Then, Now, Next: Five Perspectives on the Web Development Industry
By Christopher Schmitt
The feverish euphoria over Internet-based companies has worn off. In light of fallen stock prices and scarce venture capital, now seems like a good time for reflection. In order to gain some perspective, I thought it might be wise to email some of the Web's well-known mentors: Jeffrey Zeldman, Todd Purgason, Lynda Weinman, Jakob Nielsen, and David Siegel. I wasn't disappointed. In return I got perspectiveand then some!
So dust off those old manuals, development how-to books, single pixel GIFs, and long-forgotten Web projects and renew your perspectives as these five industry leaders provide insight about where the Web has been and where it's going.
Christopher Schmitt: What's your take on the state of the Web today compared to five years ago?
Jeffrey Zeldman: Five years ago, we were generalists. We met with the client, came up with the concept and architecture, did the high-end design work, did the purely mechanical graphic work, wrote the markup, did the programming, often wrote the content or much of it, did the testing, and performed the post-launch maintenance. Every member of the team was capable of doing any of these tasks.
Today most people in the industry are far more specialized. Flash artists versus developers versus information designers versus content people versus project managers versus usability consultants and so on. And I use the word "versus" advisedly, since too often there is hostility between these groups of specialists.
Five years ago we storyboarded very large projects, but frequently muddled through on smaller projects. Today almost everything is mapped well in advance, and the client is often charged a penalty for changing the architecture in midstream. Nevertheless, clients often do change the architecture in midstream or post-launch, and frequently for good reason.
Five years ago, "testing" generally meant, "does it work in these browsers?" Today, of course, testing means usability studies and focus groups as well as QA.
Five years ago, clients felt Web design was a magical process beyond their comprehension, and most were quick to approve the magicians' work. Today's clients tend to have more say in the process. They understand the Webor feel that they doand many secretly wonder why they're paying an agency since they can buy Dreamweaver themselves and bang out something that will probably work. Plus, now that the dot-com fever has broken, more clients have reasonable expectations about what they can expect from their site, and if they feel you are leading them away from their goals, they will call you on it.
I could go on but you get the picture. The medium has begun to mature, and its maturity changes everything.
Jakob Nielsen: Roughly speaking, the usability of the Web is about the same today as it was five years ago. In some ways, this indicates progress, since the Web is so much bigger and since individual Web sites are so much richer now than they used to be. On the other hand, considering that the level of usability is disgracefully low, it is not satisfactory that we just tread water and stay at the same level.
The biggest change relative to five years ago is that there are now more services and features available on the Web. Five years ago, if you thought of a new thing you would like to do online then it would probably not have been available. Today, chances are that it is available. But chances are also that you will not be able to figure out how to do it within an acceptable amount of time.
Todd Purgason: Well, today the Internet is a part of our culture and in some cases pop culture. It has become a part of daily life in America; people are watching less TV and surfing more. Five years ago only a very small number of people had even seen the Internet, and to most it was this curious little URL on a business card. We used to have to explain to every client what the net was and how to use itlet alone how their organization could tap into it. Today we have clients that have done this several times and are looking for effective strategies that will get them measurable results. We are still exploring the possibilities of the medium, I hope this never stops, but we have enough experience to guide us in avenues that have been tested and actually work.
The one thing that people have to grasp now is that the Web is not just for a browser anymore. The Web is many things to many different output devices and technologies. It is more or less a transportation system, taking content and interaction from one point to another, which could be many different things when it reaches its destination. 5 Years ago, we were talking home pages, today we're talking interactive billboards controlled by wireless handheld computers.
Lynda Weinman: We've gone from being newborns to infants. Some specs have settled down, a lot more players are on the field, and tools have gotten much better.
Instead of battling new tags every few weeks, we're battling design issues, database issues, usability issues, and content issues. Browser support still varies from platform to platform and version to version, which is still maddening. There are less browsers now than five years ago, which makes it a tad bit better. But not much!
David Siegel: Web? What Web?
CS: What is your take on the state of the Web compared to what is around the corner?
Like it or not, eventually invalid sites will stop working, just as sites designed with Netscape 4 LAYERS no longer work in Netscape 6and never worked in any browser besides Netscape 4. Eventually all Web designers and developers will migrate to standards compliance. They will probably start by running their HTML through the validator. Later they will migrate to XHTML. Eventually they will move to XML. At some point in the process, they will stop using frames and table cells to control the site's look and feel, and will switch to CSS or XSLT. This is inevitable, and it is a huge change.
