A defining period in the evolution of the web

What I think about when I think about the internet.

In 1996 we made our first commercial website. In 1998, we made one of the most user-focused websites we’ve probably ever created, with a flippant almost jokey “here’s a bunch of places to get off and have a beer while you’re using this new Midlands tram service”. It blew up. What made it special was how it connected the dots between not driving and having a beer, while simultaneously connecting suburban housing estates and a twin national obsession of booze and shopping with two city-centre destinations and a near 40,000 capacity football stadium. It was genius in its simplicity and almost accidental.

This was a time before google business, smartphones and Sat Navs. We were just about starting to print directions from AA route finder — itself a miracle of the modern internet, and the beginning of the end for the A-Z at petrol stations. To present a million people with an easy and printable pub-crawling interactive webpage, a supporting printed leaflet and an accessible and popular pass time was brave new world stuff. It even used Camra as a trust point to reassure you as to the quality of your pint.

Coding was more difficult in those times; it was more manual, more restrictive and was the reserve of the programmer until a cluster of pioneering designers and Macromedia got involved. There was a buzz around the web once the designers joined in. A groundswell that later triggered the dot com boom was beginning to surface, and people were awash with the lure of possibility. It was a blank canvas saturated with unjaded customers and a fervent PR opportunity. Problems were being solved, news was being made, money was pouring in. Pool tables were replacing board room tables all over the UK, and Atari tee-shirts were becoming the office wear of the day.

Bol.com, lastminute.com, the rise of the search engine, MSN messenger, Geocities, Web 2.0 and the beginning of the blogosphere, commercial acceptance of eCommerce, Yahoo dating, online banking and online gambling all followed and despite the inevitable crash, led by poor business models, and worse financials, the internet was here to stay, and everyone was getting on board.

There was a problem, though. The internet was expensive to do well. Between blogging platforms such as WordPress and a commercial ‘need’ for cheaper and more accessible website production, the homogenisation of the internet snowballed. More websites were using the same fundamental tools and methodologies to get their message across; a terribly boring tipping point for the web that we’re yet to recover from fully.

You could say it was the birth of best practice, but it wasn’t, really. It was the birth of the best most can do on a pittance of a budget, with a set of technical constraints to match. The dot com boom and subsequent crash led to a fear of investment and a lack of ambition in design. This new accessible internet was something everyone ‘needed to be on’ but not many actually understood. The dot com crash wasn’t the fault of the internet, it was simply a market correction, but pioneering design and problem-solving took the blame that, in truth, lay with the greed and naivety of investors and the wanton idiocy of a few newly crowned “CEOs”.

WordPress went bananas; suddenly, 40% of the internet looked and worked the same way, and mid-market businesses jumping on the bandwagon knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. Previously great agencies full of thinkers and creatives became involved in a race to the bottom, and many disappeared. They died servicing an ever-increasing number of poor clients looking for poor solutions as a direct response to the poor website their first-mover competitor served up.

The ad agencies started jumping in, but they couldn’t ‘do’ technical so they ‘did’ social. Contrived pieces of content actively looking to “go viral”. It was easy — they were the only people on the internet with proper budgets, so they too produced rinse and repeat garbage playing on the same jokes and tugging at the same heartstrings. Prog rock just went ‘pop’.

Fast forward to the 2010s or so and the majority of the internet was, and to a large degree remains, based around three or 4 platforms for distributing, advertising and consuming content. The disruptors emerge, of course, and angry young siblings continue to shout from the sidelines.

Attempting to push their way in, and being swallowed up by the giants as they become a threat, trailblazing disruptors are continually assimilated into these ever more complex monoliths who dominate the attention economy. Sadly, the disruptor’s ‘buzz’ almost inevitably becomes a distant hum.

While this has been happening, we’ve entered and matured into the knowledge era. People look for efficiencies and digital improvements for all aspects of life… Project management tools, personal development tools, workflow management, remote collaboration, document management. Almost every aspect of our social, sex and working lives runs with some level of digital intervention; some of it is even pretty good, in all fairness.

In the last few years, the internet has basically split into 4 parts;

  • the tech giants, SaaS players and unicorns vying for a huge market share,
  • the content generated for them as light entertainment, infotainment, small scale eCommerce and advertising, generated by SMEs, solopreneurs and influencers,
  • the SMEs and businesses who still don’t see much use for the internet beyond brochureware (or can’t afford to get on board) and;
  • businesses actively engaged in digital transformation to ensure they remain relevant in the digital age.

It is this fourth cohort who I mostly concern myself with inside my day to day business. I’m well into my third decade working on the web and spend most of my time at the sharp end of problem-solving. This is the group who come to people like me to provide the tech muscle to help them to avoid obsolescence. To do so effectively, all of those decades of knowledge and experience are a necessity. This isn’t about “gurus and systems” this is about psychology, behaviour and intimate knowledge of how people, technology and businesses intertwine.

We’re in the third age of the web; a well resourced, ambitious and analytical phase where results matter and both success and failure is often measured in multiple millions. Across a myriad of traditional businesses and markets, creating structural and cultural shifts in large business “takes time”. Yet technology and markets are moving so quickly, that time is a luxury that business can ill afford.

This rush of activity is in danger of missing both the point and the opportunity. The homogenisation I spoke of earlier in this piece is still making its presence felt in both the thinking and solutions created to address large scale digital transformation. We still assume that what we see on the web is “best practice” when the majority of it is ‘fast following’ built on flawed logic and untested ideas that somehow became a standard. The fact that we see and use the web every day leads us to believe that we know how it works, but that is far from the truth.

“What you see is all there is.”

My day to day interactions and conversations often centre around business challenges and opportunities. More often than not, the brains in the room are a combination of Marketing and IT specialists, finance people, and C suite executives. I often get some shop floor representation from less senior management, and the edited highlight of a market research study, sometimes these are generated by the same managers and marketing departments who have the conflicting imperatives of identifying real customer needs and defending the outcomes of their earlier efforts.

Each of these stakeholders is an important part of the piece, and their individual and collective participation vital to the problem-solving exercises that we undertake. In these meetings, we’re expected to hammer out ‘solutions that satisfy required business outcomes’. Of course we are, it is our job. The elephant in the room is that without the input or at the very least a deep consideration of the end-user, we’re almost certainly missing the one group who can give us the perspective to get us to the requisite business outcomes in the most efficient way. If you understand the user, design for the user, validate with the user and iterate on behalf of the user, you build affinity with the user. The user is the counterbalance to boardroom solution driving; the one who keeps it simple and tells it how it is.

It is worth remembering that the user is also the one who drives the revenue you’re seeking and the one who decides where they place their business. For internal projects, the same applies; work with the people who use your systems and processes to improve them, for they are the people you are relying upon to make a success of your project.

…and so we return to the pioneering days of the early internet; the last era that there were significant budgets around the wider technosphere to solve big challenges or address big opportunities. This was an era when designers, psychologists and visionary technologists worked hand in glove with the board room. They strived to create platforms that solved unmet user needs; where bums on seats measured success, revenues followed, and giants were created. We’d be wise as amply resourced businesses to forget what we think we know about, and get back to thinking about end-users, to solve the real problems our businesses face. If we do this, we can measure our success in the decades to come, and plant deep new roots that secure the future of our oldest and most successful businesses in an ever-changing world.

The alternative? We could always pop down to Borders or Woolworths to pick up a book about serving customers in the modern age..