Disruption coming soon to website development; will apps benefit too?

Launching in Spring 2015, The Grid promises to shake up the world of custom website development by automating the tedious, technical and time-consuming elements of creating a custom website. The Grid claims it will finally let content creators focus on content, designers focus on presentation, and programmers build something interesting rather than, for example, weigh the pros-and-cons of CSS reset vs normalization. This may be the beginning of the end for Responsive Web Design and the WYSIWYG editor, and if The Grid’s new platform helps structure and organize content, its benefits to content management will extend beyond the web world into mobile apps.

What is The Grid?

If The Grid lives up to its promises (“websites that design themselves”), it will be worth far more than the $96/year the company is charging for pre-order subscriptions. Their marketing has emphasized its “artificial intelligence algorithms”, but beneath the buzzwords is a product that affordably solves the biggest challenge in creating a great website: how to simultaneously achieve excellent usability across a range of screen sizes and platforms, and beautiful design, unrestricted by a template, tailored to the brand’s unique content and engagement needs, without spending an arm and a leg.

Responsive Racket

For years, we’ve been told by web developers that Responsive Web Design (RWD) is the best way to design a website compatible across mobile and desktop devices. RWD adapts the presentation of content so that it’s optimal for the viewing device’s screen size. With RWD, content is arranged into a grid, and then depending on what device you’re on, the grid layout is rearranged to fit nicely on the screen without panning and zooming. So what’s wrong with that?

If you want to create a Responsive website, you have two options:

  • Use a template. For a budget of $25 to $500, you can use select a template on Squarespace, Wordpress, or any one of dozens of other services and get a great looking website. Many needs are well-served by a good website template.
  • Build a custom site. Templates aren’t for everyone. If your content doesn’t fit into the common categories, or it’s important that your brand’s unique personality be reflected in the website’s design, you will struggle to find a template that you love, and find yourself weighing whether it’s really worth the $5,000 to $20,000 and up, and/or weeks of programming, to develop a custom site.

(By the way, in case it’s not clear, we’re not talking about web applications — which also need to work well on both desktop and mobile browsers — just websites. Web applications are a different ball of wax, and there are no templates…)

The cost of regular maintenance is also substantial. A new generation of web design trends and technologies tends to emerge every 2-3 years, and, as your website ages past the 2 year mark, it will inevitably start to look a bit stale. For those considering a custom site, knowing that it won’t even last very long makes the price even harder to swallow.

Why, for the love of the Internet, is it so much work to (re)design a Responsive website? The fundamental reason is that RWD requires that someone specify how the content should adapt to the screen size, typically employing one or both of the following strategies:

  • Organize the content into a grid. If your content is littered with <div class=”row”> tags, you are familiar with this approach and its many pitfalls. Content and design are two completely different things. With this approach, the designer has to get involved each time there is new content, and if you ever want to change the design, you have to process all of your content to apply the new design. Unfortunately, this is standard practice in RWD.
  • Organize the content semantically, leaving and the layout and styling to the designer for the various types of content. This is best practice known as “structured data”, but standards organizations have struggled for years to agree on how semantics should be specified. A proprietary semantic organization of content is certainly better than unstructured content, but the lack of a standard system makes it impossible to create interchangeable designs that can be easily applied to the structured content. (Why isn’t there a standard? Various standards have been proposed for the past 15 years, but dysfunctional web standards organizations and the difficult nature of the problem have left the industry without a clear answer).

In the mean time, content creators can organize content semantically in the proprietary format of their chosen content management systems (CMS). It still requires custom work to change the design for content in a non-standard format, but at least the content itself can get its new look without any direct edits.

No industry analyst has better explained the complexity of these challenges than Karen McGrane, who says that the solution must come from better content management systems that enable a “create once, publish everywhere” (COPE) strategy. She has given the industry a mission to create a CMS that facilitates the creation of structured data and enables “adaptive content”.

Finally, we may be approaching a tipping point of new options. Some facilitate semantic content organization (strategy #2), while some like The Grid take a new approach altogether.

The WYSIWYG editor must die

Let me preface this by saying I am writing this in a lovely WYSIWYG editor which I do not wish any harm. I appreciate that I can easily create new paragraphs, numbered lists, links, headings with a single click. Nothing wrong with that. If I wanted, I could also change the font, font size, page margins, and colors; I could arrange images and adjust their size. As Karen McGrane and others have pointed out, this is where we get into trouble: the WYSIWYG editor encourages content writers to think about design, when they really should be thinking about structure, because 1) content writers often aren’t very good at design (ahem) and, even if they were, 2) design depends on the content delivery medium (mobile, desktop, print, app).

WYSIWYG is fundamentally incompatible with RWD grids; instead editors should enable content writers to specify the content structure and meaning. To understand how the content will be presented (“What You Get”), the software should provide content previews.

But once again, the lack of a standard system for structured data makes it impossible to create a general purpose editor for it.

Automating Structured Data

The Grid has taken a more radical approach, claiming they’ve automated all of this with artificial intelligence. Yes, it’s quite possible they will fail to deliver on those claims. It’s possible the $96 I will sent to is money down the drain. Come Spring, we may find the founders have run off with our money to Thailand, sipping Mai Tai’s in the sun, rather than solving our web development problems.

But it’s not crazy that this could be automated. Indeed, the search engines are already doing it. Try searching for AA 123 or Alan Turing or even Asparagus in Google. In addition to the usual search results, Google presents its own take of the information it associates with the meaning of these words (airline flight, mathematician, vegetable).

Assuming The Grid is successful in automating the structuring of data, its benefits will naturally extend beyond websites into mobile apps. All websites and many mobile apps need content, and indeed apps and websites often share the same content. Structured data is just as important for mobile app design flexibility as it is for the web.

Indeed “structured data” is second nature to app developers; for us, it is standard practice to store app content in a relational database such as SQLite or Core Data. A new movement to add structure content for the web will mean that the content is more readily adapted to apps. Once data is structured, it becomes information, and there are infinite beautiful ways to present information.

Though little has been revealed about how The Grid’s platform works under the hood, the company recently shared some insight via Anthony Kosner in Forbes. It remains unclear how open the platform will be to exposing their structured data for use by apps; here’s hoping they expose all so that the benefits of their platform extend beyond the web.

Will The Grid deliver? What will The Grid deliver? Let us know what you think in the comments!

Want more?

Leaked New York Times Innovation Report details why structured data is so valuable

Update: Under the hood, The Grid’s layout engine is similar to Cocoa Autolayouts.