August Bourré's Idiotbox, July 23, 2000:

End of Web Design

Websites must adhere to distinct rules I decide on to make them exactly the same in all ways:

These changes are driven by four different trends that all lead me [and only me] to one conclusion:

1. August's Law of the Internet Useless Experience

Users spend most of their time on other people's ugly sites. This means that users prefer your site to work just like those stupid, ugly, brainless hampster-dance sites that are so popular.

This Law is not even a future trend since it has been ruling the Web for several years. It has long been true that websites do more business the more they conform to what I think their design should be. I've worked hard to make sure of it. Think Wahoo and Amazonian. Think "shopping carts" and the stupid little icons. Think blue text links.

2. Mobile Internet Stuff

Computers that you can lug around with you usually have pretty small screens, because big ones are really frickin' heavy. They also tend to have black and white screens [except for laptops and Game Boys and other rare devices] because hardware companies are cheap-ass bastards who won't design either a longer-lasting battery or a less power-draining monitor.Mobile bandwidth will be much more restricted than wired bandwidth, mainly because you don't carry a whole freakin' house full of stuff with your cell phone or laptop. Even though I don't believe in innovation and therefore the current generation of 'Net capable cell phones, I am convinced that mobile Internet will be big despite my best efforts. Maybe it won't be so bad when we get better devices - but even these next-generation mobiles will suck. This drives a focus on content and solutions: don't spend screen space on navigation features, except for the most necessary ones, because we should cater to the minority now instead of waiting until they become the majority, so we can look like we supported them all along when they finally get power. With less space for navigation, it becomes more important to stick to the standard conventions I will eventually force on you for where to go and how to explain the options [not that designers will really have any].

3. Network Computing

The network is a useless experience that will one day become a big homogenous soup of boring, ugly sites, turning the 'Net into a database as boring as the ones high school students make on Filemaker Pro. How can this happen if the rules change every time you use a different device? I mean, why should one piece of hardware act in any way different from another? We might as well simplify matters entirely and accept Microsloth as lord and master of computing.

When you deliver a service over multiple devices, users should be able to recognize that it is the same service. Many of the same features should be delivered on each platform, even though some of those features may be totally pointless for some users on some devices, or are nearly impossible to implement properly. This will force everyone to use the standards system I have created called "Newspeak".

4. Stolen Content and Services

The days of the unified website are long gone. Websites have long been about creating an audience-specific experience, so that people looking for specific information for specific reasons could easily immerse themselves to get what they need.

This is in contrast to the early years of the Web when nothing on any one server had any relationship with anything else on that server, so as to create a disorganized mess. The Web was a complex mish mash of nothing in particular.

Since approximately 1998, it has become more common for websites to rely on ripped-off content that flows both in and out of the site as other people appropriate it for their own needs. Since obviously no other kind of content exists, it becomes necessary to restrict the content design to a few mechanisms that will work everywhere, such as headlines, bulleted lists, and highlighted keywords. After all, the web and print are more or less the same thing.

Similarly, when a website steals many of its features and content, it typically becomes necessary to be lazy and expend as little effort as possible on organzing the stolen content to fit within the site. As long as everything is about the same, it works. Anything too special and you have a conflict. Don't be special, don't be different, otherwise corporations can't steal from you as easily.

Application service providers also make it harder for websites to retain overly distinctive design. It is getting to be common for some websites to steal bandwidth by hosting their stolen content on other sites that supply stuff the lazy webmaster should manage himself. Users should never notice that they are leaving a big corporate site to go to some stolen stuff on an independant site so that corporations can remain strong and lazy webmasters can save face.

Currently, ASPs let you adjust their site a little bit to reflect your own, but they usually make it difficult for you to completely redesign their site to suit your corporate needs, which honestly annoys the hell out of me. Why is there free stuff more important than your stolen stuff you make people pay for? These ASP's should have simple designs that you can alter to make them the same as what your company pages look like.

The Needs Of Experienced Users Should Be Ingored

The last five years, the Web has forced a severe focus on novice users [drooling idots/AOL users, mostly]. Basically, all Web users are novices all the time, since you very rarely use any individual website long enough to become an expert user. After all, what's the point of coming back to a site you enjoy? Even if you did, users are usually to stupid to remember how a site worked.

Most of your users will be new ones, since nobody ever comes back to a site [or rarely does]. So what you need to do is talk to them like they are five years old, and patronize them. Your site must have zero learning time or it will die. Once Upon A Forest is a perfect example of a dying site.

The way to resolve the tension between experienced users' needs for advanced features and first-time visitors' [idots'] need for extreme simplicity is to remove the expert features completly, or just into the browser or other client software. Two simple examples of stuff new visitors will never comprehend are: the "Back" button and bookmarks. Both work well because they have been dumbed down and removed from the domain of the site and thus work the same everywhere (except for those sites that are stupid enough to ignore me, and break the standards that I made up and are in no way official).

Since expert features are either pointless, standardized across all sites [there is no room for innovation in this category] or supported by the client software then it will be available to experienced users without having to be visually apparent in the site design. Thus, it will not cause learning difficulties for novice users, who would have ignored it anyway. On the contrary, a first-time visitor to a site will be able to use expert features without having to learn the site because they have been dumbed down and frozen in time. After all, site design will always exist in a vacuum.

What Remains in Web Design

Nothing that you would ever need a professional designer for. All that's left is to decide how deeply you want to go into providing all the options of a specific function [like adding an "advanced search" option to a search engine]. Hell, most of that stuff isn't really much of a true design decision anyway.

Most important, since the only type of site that exists provides a service of some kind, the design needs to be based on an analysis of its specific users and their needs. This only works, properly, however, when you use the standardized user interface elements in simple ways. The better sites will support the way drooling idiots want to approach the problems.

Content design will also remain. Each product description is different. Each opinion piece is different. Oops, hold on. That's not really a design issue, is it? No. Scratch that.

Information architecture will partly become standardized. An example that has already happened is the "About the company" area of most corporate websites. All users expect this area to contain subsites about the management, the company history, financial information and investor information, PR and press releases, and employment opportunities. But the way these subsites are structured might differ depending on the characteristics of the specific company. Similarly, there would be many other areas that were related to individual products or services and that would be structured differently on different sites. Although since all sites are run by corporations [or should be - and will be when "Newspeak" becomes enforced] there will be standards set up for this as well, which will furthur limit the design options.

See also: Reader comments on this Idiotbox (including whether these principles will make the Web dull).
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