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The Beginning of Web Design
In this week's Alertbox, titled "End of Web Design," Jakob Nielsen argues that "websites must tone down their individual appearance and distinct design in all ways." Nielsen argues that because the user's web experience is becoming more interconnected -- with syndicated content and services, and the growth of network-based computing -- sites need to become more generic in "visual design, terminology and lableing, interaction design and workflow, [and] information architecture."
This piece is the promised follow-up to Nielsen's June 25th piece, which dissected Microsoft's .NET announcement. In that piece, Nielsen argued that since the network is the new user experience, individual sites will no longer "supply a complete user experience, [instead] each site will supply a component of the overall user experience that is coordinated by the new nexus."
To put it bluntly, Nielsen has it backwards.
Microsoft's .NET announcement stimulated hundreds of thousands of words of analysis, and was hailed by an analyst from the Giga group as "one of the more complete architectural visions of how e-services should be created." But .NET was really just an (emphatic) endorsement of the direction that the web has been heading for the past few years. Abstraction of content from form. Content syndication. Application syndication. Distributed computing. Unified browsing and authoring.
Leaving aside the question of how big a role Microsoft's Windows-biased .NET tools will play in the coming years, it's fairly obvious to assume that we're headed for a network-centric age of computing. Where information can be exchanged seamlessly between applications, websites, clients, servers, handhelds, palmtops, cell phones, key chains, etc., thanks to simple yet powerful technologies like XML. The key here is information exchange.
Nielsen believes that this network-centric world will demand that all websites look and act alike, since we'll be traversing amongst multiple sites even more frequently than we do today. This makes very little sense to me. If information can move freely, why should I have to jump from site to site to have an "overall user experience?" If all information is networked, why should I have to travel the web to find it? Why shouldn't it come directly to me, in a user experience that's uniquely tailored to my needs?
We're just starting to see the interesting opportunities being created by open and accessible information sets. The Amazon Associate program essentially distributes the front end of their product database amongst thousands of virtual retailers. For me, the most effective selling mechanism Amazon has is Media Nugget of the Day, a daily product shot wrapped in editorial, delivered via the web and email. And in the portal space, Alta Vista, Lycos, Hotbot, Google and Netscape all use data from the Open Directory Project to populate their site directories and compete with Yahoo. And if you think those sites all look alike, check out Web Brain, a showcase for both The Brain, Inc. and the Open Directory Project.
Finally, Nielsen could well learn from an Internet app that has flourished thanks to mature information exchange standards: email. Despite valiant attempts by Microsoft, the email reader market has remained remarkably heterogeneous, thanks to simple messaging standards and widely diverse user needs. Depending on my location, my mood or my computing environment, I can read and respond to my mail with Pine, Elm, Netscape, Outlook, Eudora, my Palm V, my pager or my cell phone.
Standard methods of exchanging and delivering information will open up opportunities for Internet application developers to provide more distinct user experiences for more distinct target markets. If there's a market for a particular type (or brand) of user experience, information standards will only help create that market, by helping users avoid information-based application lock-in (a la Microsoft Office), and forcing developers to cater to the user interface and functionality needs of their particular audience.
This is just the beginning of web design. Not the end.
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