The Web is Getting Simpler

XKCD: Standards


For decades now, the internet as we know it has grown more and more complex – websites add bells and whistles to attract users and keep them around, creating a virtual arms race of features. It’s a huge mess for web developers (trying to make sure everything works in every web browser) and has a pretty significant downside for users as well; as the web matures and everyone learns how to navigate it, we all just want to find what we need. Frivolous eye candy often gets in the way.

Thankfully, this is beginning to change. Sites are cutting down on their window dressing, ripping out Flash presentations and generally adopting a cleaner, simpler look and feel. And the technology behind websites is coalescing around standard ways of building things – still very complex, to be sure, but with far less variation than before.

Like warring government departments that each have a different form to accomplish the exact same thing, web development has for years been a clash of competing standards, browsers and plugins, with each party advocating for their own solution. Microsoft won an early edge in the browser wars and pushed proprietary technology that could only be used in Internet Explorer. If you wanted to run this payroll program or that CRM site, you had to use Windows and Internet Explorer. This was Microsoft’s way of locking developers into their toolkit – develop only for Explorer, and we’ll give you access to technology you would otherwise have to develop yourself.

You can’t really blame Microsoft for this; this was simply their way of doing business with their operating systems and applications, so it made sense for them to take the same philosophy to the web. If you have the dominant browser, why not force everyone to adopt your technology to build web sites? You give the browser away for free (and bolt it into the operating system) but sell everything else needed to support it: operating systems, applications, development tools, and so on. It worked well, and Internet Explorer came to dominate the browser landscape.

And then something happened: mobile. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the emergence of usable, popular mobile computing devices (beginning with the iPhone) caused the single largest upheaval in computer technology since the advent of the internet itself. Sure, there are other factors – Google set its eyes on Microsoft many years ago, and it was perhaps inevitable that alternative browsers would regain a foothold eventually.

But mobile was an end-around that fooled nearly everyone and took off for the end zone. Mobile web traffic didn’t account for much the first few years, but tablets (another mobile device) changed that. Depending on whom you ask, mobile devices now account for 20-40% of worldwide web traffic – huge numbers either way.

Keep it Simple

So what does this have to do with simplicity? Web developers (and site owners) must account for big monitors, small laptops, a half-dozen tablet formats, and scores of smartphone screen sizes. Nothing is dominant – no device, technology, size or format is popular enough to get in the driver’s seat and dictate the way things should be done. The audience is so fragmented that a lowest common denominator approach seems to be the only way to reach all of them.

And that is, in effect, what is happening. Web developers are increasingly adopting standards for getting things done and, perhaps just as important, simplifying their presentation of information so that a site functions similarly across all devices. A fancy interactive doodad that looks awesome on your PC monitor isn’t nearly as impressive when a big chunk of your audience can’t see it. And because so many users now interact with websites using touch (instead of a mouse), all those nifty tricks that developers used when your mouse “hovered” over something get thrown out the window.

To be sure, this isn’t happening everywhere. Giants like Amazon have the budgets to develop web site versions (and even apps) for just about every type of device, and there are still companies pushing their own agenda and technology in hopes that it will dominate the web. Indeed, Google, for all its talk of open standards, often walks away from the ones it doesn’t like.

But the vast majority of website operators are beginning to embrace the obvious: The only way to be everything to everyone is to keep things simple enough that they work everywhere.

Nuts and Bolts

What does this really mean to you, the average website owner? After all, “simplicity” is a vague term that could describe a broad range of characteristics. Here, then, is a list of ways to simplify your site and make it work in more places:

  1. Flash remediation: This one’s easy – Flash doesn’t work on many mobile devices, and Adobe has largely abandoned it. You should too. If you can’t live without Flash-y animations and doodads, replace them with HTML5 versions, which work on most modern devices. A great program for creating Flash-style animations is standards-compliant HTML5 is Tumult’s “Hype”. Other options include Adobe’s Edge Animate and Google’s recently announced Web Designer.
  2. Modernize: If your site was built, say, 6-8 years ago and you haven’t touched it in a long time, have a web developer take a look at it and determine if they can bring you up to modern CSS & HTML (don’t worry, they’ll know what that means). Just bringing your “foundation” up to date will result in better functionality across many different types of devices.
  3. Dump complex menus: Fancy “flyout” menus (the ones that expand to show you a big list of sub-options when you move your mouse over them) might look neat on your computer, but they often don’t work at all on other devices, or work poorly. If you must use them, ask your web developer to turn them off on mobile devices, because their behavior can be unpredictable. More importantly, remember that we live in a Google world – users look for things using search features. Don’t put too much time into building eye-pleasing ways for users to navigate your site; chances are, they are going to search for what they need and ignore anything that gets in the way.
  4. Simplify your layout: The web isn’t like print; you can’t count on what you put together looking the way you expect it to look. The best way to ensure that a user sees what you expect them to see is to keep the layout as simple as possible – navigation, a couple columns of content, and a footer (the bottom of the page). Simple, straightforward layout is the best way to future-proof your site. The next step is making that layout responsive, but that’s a topic for another column.
  5. Content is king: We’ve all heard it, especially when it comes to SEO, but content is king in layout as well. Look at the most popular retail sites online: images are big and bold, product is front and center. If anything, modern web design isn’t as much about the “design” of site elements (buttons, navigation, etc.) as it is about building things around the content. For a long time, web design was new and interesting and a place where designers flexed their muscles and showed off their chops. Now it’s about getting the information or product in front of the visitor as quickly and simply as possible.
  6. Remove friction: In fact, most current web technology and design advances are all about removing friction from various processes. Want to share something? Hit a single button. Like something? Again, a single, quick button. Users know what they want to do, and the best thing you can do as a site owner is make sure you’re not getting in their way.

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

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