Web 2.0

My five-year-old recently sent me her first instant message. It was one of the few words she can spell: “No.” (Surprise.) Ten years from now, when she’s 15, I can easily imagine receiving the same message, but how will it be created, sent, and delivered? By typing on a computer via a desktop chat client? My guess is, probably not.

There’s been a lot of talk about the technology of Web 2.0, but only a little about the impact these technologies will have on user experience. Everyone wants to tell you what Web 2.0 means, but how will it feel? What will it be like for users?

The Continuum

Over the next ten years, we’ll see a wide range of experiences online, from highly structured to nearly formless.

On the conservative side of this experience continuum, we’ll still have familiar Websites, like blogs, homepages, marketing and communication sites, the big content providers (in one form or another), search engines, and so on. These are structured experiences. Their form and content are determined mainly by their designers and creators.

In the middle of the continuum, we’ll have rich, desktop-like applications that have migrated to the Web, thanks to Ajax, Flex, Flash, Laszlo, and whatever else comes along. These will be traditional desktop applications like word processing, spreadsheets, and email. But the more interesting will be Internet-native, those built to take advantage of the strengths of the Internet: collective actions and data (e.g. Amazon’s “People who bought this also bought…”), social communities across wide distances (Yahoo Groups), aggregation of many sources of data, near real-time access to timely data (stock quotes, news), and easy publishing of content from one to many (blogs, Flickr).

The experiences here in the middle of the continuum are semi-structured in that they specify the types of experiences you can have with them, but users supply the content (such as it is).

On the far side of the continuum are the unstructured experiences: a glut of new services, many of which won’t have Websites to visit at all. We’ll see loose collections of application parts, content, and data that don’t exist anywhere really, yet can be located, used, reused, fixed, and remixed.

The content you’ll search for and use might reside on an individual computer, a mobile phone, even traffic sensors along a remote highway. But you probably won’t need to know where these loose bits live; your tools will know.

These unstructured bits won’t be useful without the tools and the knowledge necessary to make sense of them, sort of how an HTML file doesn’t make much sense without a browser to view it. Indeed, many of them will be inaccessible or hidden if you don’t have the right tools.

New Tools for a New(er) Web

Our whole toolset will need to adapt and change. Users will be more interested in doing things on the Web than in visiting places on the Web. As Ross Mayfield puts it, “the Web is increasingly less about places and other nouns, but verbs.”

The tools we’ll use to find, read, filter, use, mix, remix, and connect us to the Internet will have to be smarter and do a lot more work than the ones we have now.

Part of that work is in formatting. Who and what determines how something looks and works? On the unstructured side of the continuum, perhaps only a veneer of form will remain. “Looks” will be an uneasy mix of the data and the tools we use to view it.

Visual design is moving away from its decentralized locations on websites. Indeed, design is becoming centralized in the tools and methods we use to view and interact with content. Firefox users can already use extensions like Adblock, and especially Greasemonkey, to change the look of the Web pages they visit. RSS readers let users customize how they want to view feeds from a variety of sources. Soon, expect to see this type of customization happening with bits of functionality as well as content.

The varied experiences of Web 2.0 will probably affect browsers most. Our current browsers were designed for navigating through a hypertext content space, the structured experiences found on the conservative side of the experience continuum. They may be passable for semi-structured experiences, but they’re nearly useless for unstructured ones.

In Wired, Bart Decrem, developer of the Flock browser, noted that, “The browser has not evolved all that much. The basic concept or vision has not changed. Web 2.0 is a stream of events, people and connections.” Web 2.0 requires new means of using (not just navigating) the Web to take advantage of the full continuum of experiences.

We’ll have help using this full continuum of experiences, of course, because we’ll need it. Our human ability to search will be severely taxed. To really explore The Long Tail, we’ll need agents — non-human agents acting on our behalf. How we monitor and control those daemons is a design challenge that remains to be explored.

As we rely more on our tools to take advantage of the experience continuum, it’s essential that our tools have good design practices baked into them. They will determine what we can do, how we can do it, and how it will feel. Our experience with Web 2.0 will largely depend on how good our tools are, in much the same way the first ten years of the Web were shaped by the browsers we used to view it.

The Next Ten Years

None of this will happen overnight, although some of it has already come to pass. As William Gibson reminds us, “The future is here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”

If you’re reading this around when it was written, in November 2005, you’re likely an early adopter. (I’ve been doing user research lately, talking to Internet users around the country, and many of them have never heard of blogs.) The changes I’m talking about will happen gradually over the next ten years, but they will happen.

So what will the next ten years feel like? Disorienting at first, but normal eventually. It will take time for users to acclimate to the semi-structured experiences available on the Web, and even longer to accept the unstructured experiences. We’ll shed some of the metaphors — sites, bookmarks, pages, and so on — that we’ve used to orient ourselves on the Web, in the same way that cars stopped having running boards and television has stopped broadcasting stage plays.

In the not too distant future, we’ll subscribe to a service without an address. That service will update a widget that finds other widgets, which make widgets for locating obscure jazz recordings. We’re not there yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Our little Web is growing up.

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