Web creative types concentrate on the nuts and bolts.
In a lab in Salt Lake City, a computer learns by scanning Internet users' eyes as they watch a flickering screen. Their eyes are tracked by a hidden camera; a laser beam is centered on their pupils.
It may sound like an episode of "The X-Files," but this setup is simply one ad agency's approach to Web design. DSW Partners, which boasts Intel as a leading client, intends to follow the blueprint of users' clinically proven navigation habits to lay out a page when creating Web sites for clients.
Ron Hendricks, director of production, interactive, at DSW, suggests that the more analytical approach is a sign of the times. He even goes so far as to predict that Web design "is going to change as a result of eye tracking." The new era of Web work will focus on delivering desired objects within users' "fixation points," and eye tracking, he hopes, will deliver up directions to getting the desired click-throughs.
And, "even if they click on the right thing, was it hard for them to get there?" asks Hendricks of users' online habits. These and other questions will be put to the eyeball test.
Though DSW's move toward design automation is a high-tech example, there can be little doubt that Web design is trending toward a more nuts-and-bolts approach. Across the country, new media firms surveyed by IQ are paying more attention to the user's experience and developing techniques to market more efficiently online.
Take the case of DSW client InFocus, a screen projector manufacturer. The agency had created a Web site based on its art directors' plans. Testing the site with the eye-tracking technology, however, the agency discovered that the all-important descriptor line for InFocus, "data/video projectors," which was situated under the InFocus logo in the bottom left corner of the screen, often went unseen by users. This finding, and others, led the shop to redesign the page to make sure users were drawn to the most important elements of the site.
"We're marketers; we want to guide their experience," says Hendricks.
"On some levels, there has been a kind of coming to their senses" on the part of Web creative types, notes Roger Black, legendary magazine designer and chief executive officer of Interactive Bureau, which has created sites for MSNBC and home Network.
No longer, predicts Black, will there be an abundance of high-end sites targeted at mainstream consumers. The early days of Web design saw a bandwidth-hogging transference of high-end, CD-ROM-style multimedia to the Internet. These days, thanks to increased involvement on the part of more sophisticated marketers and established creative execs, online efforts are falling along more acceptable lines of consumption.
"There was an overconfidence in multimedia and a feeling that the Web would take the place of CD-ROM," recalls Black. "Now, we're seeing sites that are really simple."
Simple in their messages, simple in style and simple in size seems to be the word from Black and others leading the field.
Rich Giuliani, chief creative officer at Chicago-based Quantum Leap, which claims American Airlines and Microsoft as clients, notes that as marketers have become more aware of how their new media dollars are being spent, they have called for higher standards from their agencies.
"We'll still play with bells and whistles," affirms Giuliani, but he doesn't expect to see too much more exploitation of whizbang tools like Sun Microsystems' Java--often used for nonessential flash by Web designers--blanketing the Web.
"Nineteen ninety-eight will be about increasing sophistication rather than dramatic invention," he proclaims. This year, he predicts, will be about "standardization, refinement." Look for continued use of the increasingly common left-hand menu bar and don't wait around for a Java replacement, he suggests.
For his part, Black is looking forward to a standardization on the part of technology developers such as Microsoft and Netscape, whose browser incompatibilities have been an ongoing headache. Designers have been torn between the new level of precision offered by the 4.0-level browsers--which allow for "style sheets" that control fonts, formats and such--and a nightmare of conflicts between the latest Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator and older browsers as well. Black expects the code to grow more consistent, allowing designers to use one set of code, instead of two or more. "Now, you do both!" he complains.
Of course, designers will never defeat the device-independent nature of the Web itself, which allows users to change preferences, to choose hardware and generally wreak havoc with the placement of objects on the page. Hence the "optimized for" tag is likely to be affixed to Web pages for some time to come.
Like Black, Gino Lee, president of Studio Verso, a Web design firm based in San Francisco, sees the design industry moving toward greater simplicity in the delivery of messages to users, but implementing them will continue to be more complicated.
"It's going to get harder," he says. The introduction of new forms of Internet access calls for additional tinkering of pages. "Different browser vendors are not getting it and it's making designers' lives miserable."
Also this year, marketers will pull their new media messages into line, Giuliani says. As an example, he points to the inconsistencies between Miller Brewing's TV and print campaigns and its online renditions. While Miller Lite's latest slew of TV ads have centered on adman "Dick," a more upscale, sardonic sell, the brewer has maintained its younger-skewing MGD Tap Room online. "You won't see that so much more with major brands," Giuliani says.
Marketers' growing savviness about the medium and their willingness to give new media its own line in the budget are no doubt fueling such a trend. In turn, the rise of measures of accountability in design, like eye tracking and detailed demographic information, help, too.
So is "creative" getting less, um, creative?
Roger Black says no, but being aware of such depressing details as download time is imperative. "It's everything we can do to remember to drag ourselves over to a slow machine," he says. "[But] on the Web, you're getting people to do stuff. It's called 'interactivity!'"