When I first started working as a UX designer and Information Architect in the early aughts, web pages were a series of a containers: sites contained sections, sections contained pages, pages contained boxes of information, boxes of information were then linked to other boxes of information. The experiences were like strings of DNA, decoding one critical piece of information at a time. Of course, this is a generalization, but the paradigm — driven both by technical limitations and mental models — was boxes connected by arrows (a reference to how we document the relationships of this content when building sites).
Now, experiences online are less about containers and more about stories — brand stories, personal stories, social stories. Information unfolds in vignettes, videos, gifs, and connections to other real people we know. In many ways, the container’s divine right has given way to the content they used to contain; a mutiny of sorts. Though content is always present, we’re also less aware of it because we access it less as a chain of searches and more as a story unfolding. In the ideal scenario, it effortlessly presents itself to us at exactly the right time; from there, we drill down into what piques our interest. But again, even this term “drill down” is not so relevant; content is now served up and embedded in ways that even further remove barriers.
So what does this mean for the UX designer today? Or for the company looking to create a new site? Well for one, it means spending as much time on your content as you do on your design, and refining the two in tandem as much as possible. In recent years, there’s been an idolization of designers who can code; I would argue that a designer who understands content is just as vital. And when I say content, I’m not referring just to text. At its core, it’s about defining messaging, and then storyboarding the various ways those messages can unfold, through an array of storytelling techniques: images, animations, video, social intelligence, and of course, good old fashioned words.
This is not to say that boxes and arrows have no place, because they do. Wide swaths of information still have to be labeled, sorted and accessed in a logical chain of information; they’re just no longer the driving principle of those experiences.