After a while on the fringes of our collective consciousness, HTML5 is finally getting the attention it deserves. The development community (as typified by the SuperFriends) has come together to debate practical elements of the spec, argue over the inclusion of controversial elements, and assess the timeframe over which we can unleash HTML5 in the wild.
However those of us more accustomed to the world of Post-Its, sketches, and .psds – the designers – haven’t been so vocal. Perhaps we’ve been distracted by the bright lights of CSS3 and those surface thrills we’ve longed for. (Rounded corners! Gradients! Transparency!) Or, alternatively, we’ve been in the thrall of
@font-face and looking forward to the coming age of passable web typography.
Understandable. But it’s time designers got excited about HTML5 too.
Partly, it’s just good practice. Whatever your flavour of design – visual, web, interaction, user experience – knowing the native technology makes you better at your job. Just as composers should understand the capabilities of the orchestra’s instruments, designers need to understand the language of the web.
But there’s more to HTML5 than simply keeping our skills sharp. It could make a big difference to the way we design for the web.
Information architects (and, by extension, user experience designers) should be excited by the new HTML5 elements –
<aside> and so on. While they won’t immediately revolutionise today’s web, they’re an investment for the future. Doing useful stuff with information is the central theme of IA, and therefore its practitioners should be at the forefront of the new experiences that machine-readable semantics will offer. HTML5 allows us to mark text up in a more meaningful way than a sea of
<div>s, meaning we’ll soon see applications appearing at a sub-page level. We’ve started to scratch the surface – think about the Operator toolbar or customisable UIs à la iGoogle – but we’ll need detailed design thinking to work out how to bring the benefits of semantic richness to the end user.
APIs and other extensions
While it’s clear that some of the HTML5 APIs are far from perfect right now, when they’re refined they will offer us intriguing new opportunities and challenges.
type="search") can provide extra visual cues about input function, although of course this depends on the solutions chosen by the browser manufacturers.
Until now, it’s been easy to consider our domain as bounded by the viewport and the web server. But HTML5 is another step toward seamlessness: the merging of desktop, offline and online. For instance, the drag and drop API could see the line between online and desktop experience blur further. Local storage could allow for a web-like experience in areas of poor connectivity. This convergence is clearly a good thing, but we must also design how to expose those hidden seams at the user’s request. Users should stay in control of how their locations are published and what data is synchronised to their machine.
<video>, <audio>, <canvas>
There is of course something of a reported schism between the standards world and the Flash world. Some see the advent of these new media elements (particularly
<canvas>) as heralding the death of Adobe’s poster child.
I don’t think this is either likely or desirable. Neither technology is perfect. Flash is, of course, proprietary and thus subject to the whims of a third party that stands between browser and user.
<canvas> has known accessibility problems. But the two can live in harmony, if we play to their respective strengths. Some current Flash applications might be better suited to
<canvas>, particularly those based around dynamic visualisation: graphs, animations, infographics. Some applications will benefit from the powerful capabilities of Flash: games, heavily interactive widgets.
This aside, there’s clearly a user experience benefit in not having to rely on an external plugin to play rich media elements, and it will be interesting to see the uptake of the
<audio> elements. Although it will initially be down to browser makers to define the interface elements involved, we will need to figure out how to integrate them into everyday web experiences. The good news is that they can be styled in the same way as any other HTML element. If your visual aesthetic relies on slanted images with box shadows, it’s trivial to apply this to video too.
That said, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room: the thorny codec issue. I’m sure we’d all agree that the sooner it’s resolved, the better.
What can designers do?
Only the most patient and detail-oriented designer will relish the idea of reading the spec in full and arguing the finer points on the WHATWG list. That’s just not the way designers roll.
But as a community it’s important that we start talking about HTML5. If you’re new to HTML, now’s a great time to learn. The articles on this site and A preview of HTML5 give useful guidance on the differences between HTML5 and its predecessors. Above all, designers should get chatting with their developer friends: there can’t be many left who no longer have an opinion on this technology. How do they see their practices changing? What can we do today to prepare our sites for the advent of HTML5? How can we build on its strong points to make the web a better place?
We don’t yet know what we’ll accomplish with HTML5, but then it’s not often that the vocabulary of the web changes this deeply. However, one thing is clear: if we prepare now, we have a great chance to bring innovation to our users’ online lives.
This article was jointly published on Ineffable, Cennydd’s personal website.