As a researcher I keep a watchful eye on what is happening in my field: what are the latest findings or thinking, who is doing the interesting new work, and so on? I lurk on lists, I subscribe to various online and offline sources. I go to conferences, and correspond with many colleagues.

I’m disappointed.

I accept that we all need reminding about the genuinely good and lasting insights. And every generation has to reinvent things in their own idiom. But it would be nice if a little history and an awareness of past work was added to what we do now, rather than continually reinventing it as if it were NEW. So wasteful, and at times quite boring to old farts like me.

True, the last 20 years have given us lots of new toys to play with: graphical user interfaces, desktop publishing, mobile phones, and web sites. And we have lots of new ways of describing old tricks: Information Architecture, Human Computer Interaction, Usability, User Experience, Experience Design and so on. But little of this is really new. It merely recapitulates and reinvents earlier work.

I was amused to read the other day that Donald Norman—one of the thought leaders in our field—has just discovered people; and that how one describes people actually matters! This is, of course, an important insight, but hardly new.

Equally, it is difficult to see anything genuinely new in the excitable and shallow research about web sites which was not already established know-how in document design long before digital technology.

But I notice one important change. Far more people in our time are aware that communication and information design are inherently problematic. This means that many more people in control of corporate budgets who are Members of our Institute are prepared to spend real money on making things work well, and this means that there are now some opportunities for researchers like us at CRI to participate in genuinely new types of work.

Having shunned most of the web design work that was offered to CRI in the past, we have recently decided to undertake a number of web design projects that show the possibility of new findings, and new methods, that take us beyond established practice.

However, I remain cautious. As a medium for communication, we have yet to see—even in a research project, with the best of funding—web sites that are anywhere near as usable, or providing as rich an experience, as some of the paper documents that are now routinely produced.

This may come as a shock to all those who think we have come into a new era of information and communication. But to me, much of the excitement about information architecture and experience design (to mention just two recent buzz words) is just that: excitement at the new. The evidence I see, even when these ‘new’ methods are applied, suggests appallingly dysfunctional web design methods resulting in tragically unusable web sites.

The harsh fact is that, despite its ubiquity, the internet is a medium with poor typography, low resolution and limited graphic control, offering impoverished experience. I suspect that the effort involved in getting a web site to perform anywhere near the performance we routinely get from well-designed paper documents will be much greater, though we do not yet have the comparative data. We shall see.

Like any new medium, the internet’s early days are imitative of earlier media such as print. But there are things that can be done on the internet that cannot be done on paper. One day, we may learn to do that well. I hope the work we are now doing at CRI will make a modest contribution to that end.