This post was originally written for a scholarship contest. The exact prompt was as follows:

“To the best of your ability, complete a 1,000 word article discussing a cutting-edge web design strategy(ies) that appeals to generation Z. Why and how will it change the way online marketers get their brand found online? Complete your answer by showing us a strategy that supports your hypothesis.”

Apps are the Future… Right?

When apps were introduced, the web provided finite capabilities for users on phones. The expectation that sites work with mobile devices was not present and not enough time had passed to engineer solutions that could match with desktops. However, we are now capable of things like uploading photos and videos, pushing notifications, and having access to interactive media via HTML5 and JavaScript, something previously available solely via Flash. Especially in the past, apps were developed to make up for this time when we couldn’t do any of those tasks. Browsers can’t perform some functions due to hardware and software limitations and it’s in these cases where apps shine. Yet, some apps take up space as simple news feeds or “app versions” of websites for exposure.

From past to present, we’ve heard headlines claiming that the web will be obsolete–that apps will take over our digital lives. The thought that “people only use apps now” if they can help it is prevalent, but more than that is high-profile cases of apps earning lucrative amounts of money and the perception that “anyone” could potentially develop one. But it’s not that easy. An obstacle for app-domination proves to be the expensive and intricate process of development. Between specialized programming languages, large amounts of work hours across multiple platforms, and loss of creator control (Apple’s content review policy), this conversion is difficult to manage from small businesses, to hobbyists, and everyone in between.

Even though phones are gaining more storage (especially through sources like micro SD cards), the demands put on the user to be able to consume content keeps increasing in tandem. Storage demands will only continue to increase as more complex technologies like virtual and augmented reality are being developed and implemented. The more the web is able to take advantage of the hardware in everyone’s hands, the less people will need to rely on installing apps. It is then up to the designers to adapt their strategies to make sure that the web remains relevant. It is also in the best interest of companies to keep the web alive so that they retain control of at least one of their digital marketing channels. Perhaps the ‘app-centric mobile web’ people keep predicting is more an ‘app-like mobile web’.

Symptoms of Disconnection May Include Crushing Anxiety

A major problem people experience with the regular web is the ‘what if’ scenario in which the Internet is not accessible. While such a situation is rare, there are instances of “zero bars” in places like the subway, underground, or elevators. Younger millennials find this to be anxiety-inducing; unless they are part of a shrinking group that may still be accustomed to spotty internet. As connectivity is improved, this experience will get lost, and the loss of contact with the rest of the digital world will become more impactful. The non-app Web’s reputation is that it is useless when it is offline. This is one of the major appeals of apps; their data can be accessed whenever needed if the developer allows for that functionality. Despite that thinking, there are new advancements such as Web Workers that can save data from a website locally on a device. These technologies will allow the web to keep up with and even compete with apps. Example usages of Web Workers in place of a regular app may include caching a post draft or caching articles posted on a website.

Design to Adapt

Most of the problems outlined above were mostly things that only developers or people working in the industry would pay close attention to. So, let’s now put things in the perspective of the user. It is important to recognize our inherent fear of the “unknown” when designing. In order to minimize fear, like with any age group, generation Z will need to be given interfaces familiar to them. What’s different about their case is that these familiar interfaces will be the ones that look like and act like a native app. This is because many will have started using apps even before they have learned to read.

The design strategy proposed is not quite like designing a web app, but rather designing a website that looks and feels exactly like a native phone app. This has been done before, emulating the menus of the iPhone used to be common practice. But, the look of apps has diversified more since then and web apps have gained their own distinct flavors. By combining a familiar user experience with the web, users will feel comfortable utilizing the now-forgotten “Add to Home Screen” functionality and forget they even are using the Web.

As an extension, this design strategy can be pushed beyond a singular website. A large defining feature of apps is the ability to get all of them from a single store. If this design strategy is to be picked up, then what’s missing from an “app-like” experience is a directory for regular users. While it can’t be expected that everything will be indexed in one place (the internet is still a vast and diversified place, after all), what will be key for brands is learning how to be visible in such directories.

This strategy will need to be revised soon after it has had a chance to be implemented. After all, the web constantly changes. Designers and developers can never predict what they will be designing in five years or even ten years. Within the group that is “millennials”, there are those that grew up without Internet and those that can’t imagine life without it. While we can’t assume these long term strategies will ever work for sure, we can at least try our best to prepare given the information we have.