Warning: This is an editorial post…!
This isn't the first post I've written proclaiming that an era has ended. A few years ago, I declared that the age of "templates" is over and instead argued that they were now being replaced by modular editing capabilities. For the most part, I think I was right about that, though some lingering platforms are still template-based. Today, however, I want to explore the idea that the era of big, flashy, over-designed websites is nearly over. Not because people don't necessarily appreciate catchy design, but because the overall digital ecosystem isn't interested in it anymore. Today, everything is about optimization. And the people who tell us how they want us to optimize, most specifically Google, are not interested in catchy design but rather effective, strategic interfaces.
So how can someone make a claim that creative web design is over? By merely watching what the search engines are telling us. They are interested in performance, both in terms of sites themselves and the people who use them. And they are interested in intent. In many cases, overtly over-designed interfaces get in the way of that. So before you bite my head off – is all creative web design kaput? Not precisely, but creativity now will mean a slightly different thing.
Does this mean web design is dead? By no means! It is making it more and more critical that qualified web designers produce interfaces, because the complexity involved in crafting fast, effective experiences is much more complicated than simply making something pretty. Web design is alive, it's just being redefined.
First, let me take a step back and revisit the history of web design, at least since I started in 1998. Back then, we didn't even have CSS. HTML layouts were content-first, based heavily on tables and headings, and that was pretty much it. Things evolved when CSS came on the scene. We had more tools to work with, and designs started in design apps, like Photoshop or similar. The era of "slicing" emerged, where the skill was coding websites to match complicated designs, often pixel by pixel. Page speed wasn't much of an issue people cared about, and because not every competitor was even on the web, the best design won. Back in these days, executives would make decisions based on what looked good, what looked better than the competition, and then happily told their friends about their digital accomplishments.
Then the user conversion era came, along with an acronym: CRO, or conversion rate optimization. The same executives who would brag about their company branding and website 15 years ago became more eager to compare their conversion rates and other KPIs. A lot had changed. This meant we spent more time thinking about user personas, what they are aiming to do, and converting them to identified leads or prospects. This is still a function of many websites today, by all means. But it's been augmented in recent times by a new focus: optimization.
The idea of optimization really isn't new. It's affected all parts of our economy, after all. Almost everything is optimized. The 787 Dreamliner wasn't a new airplane concept, per se – it was an optimized airplane. Lighter materials, more fuel efficiency. But not faster, or wider, or… You get what I mean. And sure, electric cars are great – but aren't they really just an optimized model of an existing concept? How about sports? No one is inventing new methodologies but rather using advanced diagnostic tools to hone better performance. Golf has been transformed by the Trackman, for example. In fact, golf optimization has gone so far that now they are talking about rolling it back as the distance gains are overpowering many courses.
These days, actual innovation is rare. We see optimizations that are risky business decisions and consider those fantastic innovations. But in reality, is an electric car amazing? Or even what SpaceX is doing? Sure, it's impressive, but the reason we are astounded is because someone was willing to take the financial risk to do those things. Nothing new was really invented, right?
Maybe I'm a cynic, and as a disclaimer, I'm on my second electric car… And it's great.
Anyway, these days, the same is applying to web design. Can you honestly say that you've seen a remarkable web design in the past few years? Nah, you really can't. Today's projects start with clients requesting the same thing, every time: a "clean" design. And that's fine – clean is safe and looks professional. If you've said that to me on a call, do not be ashamed. It's right to ask for it. And even better for us because it's easier to optimize. But do you know why you are asking? Because too much design is risky, no one wants to take that chance in the optimized economy. It just isn't a necessary risk.
The next era, which we're already somewhat in, will consist of clients coming to us pre-educated on the optimizations they need to make to be successful in their project. In many cases, those optimizations mean that the design aspect must be toned down to make way for things like performance or compliance.
Take ADA, or web site accessibility. Did you know that specific colors are entirely incompatible with being ADA compliant? Sadly, my favorite color, orange, is in many cases not ADA compliant. That's why our CTAs on this website have been changing lately…!
Or think about the standards Google is setting for us to achieve in terms of page speed. This knocks out much of our potential of being able to deliver a groundbreaking design. I have yet to see a website that is overdesigned rate anywhere near acceptable according to these new standards. The new core web vitals standards are complex, and in many cases require completely rebuilding your front-end experience to be compliant.
I may be sounding somewhat cynical about this new era we are entering, but it all makes perfect sense. The web has reverted back to where it came from. It's about information, user intent, and speed. Everything else is a distraction. It is no longer a design medium but rather an information medium: usability has won the battle. Now, the technology that we use is very advanced, tested, and capable of innovative experiences, but we're being pushed to tone it down a little. That kinda stinks, right?
But does it?
To get us back on track... As I mentioned before, does this mean that custom web design is dead? Absolutely not. In fact, now more than ever, you need customized approaches to handling these new requirements. The truth is, only an experienced UI/UX professional can take your vision, utilize the tools and techniques available and meet all compliance and performance standards while adhering to a design that you are happy with. But notice I refer to them as a user interface / user experience professional and not a designer?
One hope I have for these recent changes is that it cleans up the web, and the industry we play in. There are far too many agencies undercutting those who do high-quality digital work and then turn out shoddy products. These new techniques are not for the faint of heart. An agency that themes WordPress sites will NOT be able to get you compliant with ADA, nor will they accomplish a passing grade regarding Core Web Vitals. The skillset simply isn't there.
I'm hoping that this new era slows down the eagerness some people have to grab a template, configure and deploy it as if they have accomplished something. We all know that 99% of those templates cannot possibly comply with any of these regulations, either. Perhaps these new rules will emphasize proper design systems – prefabricated style guides and best practices that organizations can use to drive future development. The creation of these systems allows for their development around standards by qualified teams and distribution to others who can focus more on their delivery for a particular project.
One great example of this is the design system put in place by the United States Digital Service, a government organization that has created a universal base framework for use on government projects. This approach allows for a unified solution to design and technical requirements but still gives some freedom to project stakeholders to define their own path. This is what the project of the future should look like, either developing unique design systems or utilizing them for custom solutions.
In wrapping up this post, be on the lookout as we'll be following up with more details about those areas we mentioned above. More about strict compliance and accessibility, and definitely more on the new performance standards all sites will need to achieve to rank organically higher. These items should be everyone's focus headed into 2021 and beyond.