I also think post-dot-com crash we're going to see fewer sites of dubious value and more sites that exist for a reason. There are already untold numbers of sites that exist for a reason, of course, but they have been overshadowed in the popular imagination by the better-publicized big-money sites that went under or are about to. The crash was not a happy event, but it may have positive results down the line if it forces people who view the Web as a cash cow to reevaluate why they're here and pushes the faithful to hang in and work harder.
JN: Web sites will become much more useful and usable once we get micropayments: First, having a sustainable business model will allow sites to prosper and invest more in new features and in usability.
Second, having a business model where it is the users who payas opposed to advertiserswill mean that the feature choice will be made based on what's best for users and not on what's best for somebody else.
TP: We are still exploring what the Web could be. We have some assumed ideas of what it could be, but the biggest pieces to the puzzle are culture and profitability. Technology is created at a rate that culture can not keep up with. As a result, many ideas are brought out and invested in at a time when people are not ready for it. So can a company be profitable with a technology that will need to be assimilated, and in waiting will it be crushed by the version 2 of the next company that is investing when the culture has been primed?
In our little boxes we imagine the land of Oz but we cannot know what that will be until we are actually living in it. Perfect example: A very large amount of money was poured into entertainment on the net over the last 2 years only for investors to understand that people don't want to watch bad TV on their computer.
LW: I think we're still in for a long period of growth and changes. As online communication splits into new areas, such as device delivery and interactive television, we need to find ways to leverage our work so it can be published under a lot of different scenarios. That will be tough, since most of the tools and standards that exist so far were tailored for Web delivery. These new publishing avenues are widely untested, and standards aren't firm or developed yet.
DS: I think the thing we called the Internet revolution has come and gone. I think we're back to doing business the old fashioned way for the moment, and to me that looks like a 2 to 4 year setback. But then I hope things will pick up again in a new and different way and we'll stop trying to build the best horseless carriages and instead find new ways of workingprofitablytogether online.
CS: What are your customers looking for today that they didn't think about five years ago?
JZ: Results. Value. A meaningful connection with their readers or customers.
Also, fortunately, in the past year clients as well as developers have become aware of Web standards, and it is becoming easier to sell them on the idea of authoring to W3C recommendations instead of 4.0 browser quirks.
JN: My customers are companies that want to invest in Web usability as one of the main drivers of their online presence.
The biggest difference is that there are many more such companies today than there were 5 years ago, when virtually no companies cared about the usability of their Web sites. Back then, "cool design" was definitely the thing most companies aimed for.
Another difference is that we are finally seeing more demand for international usability projects this year. We used to do a fairly small number of international projects since most customers were unwilling to pay the added cost of studying overseas users. These days, they have recognized that they cannot continue to treat half of their users like dirt, so the number of projects with international usability tests is up significantly in 2001.
TP: They are looking for a strategic approach to interacting with their customers. The Web can help them learn to be better to their customers in the real world. But they have to put systems in place to make this happen that go well beyond a Flash animation.
LW: [They're looking for] help with design and usability issues. They were more focused on "how do I do it" than to think about "how do I do it well."
DS: Many of my customers are conference producers, and this year there isn't a conference that's going to solve any company's problems. This year, conferences are part of the problem!
CS: What are you looking for online today that you didn't think about five years ago?
JZ: I was looking for independent content and designfor compelling personal sites, zines, and noncommercial communities. I did not find all that many that were worthwhile. Today there are so many that it's impossible to see and read all the good stuff. Independent content is alive and well. High end design is flourishing.
Five years ago, I was not thinking about Web standards. Three years ago, when we launched the Web Standards Project, it mainly appealed to developers who were frustrated at having to code everything three or four different ways. There were almost no standards-compliant sites on the Webcertainly no high profile, well-designed sitesand most designers were still arguing about Dreamweaver versus FrontPage. Today an incredible number of sites are using stylesheets and valid HTML/XHTML, including many personal sites and blogs. The whole issue of Web standards is no longer mysterious to most Web designers. This is a very good thing.
JN: Most of the things I look for when I conduct design reviews of Web designs today are the same issues I looked for when I conducted reviews five years ago: The underlying usability principles are the same since they relate to human behavior. One of the main changes is that I am looking more at issues relating to information overload, which was not nearly as severe a problem five years ago. So, for example, ways of managing the amount of email you send while making the subject lines more explicit and thus likely to cause the message to be opened. Also, I am more concerned about how to make the design more trustworthy since there are now so many scams online that users are becoming very cynical and unwilling to sign up for anything.
LW: I look more at usability, navigation, search features, structure, and impressive design. I see a lot of good work, and a lot of bad work. We're still in the covered wagon days of this medium. There's no question about it.
Christopher Schmitt is a senior design technologist for an Orlando-based Web development firm. He is also the moderator for the Web design list, Babble. He's been developing Web sites since '93.
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