Designing for a Post-Mobile World

The past couple days I’ve been wishing I was in Boston, where some of the greatest minds in the web design world are gathered in one building, plotting to overthrow the — I mean, sharing their wisdom with the masses at An Event Apart. Meanwhile, I’m sitting at my desk, trying to concentrate on my work, but I’m feeling myself getting a little sleepy, and…

Wait, what is this? It’s 2022! How did that happen? Am I dreaming? What a strange world this is, ten years in the future. Mobile devices are ubiquitous. In fact, they aren’t even called mobile devices anymore, because everything is mobile! Desktop computers are now kept in museums next to the telegraph machines, and you can barely remember the days when your computer was stuck at your desk and your internet access was attached to something called “wi-fi.”

Talking about the mobile web in 2022 is like calling your car a mobile car. Of course it’s mobile, so you don’t have to say it. It’s a post-mobile world…..

Oh, I so hate getting woken up from a nap by my head hitting the monitor. And that was a great dream I was having.

But back in the present, we need to figure out what to do about this whole mobile web thing. I know you all were hoping that these “smart phone” gadgets were just a passing fad, but it’s not looking that way, is it? [1. Full disclosure: I just found a box of floppy disks in my basement, that I had been saving “just in case.”]

If we want to get ready for the future, we need to make our websites ready for a world where the web is a mobile web. In a few years, the idea of having a big, bulky computer sitting on or under our desks will seem as antiquated as having a phone booth on every corner.

Mobile first is a good place to start, but we need to evolve our thinking to realize that mobile first is no longer going to be just one of many design strategies, but rather the only way we’ll be designing and experiencing the web in a few years. You won’t even need a laptop: your new mobile device will have far more computing power than any of today’s computers. You want a big screen? Bring it along — it’s light and can fold up to fit in your pocket.

But keep in mind that the word “mobile” describes the user, not the device. A web-enabled screen on your refrigerator? It’s not mobile, but you are, while you’re peering inside hoping there’s something to eat besides last night’s leftovers.

And mobile doesn’t have to mean small screen. An infinite number of screen sizes, at resolutions you can’t even imagine, will connect to an infinite number of devices. When the number of default breakpoints hit dozens and then more dozens, we’ll have to stop designing for them.

In a few years years, we won’t be talking about responsive web design anymore, because we’ll be talking about the thing that comes after responsive design. (Make sure to show up at An Event Apart Seattle 2016, where Ethan Marcotte will be coining a phrase for it.)

But despite all the new technology, new site development tools, and new content strategy ideas we’ve come up with so far, one thing hasn’t changed. We still  navigate the web in essentially the same way as we did on day one: like a book, by going from one page to another.

Humans have had books for at least a couple millennia, so it’s not surprising that we’ve stuck with the same model for visually consuming words. Books have changed very little. You have a cover, you open it, and there are pages inside with words on them. Newspapers and magazines are basically the same thing as books, only floppier. Our websites aren’t that different. They have a front cover, and the information is presented on pages, and we tediously move from one page to the next.

Sure, change has happened. Web content is no longer designed to be consumed consecutively, as books are (it’s more like a Choose Your Own Adventure that never ends). Pages no longer necessarily exist before you visit them; the transition from static HTML files to content databases made it possible to create pages on the fly.

Ajax means that information can go back and forth to the server without the user leaving the page — but it’s still a page to the user. Your page may be responsive, but once it’s in your browser, it’s there. It’s a page and it’s going to keep being the same page until the user goes to another page.

How boring. But I think we’ll do better. We’ve already made content float around all over the place; the next logical step is to have our interactions float around as well. The web needs to come to the users, instead of the users having to go looking for it. Context will be increasingly important, as devices gain awareness of their users in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

As the technology behind our post-mobile devices grows beyond what we can imagine, so will the ways that the web can be experienced. Words and interactions will not longer be stuck inside the rectangles that currently constrain them, and we need to make sure our content is ready for that world.

You can’t imagine whatever it is that I’m talking about? Don’t worry, neither can I. But it’s fine, because it’s not time for that thinking yet.

Keep in mind: just 10 years ago, most of us couldn’t imagine the web the way we experience it now: Video integrated seamlessly into a web page. Maps that know where you are, and that can show you eerily detailed images of pretty much anything that’s adjacent to a street. The ability to make things get bigger or smaller with the swipe of a finger. Websites on which that jerk you’ve been avoiding since the third grade can find you with just a few clicks and then ask you to be his “friend.” High-speed internet on the top of Mt. Everest with a device that fits in your pocket. A phone that talks to you like it’s a person.

And in 10 more years? Of course I have no idea, and anyone who says they know is lying. You can’t actually “future-proof” the web. If someone did have that power to tell the future, don’t you think they would have used it to buy lottery tickets?

And speaking of lying, sorry about the post title. I’m not actually going to tell you anything about designing for a post-mobile world, because we haven’t discovered that world yet. Feel free to check back in a few years and I’ll definitely have something for you then.

But designing for today? That I can tell you about. We need to start thinking about the future. Not the web of 10 years from now, but the web of tomorrow and the web of next month and the web of next year. We need to anticipate what’s next, and make things that are future friendly.

We need to keep learning, but also keep in mind that absolutely anything could happen next (personally, I’m still hoping for flying cars).

You don’t need to know what’s coming, you just need to keep from getting stuck on the past when the future does arrive.

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