When you’re talking about the future it’s hard not to get carried away. The future of almost everything seems exciting. Futuristic cars, houses, and of course, websites, will seemingly be able to perform almost any function, thanks to creativity and advances in technology. So our imagination runs wild. And we sound like Dave Gelernter sounded in a 1997 BusinessWeek article, when he discussed the radical notion of ”lifestreams” — a flood of data from an individual person that shared every detail of their life.

At the time the idea didn’t feel right. The technology was getting there or was already there but that didn’t mean everyone was adopting it right away. Fast forward to 2011, and most people will find out about this blog post through someone’s lifestream on Twitter. Our imagination tends to outpace our ability to invent. And something can be invented long before it’s a conventional part of people’s lives.

So we must separate the bells and whistles from the nuts and bolts.

Creating a strategy focused on measurable business goals will help you develop a filter that helps decipher flash-in-the-pan technologies from the sea changes. (How to develop this type of strategy is an entirely different post topic).

But instead of focusing on the technology side of the future, focus on the human side. Human behavior is a more consistent bet than technology. If we prepare our website for the future with human nature in mind, we will put our organization in a good position regardless of how the flood of technology leaves things.

5 Future-proof ideas for websites

If we bet on technology, we can either be really right, or really wrong. But if we bet on human nature, we can count on consistency and know that our website is going to be well-positioned for the future. Besides, there’s no prize for beating your audience to the future (unless you’re the inventor).

The website of the future must be:

  1. Simple
  2. Portable
  3. Fast
  4. Human
  5. Useful and/or interesting

1. Make it simple

easy button

Image by civilian scrabble

People value simplicity

Every day, more than 100 million pieces of content are shared on Facebook. More than 90 million Tweets are Tweeted. About 50,000 new blogs are created to get stacked on top of the 150 million+ that are already out there. As you read this, some of the 294 billion emails that are sent each day are being written.

We’re in an era of information overload. Our audience members are busy people who are overcommitted *outside* of their Internet lives. It’s a small miracle each time they make it to our sites so we shouldn’t overwhelm them once they get there.

The first step in preparing your website for the future happens offline. Websites are often a reflection of the organization that created them. If our organization is disorganized, silo-ed, and poor at communicating, our website will be, too. Design by committee often results in a battlefield of compromise where your visitor is the casualty. As an organization, we must go through the difficult task of truly answering some basic but powerful questions:

  1. What kind of person is my audience member?
  2. What’s the one thing they actually want from me?
  3. What one action do I want them to take?

There are no Swiss army-knife sites (except for maybe Google). We need to simplify, specialize and stick to our core mission or risk becoming irrelevant.

If the future of the web is simplicity, here’s how you can prepare:

  • Boil down your organization’s core offering
  • Conduct a 5-second usability test (fivesecondtest.com)
  • Conduct a website audit: check for competing initiatives on your own site
  • Check your analytics to see where you are losing visitors

2. Make it portable

People value convenience

The world is going mobile in a hurry. You’ve heard the stats. By 2015, 48% of U.S. citizens will browse the mobile web. Nearly 150 million people will own smartphones and mobile traffic will increase 26-fold.

Mobile isn’t a trend. Mobile is the trend.

But the web isn’t just going to mobile devices, it’s going to any screen that can present the internet. Think kiosks, augmented-reality digital signage, screens we haven’t thought of yet. The web is going to be portable: found wherever a digital screen exists.

When you’re creating a mobile version of your website (which should be your priority over running out to create a mobile app just to create one), the simplicity you gained in step 1 (“Make it simple) will help pave the way for you to create a simpler menu that satisfies your audience members desires on your site.

To prepare your site for mobile:

  • Start thinking now about how you’d simplify your navigation menu and site content
  • Discontinue developing Flash elements into your website, focus on HTML or JavaScript
  • Focus on mobile-friendly first, and then app (if it makes sense)

3. Make it fast

People hate waiting

Nobody likes to stand in line. Waiting is tough for people. That’s why 40% of web users have abandoned a page after 3 seconds of loading.

Taking the steps to making sure our sites load quickly will have benefits to user experience and SEO. People are more likely to click through more on quickly-loading sites. And Google has mentioned that they take load speed into consideration in their algorithm.

Remember, simple sites load faster. And this is even more true (and more important) in mobile.

