It's taken a decade of baby steps, but the Web is finally starting to grow up. We've banished the bleak days of brochureware back when companies thought that scanning their annual reports page by page into half megabyte gifs was the way to build an online presence. We've woken up from the nightmare of building sites from nested tables that wouldn't make the IKEA reject bin, thanks to browsers that (mostly) handle style sheets without leaving coders compromised. And, thankfully, most people have got over their infatuation with Flash for its own sake, realizing that two minutes of whirling geometrics is the closest thing to turning your entire front page into a Back button.
From interactive to inclusive
One of the earliest goals of site builders, back in what you might call the Web's Stone Age, was to put a bit of life into static, read only sites. The arcane world of CGI was (and still is) beyond the reach of most HTML jockeys, meaning that any browser based techniques to add interactivity tended to be pretty lame. Reading back a visitor's IP address or building a scripted form to pop up 'Hello Dave!' when you enter your name isn't really the height of technology.
Even until recently, there's been a digital divide between the bargain basement interactivity available to most site builders, and the customization of higher end sites backed by dynamic servers and databases. Now, though, with the advent of smart site publishing tools, that sort of dead end 'interactivity' can be tossed in the bit-bucket. Ironically, though, much of the personalization offered by big portal sites has also proved to be a false dawn. While being able to pick and choose news stories or multimedia streams seemed a big thing in the Nineties, in hindsight it seems shackled by 'old media' expectations too much like buying a newspaper for the sports section or wielding the TV remote control. What's emerged in the last few years, then, is a redefinition of what interactivity should mean for the Web, which draws upon the various forms of online interaction that already thrive, ie email, newsgroups, chat rooms and instant messaging. So it's time to put aside notions of dumb push button Interactivity 'that cast the Web as some giant videogame, and instead embrace a new era of' inclusivity ', in which sites are built to enable complex interactions but on a very human scale.
Navigating into the future
Just over a century ago, designers created innovative 'navigation' schemes that proved challenging deadly for users; That's because they were designing the controls for the first generation of cars. It took years of competition, countless accidents and plenty of bruised egos before a standardized layout emerged. Trying to visit Web sites with funky navigation isn't as dangerous as driving with the pedals back to front, but the same principle applies: people come to expect stability from technologies as they mature, even if the right way isn't always the best way. So while there's still tremendous freedom to come up with radical approaches to Web based navigation, forward thinking site builders tend to focus more on refining the well worn models of operating systems and popular sites sidebar menus, horizontal tabs and clickable 'breadcrumb' trails so they work better, cleaner and more efficiently.
If you've kept away from the more arcane aspects of CSS, you'll be amazed at the power and flexibility now available to create stylish navigation elements, complete with tabs, rollovers and submenus, without recourse to image files, complex scripting, Java or Flash. That's not to say that Flash should be entirely off limits just be careful that you don't sacrifice basic usability, such as the ability to bookmark deep links of use the browser's back and forward buttons to cycle between pages. And remember that users with disabilities or behind proxies may be denied access. In short, it's best to avoid using Flash for primary navigation, and save it for special occasions.
While the look and feel of Web navigation may be stabilizing, it's certainly not stagnating. That's thanks to the growth of user centred architecture, which tries to avoid the old habit of dividing sites into layer upon layer of sub directories. Whether mimicking a corporate hierarchy or the folders on a typical coder's hard drive, the multi layered approach too often leaves visitors not knowing where to look for information, of frustrated at having to dig so deep. Instead, user centred site building tries to anticipate the needs and questions of visitors, whether new to the site or familiar with its workings.
There are plenty of dynamic components freely available for personal and small scale sites, which can add some all-important stickiness that mysterious quality that encourages visitors to return for future visits. A simple way to get started is to add an opinion poll to your site. Another popular way to attract visitors is to include Flash or Shockwave games, puzzles and quizzes on your pages.
Care in the community
While you can take advantage of other people generosity to add some sparkle to your own site, that should only be a starting point. After all, the stickiest thing of all is the promise of regularly updated original content. If visitors can't go anywhere else to get their daily fix of your wit, wisdom and creative sparkle, you can guarantee they'll come back for more! The ability to update sites on a regular basis, without elite design or programming skills, has transformed the Web in recent years. Allowing visitors to comment and contribute takes things a step further, creating a truly inclusive online environment. We're talking weblogs of course.
