The World Wide Web started its life as a series of simple, text-based, read-only homepages whose sole purpose was to act as a digital business card and brochure. From this, Web 2.0 evolved, and this dynamic, interactive approach now informs our online life. Web 2.0 is about much more than page design; from static pages grew a community-driven, user-generated web where collaboration and information are unified.
For example, in order to rank sites according to usefulness, Google’s search engine algorithm looks at website content to learn which are the most commonly linked. Sites like Facebook and Last.fm are about user-generated content, sharing, and collaborating. Other trends, such as skip-intro animations and word-of-mouth advertising or viral marketing, have changed the way we interact with the web. But what will Web 3.0 bring us?
The semantic web
We are now in an age that some refer to as the semantic web. This is essentially a means of storing data such that it can be understood by both humans and computers. Using the new HTML5 mark-up language, we can now create a natural cycle featuring systems and software that both self-teach and self-evaluate.
Take a simple help application that runs alongside a website or web application. This is usually a set of pages, structured and categorized according to the subject matter. But if the data in the help application is stored and processed semantically (using relevant HTML article tags, for example), we can create a system that understands the questions most commonly asked, and as a result offer up not only the correct answers but also more relevant information – say, common pitfalls or additional issues to consider – before being prompted to do so. This functions as an educational tool, building user knowledge and acting as much more than just a search. Furthermore, based on the questions the user has asked, we can rewrite existing answers and create new ones that address them better. In turn, the relevant information changes according to the nature and needs of the user, in what could be called a self-editing educational cycle.
Wikipedia’s use of bots is a good example of the semantic web. The site no longer relies solely on humans to preserve the quality of its appeal; we’re not good enough. Wikipedia’s bots are able to derive sufficient meaning from the data in an entry that they can detect cases of poor use and vandalism instantly, wiping out rogue edits in seconds.
Semantics is at the heart of HTML5, the newest revision of the HTML standard originally intended for structuring and presenting content.
W3C’s web standards are now being taken much more seriously by web browser manufacturers. Differing implementations of standards by the likes of Microsoft, Opera and Mozilla have made things very difficult for developers. Without using third-party plugins such as Adobe Flash, the creation of rich internet applications that are consistent across all platforms was close to impossible, but thanks to HTML5, cross-browser development is now straightforward. And because HTML5 is independent of device or display, we can transfer our data in any format across a variety of platforms.
HTML5’s APIs (application programming interfaces) are extremely powerful. Take WebSocket, a technique for two-way communication, and a type of ‘push’ technology; this enables us to create enterprise web applications that allow multiple users to connect, view and edit on-screen at the same time, through a browser. This could facilitate innovative presentations with on-the-fly edits from multiple locations, or enable chat rooms attached to existing applications which allow users to reach out for support.
Faster pages, better data
Why are calendar date pickers often clunky? Some of them are unpleasant colors, and they don’t seem to work reliably – certainly, they vary according to the site you’re using. HTML5 helps with this too.
Because we require less additional code or technology, this gives us better performance and speed in our applications. We now have a lot more flexibility to create even richer web apps with improved performance, as well as better data.
Another major HTML5 advancement is client-side storage and offline application usage. We tend to think of the web as always being ‘online’, but with the new HTML5 API we will be able to allow users to continue to input and edit data in an enterprise application even if they lose their internet or server connection. They can save on a client machine and sync with the server, continually and seamlessly.
This crossover of client-side storage and cloud computing means that we will think less in terms of devices and more in terms of data; because data is the most important asset of any application. This is a dramatic change in the user experience, as traditionally we have always ‘saved’ our documents; this classic paradigm may no longer be required, removing an entire level from user interfaces and therefore simplifying them. Of course, caution is always advisable as removing control from the user could potentially limit their ability; a shift towards automating this will take some time for most users to get used to.
Web 3.0 is changing the way we engage with and navigate our applications and websites. Virtual reality is now freely available, with devices like Xbox Kinect becoming more popular. Instead of touch-screen technology, the next generation of devices could use your eyes, voice and gestures as a means to navigate and interact. This is all the more true now that web applications are cross-platform, not reliant on a particular operating system and, if produced well, implement sound responsive design.
A note of caution
Of course, one must be cautious and realistic with all of these new mechanisms. Touch-screen technology is ideal for the simple collection of consumer data (say, in a showroom), but for enterprise applications that require large amounts of data to be processed, viewed and manipulated on-screen, the user experience should probably not take place on an iPad. This is not a device to be used for eight hours a day.
As with all new technological advancements, context is all-important. The reason a keyboard and mouse are great for desktop application is that they are efficient, tactile and sensory. By limiting this choice, you could also restrict the possibilities of the enterprise software you create. Bill Buxton, Principal Researcher at Microsoft put it most succinctly: “Everything is best for something and worst for something else. The desktop PC will continue to exist and develop for the many things for which it is well suited, and other devices will take over from it for the things for which it is less well suited.”
We should always remain focused on the digital environments we are creating, and design the best technology experience for that.
HTML5 standards are changing and developing all the time. They give us a great deal of scope to produce excellent user experiences, enhancing the browser so it can mimic operating systems, with heightened performance and better data. New user experience paradigms and form elements such as sliders and calendars are now all native to the client’s browser.
But we should always think of context. Sometimes, traditional methods of engaging with our customers remain the most appropriate, and each time we consider the use of a new capability we should ask ourselves whether we are truly helping our users. Users are, after all, the interface designer’s ultimate responsibility.