To get your site sped up for the future:

4. Make it human

People crave human interaction

birds on a wire

Image by touterse

We’ve heard the statistics on social media. And to be fair, a lot of organizations are at least trying social media. But the humanization of your website shouldn’t be limited to your social media pre-approved channels.

Social media – or the human element – should be a layer across your digital presence, not a channel-based silo. Humanity evokes emotion from people. Showing the human side of your organization can have many benefits.

For instance, during the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund donation drive, an A/B split test was conducted to see which donation form was more effective and generating donations. One form had a photo from Haiti, the other did not. The one with the photo – the human – element – converted 10% better and resulted in $1 million more in donations.

The social side of your organization can come out anywhere you have content. Your email subscription thank you, your administrative copy, your error messages can all incorporate the human element.

For instance, this error message was written in a more human-friendly way and decreased the bounce rate by 66%

hemaware

HemAware.org human-sounding 404 error page: decreased bounce rate by 66%

If the future of the web is social, here’s how to prepare:

  • Take inventory of your social media outposts: are you acting like a logo or a person?
  • Investigate where your audience socializes online (Try CubeSocial.com)
  • Start monitoring social media to keep tabs on influencers and your audience

5. Be useful or interesting

People love a good story

An article this long has to include the cliché “content is king” at least once so here it is: content is king. In a recent survey, 73% of people said they preferred to learn about organizations through articles as opposed to ads. Content is 61% more likely to drive someone to make a purchase than ads, and content can live forever on your website.

The power of a good story is strong.

And content can pay dividends down the road for your site. A Tweet or Facebook post usually only lasts for hours. A blog post can last for years.

The future of the web is storytelling, so start generating content that captivates your audience because it’s useful or interesting (or both!)

If you want to prepare for the future of the web, focus on human nature. Make it simple, portable, fast, social, useful and interesting you’ll be ahead of the race.

This post was the blog version of “The Future of Websites,” a presentation given by Andrew on September 15th for the Association Media & Publishing “Lunch and Learn” series.

The original presentation:

The Future of Websites

View more presentations from TMG Custom Media

(Special thanks to Jackie Roy for patient help on this presentation.)

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About Andrew Hanelly

Andrew Hanelly

Andrew is SVP, Strategy for McMurry/TMG and for one semester in college, was a sociology major. He writes at Brain on Digital, as @hanelly on Twitter and here on Google+.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Anonymous

    I’m with you on everything you wrote about the future of websites, especially when people’s attention span gets shorter as time flies and you wonder just how you can cram vital info in a paragraph, like what Seth Godin does on his awesome blog… then, maybe we’ll have something shorter than 140 characters?  I’m excited, really… If you ask me, I love to take augmented reality to newer heights.

    • http://www.hanelly.com hanelly

      If only I could have made this blog post shorter and simpler. Oh well, maybe in the future.

      I agree with you on augmented reality – it’ll be interesting to see where that goes.

  • http://raulcolon.net Raul Colon

    I can’t agree more on so many of the points included there. Some of them even inspired a few blog posts. 

    I Love the aspect of calling it a miracle that people are coming into your blog.  I am very grateful when people visit my blog and comment on it. I know they all have millions of other choices but they decided to stop by. 

    I love the advice on discontinuing elements of flash I stopped being a fan of flash in the early 2000′s.  Could have not said it better on mobile friendly first. I see so many companies adding QR Codes and other elements that need a mobile friendly site and they lack one. When you ask them it is because they are planning to build a mobile app but still are not mobile friendly. 

    The power of a Blog Post Lasting hours is something very easily defined. 

    • http://www.hanelly.com hanelly

      I appreciate you appreciating it, Raul. Thanks for dropping by.

  • http://www.copyblogger.com Brian Clark

    Great points, but I’d call it the present of great websites. Of course, not everyone is living in the present.

    • http://www.hanelly.com hanelly

      That’s sort of the point though. Despite that being so clear even in the present, people don’t quite notice it, our attention is elsewhere, especially on technology. 

      Humans want very simple things from us and we tend to get in their way.

    • http://twitter.com/BradCHutchison Brad Hutchison

      This is exactly the comment I was going to make. The title is misleading since these are all points that should be practiced now. Never anything wrong with a well written reminder though!

