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We Always Start Now

I wrote the Interaction column for the Spring, 2015 issue of PRINT magazine, which was a true honor because this issue also celebrated PRINT’s 75th anniversary, and included contributions from a pretty outstanding list of people, including Rick Poynor, Steven Heller, Zachary Petit, Debbie Millman, Milton Glaser, and Seymour Chwast. My column focused on that permanent transition idea again — that the only way to claim your spot on the path of digital progress is to dig deeper and embrace the complexity…

Now is the best time to start something on the internet. That’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Despite how entrenched it may seem we are in certain ways of thinking and doing things — especially online — the truth is that the traffic of digital progress is not at a standstill; it’s continually moving, and there is always opportunity to merge in.

Kevin Kelly, founder of WIRED Magazine and author of What Technology Wants, has been watching this traffic since the beginning. So when he says, “You are not late,” I’m inclined to listen. But he doesn’t stop there. In an article for Medium’s Matter, he goes on to say,

Right now, today, in 2014 is the best time to start something on the internet…There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside, than now. Right now, this minute…The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point. A solid platform to build truly great things. However, the coolest stuff has not been invented yet!

There’s that word again: “opportunity.” If there’s so much of it, then why is it so hard to see? Why is it so easy to feel left behind? One reason, I think, is language itself.

If we strip away all the jargon — all the words that give those firm, impenetrable edges to design and technology — we’re simply in the business of assisting communication and action, aren’t we? We’ve done that on the printed page; now we’re doing it on the screen. Somehow, we made that transition. And really, it wasn’t just one, was it? It was the steady accumulation of many smaller transitions. Being a designer today is to be constantly confronted with opportunities for change. The solution is to become comfortable with that; to enjoy navigating it, not to seek escape. When you reach a dead end, it’s not that you don’t have to choose between left or right. It’s that you have no choice at all. Dead ends are not your friend.

Kelly used another word worth considering, though: “platform.”

Platform, in the digital vernacular, means stability, but not in a static, closed-system sort of way. It used to be that a website was a closed system — a collection of interconnected pages you could access and view — but not much more than that. They changed from the inside out, not the other way around. That made for relatively simple design problems. Today, however, websites are far more flexible. They have their core structure, just like the old days, but they are continually passing information back and forth with other systems. This kind of activity fundamentally changes their very makeup, and of course, the experience of using them. It makes for a much more complex ecosystem in which websites work, where they are platforms for ongoing information exchange, not simply discrete programs. Which, naturally, makes for much bigger and more intricate design challenges. That is where stability is important. After all, a massive increase in complexity doesn’t necessarily sound stable. A platform has to offer more than just a greater capacity for complexity.

Say, for example, a website pulls information from a product inventory management system and displays it on its product pages. Then it sends user data related to those product pages to a customer relationship management database (CRM). Later, when a customer’s profile changes — based upon all kinds of things that might happen, like clicking a retargeting advertisement or receiving an campaign email — those offsite systems report back to the website which keeps all of these events and datapoints in sync. These sorts of exchanges are the lifeblood of marketing and sales intelligence, and are entirely reliant upon the website to broker them. To do that well, a website has to play by the rules that other databases set. It’s a bit like diplomacy — different customs, different languages, different procedures.

This is why we have application programming interfaces, or APIs. An API makes a stable exchange of information possible by describing a system’s preferred format for request and response messages, specifying terminology for objects within their databases, and setting any rules or restrictions of use of content that might be relevant. So, whether it’s as basic as embedding a YouTube video, or a bit more sophisticated, like web-to-lead integration with a CRM, or as fraught with complexity as inventory reconciliation can be, it’s all made possible by APIs. There is no stable platform without one.

But the influence of the API extends far beyond its function. If you recount the evolution of websites — from simple collections of pages to much more complex systems — you will also observe an evolution of web development itself. It has become less about building content databases from the ground up and more about brokering the exchange of content from one system to another. The API has thrust web development into a radically different modality: information logistics. Logistics makes for an apt metaphor. Because just as there is no such thing as a self-sufficient truck driver, neither is there a self-sufficient developer. Not within systems like these, anyway. APIs force developers to work with other developers — developers whom they’ll probably never meet face to face!

