The survival of web apps

I’ve had a busy time of late, in particular thanks to a couple of days in Switzerland and Austria, followed by the Future Of Web Apps (FOWA) conference in the Docklands.FOWA’s a little large for my tastes, but it’s undeniably well organised. Three sessions stood out (the uniformly excellent Gavin Bell, Benjamin Huh’s history of Icanhascheezburgerand Kathy Sierra being her enthusiastic self) but my particular interest, and one I’d love to have heard more about, is in the eponymous future bit.

I’ve been thinking for a while about how our field will develop and while I believe mobile, the Cloud and the Semantic Web are going to be big factors, I’ll park them for future posts and talk about the clearest issue on our horizon: the economic downturn.

Truly this was FOWA’s cri de coeur. A majority of sessions made mention of it, and Sun’s Tim Bray scrapped his keynote at the last minute to deliver Get through the tough times – which, although somewhat cataclysmic, is definitely worth 30 minutes of your time. Over a matter of days, the economy has become the dominant topic of the web. Dan Saffer askswhat designers can do to help (in short, make stuff). Khoi Vinh cautions us to be careful about our data. Andy Budd talks about how to survive a global recession.

I’ll admit it: I’m a little scared. I was too late for the bursting of the first bubble; every year I’ve spent in the industry has been one of growth. A potentially contracting market is a new thing for me.

Of course, self-correction is a fundamental part of the system we live in. Boom precedes bust. And I’m confident there’ll always be work for smart people at the top of their game. To paraphrase Naomi Klein, if capitalism has one strength, it’s that it has a knack of creating new jobs to replace those that are lost.

But our environment will undoubtedly change. Andy makes the point that it’s now even more important for businesses to understand their customers; after all, retention is far cheaper than acquisition. He’s right, but unfortunately I think few will accept the perceived risk: tight budgets make waterfall, big requirements and long research phases a thing of the past, if they weren’t already. UX designers in particular might find it hard to be relevant in these short-term times. To survive, we have to become more agile (both lower-case and upper-case ‘a’) and demonstrate our value from day one. Quick, practical research. Quick, volatile design. I’m currently writing an article on how we can do this; but, looking beyond survival tactics, is there still room for user experience to make a difference strategically?

Perhaps, if we make the case clear. Now is a particularly bad time to compete solely on features – the cost is of that arms race is simply too high. I forsee UX people increasingly filling the role of strategic chaperone, dragging businesses away from unsuitable functionality and focusing them on the core product. Cash-strapped businesses are already going to build just half a product; we have to help them focus on the right half.

I also think lower levels of capital will catalyse a far deeper trend: the end of the website as destination. Once upon a time, creating a brochureware site or, recently, another social networking app was a viable strategy – there was market share to be gained, and there was capital available. ‘Me too’ sites captured their share of eyeballs, CPA and other such meaningless trivia. These days are gone, and if this is your future model, the question will be one of survival, not expansion.

Historically, companies that thrive in recessions aren’t those that drive efficiency and cut costs: they’re those who can execute on an idea that changes everything. So the next phase of the web, now upon us, will see it evolve as an enabler, not a medium. The real value now is in getting devices talking, connecting products and services, and synthesising information in new, valuable ways. Services like Dopplr are already halfway there: so laden with APIs and interconnectedness that they exist as intermediaries – a ‘social physics engine’, to use Matt Biddulph’s wonderful phrase – the site itself is largely redundant. All that counts is the value that it brings to people’s lives.

The good news is this is still very much dependent on a user experience focus – it’s just a different flavour of UX. It’s less about making fractional sales improvements or reducing numbers of customer service interventions. Our role now has to be more about trying to make a genuine difference to the world through innovation. This is noble and, as I said earlier, scary. Change always is, and it’s appropriate that we remain alert in difficult times. But, for good people, the sky isn’t falling quite yet.

Cennydd Bowles