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6 min read

Why the best web experiences won’t look anything like what Big Tech built

You might not have heard of these online platforms yet, but they're low-key changing web design.

A 3D illustration of a mobile phone at an angle and floating in space. Each widget hovers slightly in front of the phone's screen. Two abstract shapes float in the background.

Illustration by Anita Goldstein.

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When I looked at my Mac’s dock last month, I realized none of the pinned apps were from Big Tech companies. Most of them hadn’t even existed a couple of years ago. It was instead dominated by apps either from freshly-funded ventures, such as Arc, a new browser that bills itself as the “internet computer,” and established startups like Notion, the bold note-taking software, which has already made Google and Microsoft rethink documents.

I am not alone either. My revamped workspace is emblematic of the broader UI and UX design reckoning that’s taking place in the ecosystem of apps.

Since 2020, as people’s workspaces evolved to accommodate remote work and their lives grew more dependent on the web, app design has experienced an increased pace of innovation. In the years before it, nearly everyone was equipped with the same set of programs for work and play, like Google Docs and Evernote, and it appeared as if apps had hit a saturation point. But I’ve since switched to new, everyday alternatives. They not only offer novel, better-designed solutions to problems I believed had no end, but also highlight simply how archaic the design of existing, traditional platforms are.

Take mainstream browsers, for instance. Be it Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, their tabbed interfaces fundamentally still look and function the same way they did decades ago. Despite the mounting evidence of how tab overload impedes productivity, incumbent browser makers have done little to overcome it. “There appears to be a disconnect between the increasing scope and complexity of users’ online activities, and the design of tabbed browsing,” as one report from Carnegie Mellon University puts it. Today’s web designers need to recognize that users aren’t surfing the web at all in the same way they did in 2008 or 2002, when Chrome and Firefox launched, respectively.

A screenshot of the New York Times Style Magazine home page within the Arc browser.

The Arc browser treats most-frequented websites as docked icons in a spacious sidebar, so that you don’t have to look for them up in a pile of other tabs. Image courtesy Arc.

The browser I've been surfing the web with for close to a year, Arc (now in public beta), swaps out this outdated setup for one more suited for the modern knowledge worker, for whom apps and documents are just tabs, instead of disparate desktop programs. It treats the browser as an operating system of its own. You can build separate workspaces for various projects, search in an instant with a Spotlight-like tool, hover over tabs like Gmail to see how many unread emails you’ve got, and treat your most frequented websites as docked icons in a spacious sidebar so that you don’t have to look for them up in a pile of other tabs. Once I was past the learning curve, Arc’s bold choices felt obvious. No longer was I struggling to navigate tabs from a cramped space at the top or working in a sprawling mess as Arc made organization effortless.

Nate Parrott, the first designer at Arc, says the team didn’t want to make users feel bad for having a lot of tabs. It’s very stressful, he told Shaping Design, when tabs are crammed into a tiny space. “We designed Arc’s tabs to embrace people who have a lot going on,” says Parrott. Arc’s evolution is also a design acknowledgement of the macro ways user behavior online is shifting. Consider its new sidebar: “it affords us the space to give you tools to organize your online life: Spaces, folders and renaming tabs,” says Parrott. “We think that tabs are the new files, and they deserve room to breathe.”

Similarly, Shortwave, a Gmail client from ex-Googlers launched in early 2022, offers a clean and intuitive inbox to enable a calmer emailing experience. Its clever bundling tool automatically spots what’s important and what’s not and sorts my inbox before I even jump in. Instead of getting inundated with an avalanche of emails throughout the day, it also lets me pause my inbox, and schedule them to arrive in batches. With my most contacted people, I can easily browse my exchanges with them in IM-style threads as opposed to the messy chains on the Gmail website.

A screenshot of an inbox in the Shortwave app.

The interface for Shortwave, founded in 2022 by ex-Googlers. Image courtesy Shortwave.