The Slow Web Movement and the Future of UX

  November 08, 2013

A growing number of thought leaders in the Web performance and design communities are beginning to recognize the significance of what is being referred to as the ‘Slow Web’ — or the ‘Slow Web Movement’ — and it probably isn’t what you think.

Modeled after the Slow Food movement of the 80s the Slow Web Movement is a similar reaction to what, its supporters believe, is an unhealthy shift in how the Web is being consumed. The underlying idea is less about actual performance, load metrics, response times and the like — and more about the value of the interactions taking place. Speed — the quickness with which the experience is being delivered – is still important, however, what the Slow Web Movement is concerned with is the actual experience being delivered.

Taken at face value it’s easy to dismiss the Slow Web Movement as another provisional cause taken up by people with too much time on their hands — but that would be a mistake. The reality is that the Slow Web is more or less an appropriate name for what we as users, consumers, purveyors and creators of the Web are already driving toward — namely more meaningful online experiences.

Defining exactly ‘What’ the Slow Web Movement is becomes easier when you provide examples of what it isn’t — which Jack Cheng, author of a must-read primer on the Slow Web Movement, appropriately calls the ‘Fast Web.’ As its name suggests the Fast Web is the Web of immediacy — the ‘click here, share now, like and retweet this’ Web that conditions you to keep up with the overbearing number of alerts and notifications streaming across your various personal devices at any given moment. The fear, and very real possibility of being left in the wake of this daily Fast Web onslaught instills a type of anxiety in people, which can only be alleviated by remaining an active participant in the cycle.

The irony is that the payoff is very rarely worth the investment.

When boiled down to its core, Fast Web messaging is basically a promise that you’ll be rewarded for visiting a site, retweeting a message, liking a Facebook page and so on. Ask yourself — when was the last time doing any one of these things actually resulted in a meaningful interaction for you? What was the reward — another Twitter handle to follow? A discount code for another product you don’t really need? Another forgettable update on your Facebook page?

As I write this all I can think of is Ralphie from A Christmas Story — when he finally receives his Orphan Annie decoder ring and becomes a part of the “Secret Circle.” After all the time and effort he’s invested to be able to decode little Orphan Annie’s secret message he can’t believe it reads, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” All the anticipation fizzles into disappointment – “Ovaltine? A crummy commercial? Son of a b****.” That’s what the Fast Web is — an oversold Ovaltine commercial.

The Fast Web is destination based — as in “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine, . . . now go out and buy your Ovaltine” — it exists to get you to go somewhere. The Slow Web is interaction based — meaning it puts effectiveness and the experience it’s delivering to its user above the number of page views it generates. As Cheng points out in his Slow Web essay, effectiveness leads to a sense of gratitude in the users, making them trust the company, service or content — making it more likely that they will continue to engage with it.

All this isn’t to say the Fast Web doesn’t have its place in the world— there will always be the need for urgent emails, breaking news stories and relevant instant notifications. These are real-time interactions that happen independent of you — at times directly affecting you — but mostly consist of information that you don’t really need right now — making them more of a distraction than anything else.

This leads to another central tenant of the Slow Web movement — timeliness vs. real-time. Cheng differentiates the two by asserting that, “Real-Time interactions happen as they happen. Timely ones, on the other hand, happen as you need them to happen.” Cheng goes on to explain that the Slow Web is not only about crafting timely interactions, but delivering them in such a way as to avoid the anxiety created by the randomness of the Fast Web. He aptly sums it up by saying the Slow Web is “not so much a checklist as a feeling, one of being at a greater ease with the Web-enabled products and services in our lives.”

While each of these themes is central to the Slow Web Movement, it would be a shock if they don’t become foundational elements of future UX strategy. We’re in a world where users are demanding more from their online experiences — and product managers, marketing departments, designers, developers and heads of business would be wise to start apply the underpinnings of the Slow Web Movement to their Web properties.

It’s no longer enough to make the Web and the products and services it hosts usable, and convenient for people – you need to deliver real value from the interactions you’re offering to your users, or, in Slow Web terms, deliver “effectiveness.” While there will always be a Fast Web, it’s becoming more of a tool to drive users to a destination. Upon arrival to that destination, it’s the principles of the Slow Web that will make or break the experience that is delivered. The Fast Web might get you there – but the Slow Web is what will make you want to stick around.

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