This year websites, apps and other interactive media are becoming both elegantly simple and increasingly complex.
In 2013, interaction design will change forever. Recent years have offered glimpses of the future: responsive websites working across platforms; mobile-first workflow streamlining content and enhancing usability; apps spreading like wildfire across glass-screened devices. But 2013 will, argues Clearleft founder Andy Budd, “be the year digital design comes of age”.
He believes responsive design will fast become the default, not an add-on, forcing agencies and designers to change how they work, leading to “collaborative pairings between designers and developers, and boundaries between disciplines becoming blurred”.
The requirement to cater for the device explosion represents both the year’s biggest opportunity for interactive designers and also the biggest challenge. Web designer Andy Clarke thinks Windows 8 will be a tipping point, because every device can – but won’t always – have a touch interface.
“It’s not just about screen sizes now, but how someone interacts with your work,” he argues. “Designers have focused on making content legible and scrollable, but we must now ensure things are touchable – ‘touch sensitive’ – without making everything look designed in a Fisher Price way.”
Ongoing uncertainty about how best to proceed will, according to UI designer Sarah Parmenter, lead to an increasing desire for the industry to “nail workflow and define best practices, to get a process drawn up we can stick to and use to educate clients”.
Furthermore, designers risk being seduced by technology (gestures; cutting-edge web standards; animation). Now more than ever, The Guardian’s website team recommends standing out by “creating content that has meaning and truth at the centre, rather than shallowness and novelty,” while designer Geri Coady warns web designers to think beyond merely “pushing the envelope when it comes to strikingly visual, feature-packed, media-rich work,” and not let accessibility slip through the cracks. Apps and websites alike must be usable by everyone, she says, and this demands efficiency, to avoid snubbing users in countries with slow web connections.
This isn’t a call for conservatism, though. Mairead Buchan, front-end lead at Head believes “diversification of the web platform and the change in browsing paradigms has made a gap in the market for new applications”. Citing Xbox SmartGlass as a “brilliant example of how a new breed of application to support second-screen viewing is emerging”, she’s not alone.
Joe Macleod, global design director at ustwo, also envisions opportunities in mobile, beyond iOS and Android, on devices “with more tangibility when it comes to interface design”. The Pebble watch is one example he thinks could “provide entry-level developers and designers a simple platform to experiment on”.
Joe also believes interactive designers should be mindful of evolving device usage: in aviation, many people use their own devices, enabling in-flight offerings to be created for users and airlines alike; in medicine, Joe talks of “new products and services changing how people interact with their health”.
But rapid technological progress brings inevitable support problems. For The Guardian, evolving web standards now allow the strong storytelling medium of video to be used more fully in a truly interactive context; additionally, with traffic from older versions of IE dwindling, the team says 2013 will find modern web technologies truly embraced, enabling things that were previously problematic or impossible. The counterpoint: some users will be cut loose or poorly catered for, even on ostensibly currently supported platforms, because it’s tough to test adequately on the sheer range of available devices.
The danger in not testing is assumptions can be wrong. Front-end developer Anna Debenham has experimented with the web on consoles and TVs, and seen first-hand how sites “try to be clever, but are actually stupid and annoying,” for example serving mobile sites on tablets or tablet interfaces on televisions.
However, pure device-agnosticism – while a savvy foundation – doesn’t always work. Sarah bemoans clients demanding designs be ported between platforms, “not realising the UX and UI of these devices, the way they handle just simple navigational tasks, are entirely different”, and Andy Clarke thinks designers have “been a little conservative” and wonders if “more device-specific work” is on the cards this year, even if cross-platform foundations are largely identical.
This year’s changeable, somewhat unknown environment, then, demands interaction designers that are flexible and able to break free from any links to print-oriented static design. The Guardian’s team says designers must prioritise popular devices, but respond rapidly to specific problems, accept “shipped is better than perfect” and “eat their own dog food”. Mairead notes, you must “keep a tight rein on client expectations, be honest about what you will deliver, and ensure project scope doesn’t spiral out of control, if you’re inexperienced or overly ambitious about developing for certain platforms”.
The array of devices and input methods, says Andy Clarke, “finally shows there must be continual work on interactive design projects, in small measured steps”. This means more iteration, longer-term product relationships with clients, and an understanding that design is no longer “something you do once, knock down every three years, and start again”.
This doesn’t leave traditional designers keen on interactive design in the cold; on the contrary, Andy Budd argues “classically trained designers might initially struggle, but when they push through the hard learning curve, they’re often the best web designers, more likely to advance the medium visually”. For them and everyone else, only fully embracing change will result in success.
“The term ‘web designer’ is eroding away,” believes designer Tom Muller. “2013 is the year of the hybrid, who’s equally at home in code and graphics, who understands the limits and possibilities of digital, but who’s not a generalist that churns out homogenised design.”
Interactive design is finally coming of age and breaking free from its past, but to succeed you’ll have to go all-in and not look back.