In June, I was lucky enough to be able to attend Smashing Magazine’s SmashingConf in NYC. Many Spyder Trappers are avid readers of Smashing, and its articles routinely are shared throughout the office both as technical resources and sources of inspiration. It comes as no surprise that the conference as a whole was rich with presentations that were both enlightening and challenging in their content. Though the speakers covered an eclectic set of topics, three major themes reoccurred over the two-day event that paint a picture of current and future web design trends.
Performance – Needing to balance design with loading speed
— Marko Dugonjić (@markodugonjic) June 16, 2015
Performance was probably the most visible theme through the two days. How do you balance the pursuit of a ground-breaking creative ideas with the performance needs of maintaining a quick-loading speed? After all, even a powerhouse retailer like Amazon found that for every 100ms of latency, it lost 1 percent in revenue opportunity. This theme was explored starting with the first speaker of the event, Marcin Wichary, and his obsessive forging and eventual dismantling of the ‘perfect’ link underline. “Good is the Enemy of Great” was a captivating case study into Marcin’s relentless quest to design a link underline that was both functionally superior and more beautiful than browsers’ default underlines. He eventually reached a solution using a combination of complex background gradients and CSS text shadows to give the underline a perfect distance from the text baseline and allow for breaks on descenders, but ultimately was forced into a compromise do to its heavy-rendering costs and the difficulty of applying it to text within Medium’s WSYWYG editor. It’s a classic example of a problem that arises often within the early stages of a design concept. Yesenia Perez discussed a fascinating solution for finding that balance in her session, “design decisions through the lens of a performance budget.” Yesenia used her redesign of Papa John’s site as an example of where she based all of her design decisions around beating Papa John’s competitors on initial load. In her words
“performance is a design feature, not a technical concern.”
By having a max page weight to aim for, she was able to prioritize the more load-heavy design features and aesthetic preferences of the client. Is the client demanding a second carousel for the homepage? Maybe we have to cut the number of web fonts from three to two. Does the client want a large video background for the hero section? The SVG animations in the history section might have to go. If performance is a goal for the project, these decisions become much easier when weighing them against a concrete figure. Performance is always on the mind of our design team, but taking the focus one step further could provide additional value to our clients.
Collaboration – Efficiency through teamwork
The first takeaway was about finding efficiencies in design and giving the user an optimal on-site experience. The second is finding efficiencies in design by using collaboration to move through processes quickly. As Daniel Burka put it, it’s beneficial to “find out ways to figure out what you’re doing wrong fast.” One trend helping design to move in this direction is bringing developers into the process much earlier. Rather than wait through several rounds of design and wireframes, get your designs moving forward as quickly as possible. The earlier developers are involved in the process, the more understanding of the project they’ll have—they’ll also be able to spot potential issues before they become a reality. Moving quickly will require a great relationship and collaboration with the client. Tools like mood boards and style tiles allow the design team to get buy-in on design elements much more quickly than relying on fully realized Photoshop mockups. While these tools may never show up as line items in a Spyder Trap statement of work, when an opportunity exists where you see a way to move more quickly towards a final solution without sacrificing quality, you should take it. It’s a proactive approach, where you
“don’t wait for an invitation to do the work you need to do” ~Samantha Warren.
It’s an agile process that’s worked well with several of our own clients. It allows the designers to focus on larger-scale business goals, rather than allowing the process to get slowed down by small tweaks.
Along the same lines, Katie Kovalcin suggested a deliberate collaboration during the quality assurance (QA) process can make things go much smoother for projects. A designer and developer sitting side-by-side during QA can provide immediate solutions to bugs—rather than establishing a ticket that can take time to work its way through the process. Of course, the efficiencies of this process should be weighed against possible drains of time and capacity for the team members.
Death of Web Design – The rise of sameness & analog experiences
The third takeaway is a big one: there was the perception among some speakers that the craft of design is fading. Even outside of the conference there are waves of sentiment that design has lost its soul—that everything is starting to look the same. Andrew Clarke proposed the idea that there’s a tension between data driven design and ideas. He believes “a formula will lead to a predictable but ordinary result.” Is function really the enemy of design? There’s no reason why the designers instinct can’t be used together with best practices and data to provide incredible experiences. Christian Heilmann’s session was a call to arms for designers and developers to get out of the echo chamber and stop “…[creating] for recognition.” In that respect, it’s important to stop patting ourselves on the back for novel executions that impress other designs but fail to solve for real-life business goals for our clients.
Josh Clarke put another slant on the theme of designs death by focusing on the trend of user experiences moving away from the computer screen. We are already seeing more users experiencing digital through wearables, ‘thereables,’ connected products, and apps. The next big thing for UX probably isn’t a homepage but rather creating tech that that is “more about being a part of the experience rather than a distraction from it.” Users are connected everywhere they go and design needs to create those seamless experiences away from the computer just like it used to do for dot coms. Why is this design trend likely to continue? Because the potential experiences are really cool. Or put more eloquently by Clarke, “advanced tech is indistinguishable from magic.”