“Designing today’s web” - Luke Wroblewski at EuroIA 2011

 by Martin Belam, 23 September 2011

This year’s EuroIA Summit kicked off with a keynote from Luke Wroblewski - whose book on web form design is one of my personal bibles.

Download all of my EuroIA 2011 blog posts as one printable PDF or for iBooks

Luke Wroblewski - “Designing today’s web”

Luke’s talk was all about how the shift to mobile usage of the web means that if you aren’t thinking mobile, you are probably doing it wrong. In fact, you are doing it wrong. He had a set of stats about mobile usage, suggesting that 50% of internet access in Africa, India and Asia was bypassing the desktop web, and that the figures in the UK and US were rising as well - around a quarter of users in those two developed countries only accessed the web on a mobile.

Luke jokingly referred to people “losing limbs” as we fought the war that ended up with everybody converging on 1024x768 as a standard size to design for. Smartphones throw away 80% of that real estate, meaning that you have to throw away 80% of the crap you put up on your homepage or web page just to fill the space. His examples of Expedia telling you your flight times on one massive textually dense page on the web, and showing you the information as the sole focus of a tiny mobile screen, were persuasive. One creates “angst” said Luke, whilst the other “delights me and makes me love Expedia”

I disagreed a little with Luke when he talked about “real identity” forcing better community behaviour from users. He cited TechCrunch’s jealousy at Quora having a well behaved community discussing pretty similar issues, whereas their own comment area was a troll-infested cesspit. I think that identity and software design clearly influence community behaviour, but you also have to ask about the way those conversations are framed. Quora is a space where questions are asked and people are willing to help answer. TechCrunch posts some pretty punchy stuff and asks people to react. It is no wonder their communites developed differently. You usually get the community interactivity you ask for - so if you are being provocative, you can expect people to be provoked.

Still, we are about to find this out for real with the Guardian’s new Facebook app, which will have two conversations for each piece of content - one on Facebook using Facebook sign in, and one back on the Guardian site with our own community standards and guidelines.

Luke argues that all software in the future will have to become social in order to compete - which reminded me of Paul Adams’ excellent keynote at the UPA conference earlier this year: “Social by design” as a disruptive force. Luke also stressed that it is easy on the web to fall into the trap of thinking that you are just competing with the people in your “vertical”. You aren’t, he said. You are competing with everybody else on the web. If Google+ launches, he argued, and takes up five minutes of everbody’s time, then that is 5 minutes less time they have to spend with you. The beautiful thing about the rush to mobile, he added, was that mobile web usage had opened up whole new areas of time for companies to compete over.

One of the most interesting anecdotes was about Netflix. Luke explained that they had two camps in the company - one pressing for a unified experience, and one pressing for a custom solution for each platform. He explained that in testing, it was the custom tailored solution that always won. Which makes you wonder how the former camp manages to survive.

He took three key indicators as to whether you should be designing a specific interface:

  • Mode of use: e.g. lean back, on the couch
  • Input method: e.g. mouse, touch, remote control
  • Screen-size: e.g. wall-mounted, desk, lap, hand

Luke posited that each unique combination (for example the iPad is on the couch, touchscreen, and lap-sized) needs a new interface, or at least a new interface consideration.

He used the new Boston Globe design as an example of responsive design, and pondered the challenge it poses for designers. There is no way you are going to make 15 layouts for every page. It means that designers probably have to get a bit more uncomfortably closer to the developers than they would like, and that developers probably have to learn a bit more about design than they would comfortably like. I’m all for this - I think anyone making digital products with teams in silos is missing out on a massive opportunity to improve them by harnessing the talents of all of their team.

Luke finished by conjuring the spectre of: “A zombie apocalypse of every kind of device accessing the internet. Headless devices. Smart devices. It is going to make today’s cross-channel design challenge look simple”. He cited Tom Coates, who used to say that it was cheaper to leave the LCD clock in every electronic consumer device than specifically design it out, and argued that the same was becoming true for the ability to access the internet over wifi. Luke thinks it is no longer possible to “future proof” designs or technology, because the rate of innovation and change is so fast. Instead he has been part of a group advocating for “future friendly” design, based on principles of data exchange and core functionality, rather than filling up pixels.


I’ll be blogging throughout the event, and also publishing an essay version of my own talk - “The Information Architecture of /Culture”.

This is one of a series of blog posts about EuroIA 2011 in Prague. You can download all of the blog posts as one printable PDF or for iBooks.

All your EuroIA 2011 slides are belong to us
“Designing today’s web” - Luke Wroblewski
“The IA of /Culture” - Martin Belam
“Navigating the Digital Spice Route” - Terry Ma
“Extending the Storytelling - Blending IA and Content Strategy” - Boon Sheridan
“Pervasive IA for the Sentient City” - Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati
iPads, kids and design lessons for adults - Wouter Sluis-Thiescheffer & Brian Pagán
“Understanding the Nature of Resistance” - Alla Zollers
“Does a Rich GUI Make the Bank Richer?” - Haakon Halvorsen & Kjetil Hansen
“Designing for Everyone, Anywhere, at Any Time” - Anna Dahlström
“Truth and Dare – Out of the Echo-Chamber, into the Fire” - My critique of Jason Mesut at EuroIA 2011
“The Rise and Fall...and Rise Again of Information Architecture” - Bob Royce
“Fill in the IA gap” - Mags Hanley

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