Will Links, Navigation, and Search Boxes Disappear From the Web?

In 2002, I purchased a new desktop computer and a giant 30-inch monitor. The graphics card in my desktop PC was capable of showing resolutions higher than 1280 × 1024. I installed the latest version of Internet Explorer 6, which was less than a year old, as well as Netscape. That year, I was surfing the Web in style. The newest websites designed for 1024 x 768 were mammoth on my monitor. Directory sites with a liquid template could display hundreds of links on one page on my monitor and in those days I thought that was a great user experience.

Devices Are Getting Smaller and Smaller

In the 12 years since then, the Web has evolved in some amazing ways. In 2008, laptop unit sales surpassed that of desktops. In 2010, smartphone unit sales surpassed that of personal computers. With the projected stagnation (and possible drop) in projected PC sales along with the simultaneous growth of tablet sales, Gartner is anticipating that tablet unit sales will surpass that of PCs by the end of next year. The recent and predicted trends are showing that the devices we are using for the majority of our Web surfing are getting smaller. New devices such as Google Glass and the Apple Watch have the promise of making Web surfing possible in resolutions as low as 240 x 320. Those link-heavy sites that I used to love would look horrible on my 13-inch laptop, my tablets, my iPhone, and especially poor on an Apple Watch (even if the resolutions went higher).


Ref: Smartphone, PC, and tablet shipments by quarter from 4Q 2009. Source: IDC

Typing Is Giving Way to Voice

Last week Amazon launched an interesting device for homes called Amazon Echo. While the device has many differentiating features, its promo video has key similarities to Apple’s Siri and Google Now. Through a microphone, speaker, and some very clever software, users of Echo can query and create information with voice commands.


In the commercials for Android phones, iPhones, and the new Amazon Echo, users simply speak a query or command, such as “How tall is Mount Everest?” and the voice recognition software seeks the answer somewhere on the semantic Web or possibly in a more organized data structure in the cloud. Once an answer is found, the software responds audibly, in text, or by sending a link to the user. In essence, typing your query into the search engine could be replaced with vocal queries. But voice recognition software has a long way to go before it can be adopted in the mainstream. Googling “Siri Fails” shows many of the more comical weaknesses of voice recognition in its current state. However, Amazon’s entry into this market might be an indicator of how websites will change over the next five to 10 years.

The Evolution of User Experience Paradigms on the Web

With the combination of these two trends – first that screens are getting physically smaller and second we are starting to see companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon pour significant amounts of research and development dollars into voice recognition – it makes you wonder how this will affect websites as we know it. To accommodate small screens, many mobile websites are starting to implement smaller navigation elements such as hamburger menus.


These menus, which have questionable click-through rates, are designed to minimize the amount of on-page real estate that the navigation takes up, leaving room for other content on small screens. It’s easy to imagine that if every Web-enabled device has strong voice recognition software that user experience designers might take the next tempting step and just remove the primary navigation, drop-down menus, and search boxes. This futuristic version of websites might simply always be “listening” to the user for verbal requests such as “Where can I find your best mortgage rates?” or “How long has the company been in business?” or “Show me case studies in the medical industries.”

If the websites of the future will need to rely upon voice commands for users to perform important tasks such as finding information, researching and purchasing products, as well as self-service, then website owners will need to completely change the way we think of information architecture and content structure. For copywriters and content strategists, they may need to develop copy and videos in the format of a conversation that allows users to jump back and forth in the conversation based on contextual phrases. Information architects might need to develop sites around a variety of nomenclatures and most importantly think about a task-based site architecture relevant to the context of the discussion. While a site might be able to answer the questions, “What is a mortgage?” and “How do I apply for a home loan?” and “What home financing options do you have?” the information architect might need to predict the sequence of a series of questions that a home buyer would have before navigating them to a specific piece of content. These are of course very simple examples. A website built to be navigated by voice commands would require a substantially different approach on every level including Web analytics and content management platforms.

Most of the devices that we use to surf the Web these days are much smaller than the 30-inch monitor I had in 2002. I’m enthralled by all of the techniques that website owners are using to fit relevant information and navigation into compact screens. New technologies such as voice recognition, multi-touch screens, and contextual personalization are changing the way we request and view information on the Web.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.