The Trends issue: Web / Tech

Why do so many retailers’ websites look the same? Plus B-Reel pick the latest technologies exciting adland

Before smartphones and tablets, online shopping was a simpler affair. Most retail websites functioned like catalogues, displaying neatly arranged thumbnails of products, and existed primarily to drive shoppers in-store. Now, they are supposed to be ‘immersive brand experiences’.

For designers, this throws up some interesting challenges. Customers want websites to be simple and intuitive, and work seamlessly on any device. They also want sophisticated features that demand a complex CMS, such as one-click ordering and live stock levels, and it’s no longer enough to merely showcase products: today, shoppers are looking for engaging content, from editorial to videos, lookbooks and social feeds.

In an attempt to meet this growing list of demands, many retailers have adopted a similar aesthetic: responsive, grid-based designs with white backgrounds, sticky headers and top-down navigation to allow for endless scrolling. They use monochrome palettes and sleek sans type, with embellishment kept to a minimum. One high street brand with a focus on keeping things simple is Topman. Creative manager Tom Lancaster recently worked on a redesign of the site. Changes include a sticky header, a white background, tablet-friendly buttons and navigation and new, standardised layouts for promotional spots. As well as creating a more consistent visual language, Lancaster says the new look is designed to “make the product the hero – to strip away distracting graphics and noise, and focus on creating an intuitive experience … that makes it easy to explore and buy.”

This desire to simplify is driven in part by the rising popularity of flat graphics, a trend kickstarted by the launch of iOS7. As Philip O’Dwyer, creative director at Method explains, it’s also a response to the restrictions of designing for mobile. “Mobile forces you to strip back to the bare essentials and create a more streamlined experience,” he says.

But while there is a clear need to keep things simple, Nicolas Roope, co-founder of digital agency Poke, which has recently created new websites for Ted Baker and Mulberry, says it’s a trend that has led to a certain sameness online – and not just in retail. “When everyone was designing for desktop, there wasn’t so much pressure to simplify. This decluttering makes for a better experience but the downside is a kind of neutering. It becomes a little more clinical, and partly because of this trend for flat graphics, there’s becoming less distinction between brands,” he says.

Lancaster believes this is partly due to the technical restrictions placed on designers and says that brands are becoming more aware of the need to differentiate. “I think there is a recognition that sites are starting to look similar – many have the same back-end system…add in the homogenised retail calendar of Christmas, holiday shop, prom, and new season and it can all get a bit same-y. Brands have to differentiate, I think we will see this more visually.”

One way to avoid this sense of sameness, he adds, is art direction. This can be through subtle touches – Topman, for example, has introduced platinum backgrounds for all photographs and now commissions shoots specifically for online features, all with the aim of creating a more consistent, yet interesting visual language. Method adopted a similar approach when creating a new website for cosmetics brand Lush. The sleek monochrome design doesn’t quite convey the same distinctive visuals as Lush’s stores, but features some interesting photography: gels, creams and soaps are photographed free from packaging, and full-width images are used for editorial features and page headers. “The aim was to translate some of the in-store experience of touching and smelling products online, by allowing people to view them up close,” says O’Dwyer.

As brands become increasingly aware of the importance of online art direction, they are investing more resources in web photography. Traditionally, high-end shoots were reserved for print campaigns, but Roope says this is changing, while Lancaster’s team at Topman includes photographers, stylists and retouchers tasked with making sure everything looks “fresh, modern and consistent”.

O’Dwyer believes the increase in content created exclusively for the web is also leading to new trends in product photography. “With bloggers curating their own visual collections, it’s really important that brands have art directed imagery on their sites, too. Traditional visual merchandising skills are being applied online, and we’re seeing new styles develop, devised to look good on screen,” he adds.

This approach also enables online-only brands to a create a distinctive language that can be translated into print ads. O’Dwyer cites furniture retailer made.com 
as a brand that has developed “a characterful way of shooting”. Products are shot in curated collections, often in similar arrangements, creating 
“a clarity of presen-tation” across all communications.

Beyond photography, Lancaster believes brands can also create more immersive experiences using motion graphics, translucency and video, which customers are increasingly expecting. Kenzo often uses gifs (see below) for its social media feeds, while Prada has been experimenting with containerless video, and Burberry uses a mix of Instagram shots, video and full bleed imagery on its site.

As the function of retail sites changes, so too does the role of physical stores. O’Dwyer, Roope and Lancaster think brands will continue to look at ways to further connect the online and in-store experience – whether through the use of touch-screen devices in-store, or replicating digital content on screens. In turn, brands will need to think more creatively about their shops to entice consumers back inside. Urban Outfitters’ new flagship outlet in New York has a coffee bar, record store and salon, which the brand says aims to rekindle the excitement of shopping in brick and mortar stores.

