Rich UI vs User Experience

John Montgomery and Jon Udell are having a discussion about AJAX and rich internet applications. Montgomery is trying to determine what all the fuss over AJAX is about. He played with some toolkits and is unimpressed. Why? He doesn’t see how AJAX can compete with Winforms/Webforms on user experience. John says:

Mostly, Jon’Â’s posts got me to thinking about why we (that’Â’s you and me -– Web users) are OK with degraded user experiences. I mean, for years we had great desktop applications to do things like calendaring and email and even mapping software. Then came the initial Web, where HTML 3.2 and some JavaScript meant that Web apps just couldn’Â’t be as nice as local apps. And now we’Â’re all very excited about things like Evite, Gmail, and Google maps. But compare Google Maps to Streets and Trips, which I did recently, and the experience with S&T is much better. Same with Outlook vs. Gmail (usually, anyway). Heck, most people read blogs through a Web browser, not an aggregator, even though aggregators are much more efficient.

So why do we let ourselves settle?

I think he is confusing user experience for rich widgets. Web-based applications can achieve a high level of user experience and usability without the need for complex widgets. Good web applications are simple, small and well focused to the task at hand. In fact, I always use the web versions of the applications he lists over the desktop versions.

As John points out, the web-style hyperlink approach, with few options and everything laid out in front of the user, is easy to learn and use. To me, this increases user experience, not degrade it. John also points out that content is more plentiful in web-based applications and users like getting content. So much so that he feels users are willing to give up a great UI if they can get great content. Why does a user want a great UI at all? Seems to me that users only really care about content (or data). I think usability experts like Nielsen and Cooper would say a great UI is a UI that allows users to complete tasks without getting in the way. The UI should not be centerstage.

Udell’s posts point out that AJAX systems have a tendency to allow users access to content they want in ways the web-UI did not anticipate. Also seeming to confirm my suspicion that users don’t care much for flashy UI’s, but graviate to applications that make it easy to extract and manipulate content. WebDAV and SOAP are not low-hurdle technologies, XmlHttpRequest seems to be. AJAX is a methodology for enhancing web application functionality, not for replicating desktop applications. People don’t want desktop applications running in the browser, didn’t Java teach us that?

7 Comments

  1. Anonymous said,

    June 16, 2005 @ 5:48 pm

    So, what is your point really?

    That a web based UI is simple, but simple is good? Is that what you’re trying to get across?

    I think you’re a BIT unclear in your writing.

    However, if that’s what you intended to say, then I agree with you in many cases. But when it comes to professionals who do browsing and data navigation for a living, HTML + scripting doesn’t cut it.

    If you want an application for EFFECTIVELY navigating huge amounts of data, you do not want to be using a web based interface…. Not in any case, I think.

    Sure, if you want to do just a couple of lookups, then HTML + scripting is fine. But for data maintainance, and heavier types of data interaction, then HTML doesn’t cut it, and honestly I hope it never ever will… because it’s already FAR too bloated the way it is now, I think.

    Elling
    elling.bjastad@gmail.com

  2. Mark Finkle said,

    June 16, 2005 @ 7:29 pm

    That was my point: Web is simple; Simple is good. Clutter is bad.

    I will work on my writing style. I appreciate the criticism. As for your point about the web being unsuitable for certain heavy data situations. I agree, but keep in mind that many of us use the web (google.com) to search and browse huge amounts of data. Some websites (wikipedia.org) allow users to edit huge amounts of data.

  3. Anonymous said,

    June 23, 2005 @ 10:35 am

    “Degraded user experiences” are relative. I have had plenty of them in Microsoft Office. Don’t get me wrong, I depend on Outlook, Excel, and Word every day to get my work done. Yet I would say I use maybe 20% of their functionality; whenever I try to use the other 80% I fail in one way or another. Maybe these are my shortcomings, and I’ll accept that. But if a guy that’s been using computers for 25 years can’t easily figure out these interfaces, what’s the hope for an average Abby?

    I compare that to the beauty of Google Maps. It’s simple, intuitive, and very rewarding. I was going on vacation recently and had a map of the area up in Google Maps. My wife asked “I wonder if there are any good places to shop” and I clicked local search and put in “shopping malls” and a forest of pins appeared. She said “wow!” This is a woman who has been in tears when MS Word mysteriously lost her form data, and who is annoyed by Outlook 2003 consistently labeling several of her newsletters as spam. Which user experience is more degrading to her?

    I’d say a map of the USA is a lot of data and Google Maps does a decent job of “EFFECTIVELY navigating huge amounts of data” with a web-based interface. With typical broadband connections today, it’s already possible to send more data in real time than a user could reasonably view.

    AJAX is designed to take advantage of the technologies currently at hand, and it does that very well. In contrast, .NET and Java development environments want to create new infrastructure on the client and server. It would be perfectly feasible to build a tool like Visual Studio that made use of existing standards to build dynamic and interactive web pages.

  4. Anonymous said,

    June 24, 2005 @ 6:47 am

    You can’t compare Google Maps to Microsoft Word. One of them is a complex multi state application, while the other is a simple single state application.

    Of course, the odds are better that the simple and single state application will be easier to use…

    But, it doesn’t in any way imply that a Word replacement application could be built using the same technology that’s used to build Google Maps.

    -

    As for Wiki/Google versus interaction with HUGE datasets, you’re right. They are both examples of web based interaction with huge datasets. And I agree, they work very well. But these applications are ALSO examples of simple and single state applications where you’re kind of working with a pin hole view of the whole data set. And for these types of applications I agree that web based interfaces work very well.

    Elling

  5. Anonymous said,

    June 25, 2005 @ 4:49 pm

    “You can’t compare Google Maps to Microsoft Word.”

    Yes, they are very different things I agree. I would also agree it’s folly to tackle Word or Excel functionality in a browser. At this point, I’m not sure that anyone would ever tackle the development of Word or Excel, period. They are too monolithic, too full of unused and unusable features, too general for their own good.

    The perspective of a Word or Excel developer–your perspective–is not one that makes sense for the majority of developers. That is because very few people will ever develop a software product with that kind of reach, or those types of requirements. When the need does arise, I have no problem with leaving it to the small number of organizations with experience at programming-in-the-large.

    Microsoft’s position as reflected by John Montgomery is that the solution to Microsoft’s problem is also the solution to everyone else’s problem. If we only abandon web standards and the old MS standards like VB and COM, we can all move to .NET 2.0 and be able to develop rich thick-client apps. But even MS’ own Office group isn’t going to move there anytime soon. I say let them lead.

  6. Anonymous said,

    June 26, 2005 @ 7:16 am

    Anonymous:
    If you don’t like the complexity of Word, then use Wordpad, man… ;)

    Word is as complex as it is, and if there was a niche for less complex word processing applications, you’d be seeing them already taking over the market.

    These things regulate themselves, kind of…

    Elling

  7. Mark Finkle said,

    June 26, 2005 @ 12:16 pm

    This discussion has made something clearer to me: A web-based application is more focused to the task and does not have as much general-purpose functionality.

    Therefore, I think a web-based version of Word is possible, but it would be much more focused on editing a richly formatted document, and not have all the other stuff that makes Word more of a desktop-platform, instead of a simple word processor.

    Web-based apps can have general purpose API’s (think Flickr, Google Maps and Backpack for example) that allow them to be extended by end users.

    Thanks for the comments.

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