The new frontiers of the web

The new frontiers of the web

Ethan Marcotte explains to Nansen why digital businesses need to shift to a global perspective

The new frontiers of the web

Ethan Marcotte explains to Nansen why digital businesses need to shift to a global perspective

In April, Martin Edenström at Nansen spoke to Ethan Marcotte, often referred to as the father of responsive design, about the future of the web from a global perspective. He explained to us his take on the future of sustainable web design, and why all too often we place western perspectives onto the web, failing to realize its global potential.

Why we’ve been getting it wrong

Marcotte believes that many businesses have begun to misperceive the web from a global perspective. He uses an analogy developed by philosopher Alfred Korzybski to explain his view. Korzybski calls it the “rhetorical divide” — the preposition that there will always be a difference between an object and the representation of it. In other words, no matter how much time we spend trying to describe a thing, we will never be able to truly explain the reality of it. As an example, no matter how detailed a map is, it will never fully describe the territory it represents. In other words, the map is not the territory.

Marcotte says that this is the same for the way that we look at the web. At conferences, in digital businesses, as website owners, we often misconceive what the web is in its totality - and as a result - we fail to recognize what it has the potential to become. According to Marcotte, we apply decidedly western values onto the web, envision western users, and convieniently look over the fact that the web is much more complex (yet with more opportunities) than we’d like to admit.


Reconciling the gap

With this misconception comes a fault in the way that we further create the web — we develop in accordance to what we believe is the reality. Marcotte says that we typically have “conceptual baggage” when it comes to terms such as “mobile users” — we jump to an image of iPhone and Samsung users in London or New York. But the reality is that the global mobile market is far more complex than that.

In Bangladesh, mobile usage is booming, and with the emergence of mega cities such as Dhaka, with 13.5 million residents in a area with an extremely high population density, the mobile market is incomprehensible. These mobile users can rarely afford their own mobile phones, and instead rent hardware and data from local vendors.


Furthermore, with 700 million mobile users in Sub-saharan Africa, mobile usage is skyrocketing , and mobile payment is “lightyears ahead” of what it is in the USA.

In countries like Kenya internet access continues to record positive growth, where mobile businesses are designed for reach — for accessibility for the lowest end of the spectrum who are browsing on slow mobile devices with 2G connections. These are the new frontiers — the lion’s share of users — but attracting them is not going to be achieved through state-of-the-art sites.

This goes in direct conflict with the size of the responsive web, which just keeps on growing based upon average page size. The average web site today is 700% larger than just a few years ago. We need to shift our perceptions of cities and what global mobile users really are.

“But.. these aren’t my users”

Marcotte addressed what we were thinking — on first sight, none of this seems applicable to Western businesses who are trying to attract Western consumers. But he counters this with the argument that very soon they might be our users, and even goes on to say that actually, they should be our users. Without considering these largely undiscovered markets, we are ignoring a massive part of the web; overlooking both economic opportunity and a chance to create outstanding web platforms for diverse users.

Through not considering these markets, we are unintentionally building a digital divide; whereby users in developing countries are limited to the small portion of the web that is accessible to them.

The new face of “normal”

Marcotte ultimately argues that in order to avoid widening the “rhetorical divide” of the web, we need to step back and understand the fuller and truer picture of the both the users and the devices that interact with it. We must stop seeing progress as building groundbreaking websites that can only be accessed by the very latest devices. Instead, we must design for the lowest end of the spectrum whilst maintaining a valuable experience for all.

“That’s the future of responsiveness. Companies who adapt will emerge winners in the future.”

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The new frontiers of the web

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