When ASOS issued a profit warning just prior to Christmas due to poor online sales in November, many feared that this year was going to be a tough period for eCommerce retailers. With Black Friday falling in that November period, did this mean that other retailers would reflect the performance of one of the UK’s leading eCommerce lights? Was the Brexit effect having a tangible effect on sales and profits?
A good indicator of general retail performance is always how early stores, in the high street and online, switch into the sales period. Long gone are the days of sales starting on Boxing Day. Even in stronger economic times of a few years ago, many online retailers (Amazon in particular), would launch massive promotional campaigns on Christmas Day itself. No sooner had presents been opened than we were busily seeking bargain replacements!
But with some of the big guns such as Next and John Lewis holding off launching sales some confidence grew that the general economic concerns weren’t hitting online sales as much as predicted.
Reports from Next and John Lewis however, have both showed good online sales over the period. Next overall sales were up 1.5% on 2017, but online sales were up a whopping 15.2%, taking many ecommerce analysts by surprise. John Lewis’ figures were up 4.5% in the week to 29th December, but as no separate online figures were released, it’s less easy to assess.
So what can we learn? That online sales, done well, are forging ahead despite uncertainties in the economy and high street concerns.
Happy New Year! We hope you’ve enjoyed a few of our #blogmas articles this season, and for the New Year we take the opportunity to look forward to a few of the developments on the web that we are most excited about. These may not make a huge impact even this year, but just following any progress is going to give a fascinating insight.
AI & Web Development
Although Artificial Intelligence (AI) has taken a hold and is used more commonly than thought (think timelines in Facebook, targeted ads), the progress of this technology is going to be fascinating to watch. AI is going to change all our lives, and if harnessed in the right way can be a hugely powerful tool.
The massive amount of data being stored lends itself to being analysed by AI tools in a way any human can’t possibly imagine. Pure data visualisation is a fantastic tool, but imagine the possibilities if the AI tool could suggest what might happen looking forward, and recognise trends before they happen.
PWA – Progressive Web Apps
This is already a favourite subject of ours, but the blurring of the lines between native mobile apps and web applications is going to be a growing influence in 2019. As more and more APIs are made available to the web browser, being able to access native device features such as camera, file storage and geolocation enables a web app to give a level of performance not before seen.
Having one codebase to build and maintain can be a game-changer for companies looking to develop an app, and that cost saving can make potential projects much more feasible.
Content as King
This is a continuation of a trend that has picked up in the last couple of years, which is to move away from design-heavy website and to put the focus back on the actual content.
As the web matures there is now a real movement to focus on the content – text, imagery, video – that visitors are looking for, and to reduce excessive clutter on the page which only acts as a distraction.
Focus still needs to be given to any branding and ‘feel’ that a client is looking for, but within a clean, easy-to-navigate framework.
Along with the unmissable Cookie Notice & Privacy pop up, the rise of the ChatBot has been hard to miss on the web in 2018. In our first blog for #blogmas 2018, we put the ChatBot in our top five trends for the past year, and there’s every reason to see this continue through 2019 and beyond.
At first the offer to chat on a website, as a support feature, can seem a little intrusive. A further reminder maybe, that our every move and click online is being tracked. But once you get over that concern, and occasionally even use these services, it hopefully becomes more clear as to how they could be useful when used in the correct way.
Some online chat support is still operated by a live person, and more technical enquiries are often handled this way. But increasingly these services are being replaced by an automated support ‘bot’, that has been programmed to give defined answers to a range of commonly-asked questions. These bots, or ChatBots, are fed questions and answers, and using Artificial Intelligence algorithms, are ‘trained’ to respond to a wide variety of input.
Currently it’s relatively easy to spot the difference between a ChatBot and a real support person, but as time goes by the difference is going to be hard to spot. As we move through 2019, many companies are looking to use the AI tool as a way of increasing engagement on their website. Remember that all dialog is stored, analysed and in turn educates the ChatBot through machine learning. This circle of learning means that what currently seems quite a crude tool, will over the next few years become increasingly sophisticated.
With the release of AI tools such as Google’s DialogFlow, creating a ChatBot is becoming relatively straightforward. Maybe the question is not should we use these tools, but when do we start?
In the first of our 12 Blogs of Christmas we have a look back at 2018 and pick out our top five website trends from 2018. These are website and app design and functionality that we’ve seen grow through the year, and may just give a pointer as to where we need to look in 2019. So if these are the top trends – are they the best way to enhance your website and make the most of your online presence? Not necessarily, and we give our verdict on each.
We’re sure you must have experienced the popup welcome when visiting a new website – ‘Can we help?’. Usually on the bottom right of the screen, these advice-offering widgets often feature thumbnail photos of the support person and their name. Nine times out of ten these are automated ChatBots, trained by Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning to automatically respond with guidance to common visitor requests. The suspicion is that these bots can be helpful, but tend to become an annoyance when continuing to appear on further browsing of the website. So are these ChatBots an annoying passing fad, or can they offer real value to your website visitors? Well, we think they are here to stay and will play a growing part in our web experiences over the next decade. A bit annoying currently, but when it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the bot and a real person then the value of a ChatBot really kicks in. Companies who’ve invested the time in ‘training’ these automated helpers will be a step ahead of their competition.
