The concerning state of web design

I love web design, and I love the evolution of the technology and what that technology can do for the web. Seeing the final days of IE woes for web developers coming to an end and the exciting stuff coming into CSS, HTML and javascript on the front end leading to designs being able to push further to achieve more. It is awesome to see but despite the greatness there is an underlining issue in the web design industry that is bothering me more and more.

Trends or just templates?

A web design trend leads developers and designers to common practices, good UX and inspiration.. In Theory, in increasing reality this is a different story however.
A good place to see what is happening is http://www.awwwards.com/. A site aimed at showing everyone the best of the web voted by a panel of judges containing high quality designers. The problem though, if you look at most of the recent winners there is a very common pattern of site that, for me is no longer trending features but a template structure designers are encouraged to create, repeat and repeat again.

Developing designers and designers in the industry alike look to such sites, not just for inspiration in their work but acknowledgement of their work and to be in with what is considered the best. Having judges rank your website, giving you a badge to put on your site and seeing it on such sites. This pattern however has created a template style trend of while cool sites, are becoming less and less innovative.


So what is this “trend”?

What you see on pretty much every single site for pages and pages in the full screen image, burger menu’s even not on mobile, some form of video either on the main page or next screen, ever increasing elaborate screen transitions and scrolling effects.
Every single bit of code and technology and style, presentation and photography is indeed top draw, do not get me wrong, all credit to the unique elements where they come but you could take the background image from one site, put it on another and you would hardly know the difference.

That loading screen

While awesome to see a fancy animation and loading screen and all the different interpretations of it, we are still seeing more and more sites with one. Why?
When you are on a high speed internet connection and your in the minutes not seconds waiting for websites to load in this day an age is a crazy thought. Growing up in the web world always being told about your code, design and goals to have well optimised software and websites that perform well (as well as more) has always been key but to see sites having to spend so long to load not just the home page but pages there after is quite shocking. I do not mind nice transitions, a soft fade, a small animation to load but this has been taken to so much of an extreme that you even have a loading message to load the loading animation in not just a handful of websites.
A loading screen is also an admittance of “crimes”. There are lots of articles out there on the web over the years about this. Things take time to load, scripting and ajax content loading in etc can cause flickering and some form of transition into that content can hide a lot of this… But again, this extreme gives you signs to lazy coding, sloppy coding, poor coding and poor management of that content and site navigation. 
I am not even going to cover SEO and google yet, that is still to come.

What happened with the burger menu?

Photos are amazing, well done photos are stunning and with more and more “retina” screens they look amazing. You want to show these off, and banners, full screen images are a nice thing, of course. But proper site navigation has suffered for the visual “wow” factor. 
A burger menu icon was for mobile or that short form interface to access menu navigation. But now, your on a 27 inch widescreen with anchors of space and a big image telling you nothing.. What happend here?

The menu icons are getting ever smaller in size burger menu’s holding ever more complex menu’s with 15 slides to just drill down into them. On some sites a design decision will be made for such a feature, something with small navigation, few pages, mobile first goals but designers see designers and a “trend” becomes the everything and the reasons when to use “a thing” and when not to become lost in translation.
This is just one example of these use cases and I do not want to litter this article with such examples, but they are many…. too many!

That stuck cycle!

As a result of the things highlighted here you have an ever increasing group of designers & developers looking at sites such as awwwards and are now stuck in this ever looping cycle of the same ever more elaborate concept based on the same “template” taking minutes to load and loosing sight of what a website is and what it means and what it should be doing.


Who is the website for anyway?

This is biggest kicker and this is the meat to the sandwich of this article.
I just said how we have this stuck cycle of primarily designers and developers producing these every more elaborate versions of the same them, but they are NOT doing it for anyone other then themselves and for other web designer and developers. That is right, it is not for a company or business, they are doing it to get on sites such as awwwards and to be applauded by judges or people they follow on twitter etc. To hell with the companies paying for these sites, all such people seem to care about is winning those awards from the same people doing the same things as them.

Websites and their designs are becoming sites for other designers and not anyone else. We are back in that cycle again!
What happened to what a website is for? There are cases where a company like Ford, Samsung and big brands will create sites and micro sites to advertise something, a fun site, amazing images show casing something new. These have a very focused goal to showcase, these have videos, photos, games, interactive content and there are many awesome sites in this form. BUT…
These sites do not care about SEO, they have big brands and big marketing budgets that can launch successful viral campaigns because of their brand size and global scope. The problem is that Cycle of designers emulating designers and that trend that is now a template being applied to every site and not just these sites.
Many designers are loosing site on who they are designing the sites for and agencies building them building those designs. One use case I was party in seeing was of a talented designer and photography going off hiring models and doing an impressive photoshoot of these beautiful women, makeup and scenes. A lot of money was spent on this… But the biggest problem the actual client had with it, is the fact their makeup products were anti ageing and for old people. The designer had a cool concept for site and images in his head and lost site of the client.
Many of the sites on these CSS / Design awards sites you can look and ask yourself.. Who is this? What is it for? And your left with more questions then answers.. What are they selling? Are they selling it? Can I get it? Is it for me? Is it what I was looking for?
These fundamental questions I was drilled into thinking at University and through my early learning of web, business and clients completely buried in favour of the “Cool”.
Most websites are for a business who wants to grow, they want to sell their products, increase sales and make more money. Many will spend too much on a website and some will not have outlined money to try and get something that will help their business grow. It may be services or it may be products. Companies may know about the web and some may not but they all understand the importance of a website in this modern world.

Ignoring the design and build of a site for a minute..

Putting aside, the design process, the build of a site for a moment, let’s say a company has gone to a designer or agency and have built live website. How are people going to see it? A live website, even a good one will not just instantly get more visits.
There are basically two ways a website is going to get noticed.

