Friday, June 4, 2004

Is Web Design for Suckers?

Recently I've become aware of a not-so-subtle snobbery that occasionally rears its head on the interaction design mailing list and at school. Namely that designing for the web isn't as interesting/challenging/rewarding as designing for other platforms like desktop applications, handheld devices, or other digital devices. Many of my classmates have openly said that they came back to school to get out of doing web work and want to move into other areas. Some won't interview for web jobs at all. The internet, in the last decade, has quickly gone from the golden child to the ugly stepsister.

Why is this? Is designing for the web somehow inferior to designing for the desktop? Is it because other platforms are seen as having more flexibility and power than the internet? Is it about control and stability? Or is it the idea that more powerful interactions can happen elsewhere? How has it come to be, in the era of Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Ebay, et al. that web workers are the second-class citizens of digital design?

Some of it, I'm sure, comes from the sour taste that the dotcom crash left in many people's mouths. There's nothing like getting laid off multiple times to dispel any illusions one might have about the glamour and importance of the work.

I have to admit that for a while, I was a little prejudiced as well. I looked at what the folks at Apple, Macromedia, Adobe, and, yes, Microsoft could do--affect how people do their work and even how they think about computers--and I envied them. They seemed to be doing "real work." Too often, designers for the web are stuck doing brochure-ware and sites where the interactivity was only navigating through static pages. And while this might be interesting work for some, it isn't really for those concerned with how products respond in response to human actions: interaction designers.

This is changing, albeit slowly. Flash is becoming (at least trying to become) an application platform. Banking, insurance, brokerages, and travel sites (among others) are doing what amounts to application development for the web. And technologies like wi-fi and GPS are taking the web to places unheard of a decade ago.

What it comes down to for me is that the web is a platform. A powerful platform, that, over time and with the proliferation of rich, broadband applications, might surpass the desktop as the platform of choice. Indeed, with increases in broadband and processor speed, it might be difficult to tell where your machine ends and the vast matrix of the internet begins.

The web has a lot of challenging constraints. Some of these constraints are very annoying. Very annoying, as anyone who has tried to put together a web site can attest. But I always thought the best designers are those that can work with the most constraints?

Where the web excels is in speed and the nature of the client/server paradigm. Although it's clearly not an optimal situation, you can do new software releases several times a day. Try doing that with Microsoft Office. This allows for not only quick fixes to problems, but also the ability to quickly test things out live with actual users in its actual environment, not just at a testing lab.

This is, of course, not to suggest that web design is harder than other forms of digital design. It isn't. None of it is easy to do well. But it's time to break this caste system. Web design shouldn't be considered the dimwitted cousin of software design. It is increasing becoming software design, and visa versa. What's important is doing good work that makes people's lives better, whatever the platform.

Posted at 10:09 AM | comments (4) | trackback (0)


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