A House of Cards: The Challenge of 2014

GPlus

G+ is entirely card-based and fully responsive

Microsoft

Microsoft has adopted a card-based online appearance.

Disney

Disney’s site is card based, fully responsive and completely unremarkable.

Sometime around 2004 (accounts vary), in a very heated moment, Steve Ballmer, then CEO of Microsoft, allegedly ranted that “Google’s not a real company. It’s a house of cards.” Ten years later, the house still stands and Ballmer’s words are more salient than ever. Google is a house of cards. Actually, Microsoft is also a house of cards. Disney is a house of cards too. Truthfully, when we weren’t looking, the entire internet became a house of cards. Not a flimsy house waiting for a good stiff breeze to blow it over, mind you, but an intentionally architected house built on a solid code base.

When Pinterest first launched in 2010 with a masonry style grid of “pinned” content and infinite scrolling, it launched a silent revolution online – and not just with those interested in wedding planning, cooking and interior design. Pinterest fundamentally changed the internet. Around the same time that Pinterest launched, David DeSandro created a dynamic layout grid plugin for jQuery called “Masonry” that allowed page elements to reposition themselves both horizontally and vertically within the grid, but adapted to the view port. This became one of the core building blocks for responsive websites. Today, responsive grids and card-based masonry grids dominate the internet. Cards are everywhere. They are on news sites, social media sites, corporate websites, retail websites, etc. Since cards lend themselves so well to the masonry concept, we’ve gone card crazy. And, in many ways, the web is a better place for these changes. But cards and responsive grids are not without their faults.

Swizzle vs. Sizzle
Anyone who has designed and built a content-rich responsive website knows how hard it is. Anyone working in digital today knows how fast the world is changing and with it, the technologies used to create and deliver rich digital experiences. In my earlier blog posts on Process Transformation and THINK. Make. Learn. Disrupt, I touched on some of the massive changes taking place in the world of digital. Oddly enough, the multitude of screen sizes, orientations and resolutions are among the most challenging hurdles we face today. Everyone wants their online presence to span devices and context and the content must rise to the challenge and look great everywhere a user encounters it. Folks, this is a bit like walking a tightrope. It’s harder to do than it looks. But, like walking a tightrope, it is doable. The question is whether it can be as spectacularly doable as Philippe Petit’s Twin Towers tightrope walk?

In our rush to design responsive grid-based sites with infinite scrolling, we’ve somehow taken our eye off the ball. We’ve become so focused on perfecting the swizzle that we’ve lost sight of the sizzle. In 2011, when the Boston Globe first launched their responsive site, there was nothing really like it on the web and it had both swizzle (responsive) and sizzle (a rich experiential “wow” factor.) As responsive sites have become more commonplace and, as cards have come to be the dominant display for content, the web has become increasingly homogenized. Visit Disney. Scroll around. Resize your browser and watch the swizzle take place. It works beautifully. But, look at the site. Is this a site that says “Disney is the most magical place in the world!”??? No, it doesn’t say that at all. It says “This is a generic responsive site that could be selling winter coats or sheetrock or anything else.” If this can happen to Disney, it can happen to any brand.

This is a call to action for digital designers and developers as we look forward to 2014. Let’s bring back the sizzle. Let’s agree that responsive sites don’t have to be so generic and dry. Let’s shuffle the cards and create rich online experiences that are also responsive. Let’s think about Snowfall and create sites that are visually appealing with great content and stories that draw our users in and create emotional connections with them. We’ve done this before. We can do it again.  Let’s rebuild the house and rethink the cards.