For the last three years, I have been a judge for the Web Awards and each year the judges get together in advance to compare notes. This is our report on that conversation. There could be no better way to keep up with web trends that by gathering the best in the field to talk about that very topic:
Not surprisingly, the topic du jour is responsive design, a topic I’ve written about often. The difference this year is that a few of the judges felt that websites should be marked down if they were not responsive or given extra points if they were. Google obviously feels the same way with their latest “Mobile-Friendly” update. I guess that shows how far we’ve come—the discussion about whether your site should “respond” to a mobile environment is over.
However, the discussion about whether your site should be, technically, responsive or adaptive is just heating up. There is an ongoing debate about the wisdom of going adaptive or going responsive. In brief, the technical difference is this:
- Adaptive developmentkeeps your desktop site and mobile cousins at arm’s length.
- Responsive developmentis a single, inline development strategy.
There are pros and cons to each. It would be nice if a balanced conversation on the topic occurred but it’s unlikely. Bottom line: not all templates need to be developed responsively, but if you disagree, knock yourself out.
The Drift to Sameness in Design
I urged the judges to move the discussion onto the challenge of creating fresh designs for the presentation of brand and messaging on the web. Technology is really important, but clients don’t view your code; they view your site. This is important to you and us because, if you believe us—and of course you should—a brand is a distinct identity.
But industry vocabularies are calcifying, even at the Internet’s young age. Hotel websites look like hotel websites and restaurant websites like restaurant sites. Not that this is bad, but it makes clients less willing to experiment if it doesn’t “feel” like what they see elsewhere in their industry. Thus, design vocabularies seem to be shrinking at the very moment they should be expanding. For the first time I can imagine how a Mob victim feels as the concrete hardens around his ankles.
Law firms are beginning to understand they should have significant control over [their website] navigation in order to move as the legal market moves. Increasing flexibility is the watchword, although unbridled flexibility without judgment usually leads to disaster.
There’s this thing that starlings do called murmuration, when hundreds, or even thousands of birds make one changing shape in the sky at 30 miles an hour within inches of each other. Web design is starting to feel like that to us. Everything is moving at high speed but all of it in the same direction—even as those directions change moment to moment. Fans of chaos theory will appreciate the subtle order imposed by group-think on a dynamic process.
There are other factors, however, that impel a more conservative approach to site design. The high-speed visitor (like you) has little patience for designers who deliver narcissistic, radical experiments in navigation and page organization. Visitors leave quickly, scratching their heads. The obvious danger to speedy user behavior is that site design becomes forced into a straitjacket. Experimentation is chilled and differentiation ceases.
On the other hand, law firms are seeking a cure from sameness. As the law firm marketing profession evolves, forward-thinking firms are revisiting their basic business delivery model, seeking a competitive edge from innovative service delivery. This is very exciting—a clear way out of the busy shapes starlings make. Why? Because new models of site design will be forced to match new models of service delivery.
Changing technology changes design strategies. For example, mega-menus have been killed (or, at least, mortally wounded) by responsive design just as Flash was killed by iPhones and iPads. We still have law firms that insist on mega-menus for good reasons. These law firms will choose an adaptive rather than technically responsive solution or choose not to have those particular templates adapt responsively.
Law firms are beginning to understand they should have significant control over navigation in order to move as the legal market moves. Increasing flexibility is the watchword, although unbridled flexibility without judgment usually leads to disaster. Giving law firms total control over the imagery in their sites has led to “cheap and lazy” design decisions that destroy brands.
Trends in Page Design
The whole concept of the “web page” itself is under attack. Images are getting larger, in some cases running more or less forever left or right because bandwidth and compression allows large images to load quickly.
Designers are experimenting with the infinitely scrolling page, too. While this idea works well on Pinterest and Google Image results, the technique is deliriously disorienting almost everywhere else. When NBC News re-launched its site with an infinite scroll, the reader response was fast and furious. Stop it!
Clearly, responsive design further undermines the “page” model as the page itself becomes dynamic.
One thing we’ve noticed, and perhaps you have, too: because technology and design details are changing so rapidly, sites can feel old before they are launched.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the home page is no longer the only page deserving serious attention. As visitors arrive at different pages, the fall-off in design interest from the home page to the services page is no longer acceptable (if it ever was). We call it the Thelma and Louise effect—blue skies and a vast vista on the home page that suddenly hurtles off a cliff to crash and burn throughout the rest of the site.
There’s a big takeaway here: your home page is not the limit of your curb appeal any longer. Interior pages must be just as inviting. In fact, if you really dig into the idea of the destruction of the web page, you begin to see your website more as a dynamic center of gravity than as a page-turning book experience.
Animated Page Elements
Styles move in waves—horizontal scrolls are already giving way to vertical scrolls. Within the vertical scroll, parallax (where elements of the page scroll at different rates) is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame. Titles and text are being introduced in extremely sophisticated ways—at different rates, in different sequences using different transition schemes. In effect, today’s home page is beginning to resemble more a movie trailer than the web’s original static image. It’s called UX and it’s an art.
As Google’s search and indexing algorithms are improved, traditional search engine optimization (SEO) principles such as keywording, page descriptions, image tagging and linking are taking a back seat to rich content.
Staying relevant and ranking higher is forcing professional services firms to become micro-publishers of sorts. Articles, infographics, interactive charts and graphs, video and photography are being used more frequently in order to tell compelling stories, present opportunities and, most importantly, to achieve a higher ranking.
For now, standard key performance indicators (KPIs) such as the number of site sessions, stickiness, bounce and conversion rates still apply for another year or so, but law firms must be more creative in how they improve a site’s overall performance. Improving the users’ experience by delivering device agnostic pages and efficiently funneling traffic to exclusive offers are just two ways marketers are boosting traffic and keeping visitors engaged.
Other notable trends include optimizing for location-based search, Google Authorship and leveraging social media in order to boost referral traffic.
One thing we’ve noticed, and perhaps you have, too: because technology and design details are changing so rapidly, sites can feel old before they are launched. Remember, most sites take six to eight months, start to finish. Therefore:
- Stoke up your courage and design aheadof trends rather than behind them. The web is no place to be conservative in your approach to site design or development.
- “Redesign” your site continually. Add contemporary elements to your pages. Push ahead full steam with video. You can delay a full-scale makeover this way without lugging an embarrassing site behind you. Naturally, we want you to consult your brand design team because those small tweaks can make a big difference if done well… or badly.