If you're designing for today's interactive devices, you'll need to understand your users; needs as well as the latest technology. Sean Ashcroft shows you how to push all the right buttons.
When the web exploded into public consciousness in the mid-1990s, designers as much as any group helped drive its emergence. Back then, and for years to follow, the web became a digital plaything both for companies - many of whom had little idea what they should be using it for - and the designers themselves. The needs of lowly users barely registered on anyone's radar.
The Dot-Com crash of 2000 may have wreaked start-up carnage, but it did little to change the methodologies behind professionally designed websites. "People were thinking short-term," says Justin Cooke, managing director of leading UK web design agency Fortune Cookie. "They were trying to impress with bells and whistles; sites would look fantastic but would fall down when it came to using them. It was a classic case of brands designing for themselves rather than their customers."
But things are changing, both technologically and socially. We've done the Web 1.0 thing. Now, we're talking Web 2.0 - the buzz phrase that describes today's richer, more compelling and more inclusive interactive experience.
Web 2.0 has been brought about by the rise of cheap broadband, the creation of a new generation of web technologies and applications, and, crucially, a change in attitudes by businesses and a shift in behaviour by the public. First, broadband.
"There's a much larger number of people using the web via broadband," says Fortune Cookie's Cooke. "People have also become a good deal more savvy and confident with what they can do online, and it means you can deliver much more interactive and richer media online."
For some, broadband is changing the very nature of the web. Jonathan Wilson is senior account manager with broadcast design agency Red Bee Media (www. redbeemedia.com). "Going forward, any form of interactivity on the majority of platforms will need to be more like a televisual experience rather than a print experience," says Wilson.
"What we recognised a few years ago is that even though the web is a digital, interactive platform, a lot of its original focus and the way it behaves is very much like a print paradigm. You talk about web pages, and everything was text-based, with still images. But with broadband, it can now carry full-screen, full-motion video, so that paradigm is shifting more towards a television model.The skill sets required to develop this kind of solution will need to come as much from a broadcast stable as a new media stable."
One of the great exploiters of broadband is Adobe Flash 8, thanks to its vastly improved video codec, On2 VP6. "Video compression means you can use longer sequences without worrying about file sizes," says Florian Schmitt, director of London digital media company Hi-Res!. "Flash 8 also enables you to render stuff to the screen, which means if you have lots of stuff moving on screen at the same time, you can run at 10 or 20 times the speed."
Adobe senior product manager Mike Chambers says: "Apollo is a new medium for content, a new way for designers to connect with their audience beyond the browser. The role of the designer becomes even more important, as they must ensure desktop web applications provide a richer, better experience, without overwhelming or confusing users."
Digital design agency Ralph and Co brings the benefits of AJAX to bear on its clients' sites. Ralph director Chris Hassell says: "We're working with a client called Mobyko, who offers a service for backing up mobile phones to its servers, and a lot of the interface has been developed using AJAX. We've got a predictive search facility that pulls data straight out of a database into an HTML interface with no page refresh. From a user point of view this is how it should be - it gives an application feel to the experience and a much more fluid user experience."
Interactive TV advertising
The areas in which these emerging technologies are being applied is another aspect undergoing drastic change, because the web is no longer the sole interactive digital channel; it's been joined by mobile phones, PDAs, TV and high-street kiosks.
A recent Red Bee project - a Boots interactive TV Christmas campaign - gives an idea of how agencies are meeting the multi-channel challenge.
"With the Boots ad, when you pressed the red button you could find out about the kind of gifts that are in store at Christmas," says Wilson. "What we created was a piece of functionality called the Boots Gift Idea Generator, which allowed the viewer to define the kind of people they were buying gifts for by scrolling through a series of menus. If they choose a wife who likes glamour products, for example, the generator would make gift suggestions based on this. You could then bookmark these items, enter a mobile number and have the list of items texted to your mobile. You could then take that list into Boots and buy the products."
Such interactivity is changing companies' relationship with their customers, says Neil Hughston of Saatchi Interactive. "There's a bigger realisation that interactive channels place consumers in control of engagement with brands. In essence, consumers are the brand owners, and not necessarily the companies who were traditionally seen as owning those brands."
