Fluidity in interaction and service design – a trend

The last few years have seen a progressive opening up of imposed constraints as customers increasingly reject arbitrary restrictions and demand the ability to scale and personalize products and services. We see this everywhere we look, and where restrictions remain, tensions run high and opportunities abound.

Car buyers looking at a new vehicle are no longer required to select from a few, pre-approved options. Color, finish, transmission, interior, extras, are now all entirely at the customers’ discretion – and not for extra cost: this freedom of choice is the standard offering.

Over the past 16 years we have seen this same shift play out on the Web. The introduction of CSS3, HTML5, and standard JavaScript libraries now allow Web designs to offer the same degree of personalized experience that we’re seeing elsewhere. In particular, we’re seeing the elimination of ’preferred browsers’ or an optimized experience based on particular browsers through the adoption of Web standards; we’re seeing the web become device-independent through responsive design; and we’re seeing Web pages adapt to your viewing window and respect your priorities through the use of progressive disclosure and ’just-in-time content’.

Browsers

For designers and developers engaged in the early days of the Web, ’browser wars’ – as they were commonly called – were a fact of everyday life, and a source of constant frustration. They were also a source of opportunity, as the skills needed to navigate the constantly shifting sands of browser technology were in high demand; as were the skills needed to test a page in each of the major browsers at the time.

Microsoft and Netscape developed their Web browsers with only passing regard for the published HTML standard, inventing new tags – only some of which became widely supported. So for the designers, this was a minefield needing to be traversed. But for the user, they felt constantly under-served by organizations failing to accommodate the quirks of a particular browser.

In many cases, in those early years, only Windows-based browser versions were necessarily supported. Mac users were an afterthought at best – but then Apple was languishing on the verge of folding.

Users were constantly forced to make a decision about the browser they were using instead of being able to simply focus on the task at hand. The technology was always centre-stage, and it should never have been.

The growing push for standards-based Web coding forced browser developers to render Web pages according to the published specification. Competition intensified, but it was no longer on the HTML tags, or they were tags were interpreted.

Today’s Web practices ensure that for the vast majority of Web visitors and users of Web apps, the experience will be as-designed regardless of the browser within which the visit or task occurs. The browser has been relegated to the background of the user experience, playing at best a supporting role.

Devices

The introduction of the iPhone and the installation of the Safari browser as a standard piece of software shifted the landscape of the Web as an experience away from the desktop. Prior to this point, mobile browsers could support a cut down HTML tag set. At the lower end, even HTML was unavailable. WAP & WHTML were early technologies and it should. Navigation on par with the very earliest browser experience represented an effective step backwards in time.

A full-featured Web experience took place on a desktop. End of story.

The introduction of the iPhone changed all that. And customers have been pushing for more. For the Web designers and developers, supporting this new slew of browsers might have become untenable – with different screen sizes and resolutions appearing every other month.

So, instead of designing for more and more varied devices, the modern Web designer has eschewed the desire for tight visual control that drove so much of the early Web. Rather, they are embracing a more fluid mode of design that responds to the device and browser instead of attempting to force the user to conform to them.

You no longer see “This site is best viewed…” instructions – at least far less so than before.

Responsive design has driven a surge in the use of mobile devices for a wide variety of Web-related tasks. On tablet devices, with easier data entry and larger viewports, electronic commerce is outstripping mobile (phone-) based sales. People buy devices to suit their lifestyle and smart retailers and organizations are learning to accommodate rather than punish.

Once again this shift can be seen as a move away from constraints into a much more fluid and personalized experience for the customer.

You could view this shift in another way – whilst still focusing on fluidity: the move away from a desktop-centric model has removed the arbitrary assumption of a fixed location. Mobility is a factor of a modern life, and the Internet has adapted to suit.

Never again will the designer be able to ignore the fact you may be on-the-move, literally; not simply on a phone or tablet device.

Just-in-time Content

The third and final move towards a more fluid Web is a concept I like to think of as “just-in-time content”.

In this concept, only that information that is immediately necessary is loaded into the page straight up (where necessity is often governed by visibility). Since the first content should be the most relevant and popular, a large number of visitors will leave without ever looking further.

If the visitor wishes to see more – as communicated through their behaviour (i.e. scrolling) – more information is loaded (via xmlhttp) and added to the screen. This approach minimizes the initial page load for the site and – so long as subsequent calls to the server are responded to with minimal delay – the overall experience is a good one.

Occasionally, however, this approach fails, as high latency or slow servers serve to disadvantage those visitors looking to engage more deeply with your content.

What next…

This push for greater fluidity, flexibility and choose continues to influence the direction of design and development efforts on the Web, and can be seen in the design of apps. I believe this trend will also start to influence the business models of Web companies – and other providers of digital services (such as app developers). In particular, I no longer believe customers will be satisfied by the all-or-nothing nature of these services. Nor will tiered services be a better option.

Instead, I see digital services shifting towards a pay-for-use model similar to that seen in the app, Paper. Customers will want to trial the product or service for free – for a limited time or with only basic functionality. As their capability grows, and their desire to access more advanced functions, these will be available for an additional fee – without ever compromising on the quality of each feature or component.

For some customers, an outright, upfront purchase may be preferable. But the choice to purchase piecemeal will increasingly need to be present.

Outside of the technology sector we can see the same forces at work in retail banking and mortgage lending; in air travel; in car & bicycle share schemes. The trend is unlikely to reverse and will continue to drive product and service design towards mass-customization and personalization in every facet of our lives.

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