A Journey Through Time: Websites Past, Present and Future

A Journey Through Time: Websites Past, Present and Future

Ericka Harshaw

The Past

Let us begin our websites journey through time by taking a look at the awesome infographic by Ninja Essays. I’ve only included a partial view of the infographic, but clearly you can see that websites have come a long way since the World Wide Web was conceived decades ago by English scientist Tim Berners-Lee.

Popular Sites Then and Now


Lack of IA or ID in Decades Past

For those of you who don’t know, Information Architecture (IA) is the practice of organizing and labeling content in an effective and sustainable way. It focuses on creating the larger picture of how items fit together and relate to each other within a system.

Information Design (ID), on the other hand, is the practice of visually presenting information in a way that promotes efficient and effective understanding.

Several decades ago, both Information Architecture and Information Design seem to have taken a back seat to the practice of showcasing as much information on a website or page as possible while keeping load times short. Suffice it to say, lack of usability, readability and navigation did not seem to be major concerns for alot of companies and their websites.

Take Apple’s old homepage in the example above. It was way too busy…my eyes jump from section to section with no clear direction.

Common Trends Way Back When

As you may remember, left navigation panes were all the rage a couple of decades ago. This was right around the time that the first smartphones were being developed, so Web design still centered around using tables and frames and being optimized for clunky desktops and browsers like Mosaic and Netscape.

This was also the era of using WYSIWYG editors like Dreamweaver to code sites and Flash to create highly interactive yet inaccessible websites.

Other common trends back then included the use of crazy fonts (e.g. Comic Sans), Web safe colors, gradients, scrolling text, animated gifs (e.g. dancing baby), spacer gifs, stock images (e.g. MS Clip Art), and lots of default purple text links. I know, yikes!

SEO was even different back then. Rankings, site maps, meta data and backlinking were top priorities.

The Present

Next on our websites journey is the present. One of the most significant changes over the past few decades was moving away from tables to create the overall structure and layout of websites.

Now we’re using CSS to create more streamlined, adaptable, media-driven sites that look great across all mediums—whether it’s desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile.

Take Facebook for example. While they kept some of their older elements, the new homepage is more refined. The logo and login information is prominently displayed at the top of the page and they make better use of headings, buttons and icons to create visual distinction and hierarchy.

Facebook Then and Now


Responsive Versus Adaptive Debate Rages On

Of course, the debate still continues in terms of responsive versus adaptive. In case you’re not familiar with either term, responsive design is fluid so the layout adapts to the size of a screen no matter what the target device is. Adaptive detects the screen size and loads the appropriate layout for it.

Generally speaking, there are pros and cons associated with both especially in regards to coding, Information Architecture, usability, load time, etc. However, the general consensus is that we’ve moved into an era where we must have functional, streamlined, quickly loading information that is adaptable to all devices.

Content Management Systems Dominate

We have also moved into an era where content management systems like WordPress, Joomla and Drupal and companies like Wix have become the standard for creating websites. Now the average person can create and/or maintain a fully responsive, data-driven website without having any (or very little) coding knowledge.

There is even a fairly recent website building service called The Grid that offers its users the ability to have their websites built using artificial intelligence. Your site will literally evolve and adapt to your content to make sure that it’s optimized for your specified purpose or style. Now websites can be “responsive” in every sense of the word.

The CMS era has also impacted many working class Web professionals. Yes, large companies still tend to go the traditional route by hiring UX/Web Designers, Content Managers, Front-End Developers and Back-End Developers to create and maintain their complex, data-driven websites.

However, a lot of companies are nixing these different positions and opting for a single, jack-of-all-trades that can not only maintain their website but also create the content for it too.

That, coupled with misleading job descriptions and even more misleading job titles, has definitely caused a lot of frustration for those of us in the industry. I’m sure it has also led a lot of us to rethink our chosen career paths…and job titles.

Emergence of HTML5…Finally

One long-awaited update was the release of HTML5 in 2014 and HTML5.1 later this year. HTML5 is the fifth and current version of the HTML standard. It’s been designed to deliver almost everything you’d want to do online without requiring additional software such as plugins or lots of extra code like JavaScript. It does everything from animation, apps, music and video.

Essentially it was designed to provide better, faster, more consistent user experiences for both desktop and mobile users, and it’s come a long way from the HTML of the 90s.

SEO Becomes More Vital

Obviously SEO has become even more important. With the insurgence of more websites and the ever-present social media frenzy, it’s become even more competitive when it comes to getting organic traffic for your website.

Back in the day, SEO was page-focused with an emphasis on singular keywords, site maps, meta data, backlinking and rankings. Now, it’s more ROI-focused with an emphasis on long-tail keywords, keyword intent, user search needs and content quality.

Other Common Trends

Other trends seem to center around design (flat, material and minimalism), micro-interactions and navigation…hamburger menus, sliders, large hero images and parallax scrolling just to name a few.

Also, less importance is being placed on above-the-fold design. Because of mobile, users are now more accustomed to the “long scroll”.

The Future

Responsive Will Reign Supreme

Last on our websites journey is the future. Decades from now, I suspect that responsive design will overtake adaptive as the primary design methodology. One reason for this is that responsive reduces your website to one fluid, single site which is easier to manage.

Another reason is that Google has always recommended responsive Web design (RWD). Recently they announced that they’ll start rolling out an update to mobile search results that increases the effect of the ranking signal. This will result in users finding even more pages that are relevant and mobile-friendly.

If you want to know how mobile-friendly your site is, use Google’s mobile-friendly test.

Contextual Computing Will Blow Us Away

As contextual computing becomes more advanced, it will drastically change the way we interact with content and data. Contextual computing, also called context-aware computing, is using software and hardware to automatically collect and analyze data about a device’s surroundings in order to present relevant, actionable information to the end user.

Given the current state of intuitive Web design due to pioneers like The Grid, I think in the near future everyone will be moving in a direction where the design and development process is more automated and intuitive.

That could very well mean that there will be some major changes in the Web industry pertaining to job roles, responsibilities, titles and processes—although, I’m sure some would argue that changes are already needed 🙂 .

In 20+ years, computing and data exchange could be even more advanced! The founder of MIT Media Labs, Nicholas Negroponte, proposes that we may be putting data in pill form so that we can swallow it like candy and feed it directly into our brains via the bloodstream. Imagine that!


The Final Take-A-Ways

Websites have definitely come a long way throughout the course of several decades. If you’re a millennial in the Web industry, you’ll probably have to face the inevitable reality that your job could be replaced by more intuitive, automated systems before you retire.

It’s part of the reason why I’m currently focusing on Content Management and Information Design and will eventually transition to Information Architecture and Human Computer Interaction during the later stages of my career.

It seems no matter how automated and intuitive Web systems become, there will always be a need for an actual human being to help monitor and strategically bridge the gap between systems and people.

It will certainly be interesting to see where our websites journey takes us in the future.


February 2018
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