Tim Berners-Lee was the first one to combine Internet communication with hypertext. He published what is considered to be the first website on August 1991. The goal that Tim had in mind was noble – to improve the way people worked. He definitely succeeded in that, not knowing yet how it was going to change the future of humanity.

The beginnings

In the early 90s, creating webpages or entire websites was a new phenomenon, very different from any forms of communication available at that time. Never before had people heard of a universal space of information arranged nonlinearly. That nonlinearity of access was enabled by hypertext links. The simplicity of its use enabled a purer focus on content and left technical concerns behind. No one had yet dreamt, however, about making it visually appealing. “Build it, and they will come” was enough.

Ups and downs

Nowadays, it might be hard to believe, yet there was a time of building entire websites when no audience needs, nor business profits were taken into account. People were given new tools and possibilities without any knowledge or experience as we have today.

Hypertext quickly left offices and spread outside. A new channel for self-expression was found. Not so many could write, but millions began to read. Information became easier and quicker to find. There was no doubt – an unprecedented medium for communication and shared knowledge had been created.

Not all who played around with the early versions of markup language for webpages (HTML) were satisfied with its capabilities. Those more proactive (as opposed to “wait and see”) types of users wanted to push it further and discover new potentialities. After all, new tools and ideas wouldn’t come to light without a loud expression of needs. As soon as a simple structure consisting of headings, paragraphs, and links stopped being enough, and images along with tables were introduced, web design officially started to exist.

As their name suggests, tables were originally intended to be used to display tabular information. Instead, they became layouts for entire pages. “Sure, the tools will change, and things will get easier, but there is lots to learn about this new medium” wrote Darcy Dinucci, delighted with new technologies, in his “The Elements of Web Design” book from 1998. The capabilities and knowledge of those early developers and designers, although probably not sufficient yet for a thrilling user experience, were definitely growing!

In 1994, the organization that would ensure long-term growth and uniformity was founded. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) gathered those who appreciated the Internet phenomena to come together to establish common standards. Google, Microsoft, IBM and others aimed to create a web of trust. And, honestly, that was the key to growth. Accepting the same protocols and spreading new standards made Internet applications compatible.

As I was too young to remember, I could read all about it in the “Spinning the Semantic Web: Bringing the World Wide Web to Its Full Potential” by acknowledged researcher Dieter Fensel. The internet started to speak one language. Websites were changing the code on the inside and visual design on the outside, developing in the direction that has now shaped our times. But the real game changer was when business companies started entering the web.

Since the mid-1990s, web design and development has been one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. In 1995 there were fewer than 1,000 web design/development companies in the United States. By the end of 2005, there were over 30,000.

The growth was pushed by large businesses wishing to sell products and services. Think of Amazon, which went online as cadabra.com in 1995. A new priority was to have a .com domain. Businesses began to invest large amounts of money in advertising their newly opened online shops. It led to the second generation of web design. The mantra was “advertise that you sell it online, and they will come”

Budgets, markets and needs were growing, but not in parallel with knowledge. Interfaces became interactive to present products beautifully, but the whole web design process was still misunderstood. The quicker websites were built, the less practical they were. Constructing a truly useful interface for customers turned out to be a difficult task. The strategy did not work.

Barbara Kuhr, who worked for the first commercial web magazine “Hotwired” said one day in the 90s: “People will look back at what we are doing now and think it is funny and primitive. But I remember the old days of television when the TV would go blank or fill with static, and you would see, “Please stand by. We are experiencing technical difficulties.” People did not care; they stood by. That is the stage we are in now.”

Present times according to plan

An important part of life has now moved to the virtual world. The web now appears to be another dimension of everyday life. It’s changed the way we shop, work, learn, communicate, buy services, get information, entertain ourselves, but most of all, think. The internet has affected markets as well as culture. IBM studies showed that there were over 40 million Internet users in 1997. At the end of 2008, the number was 1.5 billion, a quarter of humanity at that point. Today it reaches 3 billion… and counting.

The internet – a true phenomenon, such a powerful and unique medium over which one has no control. It unpredictably and absolutely sets a direction for any business. Existence in this new world is proving to be both an enormous risk, as well as a great opportunity. The world of the Internet will not forgive a company that makes mistakes when building its online presence for long. At the same time, whoever is fully aware of its possibilities will want to present to the world their business from the site of a… website.

Hopes and returns

Although the web was initially developed for a work environment, real success had been waiting outside, in public information. The excitement of the newly informed masses speeded up the growth. And then, like a prodigal son, the web came back to its origins, to companies and organizations who started to use private computer networks for the information of their own employees – Company Intranets.

Focus has again shifted to constructing powerful websites that provide real value and deliver a positive customer experience – as a bunch of guys passionate about Human-Computer Interaction noticed and shared in “The Design of Sites: Patterns for Creating Winning Web Sites” in 2002. Thanks to scientific research, those who waited were finally given usable interfaces, ease of use, high performance, friendly spaces and overall satisfaction. The voice of Internet users was being heard at last.

This new approach has been spreading and progressing at a steady pace to reach mainstream only a couple of years ago finally. Today designers and developers are expected to forget the past. Users are no longer those passionate early adopters characterised by a love of technology, never-ending enquiring, and abundant time. The simplicity of modern interfaces has lowered the walls. A requirement of possessing almost an expert knowledge of computers in order to use them became outdated a long time ago. An online product has to be easy to use.

The user-centred design looks at how online products communicate. Most of the designing time is dedicated now to supporting how users interact, not how designers want them to act. Designers ask questions: How easily and successfully can users navigate? How easily and successfully do users find the information they are looking for? How quickly can users perform common tasks? How easily do users understand what is clickable? How well do users understand the symbols and icons? Which ones are problematic? Why? What type of prerequisite information does a user need to use a product? There are even more questions in the “Handbook of Usability Testing” by Jeffrey Rubin.

Undoubtedly, the internet has significantly affected our lives for two decades. It not only highly improved how we work, collaborate or win business but also created millions of new workplaces.

The journey doesn’t end here. Technology leaves choices to us. Could we possibly build a place for another generation of the ‘web of trust’ where honest business can grow? Let’s make it our new challenge because we were given a world where local markets no longer have limits.

Paula Kaminska
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