• March 24, 2023

Evolution of interfaces: how web development has changed in 20 years

It’s hard to argue with the fact that Internet resources have become much more functional, faster and more beautiful over the past 20 years. In order for today’s users to be able to freely open websites from different devices and browsers, instantly exchange messages in social networks and order goods in online stores, web development technologies have come a long and difficult way.

Sergey Berezhnoy, Director of Developer Interaction at Yandex and head of the Interface Development School at the Yandex Academy, talks about how the web developer’s toolkit has changed, and with it user interfaces, through the prism of his own experience and memories.Zero interfaces: low speed and static pages
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, websites consisted of static web pages with cross-links. A perfect example from our days is Wikipedia. The words “hyper text” in the acronym HTML mean exactly that — text with links to other text. Pictures on such sites were rare. Simple formats, such as feedback forms, were used as interactive elements of interaction with users. Both the click-throughs and the submission of forms caused the pages to be completely reloaded. The Internet was slow, and the concept of “unlimited” was available only to a small number of lucky people, so every graphical interface element and page refresh greedily ate up the user’s limited traffic.

Yandex in 2000
Version of the Yandex homepage in 2000

Making such sites was both easy and difficult at the same time. Technologically, they were much simpler than they are now, and users were less sophisticated, so a regular text editor and FTP access to the server were enough to cope with the tasks of that time. On the other hand, only specialists (“webmasters”) who were at least minimally immersed in the topic could do this. By the way, the world’s first CMS formally appeared back in 1995, however, they became widespread later — around 2003-2006, when a WordPress system appeared on the market, on the basis of which more than 40% of all modern websites were written. Such tools allowed the owners of web resources (for example, the heads of trading companies), even without programming skills, to independently enter the necessary information: add and remove products, change office addresses, as well as upload useful materials.

I remember at that time I was working in a small provincial web studio, where we were creating our own content management system for websites that we sold to customers. The cost of CMS resources was noticeably higher, but their owners could save on subsequent calls to our company to update information.

JavaScript: asynchronous requests, pop-ups, chats
The JavaScript language, which was specially created for the development of interactive websites, appeared back in 1995, but, according to my feelings, it began to be used en masse only closer to 2005. By the way, many solutions on the web could have been implemented back in the mid-90s, but most developers did not even think about making sites that would interact more actively with the user in response to clicks, keystrokes or pointing the cursor at interface elements.

When webmasters finally realized that JavaScript could be used to “animate” sedentary web pages, insert any tags into the HTML code on the fly and design the interface so that the site “reacted” to user actions, animated menus, pop-ups and effects like falling snowflakes for the New Year began to flourish.

A little later, in 2006-2007, they began to actively use AJAX. In fact, this is a set of different practices and technical ways to receive data from the server asynchronously and reload only part of it instead of the entire page. As a result, it significantly saved traffic and helped sites to work faster. For example, if earlier, in order to create a chat, it was necessary to periodically reload the entire message history every few seconds (and then, on the one hand, traffic was wasted, and on the other hand, communication slowed down for those very few seconds), now users could only receive new messages, and at almost the same moment, when they were sent.

I remember that interactive web pages were so unusual and noticeable that even techniques that were not based on asynchronous reloading of data from the server, but assumed dynamic display of pieces of content downloaded in advance, were also called “AJAX”.

Blogs and the birth of social networks
The decade from 1999 to 2009 also saw the emergence of content boards and blogging platforms. This and Dirty.ru , which later grew into “Leprosy”, and the LiveJournal and Tumblr known to everyone today. The mechanics of blog platforms allowed us to test many interactive functions, and the best practices later migrated to the interfaces of product sites and became the basis of popular social networks.

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