ZenGarden kudos

The CSS ZenGarden has already received more than enough praise. And here I follow others in heaping praise upon it.

I’ve been slowly reading through Schneiderman’s Leonardo’s Laptop. In the introduction to the book he writes:

Where are the graphic geniuses and the Web-designer Leonardos whose work stirs and thrills us?

The garden is a step in this direction. Its focus is not on the usability or accessability of the designs but of pure exploration of what is possible. It’s a playground that designers can use to push the limits of what is possible – and maybe even come up with some new innovations.

The Web is still a new environment. It has progressed rapidly through several stages of evolution in its content and user interfaces and it doesn’t yet show any signs of slowing down. Even the basis for usability on the Web, general computer usability is still very much in its infancy. The first books of note on the matter where only authored some ten to fifteen years ago. We’ve seen the Web develop from mainly text with some images through stages of fragmentation with Java, JavaScript, DHTML, ActiveX, and Flash used in interfaces to get all kinds of effects with absolutely positioned images and tables to achieve a desired layout to the current shift towards standards-based layouts with CSS and semantic markup as the driving forces.

The changes come in cycles, repeating a similar pattern. But still, none of the fundamental issues have really been addressed. We are still searching for what is a truly functional interface. The changes come driven by technology and business needs, not by human needs. I may be pessimistic, but the current shift towards standards-based designs doesn’t come from it offering better accessibility or easier interfaces. It’s simply because standards-based designs are in the end cheaper to maintain and available to larger audiences thus better serving the business plan.

This doesn’t mean that usability hasn’t gotten any more focus. On the contrary, finally businesses are starting to realise that creating sites that only work well in one browser on one platform isn’t a sound business decision. But it still isn’t driven by human needs. Naturally there are some businesses, organizations, and individuals who create designs where human needs are the driving force, but they are still in the minority.

Here is where I see that the Garden really has something novel to offer. It is a playground where new ideas can be explored by pushing the technological boundaries without having to serve a business plan. We are also seeing a welcome shift from designers with a purely graphical, print perspective to designers who understand the limitations of the medium (i.e. the Web). While the Garden gets more and more new submissions, new designs, we now need to create an additional focus for it. Instead of only pushing the exploring the boundaries of what can be done with the current technology, we need to begin evaluating the novel aspect in the interfaces that the designs provide. Looking for new ways of doing things and evaluating the merits of the new approaches.

Since the current interfaces in operating systems and windowing systems gained hold, new and revolutionary usability innovations have been hard to find. Oh, some improvement can be seen, but we are still using systems where the fundamental characteristics have remained the same for nearly two decades. And that is a long time in the computing industry. Fostering change in traditional computer interfaces is difficult and slow, especially since changing the techology and users’ habits takes a long time.

The Web is still in a state of constant motion. Users haven’t had the time to really become used any given approach to navigation etc. We can still explore new ideas and spread them rapidly to be tested by end users, even relative novices. And, our medium is one that makes spreading the new interface tehnique easy: the change only needs to be done on servers, not all of the client devices that use the Web. Provided that the new technique is based on the current technology and requires nothing new or additional. Web standards offer us a uniform platform on which to build are systems. They are a great starting point, but only a step along the way – not the end goal. The end goal is still obscured, but let us explore our way towards it, be Leonardos working on strange and far fetched dreams and goals. Let us innovate.