Monday, 10 October 2011

Web Design: what gurus think and what I think about it


I've been reading a lot lately. I actually follow many blogs and sites where skilled writers share their ideas about web design and web development. Those writers usually give advices on how to think the web and specifically how to create sites with the best user experience.
The language used is a complete melting pot of technicalities, often difficult to follow, as if the writers were explaining their ideas to a very restricted circle of scholars. New terms (neologisms) are springing everywhere, sometimes creating confusion. A cryptic way of spreading new ideas, in my opinion.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about that, and I would like to humbly share my thoughts. I'm not a guru and, even though I'm a little bit experienced, I've always been outside the chorus. So here - if you are interested - I begin.

A little bit of history
I've been a programmer, for more than 10 years. If you've read my profile, you know where I started, where I've gone, and maybe - reading The Web Thought - where I'm going. I've seen the birth of the World Wide Web, I've seen it grow, evolve into the so-called Web 2.0 and probably I will follow it take new forms, names and shapes.
In the beginning, web design was some sort of technological art, and its main goal was to create a fast and reliable interface for transfering information. The people behind a web site wanted to give something, and people in front of the screen wanted to have that something. Because of different reasons (mainly the speed of transactions between the source and the destination), web sites needed to be particularly easy to navigate, without too many frills: in one word, straight to the point.

With the massive growth of telecommunication lines in terms of speed and spread, the way we exchange information on the web has gradually evolved. On the side of web designers and developers, there was the need to take advantage of faster connections, while users gradually started to feel the need to actively participate.
That was the time of forums, mailing lists and so on.

From there we arrived to the new Web 2.0, where the user experience is stronger. This is the time of blogs and Social Networks. If you're reading this very article, I am sure you know what I'm talking about.

What gurus say
I know I've really simplified the above "web history": we could probably write a book about it. However, that is the context in which the aforementioned gurus spread their ideas.
Their articles focus mainly on what we call user experience (UX for the enlightened). They give advices on how to enhance it, make it more functional and, in the end, more profitable (and we are not always talking about money). Those advices are often supported by examples, showcases and references to existing web sites, where the gurus ideas are already made a reality. They explain why a web site offers the best user experience with their ideas and theories.

I must say I'm sometimes fascinated by those thoughts. A mixture of phylosophy, psychology and sociology gives writers the opportunity to enlight the web designer and developer community. And again, I must say that sometimes those gurus are indeed very good; they write about true things and give valuable advices.
When I read those articles, I'm often captured and I agree with what it is written. And in the end, I even try to find a way of applying those ideas to my projects... and that's where all the wonder goes away.

My idea
Basically nothing's changed from Web 1.0 and 2.0. And it won't probably change when some enlightened guru will come out with the idea of the Web 3.0 (or whatever he/she will call it).
What we, web designers and developers, want to achieve is always the same goal: an exchange of information. We can use the best technology available - or better... we have to use the best technology available, just to reach that goal.

After reading an article about web design, and after understanding what the author wanted to convey, I feel like I've read a good novel. Nothing's really practical and applicable. It's almost always just phylosophy, nothing concrete.

That leads me to another thing I have noticed lately. Even if it's less and less frequent, sometimes I stumble upon what I call "practical articles". I mean articles where the writer is actually showing snippets and  explanations in order to obtain a desired goal.
Well... in those cases, the article is frequently aimed to amaze. It is true that the author is often stating that the proposed examples are just experiments, but many times I find very difficult to find a practical use of the code. That is happening with HTML5 and CSS3, where coders are showing the beauty of new stuff. Magic stuff indeed... sometimes, amazing tricks and not much more.

Exchange of information
Maybe I'm more a developer than a designer. That is why I see things differently. I like to get to the point, and when I start planning a new web site, I concentrate on solid foundations rather than frills. Not that I don't think of an effective and efficient user interface: I think of it as some sort of extension of the aforementioned solid foundation.
Everything I plan and develop is aimed to reinforce the exchange of information, make it simplier and direct. It means that if I have to choose between something beautiful but somehow complicated opposed to something uglier but simplier, I prefer the latter.

Writers and bloggers are - in my opinion - concentrating too much on marginal and fleeting things. It is easy to use a big corporation site as an example of extreme user experience. Big corporations can do whatever they want. They don't need to establish new connections with users (customers in many cases). They mainly need to amaze, to allure and in many case to build up a brand awareness.
Someone could argue that even in those cases there's an exchange of information. And that is really true. A different kind of exchange, let me say.
Unfortunately we are not all working for big corporations. And we need to develop different kind of web interfaces where many good advices given by web design gurus are not really applicable (for time and money reasons).

In the end, I really enjoy reading articles like those I described here. There are - sometimes - good practial ideas in them, but not as often as I would like. It feels like there's a distance between the gurus ideas and my ideas. And I sometimes think I'm not part of the community, because of that.
Do I care? Not much.

Do you feel the same or not?
Do you consider those article only enjoyable or you consider them useful for the your daily work?
Can you apply the ideas expressed in those articles?

Please let me know what you think about it.

Short note
As you can see I'm not linking to any such article here. I believe that you know what I'm talking about, in any case. Well established and well known internet magazines are filling their columns with articles every day. Just look for web design or development magazines in Google, and you will see what I mean.
At the same time, there are good internet magazines out there. Diamonds in the dirt, in my opinion. But even those magazines, sometimes, publish completely impractical articles.

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