Design as a whole has gone through rapid transition since the internet first came around. It’s really easy to look back and laugh at, what used to be, a playground of expression and opportunity for new sales channels without any real guidelines or understanding of users, but it was a different time. Internet speeds were much, much slower. People were still pushing the boundries of what was possible (and still are), but they were also much tighter boundries. So we thought we’d take a look back and see how a couple of the online giants did things back then, how they do it now and how design generally will likely change in the future. We will keep this pretty high level otherwise we may as well release a book.

GOOGLE

Google Beta screenshot

Everyone knows who Google are and what their core service is for now, but do you remember when Google first appeared? Firstly let’s pay attention to the fact there are so many links on the main search page in a bizarre array of turquoise boxes. We couldn’t imagine such noise on the Google homepage now, but back then, remember not many people even knew who they were so this was partly education for new users – some of which would have had very little exposure to the internet before. Clearly they’ve tried hard to further highlight the search bar with an additional grey fill behind the search bar, just in case you didn’t see it. Clearly they still had a playful side back then as they always had the ‘I’m feeling lucky’ button, but realistically it doesn’t add any value other than encouraging people to search and discover more of the internet.

Also note the serif typeface – yes people still use serif fonts now and you can create some beautiful experiences with serif typography, but the selection is much larger now and screen resolutions are significantly better, but back then you didn’t have much choice. Accessibility wasn’t really ‘a mainstream thing’ when Google came about so elements like the contrast between between the link colour and the background wouldn’t have been considered anywhere near to the extent we do today.

When we look back, we should also look at their logo. The emergence of drop shadows, colour and embossing – look at all this cool stuff – let’s use it all. But to recap, as much as we can look back and laugh or cringe, this was all new technology. This was stuff no-one had seen before so it was in some ways, educating the world as to what we can do. And that’s still happening today.

If we look at Google today however, they don’t even need to establish their brand clearly – everyone knows who they are and what they do. In fact, in June 2006 ‘Google’ was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s true – Google it. They don’t even use consistent site branding, instead opting for abstract representations (Google Doodles) of which there are plenty. This is to both further demonstrate their creative muscle and encourage users to actually search for something they may not have considered searching. Other than that however, the page hasn’t actually changed all that much. The search bar is still the hero on the page, but you don’t need to be told what to do anymore – you just do it. Additional links have been down-weighted to the footer and other services hidden in a menu. Developments such as the integration of voice search have made an appearance and now they have user accounts that store huge amounts of data to provide more personalised experiences to users.

Google homepage 2021
Google homepage 2021
Google Doodles
Google 2020

They still have the ‘I’m feeling lucky’ button which I believe is purely for nostalgic reasons. If people come to this page, they’re coming to search for something in particular – they don’t need their hand held in the process. The key difference is the education of how. Users no longer need to be told how to do the basics and the rate of learning is almost second nature too many users. It’s on this basis, that companies will inject more of their own personality and unique experiences in to their sites. Their dominance in the space is evidenced by the fact they don’t even need to show their brand anymore – their Google Doodles have become almost as synonymous as the core logo itself.

AMAZON

The behemoths of online shopping. Love it or hate it, the journey they’ve been on means they can do pretty much anything they like to their site and users will still use it. Much like Google is that dominant force in online search (although Microsoft, Apple and many others are trying to change that), they are the ‘go-to’ marketplace for many online shoppers. They are so dominant, the largest of businesses also sell via their platform due to the sheer number of users visiting their site every day. So let’s see how it’s evolved over time. As before, we’ll focus on the homepage as we could release a series of novels if we went in to too much detail.

