The keyboard is a crutch, or why web design is boring and irrelevant

Posted on 6 March, 2009 at 6:41pm

Ah, spring. Another Webstock has passed and SXSW is coming around the corner. I remember a time when I dreamed of going to the big web conferences, talking to exciting people working on exciting things, and meeting people I admired: Tantek Celik, Molly Holzschlag, Doug Bowman, Dan Cederholm. I started out in web design right as CSS was taking hold as a great way to make beautiful and flexible layouts. As my career unfolded I saw the growing popularity of Google, the introduction of Firefox, the beginning of the standards movement, and the explosion of AJAX, Rails, and web 2.0.

It’s easy to think I work in an an exciting, dramatic field that’s always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, and continually reinventing itself in new and better ways. Users love the web, right? We’ve done a great job, haven’t we?

The thing is, somewhere around 2006, the web stopped growing. Web designers in general started to become increasingly more complacent and frankly bored with their jobs. Making a web app? Okay, plug in the templating framework of your choice, set it to CRUD mode, code up an HTML form and stick a JavaScript library on top of it. Content? Who needs it! Just hook it all up to Twitter, FaceBook, Flickr, Google Maps and hell, maybe some RSS feeds too. The design has to be catchy enough to get users interested, but don’t worry too much about making it usable. People will just be plugging in to it through their phones, desktop clients, or RSS readers.

Hello, web professionals. Welcome to the future. No wonder the conferences have degenerated to a stream of excuses as to why a full quarter of the world is still using IE6. And there’s an uncomfortable amount of silence regarding anything new. There is nothing new – and there hasn’t been for three years now. The big voices have fallen silent, and no one is rising up to take their place.

The problem isn’t the web. The problem goes much deeper than that. Our interface metaphors are flawed, our input devices are outdated, and the essentialization of most human-computer interfaces, on the web or in your OS, boils down to this:

No, no, no. People, we can do better than this. AJAX doesn’t make this right. It might make it feel more responsive, but at the end of the day it’s still just data entry.

The next time you design an interface, pretend your user doesn’t have a keyboard. What if all they had was a confirm button and a cancel button? This is basically what most game interfaces are. What about the iPhone? It has a keyboard, but only nominally. iPhone developers can’t rely users being willing to deal with the keyboard, and they have to be more creative with their input methods.

The restriction of having no keyboard has driven a lot of innovation on both game consoles and mobile devices. Where is that innovation on the web? Why are we still treating this thing like a terminal running Lynx? (And don’t you dare blame the browsers. You can do better and you know it.)

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Design an IM client that does not take input from a keyboard. (And I’m not talking about voice recognition here either. That’s not allowed.) After about five minutes of thinking about how awful and tedious that would be, you might be surprised with what you come up with. Maybe it could work like a conversation tree in a video game. Or maybe you could select a mood and a topic and it would automatically generate speech for you. Or you could go the abstract route and come up with an entirely different conversation model than what we do in person, leaving written language completely out of the equation. The sky, as they say, is the limit.

Give it a half hour of thought and you might actually get excited about it. Why? Because you’re tired of this nonsense too. We all are.

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