Many coders complain that the profusion of blogs has lowered the standards of Web design, creating a divide between those who care about the look of their sites, and those simply interested in knocking out a dozen posts a day and it's true that most blogs follow familiar multi-column layouts built on standard templates.
What's undeniable is that blogs are tuned to the way most people browse the Web these days: by putting the latest content up front and being simple to navigate, they're especially easy to track and bookmark. They also work especially well with Google by being rich in text based content one reason why Google bought Blogger. And there are enough examples of beautifully designed blogs, such as Loobylu to prove that you don't have to sacrifice graphical and coding skills to create a site with rich, original content that people want to visit again and again. If it's stickiness you're after, the world of blogging is like a giant vat of honey.
The biggest advantage of building sites around the blogging model is that they come with a vibrant Community waiting in the wings. This is most obvious with sites that make it easy for users to add pictures, mood icons and the all important commenting facility to their entries, and allow users to join 'communities' based upon common interests. Admittedly, many sites look a bit like your eccentric uncle's DIY projects, but there's plenty of room to tart up your design, and the site's publishing tools make it incredibly easy to become part of a community, or for other users to keep track of your individual posts and add their own comments.
The most vibrant community orientated sites right now tend to combine original content, collaborative authorship, user comments and plenty of external links, all wrapped up in clean, up front designs. While many community driven sites are backed by Weblogging tools, the old style bulletin board is still worth a look.
Building for broadband
Getting more adventurous, building for users with higher bandwidth allows you to offer background music and Flashheavy interfaces that capture the distinctive identity and purpose of your site. Right now, the best examples of this are on sites where 'old media' producers radio, TV and the music industry have adapted their work for the Web.
The blue-sky future
So, where does the future lie for the Web, as broadband becomes the norm and community driven sites become significant prominent? Is it to be found in the text rich world of blog based sites, or in sites that bring ever more layers of rich media to the Web? Well, it's safe to say that both will have their place. While Google remains the primary tool for most users in digging out the information that matters to them, the pre eminence it gives to blogs and similar content heavy sites will keep them popular. At least it will until Flash designers have the technology at hand at build sites that are as easily incorporated into Google's rankings as those working with simple HTML, or until Google or another search engine becomes sophisticated enough to classify and index the growing amount of Web content that's in audio and video format. That day may not be too far away. As the tools to create rich media content cease to be the privileged domain of top end professionals, thanks to the growing consumer market for sound and video editing tools, there's likely to be sufficient demand (and smart enough programmers) to start remapping the Web as something more than a world of text heavy pages. Instead, look for the capacity and influence of CSS to increase, as it provides both Google friendly simplicity and the potential for graphically rich user interfaces.
Looking back at the predictions made at the end of the Nineties, it's fair to say that the Web has developed less radically in the past five years than most designers expected. Many hyped technologies, such as XML and scalable vector graphics, have yet to catch on in a big way. This is due in part to the stuttering development of browser technology to adopt new standards, and in part because consolidation replaced innovation in the years following the dotcom crash. Now, however, with new attitudes developing towards site design and the technologies in place to implement them, we're likely to see a new creative spirit embrace the web in which both the inclusive spirit of blogging and the convergence of rich media have a part to play, together with other interactive tools such as instant messaging.
Is this likely to mean that site builders in five years' time will need to be smarter and more creative than today? Perhaps. But the tools at their disposal and the space they'll have to work in will also have been transformed to make it easier to get their creative visions online. It's already possible to update and contribute to sites through your mobile phone. We are now looking at uploading and accessing high resolution streaming video, or dictating and receiving site updates while on the move. Site interfaces will evolve to reflect that the Web is bursting out from being 'something that's on our computers', and becoming part of our everyday lives. Designing for that sort of online experience is going to be light years away from knocking together a menu bar for your personal Web site. Just don't be worried about being left behind. It's the ambition, skill and imagination of site builders that has got us to where we are today, and it's those qualities that will transform the Web in the years to come.