If the history of the web is all the Star Wars films, are we currently in the shit second trilogy?

“The Force will be with you. Always.”

It’s one of the most famous lines in the first Star Wars film. Just reading the line is probably enough for you to conjure the scene. Obi-Wan speaking to Luke Skywalker, just before Kenobi himself enters battle with Darth Vader.

But what is it that has made this line so memorable? The passing of the metaphorical torch? The manner of Obi-Wan’s departure? Or is it because the force itself is such a mysterious and nebulous concept?

It’s left to our imagination to decipher what it is, and I’ve always thought it’s all the better for it.

However, as soon as the concept of the force was ‘explained’ for us in George Lucas’s second batch of films (midichlorians if anyone’s paying attention) all that mystery and magic left.

What was an intangible concept — and an open plane for us to imagine our own interpretation — was lost.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Lucas’s second trilogy of films was so shit.

Whilst I’m not a Star Wars geek, I often feel that the web is a similar iteration of its own. The first iteration? Rough around the edges, sometimes misunderstood, but rather good fun. The second? More refined, more expensive, a higher quality, yet rather dull with all the magic taken out.

Please don’t get me wrong. The last twenty years have seen remarkable strides in strategy, technology and design. Products are tested with real people and launched based on the real needs of users and businesses.

But… hasn’t this made the web just that little bit more boring? I believe that three common ways that designers (and businesses) think about users have contributed to this pattern of dullness:

  • You will use the interface the way I want you to
  • You will be treated like an idiot
  • You will not be trusted to read maps or signs

These are the anodyne paths of least resistance. Let’s look at them in more detail.

Design for fixed paths

In the first iteration of the web, interfaces were less defined and users were allowed to find the paths that worked for them, Dip in, dip out. Search or navigate. Multiple paths with different start or shipping points. Sure, this may have been down to dis-organisation rather than intention, but it also allowed flexibility in the ways that people interacted with or used a service.

Unfortunately, an ever expanding current trend is product design seems to be enjoying masochistically forcing users into one path: you will use the service the way we want you to.

An everyday examples of this is buying a ticket for the Southbank Centre in London. This should be a simple transaction but yet so determined is the organisation to have a relationship with the user that you are forced to create an account just to buy a ticket.

Pic: You can't just buy a ticket for the South Bank Centre in London as a guest.

This pernicious (and time-consuming) design trend could be understood if the exchange of value was purely information based (where I effectively pay with my email address) however this is deeply transactional (where I pay with real money).

It seems almost unbelievable that users aren’t allowed to ‘checkout as guest’. But no, the only way is to create an account, receive four welcome emails for something you didn’t want in the first place and be exhorted to make an additional charity donation. All before being allowed to buy a ticket.

In this case, the Southbank Centre is so fixated on one path, one goal, that it over rules usability. You will have a relationship with us, I command you.

Unfortunately the trend for fixed parts (driven by the needs of the organisation rather than the needs of the customer) leaves a sour taste and the opposite effect intended.

Design for the lowest common denominators

In the first generation of the web, the onus was on the user to work out how to use a service, product or interface. Yes, often to their detriment. A deficit of user-testing meant that things were often over-complicated and deeply unclear.

The second generation of interfaces have made great strides in usability. And yet has the dial swung too far in the opposite direction?

The self-service checkout machines in the upmarket supermarket chain, Waitrose, are a good case in point.

Yes, as we are expected to use machines (and interfaces) without human intervention, it makes sense to design an experience that everyone can use the first time.

But what happens on the second, third or hundredth time?

Five seconds after scanning your first product, the Waitrose check-out machines religiously tells you to ‘please scan an item or press finish and pay’.

This could be understood if the user had maybe paused for a moment, perhaps perplexed by an interface they may have used a hundred time before. But no. Every time it assumes you’re a check-out virgin and need help.

Equally, when you do select the finish and pay option, the machine unfailingly tells you to ‘please put the card into the card reader and follow the instructions’. Never mind that it’s often possible to finish paying by chip and pin before this message finishes playing! Imagine how patronising this would be if said by a human cashier. Or if a cashier asked you to place your items on the conveyor belt. It’s unnecessary.

What is particularly worrying about this trend is that design for the lowest common denominator means we are being trained to be treated like idiots by machines. Please don’t tell me that this is the future. Surely there’s room for both novices and experts?

Design for pattern recognition

This is perhaps the most tenacious design trend of the current web iteration, so much so that a lot has been said about it already.

The theory goes that common design patterns are a good thing. Users can recognise signposting that has been used time and time before. I know where the furniture is, I know where to look and how to find things.

In an age where expensive to develop products can have dramatically short shelf lives, common design patterns can be seen as a boon. Anything that aids understanding of a proposition and therefore helps drive adoption is a good thing, right?

But this trend is also homogenising the web. It’s like our factory settings are being permanently set to ‘default’. Outliers — or new maps and patterns — are being trampled and crushed by passable mediocrity.

The new BBC Sounds app — an app to help people explore, discover and listen to the huge breadth of the BBC’s music, radio and podcasts — is a good example.

pic: BBC Sounds app carousel

A common navigation feature of this type of app is content categorisation, in this case an expansive list of everything from Pop & Chart, RnB to Documentaries and Comedy.

This list is displayed as a carousel of 12 options. Is this really the best way to let people navigate? It’s worth noting that a lot of emphasis has been placed on the app only having 3 nav bar items (listen, my sounds, search). Maybe the app designers don’t want users to navigate by category (another fixed path perhaps?). Or maybe research says the generic apps with skinny favs are more successful, and that carousels are great discovery devices.

But… really? Where’s the boldness? The excelsior experience that goes above and beyond? That stands out past the mundaneness of focus group design?

Conclusion

It is true that the demands on our attention span as users is increasing all the time. It’s something that we (as designers of the internet and apps) have unwittingly created ourselves. Unfortunately it seems to be a reinforcing circle that gets stronger and more uniform on every loop.

Yes, there are some experiences out there that reach above the generic. Snapchat is well known for using design patterns that break boundaries (and make little obvious sense to pre-millennials and non-digital natives). The pre-launch sign up process for British challenger bank Monzo was beautiful in both inception and execution (the sheer detail and richness of the user flow was something to behold). However, these are few and far between.

Who knows what’s next? What will the third wave of the internet be? Hopefully not just old ideas recycled with extra lens flare.

Rather I hope that it’s rougher around the edges, with more room to explore and boundaries that are less well defined. Either way, it feels as if the internet could do with finding the force again.

Isaac Pinnock

Isaac Pinnock Founding Partner

Isaac is a founding member of Made by Many, where he employs his experience in rapid web prototyping, and in transforming a set of business requirements into a viable and desirable customer experience. Isaac is an interaction designer who understands how to develop a service idea and make it real.

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