Online, Roope describes the reductive and, in some cases, homogenous approach to web design as “a revolution that needed to happen,” but also a trend that will pass. “Clients are beginning to understand that their website is their biggest channel, and an expression of their brand. The challenge now is to find this ownable, distinct visual language,” he says.

O’Dwyer, meanwhile, thinks we will see a more playful approach to grid-based design, as creatives learn to work around the restrictions of responsive frameworks. “Responsive puts a lot of pressure on art direction, and forces designers to engage with the overall look, not just the layout, to create that unique voice. It’s a difficult thing to get your head around,” he adds. 1

Liam Viney of B-Reel London pinpoints today’s key tech trends

Oculus Rift
is bringing science fiction to the masses with its famous head-mounted display that immerses the user into a whole new world. One of the most exciting aspects will be the type of content that defines it. Games and particularly first-person shooters are an obvious application, however it has the ability to be used for so much more.

Developers are already combining Oculus Rift with other devices such as Leap Motion, Kinect and ECG headsets bringing us away from the tradition of keyboards, mice or other controllers and back into a real-world environment, allowing us to feel like we can really impact and touch the virtual space. This will only be enhanced with haptic feedback not only letting us touch the virtual world but allowing it to touch us back.

The popularity of this device is only going to soar over the coming years, due to support from tools like Unity, which allows developers to create experiences quickly and to a very high standard. Also, the developers themselves already have a large and highly motivated community which allows them to share resources and ideas, helping to push the Oculus Rift and its applications even further.

Leap Motion
This is fast becoming one of our favourite technologies for events and installations. We love the expressive nature of the interaction. There is always something magical about the kind of gesture recognition Leap Motion allows but, in contrast to the Kinect, it is more sensitive and works on a smaller scale (meaning that you can control experiences with your fingers and hands, rather than your whole body). This makes experiences more intimate, but also more practical in certain environments.

The latest API release from Leap Motion offers developers and users even more control; with, computer manufacturers starting to implement the device into their hardware directly, we will no doubt see increased use of this technology across all fields.

Second Screen Viewing
A trend that dovetails with our always-on lifestyles, from self-selecting, simple behaviours like discussing TV with fellow fans over Twitter to the orchestrated marketing efforts of US brands trying to make the most of their SuperBowl adbreak spends.

Second screen viewing expands the universe of the content that we are already passionate about and allows us to play in that space at length and alongside others. Currently, we are seeing a lot of controllers for online games and apps that coincide with TV shows, but there are exciting possibilities for the extension of this behaviour with other platforms (ie Shazaam, video-recognition AR).

Wearable Tech
Raise your hand if you’re wearing a Jawbone. Or perhaps you cycled to work wearing a Hovding helmet. You might even be one of the wearable tech aristocracy who already owns a Google Glass. Wearable tech will soon be as ubiquitous as the smartphone. This is due to a perfect storm of critical mass: our 4G-enabled, constantly connected lifestyles have intersected with micro-electronics, breakthroughs in textile innovation, and the onslaught of biometric data (and our obsession with its interpretation).

Apple has now jumped fully into the biometric space with the release of HealthKit in iOS8. This marks a sea-change for wearable tech, as HealthKit is a full API, not just for developers to make apps for the devoted amateur athlete, but for professional medical applications and platforms. This will allow individuals to monitor, control and access all of their medical data. We’ll start to see wearable tech saving lives.

On the other side of Silicon Valley, the much-maligned Google Glass will be available to the general public later this year, at which point we could start to see applications for the technology that begin to prove its utility and relevance to consumers, hopefully pulling focus from the obnoxiousness of Google’s initial release strategy.

Local
We have been seeing an influx of briefs that aim to give users local contextualisation. There seem to be two primary use-cases for location-based data integration: travel utility, and perhaps more frivolous campaign enhancement applications.

More and more, people rely on digital platforms and products when they travel, to create a personal tour guide: building itineraries, planning transit, accessing maps and getting suggestions on places to visit. Brands are catching on and facilitating these behaviours.

The tools that allow this functionality are just getting better: Google Local currently provides the most amount of available data in this area. We’ll certainly be seeing more and more of these location-specific, service-based tools as brands bid for integration in users’ daily lives by providing reliable services that remove the pain of being a stranger in a strange land.

Perhaps of slightly less interest is the trend to incorporate local data from a user’s location to affect the experience of a campaign (such as real-time local weather). The aim is to make the experience seem more immersive and more real. While this can be done well, it often feels gimmicky and, once the novelty wears off, will probably not get used a tremendous amount long-term.

Are you making a movie or an experience? 
One trend that all of us in the innovation sector are noticing more and more is the tendency to throw a stunt film or making-of up on YouTube, prioritising the illusion of a great experience instead of making the experience great in the first place. Rather than telling a story through innovation and ingenuity, the making-of can be manipulated – from hiring actors to actually faking the mechanic of the stunt. Often times only those of us who work closely with emerging technologies are able to see through these works of fiction. We’re hoping that authenticity will prevail.

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