Zaraguza are claiming to have created the world’s first real time Facebook cover image, which updates at what looks like every minute or so, by posting a new image into a Facebook album which is sucked into the Cover image automatically, and is refreshed when new people hit the page or click the refresh button. Kinda cool, I suspect this will start trending. What do you think?
This might be the most controversial piece I’ve submitted to UX Magazine. I gathered together an entire digital design agency to survey 20 years of Internet history and choose the five most important breakthroughs from a user experience perspective. Tears were shed. Blood was spilled. And in the end we compromised on six.
Why the user experience angle? Because whatever technological innovations are forming in the world’s boardrooms and basements right now, in the end, it’s our users who will choose the winners—with their attention, enthusiasm, and cash.
Here are they are in rough chronological order:
#1: America Online (AOL)
AOL may be fighting for its life today, but it was once synonymous with the Internet. At it peak it had over 30 million subscribers and even swallowed Time Warner. But that’s not why it made our list.
AOL leads our list because it was the original online service for “non-computer people,” offering a friendly graphical user interface in place of command lines and fostering communication among its members long before social became a buzzword.
Through force of will and enough direct-mail CDs to bury Luxembourg, AOL wrested the Internet from the techies, scientists, and academics who created it and made it so accessible your grandparents might even use it—and then they did.
Thank you AOL for bringing the Internet out of the labs and into our living rooms.
#2: Internet Search
No discussion of Internet highs can ignore the centrality and ongoing cultural impact of search. Countless billions have been invested in online shopping sites, products and services, games, media, and social sites. Yet search remains our most popular online activity:
- 92% of online U.S. adults use search engines to find information on the web—roughly six in 10 use it on a typical day [Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project]
- 93% of all Internet traffic is generated from search engines [Source: Forrester Research]
- In the U.S., search contributed to 1.2% of GDP in 2009 [Source: McKinsey]
No wonder it’s so popular. You type some words into a box, and the information you seek comes back like magic. And increasingly it does work like magic: Anticipating our needs—even correcting our mistakes—at ever faster speeds.
Thank you Archie, Gopher, WebCrawler, Lycos, Magellan, Excite, Infoseek, Inktomi, Ask Jeeves, MSN, AltaVista, Yahoo!, Google, Bing, and others for expanding our consciousness, saving us time and money, making us smarter, and settling every factual dispute we’re ever going to have—on the spot.
It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, selling goods online was a risky experiment with an uncertain future. This was the world Amazon entered in 1995 as “Earth’s largest bookstore” and one of the first online retailers.
While many of its peers from those days are gone (See CNET’s Top 10 Dot-Com Flops for a trip down memory lane), Amazon persevered to become the world’s largest online retailer with $48 billion in yearly revenue and millions of products and services for sale. But what most impressed us is how it got there.
“Amazon is such a smart learning organization,” Nancy F. Koehn, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, told Bloomberg Businessweek recently. “It’s like a biological organism that through natural selection and adaptation just keeps learning and growing.”
Through its culture of constant experimentation and tweaking, a willingness to quickly drop what’s not working, and its clever use of customer data, Amazon doggedly popularized online shopping and established itself as the beau ideal for successful online retailers across the globe.
Thank you Amazon for finding your way through unknown terrain without a road map. You are the Lewis and Clark of e-commerce.
We’re not talking about the Napster that Best Buy just sold to Rhapsody, but the original start-up that ignited the music file-sharing frenzy and rocked the web 10 years ago. Napster’s first act (1999 to 2001) was cut short by music industry lawsuits, but the forces it unleashed continue to transform and shape the global media marketplace today.
Napster boasted as many users as AOL at its peak. Like AOL, Napster popularized a technology it didn’t actually invent, and succeeded for many of the same reasons:
- It was easy to use and understand
- It aggregated and standardized a previously fragmented landscape
- It was faster and more reliable than its predecessors
- It harnessed powerful social dynamics found in the real world
Napster paved the way for some amazing things that we take for granted today, like the ability to easily find, own, and share just about any song, album, movie, book, or story in the world. It is the mother of iTunes, Rhapsody, Netflix, and countless other services and websites that we use and love.
Thank you Napster. Because content really does want to be free—not free of cost necessarily, but free of boundaries.
#5: User-Generated Content
It’s hard to believe that user-generated content (or “UGC”) has only been a mainstream phenomenon since 2005. Even by Internet standards, its proliferation and growing cultural impact have been astonishing.
Through personal blogs, social networks, online communities and discussion boards, product reviews, wikis, news sites, travel sites, video, and photo-sharing sites, average citizens are exerting an increasingly profound influence over our culture and economy.
