Every year, blogs like this one try to predict what’s going to happen in our industry over the next 12 months. Design is a product of its environment and good design reflects the world that it exists in; no one has a crystal ball, so unsurprisingly design predictions are wrong as often as they are right.
However, there are clear emerging trends on the web. Sometimes we see developments happen in front of us. Sometimes they keep coming up in conversation. Sometimes one solid idea unites a set of related trends. More often than not, we’re just following the age-old pattern of revolution and counter-revolution.
Here are seven developments I think we’ll see this year, together with a score on how confident I am that I’m right…
1. 2017 will not be the year of VR
VR is amazing. The ability to disconnect from your context and immerse yourself in a more flexible reality is genuinely world-changing. What’s more, the technology is finally mature enough to deliver on its promise. But VR will not be a mainstay of web design in the next 12 months.
The common objection to VR is the cost of the kit, but actually a VR headset is relatively cheap. A smartphone costs in the region of $850 (and only lasts a month less than the contract you sign to get it) and the mobile web is still growing at pace. (What’s more, you can use that self-same smartphone and some cardboard to create a rudimentary VR setup.)
[pullquote]Most people are too lazy to put on a VR headset just to order pizza
What’s holding up VR is our laziness. If you look at your web stats, you’ll see that most mobile browsing occurs via wifi; in other words, we’re browsing the web on portable devices when we’re not mobile. We know that we’ll get a better experience on desktop, but the desk is all the way over there, and my phone’s already on, and it’s in my pocket…
The biggest challenge to VR is that it can’t be used casually. VR is an event, an experience. Most people are too lazy to put on a VR headset just to order pizza. So we’ll play games, watch movies, tour vacation spots, but we won’t browse Vice, or flick through Facebook, or just kill time. Until we do, VR will always be a supplementary technology.
2. We’ll be obsessed with security, but forget passwords
For many people, 2016 was a bit of a gut-punch, and there’s inevitable fallout from that. In industry terms, it doesn’t actually matter if Russian hackers put Trump in the Whitehouse, what matters is that the issues of hacking, privacy, and security have entered the public consciousness.
It’s very likely that over the next 12 months we’ll see an increase in the use of browsers like Vivaldi. It’s very likely that many more sites will be using SSL certificates. It’s very likely that every client you meet this year is going to have at least some questions about security.
One potential benefit of our renewed obsession with privacy is the end of passwords. Passwords have never been secure, because humans aren’t good at remembering long strings of random characters, and computers are. Passwords have always been a least-worst solution. The last few years have seen numerous attempts to move beyond them, ranging from master password applications, to social media sign-ins, to email-based logins. Finally, we have a great alternative in the form of fingerprint ID.
In 2017, the option to sign into sites using your fingerprint will become commonplace. The ubiquitous nature of mobile devices, and the steady decline of desktop browsing, coupled with the obvious benefits of a unique identifier that you don’t need to remember, will be the tipping point for simple security on the web.
3. Someone will finally make AI work
Obviously it won’t pass the Turing test, it won’t even try to. But provided that the marketing department agrees to call it “AI”, then machine learning and pattern recognition will make 2017 year zero for widespread artificial intelligence.
[pullquote]…it’s a short hop from A/B testing, to collaborative A/B testing where results from multiple sites are pooled into a single AI
At the core of this AI revolution, will be an enhanced approach to A/B testing; A/B testing only produces reliable results when you have many thousands of sessions to gather feedback from—more than most sites can muster. With the continued growth of design patterns, and the acceptance of design convergence over the last couple of years, countless designers are working with comparable UI elements. All of which means it’s a short hop from A/B testing, to collaborative A/B testing where results from multiple sites are pooled into a single AI. Complex design problems can then be solved using feedback from millions of users across thousands of sites.
In 2017 someone will release a cloud-based solution that will gather data from across the web, and interpret it intelligently so users can design from an informed point of view. This process won’t replace designers, because insights will, by necessity, be broad and work on a design pattern level. How to implement those insights will be a key talent for designers over the next decade.
