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Strategic insights
Designing Future Websites

Written by on March 24, 2009

Life was simple in the old days and designing for the internet was pretty straight forward. But today, or more importantly, tomorrow, things have change quite a bit.

Back in 1998 designing for the internet was all about 3 things.

  1. Design for the desktop, where the vast majority was using 800x600, with their browser maximized.
  2. Design a website, a place where people could come to you. With emphasize on getting traffic and have them stick around as long as possible.
  3. Optimize for the many search engines, because that was the primary way people would get to you.

But if we fast-forward to today, none of these really matters anymore. You still need them, but they are no longer the best things to do.

Desktop browsing

The desktop is loosing ground every single day as we find other ways of using the internet. In the past, the internet was used to 'read websites', but today we use it for everything.

  • Radio has been transformed by it. First into internet radio, then into podcasts, and now in the form of Last.fm.
  • Almost every single game has some element of internet built in. You use the internte to play against other people, compare scores and achievement. Or you download extra content - directly from within gaming console.
  • We got RSS, which allows us to get the content we want, and we read in an RSS reader.
  • When we work out, our Nike Plus sensor records the run, uploads it to NikePlus, so that you can track your progress and compare it with friends.
  • We read the daily newspaper from our mobile. We Tweet using the Mobile. We check Facebook on our mobile.
  • We used to use all the 'Web 2.0' online financial web apps... Now we do the same from the iPhone. Why wait until we get home, why not do 'in the moment?
  • We read ebooks using the Kindle, or from our iPhone. And we buy new ebooks directly from within the ebook device.
  • The next generation barcodes, does not 'just contain a link' but part of the content itself. Which means that offline browsing will get a whole new meaning.
  • Companies are making specialized apps. Instead of making mobile version of your website, you create a mobile app that is internet enabled.
  • Your GPS will now download the latest traffic information, and steer you away from problem spots.
  • And the list goes on and on...

The desktop and the desktop-browser, is no longer the only way we use the internet. Today we can go online using a lot of different devices, many of which don't involve 'browsing'. And most importantly, the new and really great experience is not made in the browser, but out in the wild, where people connect end-to-end directly.

The important trends are that while the internet used to be a single channel, in the form of the desktop browser, the future is all about this decentralization of channels. And the best experiences are those where you mix the right channels for each situation.

One example:

The next generation cameras (and most smartphones), allows you take a picture and upload it in in a single operation. And if you are smart. You go out and buy a digital picture frame, with wireless connectivity, so you (or your family) can see your pictures directly in your living room - without a computer.

Past:

Future:

(Picture by Miss Aniela)

Designing your website

This decentralization of internet channels also means that it is a lot harder to design a website. Because what kind of website should you make for a world that is outside the browser?

And more importantly, even the internet activity that goes on inside your browser is shifting.

In the past the internet was a place that people visited. Today, the internet is place where people live. The internet is simply an integrated part of people's lives.

This is the most fundamental change to the internet - ever. In the past the internet was basically just a very advanced business card. It was a place were you showcased what you did. What products you make, where to buy them, and how to get in touch with you.

Today, this passive world of showcasing is not that relevant.

Now you have to design for life. Because the new way of creating websites is not about telling whom you are, and what you do. It is all about inviting people into your life. To make them apart of your life. To allow them to see and take part of different elements of your life.

That means that you also needs to engage in other people's lives. Not as a sales person, trying to pitch your product, but as a individual that admire what other people do. You become a friend with your costumers, and link up with them on Facebook.

You are no longer designing a site. You are designing a continual presence. You are no longer designing a website for other people, you are designing a product with other people.

You still, of course, need a gallery. A place where people can see the result of what you do. A place where people can download high-quality picture and videos, and a place where you can go into the specifics.

But the website itself has taken on a completely different role. In the future it is the place where you bring it all together. It is the place where people can go to get the full picture. To get an idea of what you are doing, across all these different channels.

You are designing a 'life stream'. A hub where people can find what you are doing where, and how to get there.

Optimize for search engines

As you can probably tell by now, the search engines don't really fit into all of this. In the past, they were the key to bringing people to your site. When I started working with the internet, the main source of referrers were the search engines. They accounted for about 95% of all your referrers.

But just takes this site. When I started it, Google was my top referrer, followed by Yahoo and MSN. They accounted for 90% of my traffic. Then over the years, this traffic slowly moved to other sources.

At the beginning the search engine traffic dropped to about 70%, and new referrers came from other blogs, and occasionally from Digg.

But today, the search engines have completely lost it. On Baekdal.com only 15% of my traffic comes from the search engines. StumbleUpon is now my top referrer followed by Reddit, and Delicious. And in February 2009, Facebook started referring more traffic than Google. And Twitter is currently growing strong.

The new search engines are other people. And there is no such thing as a people-page-rank. With Google I can write an article, and get people to link to it. This will generate page ranks, and my article will be displayed at the top of the search engine for a long time to come. With people, everything that hasn't been linked with the last 2 weeks, is no longer ranked at all, simply because the link is now buried deep down in their social profiles.

When this site went offline for 5 days in December, this was what happened to my traffic. It disappeared completely for more than week. And that was because people are not anything like 'page rank'. While I maintained the same level of traffic from other sources (search engines, blogs, other sites), the traffic from the social networks disappeared.

Forget about search engine optimization. Focus on optimizing for people. Focus on getting people to talk about you, to highlight your products.

Give it life!

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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