  • Marketing
  • Natural Search
  1. Marketing

Marketing is in many forms but primary it is traditional marketing methods and digital marketing. Digital marketing is a very heavy technology driven area where digital trends, using digital medium’s and website content is manipulated in very complex ways. Search engine marketing, tweaking, controlling and monitoring are big parts of the process.

2. Natural Search

Following from the SEM (Search engine marketing) mentioned just a moment ago you have .. SEO (Search engine optimisation) Creating your site and content in a certain way to rank well in search engines like google. This is the primary method MOST business will get noticed on the web and one of the core and key elements to getting those companies more business. It is the way small and medium companies can grow and compete with the bigger boys in town and if all this is done well they do!

Back to the website

One of the many things taught to me was to do well in natural site rankings is working on that from the ground up. Your code, the content, the design and use of the website are all components to search rankings. Companies like google rank your site on these factors and the better you do, the higher you rank.

Your site structure:
Your sitemap, your site and user flow and how well you create interlinked sites is one of the fundamental elements to your site not just to lead to good UX but key to your natural search rankings.

Your Code:
While google will not go “Hey, your code is 100% here is more ranking points” how you code your site will lead to better ranking. Semantic Markup is something I am very passionate about, not only does it mean your trying to code your site to best practices, your structing the content in code in an MVC like way.
MVC is this way of programming that is called “Model View Controller” but what it basically means is you try and seperate form from function. In a website you have HTML — The structure of your site, CSS which defines your style, Your content and then programming which is both server side languages and your front end Javascript for “dynamicness”.
If you have valid, well formed code it will load faster, content that is pure, semantically correct and tells a search bot (Key to search engines and your ranking) what your content is, how it should understand it and what to do with it. “Hey this is my main menu”, Hey this is my main content.
This done well and well optimised and speed of your site will lead to better ranking.

UX:
Remember this thing? When did User Experience turn into how animation effects transition and not how a user reaches the goal of the company paying for the website? Honestly what happened here folks.
A menu with a burger menu clicking through well and being fast in animation and looking great is UX if you run it in that micro fashion, but if your core pages are buried under hidden links in big images or buttons after 3 parallax scrolls or under a 3 sliding level menu.. NO this is not Young designers and the loss of knowledge UX folks.
A user enters the site and goes from A-B. A being the homepage and B being where you want them. In digital Marketing this is called “Conversion”.
There are many agencies and designers who have completely lost this. I see people not even creating a user story. You listen to your client, find out what they need (NOT what they want because it is your job to create the site, not them). What does the client want to achieve?
This is the fundamental starting point of all! websites!
It is your job as a designer or agency to produce something that can look great but ultimately gets the client more business.

That battle for all elements:

In an agency this is a battle. You want good modern design, you want all the right digital marketing elements, you want the content for SEO and you want the site to work well.
That SEO is critical if you not got millions to spend on marketing, Search engines have all those ranking factors.. Content of course is King, a lot of it and more the better well formed updated content linked on the web is one of the biggest factors in that ranking. And as a more recent edition to how google considers your ranking — Performance and digital marketing care about that too and so should UX.
I remember when people said it was 8 seconds between you and the 5 other tabs a user would open from the top results in google you had to get that person to continue on your site.
- Wow factor
- Is this for me?
- Does this have what I need.

So you get up there on the first page of google but your still fighting the others on that page for your business.

Wait but a designer said if your site wins CSS awards and is on these sites it will rank well!

The designer or agency said that to you? Well they are correct and then they are SO VERY WRONG too!
A site winning an award and getting buz in the design community will rank well. BUT FOR WHAT? The key words will rank based on the design, the design features, the chatter about that design BUT NOT the product, the business etc. This is no good for the business the site is for, why is good for them? And again we are back into that circle.

This design community building sites for the design community and getting ever increasingly stuck in this endless cycle of one upping each other with the same variation of site.

The original web has been lost to many, sites taking minutes to load even on 20+mb broadband connections with some fancy stuff but loosing the message!

Your talking nuts man!

IF anyone will read this, some people may think these are rants of a nutter. I can not argue this is a rant not an article, I can not write for shit folks! BUT this is all true.
Remember http://www.awwwards.com/ I actually emailed them about this stuff a while ago, and one of the founders replied NOT disagreeing with much of it! What did I do in my email?
I have noticed it on this site and many for a while, but if you look back at older sites that win awards or praise for their design, over time they will change and 2,3,4,5 years a site gets a brand new look and feel or may be gone all together. That happens and the longer your site design lasts and does well for a company the better you have done but if you build a site and that is the end of the story — Your wrong and anyone doing that will fail. You stay with your client, you work with them and you work together to make their business grow. They pay you when they get paid!

BUT, you look on modern award sites and weeks later, months later some drastic changes happen, and a lot of sites on http://www.awwwards.com/ for example have this.

So what changes then?

Pretty much everything related to what I was saying. One of the first and biggest things to go are long animations and load screens and any form of “Clunky” loading or animations that only work well with the latest Webkits browsers and nothing else.
One of the other bigger changes is navigation, often more traditional useable UX menu’s come back into play.
A lot of very fundamental changes that are all the goals of trying to achieve all the original goals of not just the business but web design!

It used to be the world of bad web companies building shit and good companies picking up the peaces where businesses have spent to much money on something that does not deliver. Nowadays you have big money spent on amazing websites that may get praise in design communities but still do not help the company they were built for.

Thanks for your time reading this, I am not a wordsmiths but this is a big concern for me on the web.
My other rant in another article will come soon. Web designers trying to code and graphic designers stepping into the world of web design.

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