An Interview with the Future

Flying cars, phones that fit in a pocket, robot vacuums… it’s clear we live in the future. Perhaps more futuristic than any other technology is the web, and the many quickly evolving sites and applications that connect us to infinite information and to one another. This is the future that Matt Griffin is exploring in his new documentary, “What Comes Next is the Future.”

Peering into the future is a task most often attempted by psychics and fortune tellers. Yet the clues to what comes next are all around us: in the decisions we make, and in the technology we build. This is what Matt Griffin, founder of Bearded, is relying on to tell the story of the web, and the “titanic shift in the web landscape that mobile devices have initiated.” what-comes-next-is-the-future-compressor In order to tell this story, Matt’s calling on us — the people who make the web. He’s interviewed designers, strategists and developers who have impacted the creation of the web as we know it over the past 25 years to tell their stories. We recently had the opportunity to ask Matt about his story — why he’s making this documentary, and how it’s going to impact us as user experience professionals. We’re excited to share with you all that he had to say about the past, present, and future of the mobile web.
In What Comes Next is the Future, you interview dozens of people who have impacted web design over the years. What attributes did you consider as you selected contributors?
We’re in the midst of big, important changes. The explosion of web- and internet-connected devices (and in some ways responsive design as a method of coping with that) has fundamentally and necessarily changed how we think about, interact with, and design for the web. And I thought, “wow, no one’s capturing this, at least not on video.” So I started carting along the camera and interviewing people as I traveled about the country. I refined the questions as I learned what worked and what didn’t. After a handful of interviews with people I greatly admired – people like Luke Wroblewski, Ethan Marcotte, Stephen Hay, Kevin M. Hoffman — talking about these big, important changes, I realized, “we’re making a documentary!” Then I took a step back, and tried to figure out which groups were represented well and which weren’t. We’re still working at that. The list is so big now that when I think of a new person, I have to consider: is this really filling a need in the narrative? Is this person broadening the perspective in a helpful way? We’ve been consciously trying to add developers, people who work with accessibility or web standards, browser vendors, people at CERN during the web’s inception, pioneers who were “there at the beginning,” more women and minorities – people who will open up the conversation a bit, and bring something new to the discussion. As we interview a more diverse audience, I think it will also help create a more nuanced narrative and make for a more interesting story.
What are you hoping to learn from these interviews? How do you think it will impact your personal work, and our community as a whole?
At a minimum I want the interviews to be a time capsule of what this moment in the web is like, and how we got here. But what’s interesting to me is the personal stories that start to emerge during the interviews. When the web began there was no clear path to a career (in many ways it’s still pretty murky). When you talk to experienced web people, you’re just as likely to be talking to a former musician as a former engineer. And in many ways for people of my generation and a little older, the web is a place where all the weirdos found each other and discovered a place they could belong, and contribute meaningfully. Before the web, if you were into weird music, or games, or philosophies, it could be very isolating. Many of the people who now have web-based careers gained community through the web, and then were attracted to working out of a love for the thing itself. I’ve also loved talking with people like Josh Clark and Kevin Hoffman about the emerging internet of things. That really challenges our current conceptions of what the web is and does, and how we interact with interconnected devices and data in the world. The same goes for Ethan Marcotte’s and Stephanie Reiger’s perspectives on the web in areas like Africa and Asia where, due to technology and the massive population, the web is very different from what we’re used to here. For instance, you can’t build enough Apple stores or other retail outlets to serve urban China — it’s just not possible. So online shopping just becomes shopping, and QR codes and images are necessary because you have no space for products in a store. This might strike us as a very weird hybrid between physical and online shopping, but it is currently a thing that exists in the world, and people are doing it. We’ve also got populations that are leapfrogging over parts of our technological development, which means they’re not bogged down by our older conventions. It’s fascinating stuff. For instance, parts of Africa got mobile banking before they got banks, so a bank is a thing you access through a phone, whereas here if it doesn’t have a limestone column out front, people get a little nervous. These situations are going to be colliding more and more with ours as more of the global population gets connected, and that’s going to be very interesting. It’s going to challenge a lot of our ideas about how things work, and how people relate to the web.
It’s interesting that you’re looking at the past to learn for the future. How do you believe the two are connected? Will everything old become new again?
I think we can learn a lot from those earlier moments, and perhaps even extrapolate some of them into the future. Jen Robbins (who has the honor of being the first commercial web designer) says in her interviews that the mobile device revolution feels just like those early days of the web, and that’s a sentiment echoed by a lot of people. Things feel wide open right now; we’re defining new conventions for things, solving big, hairy problems. It’s an exciting time to be working on the web. For instance, one of the things many of us are focused on right now is content. Not just writing better magazine articles, but structuring content in the CMS, in the markup, so that it can be smart enough and flexible enough to go anywhere. This is no easy problem to solve, and it’s moving us more towards responsive design, which in turn has been criticized for making websites look “boring.” There’s this thread of dissent out there where people seem to be pining for the golden days of Photoshop-based web design. Many of those multi-layer Photoshop designs are beautiful and kind of shocking in their level of detail and verisimilitude, but that focus on rendering visual perfection or beauty isn’t solving the important problems on its own. The criticism that RWD sites receive reminds me a lot of the criticism that sites got when they first used CSS-based layouts: “they’re too boxy! Let’s just stick with tables!” Then Dave Shea’s CSS Zen Garden came along, and designers got fancy again and proved the naysayers wrong. But the point is that of course designs aren’t aesthetically knocking your socks off right now. We’re solving much bigger problems than that. We’re dealing with the problems that come along with a bigger, crazier, multi-device, content-parity-driven world. We’ll get back to the pretty stuff later, but right now we have to figure out more fundamental problems, like how to get the content to the people.
After all of the conversations you’ve had, what do you think is coming in the future of web design?
In terms of process and skills, I think we’ll continue to see the merger of design and development. Especially as previously very back-end-y things become possible via front-end technologies like Javascript (without debating the dangers or benefits of that!), the possibilities for what one can do with front-end development really expand. My generation was considered weird by our parents because we grew up with computers and video games. I remember my dad bringing home our first Mac and playing for hours with the welcome software and the control panel feature, and now kids are growing up with the internet, and a world filled with screens and constant access. It’s going to seem even more natural for them, I think, to get their hands dirty with the stuff the web is made of. Talking with Josh Clark changed how I think about the future of the web, and what we’ll be doing as web designers. This idea of the internet of things – that soon everything will be connected with different combinations of sensors and internet connections – is very transformative for us. An example Josh uses is of a pill that uses your stomach acid and its own composition to create a small electrical charge. This powers the transmission of a very weak signal out to your skin. The signal is then picked up and amplified by a patch on your arm, that hands off the data to an app on your phone via bluetooth. Then the app tells your doctor that you just took your pill, and all is well. The fact that these technologies are so cheap and accessible is totally wild. It can be anywhere, so it will be everywhere. How do we design for a world like that? Right now we’re just getting our heads around how to design for I-don’t-know-what-size-the-screen-is, but soon we’ll be dealing with designing for The Everything. There’s some pretty intense cognitive change that has to occur in the mind of a designer to even grapple with that idea. It’s scary, and exciting. No matter what happens, though, I doubt we’ll be bored, which I find very reassuring.
A huge thank you to Matt Griffin for sharing his vision with us! For more information on What Comes Next is the Future, check out their Kickstarter page (two days left to donate!), or leave questions for Matt and his team in the comments section.

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