Hughston adds: "As the interactive channels have become more mature, there's been a mad scramble to attract and retain the right kind of talent. The opportunities from a design point of view, in terms of the richness and complexity and the technical capability of what you can do, are much broader. For example, right now, heavyweight Flash ActionScripters are like rocking-horse shit."
Online social networks
But it is social change as much as advances in technology that is shaping the design of interactivity, and the growth of community social networks and user-generated content is central to this.
Hughston believes consumers have "become their own creators, aggregators, distributors, editors and broadcasters", and cites YouTube and MySpace as examples. "This has had a seismic effect on how clients and their brands view users as being critical to their marketing communication and business transformation. Out of every ten clients, we're probably getting six requests to do community work. Some of the more savvy clients have seen YouTube and MySpace and are thinking, 'What if I can sell this thing in two or three years' time?'."
There's little doubt that users are exerting an ever-greater influence on interactive design trends. "Clients are interested in the customer experience again, rather than just winning design awards," says Catriona Campbell, founder of The Usability Company.
But most designers, she believes, remain more focused on landing awards than undertaking human-computer interaction (HCI) research - the key to understanding the user experience. "Most designers just bang this stuff out there and hope it works."
Campbell - who developed the world's first intranet, for the UN - says because of its cost-effectiveness, HCI is hugely attractive to those taking a user-centred approach. "In HCI there's a law of diminishing returns, whereby it's safe to say if five people experience the same problem with a website, you don't need to test it any more. It's incredibly inexpensive compared to focus groups, because we're testing performance rather than preference.
"I think designers are going to have to realise that they have to get their designs researched or created by users, because an agency won't have repeat business if their clients don't make any money.
"We urge our design clients to at least user-test their prototype web designs, because even limited testing highlights problems. The trouble is, once you get into the coding stage, eliminating problems becomes horribly expensive."
She believes designers will wake up to the importance of user-focused design, but warns that without the proper planning and training they will fall short of what will be demanded of them.
"I think one mistake design agencies will make is trying to do everything. I think they're going to ramp up great big user-centred design teams. The thing is, clients probably won't use them because HCI is akin to market research. Creative agencies and market research agencies ought to remain distinct, because you shouldn't mark your own homework."
She adds: "Another challenge with Web 2.0 for designers is they're going to have to learn a lot more about technology than they currently do. There's only really been HTML and XML for so long that it's almost as second nature to them as writing. There's a big design community out there with very under-resourced skills in Web 2.0 technologies. They're going to have to get their heads around what to do with these applications and how to create them with users in mind."
Hughston agrees: "User interface design and technological understanding are the two key facets of any interactive agency worth its salt. If you haven't got those skill sets, you'll find it increasingly difficult to address the needs of clients as they become more savvy about web applications. We ensure that our design and technical teams are closely aligned."
Campbell stresses that understanding the "rules of engagement" with user-generated content is another key area for design agencies. "Clients will expect them to know all about the laws concerning user-generated information on sites, and the accessibility implications, too. If they don't know, then they could end up creating something that breaks the law for their clients."
She advises that a good starting point for designers wishing to learn more about this is the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Institute of Direct Marketing, both of which run courses in this area.
One of the standard bearers for HCI-based web design is Fortune Cookie. Its MD, Justin Cooke, says the theme running through all of the company's work is "removing barriers and making sites accessible to everybody on every device."
He adds: "For us it's about delivering return on investment, and you don't do this by creating inaccessible websites with lots of barriers. If you want to achieve someone's business objective, you have to understand who their audience is, and deliver the user experience that audience wants. User-centred design delivers results. Companies are realising there's more noise now, and that they've got to fight to get people's attention, and then hold it. The way to do this is to give people what they want.
"For example, on a user-centred site, the way that content is served up online as opposed to on mobile devices should be different. Take a train company. The kind of information that's important to someone on a mobile device is train times and whether the train they're proposing to catch is running on time. It's far less likely they'll want to know about special offers or job vacancies, say. Sites should be able to detect what device someone is using, and then reprioritise content using different types of style sheets."
One way or another, the next few years will prove nothing if not interesting for interactive designers.