Facebook’s director of product design on why websites may be a dying business
It feels like we were facing the end of print only years ago, but the time may be ripe to begin lamenting the end of the website.
After the dominance of URLs, we’re entering the platform era where more design diversity online is not necessarily better, Jon Lax, director of product design at Facebook, suggested at the design event Semi Permanent in Sydney Friday.
Increasingly, companies, news outlets and many others are providing their services by building in and on top of outside mobile platforms and operating systems that dictate how they should look. Mashable Australia sat down with Lax after the event to discuss how he sees the future of digital design in an era where Facebook and others act as aesthetic gatekeepers.
This may be a chicken or the egg question, but has the platform era been driven by companies or by consumer demand?
Mobile devices and their proliferation was the primary driver. We were able to give people these computing devices and, for the majority of the world, this will be the only computer they ever know.
Just like we made a technological shift in the 1980s from mainframes to PCs, and from PCs to laptops — this is just the march of technological progress.
Once you’re into a mobile world, there are two dominant platforms: Android and iOS. Inside of that, there’s this ecosystem that exists. I think all of those forces have worked together. The really interesting thing is Apple just believed that native experiences were better than mobile web experiences — that’s really driven the success of apps.
I think we’re about to move into a new phase where bots are a really interesting dimension. It’s not an app you’re going to download in the way you do now. I think [bots] are really fascinating — they might be the next generation of what we think of as apps.
You mentioned in your remarks that people only use about 10 apps on their smartphones — that certainly seems true to me.
It’s really seven that’s the magic number. You’re going to spend a high percentage of time in seven applications — which seven is different for every person. Globally, Facebook is going to have a very high likelihood of being one of those seven, along with Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and others.
If you’re a company and you are building an app, you really have to ask yourself: How can you be one of the seven? Statistically speaking, there are a few million apps in the app store, and they can’t all be in your seven.
Power is just concentrating, in a way. These things always change overtime.
Do you think bots will give those seven apps the range of utility 100 apps once delivered?
I think so. These platforms are becoming very healthy ecosystems, and they will offer new opportunities that we currently don’t have.
For designers, it must seem counterintuitive that less diversity in online design would be better?
Once we operate inside of iOS or Android, those ecosystems have design rules that are laid out for us. If I use Google’s material design, it dictates that when you touch, a button rises up to meet your finger as opposed to depressing it. They figured out: “This is the way the system should behave.”
There are a whole bunch of design decisions that, by building on mobile, are taken out of your control. And that’s a good thing — if every designer had to worry about the way a button behaved, it would just be a lot of energy for not a lot of value.
For people, every app they’d open, they’d have to relearn how it worked.
Ultimately, it’s good that there are a whole lot of design decisions that have become standardised. But what that means is designers’ jobs are changing — what they’re going to focus on is how the thing works and less about how it looks. This is what enables you to create products that can scale to meet billions of people.
That’s different than the work we were doing in the mid-2000s. We were trying everything — this is the Myspace era — we were just going crazy. I think we had to go through that phase and I think we’re going to go through that phase with [virtual reality]. There’s going to be a bunch of things we’re going to try that will turn out not be the thing we end up with.
When it comes to web and mobile, we’ve passed through that and we’re in a phase where it’s about standardisation. It’s about creating consistent experience.
Facebook is now the presumptive host for such a broad range of activities, from news delivery to socialising — is there a risk companies lose their identity by being folded into the social network’s platform aesthetic and operation?
I won’t answer that question directly, because it’s a pretty contentious question.
What I will say is: I think the trend of mobile has fundamentally changed the dynamics of how information is distributed. It turns out that people like feeds and it does a good job for them. That’s just what we’re experiencing right now.
Publishers can be very successful inside of these platforms.
So many companies are tied to Facebook and use it to deliver their services. How do you think about your leadership responsibility in terms of platform design?
I think our primary responsibility is to the community. We want to make something that people want to use around the world. When it comes to businesses, we think that we have a responsibility to help connect businesses with people.
The reality is in this shift to mobile, if all those forces that I talked about are true, one of the challenges that it presents, especially for small business, is they’re never going to be able to create a native mobile app.
Technically, that’s very complicated. Even if they were, their chances of being one of the top seven is just unrealistic, but yet they need to be able to do business with people.
Where I think our responsibility is, is being able to enable those businesses to connect with people. It’s much easier to have a Facebook page, to build that page, to build an audience, to actually do business. That is the responsibility we have.
What do you think about the “ugly websites” trend? Is ugliness a way to rebel against the new, streamlined Internet?
There has been this rationalisation to a very common aesthetic — sites tend to look very the same.
I actually think that’s probably a good thing for people, because that sameness makes it easier to move from site to site to get what you need. You don’t need to reorientate yourself.
The ugliness thing is a younger generation of people who are now creating websites who are nostalgic for like, the wild west, geo-cities aesthetic, which they never experienced. And they have some version of it that they are putting out there.
What Erin Yogasundram is doing with Shop Jeen is a cultural riff. It’s pretty niche, but it’s cool.
While platforms like Facebook, Twitter and other have changed directions, they’re still relatively “simple looking” platforms, whereas websites seem to be getting ever more complicated. Why is that?
Websites, for the most part, are dominated by marketing and brands, where standing out and being different are very valuable. When you talk about products, where fundamentally we are using them to accomplish something in our lives, they become a bit more utilitarian. You can think about them a little differently, and how you would design for them.
The most important thing for all designers, no matter who you are, is to design something that solves a problem for people. You can do that aesthetically in different ways, but if you’re not solving a problem, especially in digital design, you’re really just creating art.
There’s a space in the world for art, but that’s different from trying to build products at scale.
The one thing that does make me a little nervous is a lot of my designer friends are still focused building websites and I’m not sure that’s a growth business anymore.
What would you advise designers do?
If you look at people who are doing interesting work, they tend to be building inside these platforms like Facebook and finding ways to do interesting work in there. For instance, journalists. Instant Articles is a really great way for stories to be told. There is some really interesting stuff being done with live video — there’s an interesting canvas for people to tell really authentic stories in an interesting way.
I think there are massive amounts of creativity that can be unlocked through those things, it’s just a different form of creativity than placing a pixel on a screen and choosing the perfect font.
It feels very similar to when we started to tell print designers they needed to do this thing on the web and make websites. That their skills and discipline were going to change. There was a lot of the same resistance.
Will websites become boutique items?
The one thing about the web is that it is such a large system that it will take a long time for that energy to unwind, but when you look at the data, you can definitely see the move to mobile and that will continue.
But none of these things go away. People still make vinyl records.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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