Photo: New York Times
The New York Times is testing out a new website design that’s heavily inspired by mobile apps.Where have we heard that before? Oh yes — a continent away, at Facebook headquarters last week, where CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a design for his social network that’s consistent from PCs to tablets to smartphones.
From Midtown Manhattan to Menlo Park, Calif., the battle between the Web and mobile is over. Mobile won; it is marching into its defeated enemy’s citadel; and it is redecorating the place.
The abrupt, unexpected rise of native mobile apps starting in 2008 — after a decade-plus of stumbling, fumbling attempts at mobile versions of the Web — forced a radical rethink of interactive design principles.
Where business imperatives forced website designers to cram every inch of the screen with something to look at and click on, the small screens of smartphones didn’t have room for that — nor did their users, rushing to an appointment or standing in line, have time.
In some ways, it reminds us of the earliest days of the Web, when slow modems, tiny monitors, and a limited colour palette forced designers to be intensely creative.
The wave of mobile design experimentation continued with the arrival of the iPad and other full-featured tablets. While their screens could better handle regular websites, user habits, already being reshaped by smartphones, wouldn’t accept those same old experiences.
And those who designed tablet experiences from scratch were amply rewarded; we now regularly hear about online retailers who do 40 or 50 per cent of their sales on mobile, most of that from tablets.
Indeed, the line between tablets and desktops is blurring — quite literally in the case of Microsoft’s Surface, whose aggressive adoption of touch navigation may be a bit too future-forward for consumers today. But Microsoft’s move is directionally correct, and may prove right in the long term.
Apple is moving more cautiously, but it too is mixing interface metaphors from its mobile devices back into its desktop operating system.
This may be the rare area where Google and Microsoft agree: Google is in the process of changing how it sells advertising, with the goal of getting marketers to put less emphasis on whether they’re placing ads on desktop or mobile devices. Users on tablets behave very similarly to users on desktops, Google argues. Why target ads to them differently?
Which is why website builders as diverse as Facebook and the New York Times are making very similar moves. People want clean, gorgeous, simple, smart interfaces on their mobile devices. Why would they want something different when they return to a desktop?
In the five years after the advent of Apple’s App Store, it made sense for a transitional period, for there to be a distinction between “mobile” and “desktop” interactive design.
But perhaps it’s more useful today to say there’s a distinction between “good” and “bad” design.
And the good stuff is winning.
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