Impact of One-size-fits-all Web Design

I don’t particularly miss the splash landing pages, rotating animated logos, and “click here” web design of the 1990s. But one of the great things about it was that people experimented, sometimes doing crazy things. Rob LoCascio, who in 1995 “came up with the technology for those chat windows that pop up on websites,” notes that the language we used back then and the interfaces we worked with all assumed that the web was like a library for static resources. Of course, the mission of a library today has evolved to include the interactive elements that LoCascio sees as signs of why the library model doesn’t describe our use of the Internet today.

When Seton Hill rolled out its mobile technology initiative (issuing a MacBook and a just-released iPad to all students, all faculty/staff), I paid a lot of attention to Apple’s design aesthetic. All our apps work pretty much the same way, due to the very tight design specs that Apple requires app developers to follow. LoCascio notes a similar effect of Google, whose ranking algorithm considers design (among other factors) to punish or reward websites. If you want to publish in Apple’s App Store, or you want Google to rank your site highly, you have to play by the rules. Speaking of HTML and Google, here is how LoCascio sees the problem:

The web was intended to bring humanity’s vast trove of content, previously cataloged in our libraries, to mass audiences through a digital user experience — i.e. the website. In the early years, we were speaking in library terms about “browsing” and “indexing,” and in many ways the core technology of a website, called HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), was designed to display static content — much like library books.

But retail stores aren’t libraries, and the library format can’t be applied to online stores either. Consumers need a way to dynamically answer the questions that enable them to make purchases. In the current model, we’re forced to find and read a series of static pages to get answers — when we tend to buy more if we can build trust over a series of questions and answers instead.

The second problem with the web is Google. When we started to build websites in the ’90s, everyone was trying to design their virtual stores differently. On one hand, this made them interesting and unique; on the other, the lack of industry standards made them hard to navigate — and really hard to “index” into a universal card catalog.

Then Google stepped in around 1998. As Google made it easier to find the world’s information, it also started to dictate the rules through the PageRank algorithm, which forced companies to design their websites in a certain way to be indexed at the top of Google’s search results. But its one-size-fits-all structure ultimately makes it flawed for e-commerce.

Now, almost every website looks the same — and performs poorly.