Recruiting For A Richer Web

Last week I talked about how the wide array of tools to build richer web experiences are leaving designers and web production people behind. In this post, I’ll touch on some of the things the companies behind these new technologies – Adobe, Microsoft, and others – can do to lower the barrier to entry for the alienated masses (how’s that for melodrama?).

One thing we can’t deny about the richer web, whether we’re talking about Ajax or Flash/Flex or Silverlight: it’s more complicated than the old Web. We’re shifting from a page-based paradigm to one where user “events” can cause all sorts of interesting things to occur. “When a user clicks here, pull this XML from the server, parse it and display it in this widget over there.” However way you look at it, there’s a lot more going on than “go from this page to that page.”

While developers are attacking this head-on, designers are left in a bit of a lurch. How can designers sketch out, think through and ultimately create these interactions? More importantly, how can we help them leverage the skills and knowledge they have today and build upon them, rather than purge them and start all over again. Here are some things I think can help the cause:

  • Keep Supporting CSS For Styling – And Maybe For Layout. The last five or so years has seen an amazing grass-roots movement towards leveraging cascading style sheets not only for styling but also for layout. Adobe’s Flex platform already has limited support for CSS – that’s a great start. It would be great to see the principles of CSS – to separate styling from content – continue to be supported. Beyond look and feel, CSS is often used today for the layout of container elements in XHTML. While it’s broken in some places and requires some voodoo tricks to attain the desired outcome, it’s an important step because it allows the markup to more closely resembe a semantic structure.
  • Long Live XHTML (Sorta). I’ll pose this suggestion in the form of a question: why do tags like <h1>, <p>, <a> or <ul> have to disappear? Yes, we’re building more software now than content-heavy web pages, but the web is still mainly about content. It’s hard to stomach all these new markup specs that are showing up. It seems nobody bothered to consider extending XHTML. Or how about a conversion tool of sorts?
  • Down To The Pixel. One of the great things about web development is you can grab the elements as they are, or you can really dive in and change the look and feel of just about everything without having to write a lot of code. Of course, you can do that with these new technologies but you’ll be confronted with a very steep learning curve. I know that both Adobe & Microsoft are addressing the designer-developer workflow with new tools, but they’re far off from providing the relatively easy granular power the web offers.
  • Where’s My Timeline? Developers think in objects interacting. Designers think in time – the experience unfolding as the user interacts with a system. In the old days, a site map could nicely lay out the world that a user can traverse. With all this new interactivity, it’s getting a lot harder to “map out” the possibilities. Adobe has done a great job of attacking both sides: the Flash timeline for desingers, the Flex object model for developers. Now they just have to somehow bridge the gap between the two. In the past, the hand-off was “production-ready” front-end: xhtml, css, images. What’s the hand-off gonna be here? Can a designer map out the different pieces and get them ready for wiring?

Looking at these trends, I can’t help but wonder two things: is Ajax the answer? (I’m not convinced it is) and, what happened to the standards bodies? Is this stuff moving too quickly to really step back and consider drafting a standard that everybody can agree to? The HTML story is telling. HTML happened and it got the head start it needed. That didn’t happen here.

At Arc90, we’re really enjoying Flex as a development platform. Adobe has put a lot of thought into bringing richer experiences to the web, and to developers. I’ve spoken to some people on the Flex team and it’s clear they’re thinking about these challenges.

And then you’ve got Microsoft and Silverlight. When it was announced two weeks ago, you’d think the web was about to immediately change forever. Not so fast. Before anything drastic happens, you need an army to make it happen. Hopefully both companies (and others) will acknowledge and build upon the skills and experience that is out there today.

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