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Unsolved Problems

By Tyler Sticka

Published on September 26th, 2016


As component-based design principles have become more and more prevalent, I’ve heard with increasing frequency the idea that web design — maybe even interface design in general — is now a solved problem.

I understand that sentiment. Once our eyes are trained to see every interface for its component parts, it can be hard not to boil every design down to some tired combination of lists, details and flows… especially as more and more designers and developers choose to leverage the same shallow pool of popular open source frameworks.

Yet the magic of web design hasn’t faded for me. For one thing, the vast majority of websites I visit on my phone are still inexcusably awful. While the most common culprit is performance, I still regularly encounter terrible design patterns… most of which haven’t changed in the three years since Brad Frost attempted to catalog them. Clearly, we’ve no shortage of problems to solve before we can hoist the “Mission Accomplished” banner over our industry.

But aside from that mountain of what I’ll charitably label “opportunities,” I’m also motivated by several aspects of design I’ve yet to adequately incorporate into my own work. These unconquered challenges are my deepest well of inspiration to draw from.

I thought I’d share just a few.

I’ve been a cartoonist even longer than I’ve been a designer, so it’s my great shame how little I’ve leveraged the benefits of animation in my own work. In stark contrast to the liberal animation I apply to my iOS games and CodePen experiments, my interface design work uses animation sparingly (if at all).

Val Head's animation talk from Responsive Field Day

I was able to use animation to communicate a self-contained idea for Cloud Four’s redesigned homepage, but there’s so much more I could be doing to reenforce interactions, navigation and personality in my interfaces.

The relatively recent ubiquity of Flexbox combined with the CSS Grid Layout specification (which is moving forward in all modern browsers with astounding synchronicity) is reminding me that there’s more than one axis to design on!!

Jen Simmons' Experimental Layout Lab in Firefox Nightly

When you consider other game-changing features like clip paths, viewport units and SVG, we’ll soon have everything we need to usher in a real layout renaissance for the web!

Confession: I think the emphasis on bots as a UX trend may be a tad overblown. At their best, bots can lend text-entry interfaces a degree of intelligence and personality they wouldn’t otherwise have. At their worst, bots obfuscate controls by making the user play the most boring text adventure ever.

Screenshot of Zork, aka the future. Source: Mental Floss

But I’m very interested in how the UX principles of bot design could improve some of the interface patterns we tend to take for granted. Could a faceted search UI be presented as a conversation rather than a series of checkboxes, for example?

I’m also intrigued by the idea of integrations with tools like Slack. Designing embeddable widgets that present a single call to action (“Like,” “Tweet”) or a single piece of content (a video, a slide deck) is one thing. But designing embeds that actively participate in the conversation? That’s a set of design problems I’d sure love to solve.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore responsive design. But it recently dawned on me that there are only a handful of variables my designs truly “respond” to: screen size, resolution and aspect ratio.

What about distance? How might a design function on a kiosk or television? In virtual reality? Augmented reality? Does the web have a future on any of these platforms? How might our interfaces adapt to suit such wildly varying input methods? These would be fun questions to answer.

Those are just a few of the many design caverns I’ve yet to spelunk through. They’re the sorts of things that keep me excited and energized about what I do.

When I look back at this article — one, two or five years from now — I imagine some of these things will seem comically irrelevant. Others might feel shockingly prescient. I look forward to discovering which is which.