The snapshot above is from 1999 and it looks as though the hyperlinks are partying together like it to. What started out as predominantly an online bookshop, has tried desperately hard to highlight they sell other stuff too. Links to music, clothes, software, DVD’s (anyone remember those?) were all on show to entice people into their site, but a clear lack of hierarchy makes it painfully difficult to navigate or understand what to do. Suddenly we are seeing different font weights and sizes which are starting to introduce hierarchy, but structurally it’s all over the place. The times when pages were built with tables were still rife across the internet. But wait – remember users weren’t really familiar with navigation like we are today. We see tabs, burger menus, mega menus and the like – these are second nature to us now, but back then the mainstream may have been just getting used to this. Again – as much as we can look back and cringe, Amazon were also taking the user on an educational journey. Look at all this stuff – you don’t need to leave the house to shop. The whole idea of being able to see physical products on a web page was novel, but the ability to find the products was key. Unlike Google, back then Amazon didn’t really make much of search and it was tucked away in the corner.

The use of gifs, flashes and product images starting to test your 700kbps internet connection but at the time Amazon hadn’t really understood the importance of search as much as Google. And why would they? It wasn’t their primary business, at least it ‘wasn’t’.

Now let’s look at Amazon today.

90s screenshot of Amazon
Amazon 2020

Suddenly Search is clear and prominent right at the top of the page. They realise now that their product catalogue is so large, it would be insane to try and highlight everything to users. People want ‘stuff’, so let’s have them tell us what they’re looking for and we’ll find it. Using the analogy to their origins in books, it’s a bit like asking the librarian if they have a particular novel in. Too much choice needs some assistance. People aren’t patient – they just want to be told how to find what they want in as little time as possible. There are just as many (in fact more) links as there were 10 years ago, but now there are graphics, rich imagery, clean typography and stripped back navigation. But then that brings us to something that Amazon do particularly well – upsell, cross-sell and personalisation. Just to clarify, I’m not a big fan of Amazon. I truly believe if Amazon was created today, it would look and behave completely different. Product names are painfully worded for the search reasons and the gargantuan level of information is daunting and often hard to read. However, they have such an abundance of traffic and data, they have the luxury of running hundreds of experiments at a time, learning more and more about users every second and customising experiences to get users to spend more money faster. Go on to the site now – you’re probably seeing several experiments running at the same time.

Now we’re seeing suggested categories and products, bright vibrant offers, gift ideas, seasonal deals – the list goes on. Users know that an image will usually link to the product. We also have user generated content in the form of reviews and own images – day to day these experiences are both used and expected as a way to buy with confidence. This goes even further when you’re logged in to your account. The level of personalisation is immense from browsing history, to order status and suggested products based on your search history. There are flaws in this however – once you’ve bought a product, you don’t need 100 suggestions of the an alternative product that does the same thing.

Amazon 2020
Amazon Desktop
Amazon screenshot on Tablet
Amazon Tablet
Amazon iPhone screenshot

Then we obviously have the abundance of resolutions across mobile, tablet and desktop. Much more considered thought is now put in to how sites are designed. We wrote a piece a while ago about how users buying behaviours have changed as smartphones hit the mainstream. Desktop shopping came down, mobile shopping went up. With the current climate they are now at around 50% in terms of traffic split as more people work from home. It’s common practice now to create a responsive site that optimises the experience of mobile users. In Amazons case, they’ve done this well, but also have their own native app that ensures you can stay logged in all the time. Spending money has never actually been easier and people have built trust in these retail platforms to do that.

But to recap, as much as we can look back and laugh or cringe, this was all new technology. This was stuff no-one had seen before so it was in some ways, educating the world as to what we can do. And that’s still happening today, but expectations are higher than ever and they’ll continue to rise in the future and we can’t wait to see what’s coming next and push the boundries of the possible. The internet used to be a tool for research and very quicky, became a $3.5 trillion tool for commerce by 2019 and is expected to grow year on year.

THE FUTURE

So what about the future? It’s an old reference that’s been used for years, but the UI in Minority Report was a mind blowing example of how people saw the future of digital interfaces. But let’s be real about this – we spend hours in front of screens every day. There’s no way we’re going to spend this time flailing our arms round to move files or design. Having said that, maybe you have arms of steel, but I believe you would get very tired of it very quickly. So it’s more about evolving UI in to more delightful experiences – I’m sure there will be many more iterations of the examples mentioned above. Creating more immersive experiences and taking advantage of newer technologies such as Augmented Reality, AI and new hardware such as Lidar that is now becoming more and more mainstream with consumer hardware brands.

