Friday, August 19, 2011

Three by Three, They Came

Why the WordPress Three-Column Layout Became the Web Standard, Until It Wasn’t Anymore -- A Discussion of User Experience Evolution and the Adoption Curve in Pattern Libraries, Interaction Design, Visual Cues and Calls to Action, with References to The Wayback Machine, Popular Culture, and Art


Changes in the pattern libraries, interaction designs, visual cues and calls to action of web sites, mobile tools and online applications come in waves, and they follow the typical adoption cycle: bleeding edge, everywhere, over.

While we don’t always have a working theory of where these changes are going, --  just the knowledge that change is the only constant --  the law of evolution is:

(a) observable in action and

(b) enforced by the market.

Figure 1: The Technology Adoption Lifecycle, as it Applies to Anything that Plugs In or Has a Battery, plus Popular Culture and Art*

* The version of the adoption lifecycle referenced here is from Crossing the Chasm.
This custom illustration is from Wikipedia. 
The adoption curve concept also applies recursively to the adoption curve.

The Present and the Recent Past

Here are three examples of  user experience evolution in full effect: adaptations in pattern libraries, interaction designs, visual cues and calls to action that appeared in a few places, spread, and are already fading out of coolness into ubiquity: 
1. Three-column webpage designs: Totally new at first, these clean and simple slabs of content and color upended overly art-directed sites. But now they’re as prevalent as daisies; they’re everywhere.   
Prediction: Something else is coming soon. 

2. AJAX/jQuery Action Bars and Plugins: Functional and sleek, these tools do so much that used to be handcoded or impossible.  
Prediction: They’re here for a while, until they aren’t.  

3. My Account / Login / Sign Up: Typically tucked into the top right corner, the utility nav area has been around for long enough for an overhaul.
Speculation: Something will replace it in the future. What will it be?
Compare and Contrast: The Present vs. the Ancient Past (in Internet Years)

Using the upper righthand corner of websites for account management tools is typical today, but it wasn’t always thus. In the beginning, these functions barely existed.
Q. How did the toplevel utility nav come to be the way we expect to see it today?
A. Like most things -- slowly, then all at once.
On the homepage from 1998,  “Buy Books” was a category, and “Shopping Cart” and “Checkout” were subcategories:

Figure 3:, Earth’s biggest bookstore: July 1, 1998 
(via The Wayback Machine.)

Today, the old interaction metaphors Amazon used feel like the website equivalent of maps from the "here be dragons" era of cartography, but without the cool drawings.

The Future is Already Here — Just Not Evenly Distributed

Websites, online tools and mobile apps of a given time and place go through periods of change and equilibrium:
1. They look and work the same

2. They differentiate

3. They start looking the same again.
This cycle of user experience evolution follows the older adoption curves of popular culture and art:
1. Styles and schools are invented

2. Defenders of the status quo cling to the old thing

3. The new thing becomes standard, and upstarts differentiate.

The law of evolution doesn’t predict how things will change: just that they will.

Love songs are examples of popular culture calls to action, and here are two examples of how they have changed across four centuries:
Had we but world enough and time” Andrew Marvel, 17th Century
Online, the ways we create engaging user experiences have already changed at least this much, in much less time.

What will happen tomorrow? 
I can't take credit for discovering the evolution of online user experience, but if I wanted to name it Laurie’s Law, and say it was discovered by you, that would be an appropriate example of Stigler's law of eponymy. *

*Stigler's law of eponymy is a process proposed by University of Chicago statistics professor Stephen Stigler in his 1980 publication "Stigler’s law of eponymy".  In its simplest and strongest form it says: "No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer." Stigler named the sociologist Robert K. Merton as the discoverer of "Stigler's law",  consciously making "Stigler's law" exemplify Stigler's law.


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