- In the U.S., 43% of Internet users are generating online content [Source: McKinsey]
- 49% of online users share content online at least one a week [Source: CMB Consumer Pulse]
Entire industries are being transformed. Retail, for one, will never be the same:
- 81% of people use consumer reviews in their purchase decisions [Source: Nielsen Online via BizReport]
- Online reviews are second only to word-of-mouth when it comes to influencing consumer-purchasing decisions [Source: Rubicon Consulting]
User generated content was even featured as Time magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year, in which the person of the year was “you,” meaning all of those individuals who are changing the nature of the information age as creators and consumers of user-generated content.
Here’s another way of looking at it: Take Facebook, Craigslist, eBay, Twitter, Pinterest, Myspace, LinkedIn, YouTube, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, and Yelp. Without the content produced by users, most of these modern icons wouldn’t exist at all.
Thank you UGC. Customers may not quite rule, as some marketing pundits claim, but because of you they are no longer docile subjects either.
#6: The iPhone
Before the iPhone it was the same story every year. The “year of mobile” was upon us. The phone manufacturers would trumpet their latest incremental improvements and cosmetic enhancements as the next big thing. But something was missing. Then the iPhone debuted in 2007 and we all understood exactly what had been missing.
Five years later, Palm is history. RIM and Nokia are floundering. Windows mobile is kidding itself. And Android is successful because it’s so much like the iPhone. Now that’s disruptive technology.
The mobile revolution is in full swing and accelerating thanks to the iPhone’s ease of use and endless possibility. And with almost six billion mobile handsets in use worldwide, mobile may well be the greatest business opportunity of all time:
- 90% of the world now lives in a place with access to a mobile network [Source: International Telecommunication Union]
- Mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common web-access devices worldwide by 2013 [Source: Gartner]
- Direct revenue from the sale of apps, in-app purchases, and subscriptions will hit $14.1bn in 2012 [Source: Canalys]
Thank you Apple for launching the real mobile revolution, and making all that came before you look ridiculous.
Dieter Rams: ten principles for good design
Back in the late 1970s, Dieter Rams was becoming increasingly concerned by the state of the world around him – “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises.” Aware that he was a significant contributor to that world, he asked himself an important question: is my design good design?
As good design cannot be measured in a finite way he set about expressing the ten most important principles for what he considered was good design. (Sometimes they are referred as the ‘Ten commandments’.)
Here they are.
Good design is innovative
The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.
Good design makes a product useful
A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.
Good design is aesthetic
The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.
Good design makes a product understandable
It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.
Good design is unobtrusive
Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.
Good design is honest
It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.
Good design is long-lasting
It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.
Good design is thorough down to the last detail
Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.
Good design is environmentally-friendly
Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.
Good design is as little design as possible
Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.
Back to purity, back to simplicity.
Minimalism, interestingly enough, is usually born out of excess. In all arts, in all ways of life, we start out by taking and adding whatever we can.
When we start to realize that more is not necessarily better, and that we can get by with less stuff, we try to simplify by removing unnecessary elements so we can focus on what’s truly important.
What is Minimalism?
Minimalism, in its purest form, is the reduction of something to its bare essentials.
Think of a car. It only needs a few critical components — engine, wheels, gas, and so on — for it to run. As long as it has these parts, you can take out many non-essential elements such as its audio system, heated leather seats and cup holders, and the car will still get you to where you’re going.
In web design, minimalism translates to producing a site from the basics. Instead of including everything but the kitchen sink and then paring it down to only the necessary features, a better approach would be to start with a blank slate and only include the essentials.
Minimalism is an exercise in restraint, with the eventual goal being a design that helps the user focus and accomplish their tasks as quickly as possible.
When designing minimalist websites, you should keep three things in mind:
- Subject: What’s the most important thing on the web page? Is it effectively keeping the user engaged and focused?
- Usability: What things burden the user experience? What missing elements can enhance user-friendliness?
- Balance: Does the web page have the appropriate visual hierarchy and do components have appropriate visual weights?
These three elements are actually the most important elements in all styles of web design, but whereas other visual styles may beg for additional aesthetic layers, minimalism does not.
Why Use Minimalism?
This minimalist thinking is the basis of modern web design — we begin with content, perhaps a brand, but nothing else. By adding in only what’s necessary, we create a website that caters specifically and solely to its mission.
There are many benefits to designing a minimalist website.
This doesn’t mean the design stage is any easier — minimalism takes just as much thought, planning and production as any other type of website. And perhaps even more, if my theory about our innate desire for “more stuff” is correct.
