The 5 biggest web design trends of 2017 so far

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We’re only just over halfway through 2017, but the world of web design moves pretty darned quickly, so it’s a good time to step back and take stock of the trends that have emerged so far.

In this post, we identify five of the top trends dominating web design right now, and where to go for further reading on each subject.

If there’s one thread that unites them all it’s the idea that in 2017, as Chris Coyier put it in this article, “We're not building pages, we're building systems.”

In other words, as things like style guides, design systems and pattern libraries become more important than the visual layout of individual pages, we’re seeing a seismic shift in what web design actually involves. And these five trends can all be seen, in different ways, as part of that overall transition.

01. The evolution of AI

As chatbots become more and more sophisticated, ‘artificial narrow intelligence’ is transitioning into ‘artificial general intelligence’

Throughout 2017, the mainstream media has bombarded us with stories about the cool, sci-fi possibilities of AI. But it’s not just about the future. AI has already worked its way into mainstream web design, through technologies like conversational interfaces (chatbots). Indeed, according to eBay product designer Elaine Lee, you may already be using AI in your day-to-day work without even knowing it...

As she explains in this post, what’s called ‘artificial narrow intelligence’ (ANI) is already hard at work powering voice assistants like Google Home and Apple’s Siri. It also runs recommendation technologies for the likes of Amazon, Spotify and Netflix, not to mention smart home devices, self-driving cars and chatbots.

And the if-this-then-that userflows that web designers are creating for such purposes, she predicts, will play a key role in the evolution of the emerging next stage of AI: ‘artificial general intelligence (AGI)’.

Our recent interview with Generate speaker Giles Colborne expands further on this interplay between conversational UIs and true machine intelligence, or in simple terms: How chatbots are learning

Meanwhile if you want to learn more about creating your own chatbot, check out our How to build a chatbot interface post, How to design a chatbot experience tips and these 5 essential chatbot learning resources.

02. The shift from visuals to text

Stuart Langridge’s talk ‘The UX of Text’ points to how web design is becoming less about visuals and more about words

UX has traditionally been largely focused on the visual design of interfaces. But the rise of conversational UIs means that the new wave of apps are increasingly more focused on text.

From Amazon's Alexa to Facebook Messenger, Telegram to Mastodon, web designers are now having to put much more focus on words, and that’s a trend that’s only going to heighten as time marches on. What this means is that, as Stuart Langridge explains in his talk The UX of Text: “We don’t need artists; we need poets. Authors. Wordsmiths.”

To improve your understanding of the use of words in UX, take a look at Guy Ligertwood’s checklist UX Writing and How to Do it, and Making Chatbots Talk – Writing Conversational UI Scripts Step by Step by Anna Kulawik, and How to Write For a Bot by Paul Boutin.

03. The rise of CSS in JavaScript

Airbnb is among those who’ve brought CSS in JavaScript into the mainstream

Over the last few years, the increasing variety of experiences that web designers need to create has led to a shift in focus towards JavaScript, and a bewildering array of new JavaScript frameworks.

Meanwhile, the idea of styling your documents within JavaScript itself – mainly driven by the React community – has been gaining pace too, from Facebook’s Christopher Cheadeau’s presentation outlining the problems that it solves, to Airbnb’s list of best practices for getting it right.

But the very idea of CSS-in-JS has remained controversial, with the likes of Gajus Kuizinas questioning its use (although not saying you should never do so) and generating a vigorous discussion in the comments section. 

If you’re still not sure which way to jump, this recent article by Mark Dalgleish does a great job of trying to mend fences between the enthusiasts and the sceptics, and there’s a related talk by Mark on YouTube.

Meanwhile, if you just want a basic introduction to what React is all about, check out this post by Linton Ye, this list of resources for further study, and this tutorial by Matt Crouch.

04. The explosion in prototyping tools

Sketch43 has been a game changer, but other prototyping tools are (increasingly) available

Since the rise of Sketch over the last few years, there’s been a gold rush to capture the hearts and minds of web designers with new tools to help them prototype websites, apps and other interfaces.

In 2017, it seems like not a day has gone past without a new app, tool or feature from the likes of InVision, Adobe XD, Figma, Axure, Marvel, Vectr and others. And that includes Sketch itself, whose open file format update, Sketch 43, has been a real game changer. (You can learn more about that in this guide).

In general, the diversity of prototyping tools is great news for web designers, but it can be a little overwhelming. If you’re having trouble working out which is best for you, then check out Chris Thelwell's quick and easy guide to picking the right prototyping tool.

05. Android is winning

Android has finally overtaken Windows as the world’s favourite operating system

For as long as we can remember, Windows has been the dominant operating system for people accessing the web. No longer. In April this year, Android overtook Microsoft for the first time in terms of total internet usage across desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile combined.

Android, which held just 2.4 per cent of global internet usage share only five years ago, reached the dizzy heights of 37.93 per cent market share, which put it marginally ahead of Windows (37.91 per cent) for the first time.

This shouldn’t be any real surprise to the web design community, which has recognised the importance of mobile-first design for many years now. But it’s still a clarion call for anyone who could be making their web designs more smartphone-friendly than they currently are.

That’s partly a technical issue, of course, and if you need a refresher, we’d urge you to check these guides to responsive web design and building progressive web apps.

But it’s also a matter of considering how people are actually using your website on a smartphone and what sort of information they’ll be looking for. Pamela Pavliscak's rundown of 10 Mobile Behaviours and How to Design for Them is a good place to start with that.