4. The death of the web(site) and an end to online advertising
Designing sites as component-based systems, rather than as individual pages has been a popular approach for a number of years. The latest formalised version of the approach is Brad Frost’s Atomic Design. The value this methodology brings is an increased flexibility, greater consistency, and a more responsive approach across different media.
In 2017 we’ll take the next step by detaching components from sites, and delivering content as brands, rather than distinct websites. A travel service for example, might have hotel listings, flight listings, venue reviews, currency conversion, weather reports, all displayed in a single browser window, and all syndicated from different content providers. We’ll effectively be browsing as we do now using multiple tabs, but on a single screen.
Initially these services will be web apps, eventually we may see them evolve into distinct browser-like applications.
The side-effect of this new approach to syndication will be the final nail in the coffin of the floundering advertising revenue model. Advertising has always been a flawed method for funding the web: adverts are intrusive, unpopular, and impact content.
There are now two distinct webs forming, the traditional web that is locked in to single providers, and a SaaS model in which micro-payments buy access to select content. As 2017 progresses we’ll see the growth of the payment model, not in the form of paywalls, but in tiny micro-payments, enabled in the browser, that pay for syndicated content as we consume it.
5. The web will be beautiful
Utilitarian design has been the de facto approach for five years or more. We talk about design being “invisible”, as if a user being aware of design is somehow harmful.
Through 2016 there was an increasing interest in “delightful” design. Companies like WeTransfer enhanced their value with conspicuous design. Leading design thinkers like Stefan Sagmeister were advocating for beauty. The austerity of flat design has already been supplanted by a rediscovered love of gradients.
[pullquote]A reaction against the over-reliance on frameworks has lead to designers exploring more expressive ways of communicating
As human beings we’re attracted to beauty. If a product is beautiful, the experience of using it is more enjoyable. A product that is enjoyable, will be used more.
The drive for beauty is tied up in a number of ongoing trends. A reaction against the over-reliance on frameworks has lead to designers exploring more expressive ways of communicating. Hand-lettering and illustration are amongst the most in-demand design skills.
Even a clunky 2017-style AI can follow a set of rules to make type legible, to make colors inclusive, to make layouts responsive; those skills have all been mastered. In 2017, each designer’s strength will be their own craft skill, a unique vision of what is beautiful.
6. Design tools will explode
It’s a common misconception that there are a lot of design tools available. In actuality, there are a few key areas that receive all the attention, while the bulk of our processes are under-served. If you need a color picker, you have almost too much choice. If you’re looking for a prototyping tool there are a dozen or more professional-grade options available. If on the other hand you’re looking at vector graphics, you realistically have three options. For Bitmap artwork, it’s more like two.
There is clearly an appetite for new solutions to new problems. Web professionals, by our nature, are the first to dive into new technology. We think nothing of working with applications that are still in beta. The growth of prototyping tools demonstrates that there’s also a generation of software developers out there, ready to create innovative, exciting, and affordable design applications.
At the very least, in-app tooling will dramatically evolve this year. Adobe is reportedly working on AI additions to Creative Cloud as it tries to re-establish its dominance in the market, and it’s likely that other major players will follow suit.
Automation is the key word for software in 2017, and it will all be aimed at freeing up your time for more creativity.
7. The unstoppable rise of VX Design
Right now, someone somewhere is writing a Medium post in which they coin the latest industry buzz word. It’s probably very similar to “UX” only more-so. It’s probably “VX”; “VX” is one step along the alphabet, and still includes the cool sounding “X”. “VX” could be a reference to “VR”, it probably stands for “Virtual Experience”.
The term “VX Designer” will be virtually meaningless, but eight out of ten designers will be using it on their social media profiles by December. Several new design blogs will pop up, dedicated to “All things VX”. At this year’s MAX, Adobe will announce a specialist version of Creative Cloud, targeting “VX Designers”.
By the end of the year we’ll all be pontificating on “VX” as the only legitimate approach to design in 2018.
Ben Moss has designed and coded work for award-winning startups, and global names including IBM, UBS, and the FBI. When he’s not in front of a screen he’s probably out trail-running.