      • http://www.hanelly.com hanelly

        Right, they should be practiced now, but do you see that changing in the next 10 years? There are many sites that aren’t up to speed with any of this. As part of the presentation I did, I took a group of 100 association websites and rated them on where they were in terms of readiness on these 5 fronts and the responses were interesting because many were behind.

        Your point still stands though, I figured when I presented my outlook on the future of web in this way it would disappoint some because some people would rather hear about technology on the horizon – and I don’t blame them.

    • http://twitter.com/BradCHutchison Brad Hutchison

      This is exactly the comment I was going to make. The title is misleading since these are all points that should be practiced now. Never anything wrong with a well written reminder though!

  • http://www.theproductivityboost.com/ Michelle

    Great list. I think simplicity is extremely critical. It’s extremely easy to get cluttered up quickly when you add content to your website. You’re concerned with whether or not you have enough, or the right information for your audience. Thanks for the simple list!

    • http://www.hanelly.com hanelly

      No problem, Michelle. I think if we fight temptation and stick to the basics we’ll provide a better user experience and product to our audience. 

      The answers, a lot of times, are simpler than they seem. We just have to look at how humans behave, in my opinion.

  • http://www.huddleproductions.com/ Chris Yates

    Thanks for the solid information.

  • http://www.agrotising.com Chris Agro – Agrotising

    Great article on many levels. Spot on with the mobile focus and speed issue. I recently attended a WordPress convention where one of the breakouts was on that topic. Great links to resources too. Nice job.

    • http://www.hanelly.com hanelly

      It seems that more and more people are focusing on it which is great for us as end-users, too. Glad you appreciate the resources. I figure those are worth the few seconds people might give the post.

  • http://www.online-business-virtual-assistant.com/ Virtual Business Assistant

    I loved what you have done here. The design is elegant, your stuff classy. Yet, you have got an edginess to what you’re offering here. Ill definitely come back for more …

    Shilpi Singha Roy
    Facebook fan page – http://on.fb.me/i9Oifw
    http://www.online-business-virtual-ssistant.com/

  • http://traffikd.com social traffic

    Hey Andrew, I loved point 4. There are definitely some great ways to humanize pages.  I like seeing a nice page about the person running the site and a bit of a backstory like on viperchill.

    What you said about 404 errors, there are a lot of great ones out there.  Adding a mascot to your site who follows viewers along and gives you some continuity is nice. A little friend to help you out on the site can be pretty nice.

    • http://www.hanelly.com hanelly

      I like that. That’d be a nice touch. Great idea.

  • Jody Raines

    Love these suggestions.  It’s time for businesses to understand it’s not about pretty flash, it’s about the content and navigation and use-ability. 

    • http://www.hanelly.com hanelly

      Definitely.

    • Marnix Schmidt

      Mmmm..I think it’s about both. ‘Pretty flash’ and great content, navigation and usability working together and make eachother stronger.

  • Jody Raines

    Love these suggestions.  It’s time for businesses to understand it’s not about pretty flash, it’s about the content and navigation and use-ability. 

  • http://mikeloveschina.com Mike Mai

    design more with CSS, less with photoshop. that’s how i’ve been working my mobile sites. load time is priority on mobile. :)

  • http://mikeloveschina.com Mike Mai

    design more with CSS, less with photoshop. that’s how i’ve been working my mobile sites. load time is priority on mobile. :)

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  • Anonymous

    I think that now more than ever it is important to get to the point in a blog post. We get to scan through a lot in Twitter, Facebook, and now Google+ so I live to see headings and quick load times as well. Tracking speed of blogs is easy enough for a blogger by using Firebug in Firefox and seeing what plugins may be slowing down the load

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  • http://www.empiricalintegratedmarketing.com Cary Pierce

    I for one, really found the last point very poignant.  “Be useful or interesting.”  Its amazing how many times we forget the first part, useful.  We spend a lot of time trying to be interesting, when we really should focus on being useful.  Interesting may get you the initial attention, but usefulness will get them coming back!

  • Andrea_caulfield

    It’s not that our imagination “outpaces” our ability to invent…it’s that “imagining” is the first step to invention. It has to preceed…it is the raw ingredient ;-)

    • http://www.hanelly.com hanelly

      Agreed, but isn’t the difference only how we are saying it? “Outpaces” or “is necessary” both indicate that one must come before the other. Anyway, I agree with you, for what it’s worth – it is the raw ingredient (usually founded in a need).

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