Verdict: Needs to be used with care currently, but a good investment for the future.
2. Original Illustrations
Website frameworks offer a fantastic way of helping clients get projects up and running quickly, and keeping maintenance costs low. One of the drawbacks though is that website styles, layouts and typography can become very similar unless time is invested in making the project stand out from the crowd. This is where original illustrations have taken a role in adding a wonderful bespoke element to the best of the web.
Verdict: We think illustration can make a real difference, and is well worth the additional initial cost.
3. Data Visualisation
Having worked this year on a large Data Visualisation Portal, we’re perhaps a little biased in thinking that Data Visualisation has been a growing trend for 2018. However, the growth of infographics, mapping and data charting can only help users get the information they are looking for and is a great example of new techniques pushing the boundaries of user interaction. Coding tools including ChartJS, more advanced software such as Tableau, and mapping frameworks similar to MapBox make this a fascinating area to work in.
Verdict: We may be biased, but new techniques make this an exciting field to be involved with.
Microinteractions are those subtle, almost imperceptible, effects that occur when buttons change when you hover over them, or images fade in when scrolling down a page. Although often seen as a ‘nice touch’ that gives a website an added design element, these microinteractions can really help guide and prompt the user through a website path. More advanced interactions can show detailed animation and even morphing of images and text. Developments with the use of SVG images and typography in modern browsers have enabled web developers to let their imagination run free.
Verdict: Becoming a key design element and if used carefully can help guide the user and create a unique style for a website.
5. Progressive Web Apps
Progressive Web Apps or PWAs, are websites which have increased functionality that enables them to give a more app-like experience to the user. On mobile they can give the similar performance of a native iOS or Android app, but run from a website or web app. The huge benefit to client and developer is that the PWA uses only one codebase or set of files, keeping development and maintenance costs much lower than would be needed to maintain separate native and web applications.
Other features which are typical of a PWA are the ability to work offline with locally stored data until a data connection is available, access to device hardware such as camera and geolocation. Our blog post from earlier this year outlined in more detail the rise of the website PWA.
Verdict: The future of the the web and mobile app.
Top 5 Summary
These are the top five web trends that we’ve picked out from 2018, and maybe give some insight into what to look for in 2019. If we were running a top ten then just missing out on the charts were: Content Marketing, Responsive Design (yes, still), Reactive Design and Push Notifications. There’s another blog post in the making!
This year we are joining the #blogmas campaign and will be running our own 12 Blogs of Christmas over the festive period. Featuring articles that look back on web developments in 2018, looking ahead to 2019, guest posts from friends of 4D, and a few offers thrown in for good measure!
We’ll be running our blog over social media using the hashtag #4D12days – keep a look out and let us know what you think. Any feedback on the articles is welcome!
Every day from Christmas Day we’ll release one blog, articles will cover web design, mobile apps, social media marketing, SEO and all things web! From in-depth assessments of the state of web development to a more light-hearted look back and ahead we hope you’ll enjoy the blogs.
Most businesses realise that mobile technology needs to be at the forefront of any digital strategy. We all know how powerful and addictive mobile apps and websites can be. However, businesses can harness this (in a good way) by using a technology that creates a new type of mobile app or website – the Progressive Web App.
Add to Home Screen
A Progressive Web App (PWA) is a website or application that interacts with the user just as a native app would do. Unlike a native app, a PWA is not installed via an app store such as Apple’s App Store or Android’s Google Play. The application is simply a website visited by the user, who is prompted to install a shortcut onto the mobile home screen.
This seemingly small difference offers a huge benefit to anyone developing and maintaining the app. No app store means no commission fees, no time-consuming approval process every time the app is updated. In addition to bypassing the app stores, being based on web technologies enables the application to written in only one codebase – not the multiple versions that are needed to maintain iOS, Android and Windows apps. Reduced development and maintenance costs, quicker release to market – it’s easy to see why many some of even the world’s largest brands are pursuing the PWA route to market.
Only in the last two or three years have PWA’s been given access to the hardware device functions a native app could use. Camera, Microphone, Push Notifications, Geolocation, File system – all of these and more can now be accessed by mobile web technology and therefore a PWA. Transferring data on secure https connections, the ability to work offline – these are now default functionality for a PWA and make for exciting possibilities.
Starbucks leads the way
Let’s have look at three of the best PWA examples currently in use. All are from big brands who are slowly moving away from building native iOS and Android apps.
Like them or loath them – Starbucks have led the way with PWA apps. Featuring geo-location for nearest stores and good offline capabilities.
There may always be a place for native apps. But we would suggest that anyone looking to build a new app should seriously consider the PWA route. Reducing development cost and time as well as removing the need for app store approval, can make a serious difference to any new project.