Tag Archives: web-design

Designing the No-Screen Experience

This post started from my frustration with web design guidelines that continually place the emphasis on visual design; from a failure to engage with what the underlying principles of the Web really are, within the industry of User Experience,
and with encouragement by the folks at helpmewrite and Richard Northover for the ‘test’ inspiration.

I don’t believe that starting with a visual design is the right thing to do, if your aim is to produce the best user experience for the widest audience, in a realistic time-scale and budget. There are three reasons for this:

1. Accessibility
2. Devices change. The whole time.
3. What the Web is (APIs and future proofing)

Given that we accept the following:
1) You cannot ever fully know the circumstances, context and abilities of your users
2) Devices designed to interact with the Web and the Internet are changing the whole time

I’d propose a counterpart to the ‘Test of Independent Invention’:
If someone was able to interact with your experience with a device that does not have any kind of screen, could they still do so?

The point is that the Web (and, for that matter, the Internet) does *not* depend on screens for interaction. Sure, they are one, currently very major, way of interacting with electronic media, but they are not the only way – witness Apple’s Siri, whose primary interface is through voice. Even if that example is slightly spurious, it is undeniable that screens are not a pre-requisite for interfacing with the Internet or Web.

Therefore, when designing Web experiences, we should consider the case of someone wanting to interact with your experience without access to a screen. Not only does this help us, as designers, with ensuring that those who have accesibility needs are catered for from the start, it also gives us some form of future-proofing, away from locking ourselves into current device screen sizes or interaction patterns. Yes, you’ll still need to design those things too, but if you’re serious about designing something that lasts, something that reaches the widest possible audience, and something that you can easily rework into the unknown interaction standards of the future, your starting point can’t just be content first, it needs to be with no screen in mind, too.

All of which is another way of saying – designing for the Web should start with your content as the input, and a Web, literally a Web, as the output. From here, you can layer on top an API – which, again, defines the possible interactions regardless of visual layer. Then, start thinking about the simplest possible ways of interacting and experiencing your content – machines as your least able user, screen readers and beyond. And then, yes, by all means, design specifically for whatever the current top of the range devices or interaction patterns are. But it’s just not good business sense to start from the top down, every time. And it really is something for user experience designers to engage with. If you’re truly interested in designing the experience, then the no screen experience is the purest form of this.

P.S. And another thing – realising that the Web isn’t the screen is, in some ways, incredibly freeing. It means that we can start to be much more imaginative about the web experiences we design. A bit more futuristic and fun. All those digital experiences you think about designing – what if they weren’t just designed with IP (Internet protocol) in mind, but with the idea of interacting with a Web? That, for me, is the exciting bit about designing webs, rather than just designing screens – it’s a much more generative space to play in. So not only can you create accessible, functional and simply *good quality* user experiences, but you can really go for truly innovative ways of interacting with the Web, too.

On Web Design

I’ve been thinking a lot about work, recently. Probably too much. Since January, things have been pretty hectic, and as we approach summer, it’s our yearly review. Time to take stock and think about the year just gone, and, more importantly, where I’m going, and what I want to do.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about what motivates me, what gets me interested – what made me want to get involved in all this in the first place. I can code, and I have some Photoshop skills. Looking back on my childhood, I realise I’ve always been into what we’d now describe as ‘the Media’ – I was always creating newspapers and magazines; my brother and I recorded details of our lives on countless cassettes, I remember vividly compiling fictitious TV listings. I spent probably four years as a Youth Leader, creating activities and often doing, well, ‘Pervasive Gaming’, probably.

But the thing that has caught my imagination since I began full time work was always the innate feeling that there was something new to be discovered. Some new way of making something fun. At the end of the Siemens Graduate Scheme that I was fortunate enough to win a place on, I summed up my career ambition thusly: “to make a significant (positive!) contribution to the Media Industry”. Wishful thinking, I know. But it’s still a mission. And so when I discovered the simple, poetic beauty of the Semantic Web, that’s been it, for me. I know it’s not perfect, there’s a myriad of things we haven’t solved, and may never solve. But not to try them? Not to experiment? Not to create, and have fun? That would be a waste.

And so, it always comes back to job titles. Again, they are, of course, not so relevant as what you actually do. But it’s always struck me that the term ‘web designer’ has pretty much become a synonym for graphic (and possibly interaction) design of, and for screens, accessed by the Internet and the Web. Not that there’s anything wrong with that role. So much of what we call UX is incredibly important and has a rightful place in an organisation. But it’s not really web design.

As I said before, I can code. I can do entity-relationship diagrams, I can do your standard business analysis techniques. But the pleasure I seek isn’t in designing elegant code (though that does, I admit, hold some sway). Nor is it, frankly, in designing visual or interaction masterpieces – important as they are. I don’t want to design database structures, either.

What I want to do is design webs. Web. Design. That’s what I do. And I want to do it in a way that is creative, that brings Web Design in to the realms of drama, entertainment, comedy, sport. Elegant Web Design. That’s what I can do. My material is the Web. It’s URIs, it’s hyperlinks. It’s creating on the Web, just as much as creating a physical thing. So yes, that’s what I want my future to be. Someone who designs Webs – helps others to design them, and creates Webs of literature, of art. That’s me.


UPDATE: I know it’s passé, but a trawl for inspiration and direction came up with this (relatively famous) diagram by Jesse James Garrett. And you know what? The definition of Information Architecture doesn’t sound that different from the above, really:

“Information Architecture: structural design of the information space to facilitate intuitive access to content”