As the web becomes bigger and more diverse it also becomes more fragmented and in the fragmentation we begin to notice patterns. It’s a massive change that does two things: First, it undoes 200-odd years of apparent progress in the way we connect, that was established with the advent of the industrial revolution. Second, it changes the way we establish and assess human qualities such as authority and trust, on the digital medium of the web.
The first of these things is the result of the semantic web (and semantic search) and the shift from “websites to people” and the second is the transfer of our very human way of connecting from real life to, finally, the digital plane of the web. Both of these make the job of web design suddenly more difficult. Not only does a website now have to confer professionalism and expertise but it also must engage the visitor at a more visceral level, help increase the accessibility of the content, project authority, help engender trust and contribute to the overall user experience.
If web design was hard to begin with, now it’s beginning to look a little like alchemy. The web designer is now charged with the tasks of the marketer, the psychologist and the philosopher. S/he needs to understand fundamental business principles, social network dynamics (because content from your site will need to be shared) and what drives personal behaviour on the internet. The website, in turn, has gone from being a mere web presence that was the equivalent of digital premises to being the hub of a company that has to project its unique culture, personality, trust and authority in order to drive its reputation.
The salient feature of Web 3.0 is that anything that is easy can now be done without help from a professional. If all you want is a web presence and you don’t much care how it is received or how it looks you can go and start a blog at blogger.com or get Wordpress or Joomla and do everything yourself. You can use templates to dress it up and you can add whatever functionality you think you need, with just a few clicks.
If all you need is to feel you have a social presence you can just start a Facebook account or get on Twitter or have a presence in Google+. The point is that the value of all this, the value of any of it, does not lie in their just being there. That part is easy-ish and it ticks the required check box. But that is not the real value of your website and presence on social networks any more. The real value, in a semantic web, lies in how you set them up and use them, how each works in terms of the overall plan of what you want to achieve on the web.
For that to happen you need someone who understands what’s happening on the web right now. What trends are influencing it. How the drive for reputation and authenticity is affecting online visitor perception and how a website, social media accounts, the website UX and the overall design, impact on the sense of trust and reputation that’s created by perception and the end-user experience.
This also changes the fundamental role of the web designer from a “designer” who usually brings in a certain artistic sensibility to what is essentially a digital business tool, to a full-fledged business partner now charged with the success of your business. The transition is not an easy one. Despite the fact that on the web we count time in dog years there are still “web design” firms and web design customers that are trapped by the inherent semantics of the words. But the very word “design” has now changed, certainly aesthetics still play a part, particularly as that is the first impression your website makes to the visitor, but it’s now critically important to have the kind of design decisions made that enhance your branding and impact positively on the visitor.
If anything describes the transition that web design has undergone, best, it’s the focus from form which used to even provide awards for best web design (usually most artistic) to function where website platforms put the visitor and his needs at the centre from the moment he lands on a page. Design now is applauded when it leads to higher ranking in search (because the website has been built to load fast, with few indexing problems and a structure that does not bury content), a better end-user experience (because a prospect finds what they want and convert into a customer) and stickiness and social buzz (because those who visit it once come back and visit it again and tell their friends about it).
For all of this, now you no longer need “web design” nor do you just need a web design company. What you really need is a web professional who lives and breathes the web and who can explain to you, the customer, in terms you can understand, every design element decision that’s been made on your website and why it is there to help you achieve your aims.
When you have that, you’ve gone from finding a “web design company” to gaining a partner who has invested as much in the future success of your business, as you have. And that is the most truly radical change that’s been brought about by the semantic web.