Zen Habits’s archive page shows how easy it can be to build a minimalist website once the concept is there.
It’s also harder to mess up minimalism, in my opinion. By proactively leaving out superfluous elements, your design becomes more open and free. When there’s less to see, there will be fewer distractions. As long as you give ample consideration to balance, typography and white space, your design will look pretty good. This is much easier than wrangling with a PSD template with dozens of layers.
And for those who have little artistic skill or proficiency in Photoshop, minimalism is a perfect way to create a site using only a strong understanding of typography, white space, and balance.
While not the most minimalist of examples in this article, Julien Lavallée’s site (featured below) demonstrates how interesting and visually appealing simple websites can be.
However, the most important reason to design minimally is that, without extraneous design elements, the site’s content is emphasized. By adding more white space, the various sections of a website are given breathing room.
On Daniel Gray’s site, notice how enough white space is given around each content section so that readers can quickly focus on the content without being distracted by much else.
The one problem with the site is that the reader’s eye focuses on the content in an odd order. My eyes go from the navigation bar, to the image of the unicorn, then to “Daniel Gray”, and then finally to the “Hello, I’m a designer and writer based in York.” tagline. But because there aren’t a whole lot of visual elements to distract the reader, this order doesn’t matter so much. In a visually busier site, some of this content would get lost, but here, although I see things in a different order than what’s probably optimal, I still consider each content element in turn.
Don’t Sacrifice Usability for Minimalism
As we’ve all heard by now, “content is king”, and although there are some that might disagree with that, there are very few who would say content is not important at all. Every line of code you write is to serve the page’s content in some way.
Just as important as content is how accessible that content is — without adequate consideration of usability, content can be difficult to find and read.
Now that we have new web standards and technologies like CSS3 and HTML5 at our disposal, we must deeply consider what is necessary so that we avoid the overuse of these things. (I wrote something about this before.)
My suspicion is that as web technology grows tantalizingly better and more complex, minimalists are going to have a harder time paring down their designs to the essentials, especially as certain superfluous design patterns have become almost expected, like using CSS transitions to make links hover a little softer.
But always in the back of your mind should be considerations of usability. Chances are — unless you’re a big, established and well-recognized company like Apple, Starbucks or Nike — you should probably include the name of your company with your logo. And don’t think you can reduce your navigation menu to a set of enigmatic icons; even if it doesn’t confuse most readers, it will confuse some.
Don’t Worry, You Can Still Be Pretty
Designing minimally doesn’t always have to mean a reduction to the barest essentials. To the contrary, many minimalist sites include subtle design elements that manifest themselves beautifully and more remarkably because of fewer competing, distractive elements.
Chance Graham’s site, for example, has great use of color, iconography and subtle visual effects (like the box shadow on the navigation items at the top-left of the web page layout) that add enough nuances to intrigue the user without them being a disturbance.
Are You Designing Minimally for a Good Reason?
Minimalism on the Web could be thought of not as an aesthetic, but as the lack of one. If you “go minimal” just for its looks without understanding the purpose of minimalism, you will be lost, and your designs will turn out less than stellar.
Just as any other art genre or design style, minimalism must be well understood in order to be well executed — don’t let simple-looking web designs fool you; there is more going on with them than what can be seen on the surface.
In addition, minimalism shouldn’t be arbitrarily confusing or enigmatic. Many people see minimalist websites as a way to make their brand seem more mysterious, but this isn’t the goal, and there are much more effective ways to build a mythos around your brand than designing it inappropriately.
When any design is confusing, or enigmatic in its structure, or uncomfortable in its balance, it throws the viewer off. The last thing you want is a confused user, unable to find what they’re looking for.
In general, you should avoid ambiguity and confusion when designing in any style. Minimalism is no exception. In fact, minimalism is the design style where ambiguity must be avoided like the plague, and usability embraced, analyzed and perfected to the point where no user could possibly be confused in any instance when visiting your site.
Most importantly, make sure you clearly understand the goal of minimalist design before you plunge right in. Without proper direction, your creations could end up something like the piece below, which is great for many things except for conveying information in a clear and effective way.
The goal that you should strive for, when employing minimalism in your designs, is to enhance readability, improve navigation and usability, and, as always, create the most pleasant user experience possible.
Is Your Design Too Minimal?
Your design might be too minimal if:
- You’re using minimalism for the wrong reason
- If you’re sacrificing usability in any way
These problems are easy to fix as long as you understand the goal of visual design in general: To clearly and effectively convey information. Constantly consider how your design decisions affect your users.
At the core of every design is minimalist thinking: the idea that few things are actually necessary and critical.