Online will continue to grow – especially in the current climate and if you’re relying on riding it out or copying a competitor, you will be taking a significant risk. Having your own identity. Making your online sales process as painless as possible. Delighting users with the latest and greatest technology. These are all things that will help build your base and increase loyalty, so don’t leave it too late – your competitors are acting now and you should be too.

SO WHAT ABOUT DESIGN?

Design is obviously a very personal area for everyone. We have our likes, we have our dislikes, there are trends and there are bends (I needed a rhyming word, but I’m referring to slight deviations of trends). When we look at the examples above we can see people were still finding their way, but information was still the king of the swing. Now however, with new technologies, faster speeds, better hardware and higher expectations, simply accessing the information is not enough. The overall experience will have a significant impact on users perceptions of your business, so it needs very careful consideration.

One of the classic references is that of the abundance of skeumorphism. This was the art of making user interfaces look like real world objects. A clock looked like a real clock. A dial looked like something you’d see on a console. This came around with the release of the original iPhone and allowed designs to flex some serious creative muscle. Painstakingly crafting highly detailed icons and textures to the finest degree. At the time, it was great – it was beautiful. However this came to an end as users became more familiar with using these digital interfaces. Suddenly there was no real need to visualise so explicitly what a note file was.

Skeumorphic example
Image source dtelepathy.com

Then came the flat design revolution. Flat design came in and it came in with a bang. Big, bold colours in giant blocks. Regimented grid systems, no shadows or gradients. Just big, solid colour. The problem was that this definitely more of a trend. Suddenly everyones site looked the same and compromised on usability. Nothing really stood out and the overall experience is what I would refer to as ‘beige’. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few out there that did it well, but they were few and far between and I’m kind of glad to see this one fading away. 

Even Apple went all-in on flat for a while in what was quite a uncharacteristically poor design choice in their main OS UI. This ultimately ended up in a very frustrating experience where there was a significant lack of visual hierarchy and hidden menus, that ultimately made the software harder to use. This was evident across lots of websites, but I’ve called this OS example out given it was such a big slip up on a large scale.

iOS settings
Image source vandelaydesign.com

As people came to this realisation, the creative minds of Google came along and introduced the world to material design. This basically took flat design, put some hierarchy and tonality around the use of colour, gradients and depth in the form of shadows (hooray). But this wasn’t like the Google shadows of old which were harsh and jarring in the UI – this was softer and easier to comprehend. Suddenly the reintroduction of depth rose from the ashes of flat design (pun intended). This too, became hugely popular and still is, but designers are now tailoring designs and lending styles together to create an identity of their own.

Material design screenshot
Image source design.google

And this brings me on to an emerging trend – neumorphism. I would personally describe this as a hybrid between neomorphism and material design. Inputs and controls are using the realistic gradients and soft shadows of skeumorphism, but with the control of execution of material design. So it’s not exactly like the real thing, but it does look like something tangible you can interact with in a more simplistic way – designed for digital interfaces.

Neumorphic example
Image courtesy of bashooka.com

As of late, a hybrid has been utilised in the latest iOS adding more depth to the UI and bringing a hint of skeumorphism, neumorphism and transparency, which has now been rolled out to their desktop OS. Personally, I like the return of more life-like and 3D elements that have been introduced but there are some parts of the UI that are arguably less accessible than before. This is a new deployment however, so I expect to see this refined and iterated on in updates over the coming months.

Before you run off and start creating everything like this however, I would err on the side of caution. This is still relatively new and it hasn’t really been refined as a style yet. In examples I’ve seen, some controls are so blended in, they suddenly become almost invisible and unusable. So this still has some way to go to be established as a good approach. Yes – we can create these beautiful UI’s and subdued environments, but we must make sure it’s used in the right way with the bold colour use of material design and the softness of neumorphism. I actually see this as an opportunity to further introduce another level of hierarchy and identity in to UI, if done in the right way.