Word association time:
when you think of the phrase “modern web design”, what immediately comes to mind?
For many the answers will reflect visual changes which have taken place as the web as evolved, such as:
- “flatter” design – reduced usage of shadows, gradients, bevels, etc.
- a heavier reliance on iconography
- larger type
- large photographic backgrounds
Others will focus on web design changes spurred on by advancements in technology, like:
- mobile-friendly websites
- the abandonment of flash-based sites
- CSS-based font embedding
Styles change, and fads come and go, but a lot of what we’ve seen change in web design over the past several years is the result of a fundamental shift in mindset.
The responsive mindset
For the past five years, “responsive design” has been used ad nauseam by every web designer under the sun (self included), but it’s not just another fad buzzword–surely we have enough of those already–it’s the single largest watershed moment in the history of web design, in this author’s opinion. In anticipation of–and in some ways, in reaction to–the public’s massive adoption of high performance mobile phones and tablets, and in turn, a reduction in usage of more traditional computing platforms, web designers and developers had to abandon our age-old vision of a web site user (i.e. someone clicking a mouse around a site on a desktop or laptop computer).
Less browser testing, more usability thoughtfulness
By 2012, Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 9 was the latest version and IE 6 usage had reduced to 1% and was falling fast. Previous to this, a substantial portion of a web developer’s workweek was spent testing and writing workaround for IE-related issues. In short, older versions of IE do an abhorrent job of following web standards, which define how code gets rendered to the user in a web browser. Thankfully, Microsoft slowly improved their browser; concurrently, many users chose standards-compliant browsers, such as Chrome, Firefox, and Safari in IE’s place. The result was far less time spent writing “hacks” for bad browsers and more time crafting great user experiences.
Browser testing is still important, and for most web developers, still a reasonably frequent task, however the need to support sub-par, legacy browsers has lessened greatly. Good thing, because a host of new responsibilities have been handed to designer and developers in the last several years. Not only do users now view our sites on screens ranging from 320 to 5,080 pixels wide, they also interact using keyboards, mice, touchpads, and their fingers on screens, and connect with speeds ranging from a single “bar” of 3G coverage to an office internet connection exceeding 100 Mbps. Needless to say, creating an engaging user experience to accommodate all these combinations is a tall order, however it’s also a far more rewarding one than patching together browser hacks for each site we build.
Full functionality, right out of the box
The other large shift in web design and development is to that of using core functionality rather than 3rd-party plugins. Years ago, if a web designer wanted a rich multimedia experience on his/her site, browser plugins such as Flash and Java were required, however with the gradual embracing of HTML5/CSS3-compliant browsers, this is generally no longer the case.
Nowadays, audio. video, and animations, are now easily handled by the browser without need for any plugins. Not only is this a win for web designers/developers, as we can confidently create web sites with the knowledge that most users will be able to view our content in the way we’d envisioned it, but it’s also a win for users. First and foremost, it’s difficult to think of a popular browser plugin that hasn’t had security flaws at one point or another. The fewer “moving parts” in a user’s browser configuration, the less likely they are to suffer from a security vulnerability. Furthermore, from a simple convenience perspective, users are now required to spend less time installing and updating software to experience the web to its full potential.
The continually-raised bar
The better tools the web design and development community is given (not only in regards to HTML/CSS functionality, but also in the quality of hardware and software employed by their users), the more amazing work it will produce. This is a massive win for users, but necessitates all of us tasked with building the web in the present and future to continually learn and improve. There’s never been a more exciting (albeit demanding) time to be a web designer or developer, and for all those up to the challenge, I salute you. Cheers!