APIs don’t let designers off the hook, either. In fact, as the web ecosystem is growing in platform complexity, it is stabilizing in terms of visualization techniques. Meaning, making things look the way we want them to is getting easier. Much easier! It must. Think about it: if all of the complicated back and forth that APIs help negotiate remains in flux — mostly because we are continually moving from platform to platform depending upon who gives us the funnest, shiniest, free stuff to play with, or where our friends are — then the outer layer, where we interact with surfaces, read things, and find our way from place to place, has to stabilize. Otherwise, all of that effort to exchange information behind the scenes would be in vain because we’d all be too confused to do anything. That sort of pressure makes a radical shift in markup methods far less likely than the emergence of an entirely new platform that does something with existing information that has never been done before. As a result, the value of front-end web development is dropping, while the value of the unseen stuff — the information logistics working behind the scenes — is rapidly increasing. The future of web development is information logistics, not front-end web design, and APIs are paving the way.

This won’t happen over night, of course. But it is happening. Designers thinking of their careers in longer terms — say, 5-10 years from now or more — must begin to reframe their practices around information logistics, not on front-end techniques like HTML and CSS. When I consider how quickly modular frameworks have made their way into most content management systems, or how tools like Macaw or Adobe Muse are actually making it possible to design and build responsive websites without knowing a lick of code, it is difficult to overstate the fundamental reshaping of our industry at work right now, and the imperative for designers to respond.

As dire as this may sound, it is good news! After all, we have better things to do with our time than tweak CSS, don’t we? Our true value has always been in shaping the strategy that propels a project from its inception. And then, yes, in crafting how things look. But not in translating how things look into machine language. We can let the machines do that! We should be happily steering our practice toward the complexity that is available to us now — the complexity we’ve hungered for — and the only way we’re going to do that is to let go of the busywork that needlessly preoccupies us now and spend that time learning how things work — underneath how they look. And to be quite clear: I am not urging designers to become developers. These are still meaningfully distinct disciplines. But in order to steer projects with greater understanding and authority, and build a practice that endures the next transition, designers must begin to gain a deeper understanding of the developer’s world. When your expertise is in connecting platforms, the appearance of a new one is opportunity knocking, not slamming the door in your face!

When Kevin Kelly says “you are not late,” he is reminding us that we are always just stepping into the river of progress, and at first it is always shockingly, exhilaratingly cold. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been around since the beginning of the web, or are just now joining the scene. Indeed, his perspective offers a valuable lesson. The web that Kelly’s fledgling magazine watched grow in the early ’90s would be unrecognizable to us now. Those days were the web’s Stone Age, a time when the web itself was seen as, essentially, the simple API connecting your machine with others. Use Google Image Search to explore some of these old sites. Search for “Yahoo 1995.” Twenty years ago, launched as the plain, white page with text and links that you see there in the search results. We know now that they were just getting started. But at that point, all they cared about was being the web’s librarian, and they didn’t need much more than hyperlinks to do that.

Let’s move forward just a bit. Now, search for “ 1995.” Hard to recognize, isn’t it? Like Yahoo, Amazon wasn’t much to look at then, either, but behind that early, humble facade was pretty sophisticated stuff for the time. You could buy books online—major development. Now, let’s pick up the pace and fast-forward to the next decade. Use your Google time machine to search for “Facebook 2004” and you’ll find something that actually looks pretty Stone Age–ish, too. This is not because our tastes have matured that much over the last 10 years. It’s because this is how beginnings look. That is Kelly’s point. He’s seen enough beginnings to say with confidence that we are not late. But I suspect we will never stop feeling late until we stop assessing our situation by what we see in front of us.

Any survey of the last twenty years of the web will show that the real innovations we’re likely to recall — that suddenly, we could publish, archive and search information through our computers; that we could buy things with the click of a mouse; that we could build community virtually — are all experiences. They are, and always have been, more about what experience they create than how they look. They remind us that we are not in the artifact business. We are in the experience business. Interaction design isn’t about producing things to look at. It’s about connecting things! And in order to connect, we need to dig deeper in. It’s a good thing that now is the best time to start.

— Christopher Butler, May 26, 2015, PRINT Magazine

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