using more types of devices and interfaces that will take the web far further still.

Today we have PCs, smartphones and tablets. Games consoles have been able to access the web for a while too. Web-enabled TVs are becoming increasingly popular. We have been told that every new car will soon be connected to the web. Internet-enabled fridges have been the butt of jokes for a while — but they’re happening.

Pebble watch email 1

The talk at the moment is of smart watches. I personally think this is a massive folly peddled by the over 30s. Most under young people don’t wear watches because they are cumbersome to wear and they have grown up telling the time using their phone. We older people only wear watches because we’re used to them.

I might be wrong. But the idea that the future of accessing the web is by looking down and tapping a device wrapped around our wrist is bizarre to me.

More interesting to me is Google Glass. There is nervousness about privacy. And people may laugh about the way it looks. But it could catch on, and it’s more appealing to me than carrying a phone around everywhere.

I think Glass might not even go far enough.

The audio web

I am a big fan of radio. It is the perfect productive medium. You can listen to the radio when you’re cooking your dinner or doing the dishes, when you’re out and about, or when you’re driving. It is a mobile medium.

The most cumbersome thing about the mobile web at the moment is that you have to look at it. The prevailing form factor for mobile is hardly ideal. If you’re trying to avoid lampposts, dog turds or other people, looking down a two to four inch screen is best avoided. You have to squint at the tiny text on this tiny screen, a situation that gets worse if the sun is shining. And if you ever want to do anything with it, you’d better hope you don’t have fat fingers.

Now imagine a purely audio interface for the web. All of those downsides associated with having to look at a screen are gone. If you need some information in a rush, you could ask the device and it could speak it out to you.

Voice recognition may be a bit of a laughing stock at the moment. It’s not perfect yet. But ten years ago, touchscreens were in the same place. One day soon, voice recognition technology will be cracked.

It is already in the wild. Apple has Siri, and Google has voice search. These mega software companies are currently carrying out a massive public experiment in voice technology. They are using data to work out how voice recognition works the best.

In a way, the audio web exists already. Visually impaired people use screen reader software to read out the text of a webpage. It’s just that it hasn’t gone mainstream yet.

Usability issues are yet to be cracked. But how exciting will it be once they are?

At your fingertips

What might devices like the Leap Motion mean for the web?

Tomorrow’s web won’t be about desktop and mobile. It will be a full spectrum ranging from basic heads-up displays and audio interfaces to incredibly precise, immersive input devices that can detect the movements of your ten fingers.

Our challenge as web designers is to make our content work well on it all. Are we prepared for this? I’m not sure. Responsive design alone is throwing up all sorts of complex challenges, and it seems like small fry compared with this. But the possibilities are exciting.

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