Rich User Experiences

Being a Mac user for a number of years now, i have rather become expectant of applications providing me with a rich user experience that satisfies not only the functional requirements (eg: Word Processing, photo editing or music management), but i also expect a level of aesthetics via the graphical user interfaces.  This attention by the software manufactures to a rich user experience is becoming more and more apparent in a browser based application. Typically a web application is considered to have a path of page based interaces that are often associated with slow click and wait interactions(Watson, 2011), this is changing and its all thanks to the growing emergence of Web 2.0.

According to O’Reilly one of the key patterns of web 2.0 is a rich user experience, the idea is that users like my self want a aestichally pleasing GUI-style application experience so why not bring a web based applications with rich user interfaces and PC-equivalent interactivity. One of the first applications to do this was Google’s Gmail service, this didn’t occur according to O’Reilly until 2004 when Google launched there Gmail webmail service – more on this later.

One of the main reasons towards this shift was the emergence of the next wave of coding platforms such as AJAX, which have allowed for the creation of these rich user applications. But when i first heard the term all i thought of was Ajax of Amsterdam Football Club, so below is a small summary of what the platform is, for those who are not aware.

AJAX (or Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) is a group of related coding methods that can be combined to create client-sided web applications. By using AJAX to create such pages the website can be fast and dynamic, this means that the web pages are updated asynchronously by the exchanging of small amounts of data with the client sided server. This results in the updating of  parts of a web page, without reloading the whole page, while classic web pages are typically required to be reloaded in order for content to change. This ability to change data without having to reload the page is similar to the impression the user gets from using a desktop application and thus allowing for the emergence of GUI-styled web applications, one such application as mentioned earlier is Gmail:

Gmail as most of you are aware is the tech giants free webmail, its allows users to do almost everything that a stand alone application such as Outlook or Mail does but it is based within a web browser. There are a number of features to Google’s Gmail application that make it a great example of providing the user with a rich user experience, below is a summary of what these user face patterns are and how Gmail meets them:

  • Combine the best of desktop & online experiences: the Gmail service not only offers a desktop style interactivity but also a fast performance with no visual page reloads. While doing this it is able to provide a access to any device at any time, anywhere… something the web is exceptional at.
  • Usability and simplicity first: Google strive on making there application simple and easy to use. and they have done the same with the Gmail interface, it meets all of Nielson’s heuristic design approaches for the web as well as providing the user with a common interface that is the same as its desktop alternative.
  • Matching the technology to to the usage requirements: Gmail is able to provide users to ability to access there email from a huge range of opertaing systems, platforms, devices and broswers, by using the correct coding techniques… in there case AJAX.
  • Search over Structure: Just like you would expect with a desktop equivalent a web application of any magnitude should have a search facility to speed up data retrieval…. luckily Google are the pioneers of online searching so as you would expect Gmail features a fully fledged Google Search, that makes finding those old emails a breeze.
  • Adaptive Personalization: Just like a desktop and most desktop software, Gmail provides the user with a vast range of personalization options ranging from; backgrounds, themes, signatures and many more. This gives the user a feeling of ownership, just like a personal computer of desktop app.

As the Gmail example has shown using web-based software no longer means sacrificing the quality of the user experience and as a result  the power of data-rich, collaborative, networked applications are coming closer to their full potential as a result users can expect a more compelling user experience with over featured software becoming a thing of the past. Furthermore web applications provide the option for greater collaboration (another web 2.0 pattern) between peers and a reduce in the need to have a single machine that can perform a task.  Finally web applications that utilise a rich user experience can not only expect a migration of new users but also provide a higher user satisfaction and competitive advantage as many of these services are free and never require updating and outlaying of further funds, even when extra features are added to the service.

Despite this want to move to the web, a growing trend is to actually make these apps seem like a desktop application, for example there are now a large number of site specific browsers that even provide the webiste with an icon in your dock and a direct link to the web application. Personally i havent used this for Gmail but i have a Fluid “Facebook” broswer that allows me to contain my “Facebooking” to one application. This trend can be seen in two ways:

  1. People arnt quite ready to let go of there desktop yet, or
  2. The move is already made and they want to gain access to the service faster.

In my opinion with the emergence of HTML 5 and the continuation of other web based presentation code, dynamic websites are only gonna continue to grow and the transition from a desktop interface model to an online model will inevitable continue. What do you guys think?

Links:

Web 2.0 Patterns

Gmail Interface

AJAX – W3 Schools

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9 thoughts on “Rich User Experiences

  1. I’m still not quite convinced about the move to an online model being inevitable. I think there will still be a place for desktop applications.

    Very interesting article. I quite like your comment early on about expecting a certain level of aesthetics in these rich user experiences. It’s funny to think how often people might be drawn to an interface because of how it looks before they discover it’s function.

    • Im defiantly in that boat… if an app is of a certain aesthetics im much more likely to use it, and it isnt just apps, many of my supermarket purchases are based on that approach. And as some of my blogs suggest im a keen follower of advertising and visual design.

      As for the inevitable standpoint, i think it comes down too how usable a product is, more so than if its a desktop or web based application. Aslong as you have an internet connection i see no reason why you wouldn’t use a better web app over a lesser desktop alternative. Although its not a desktop vs web app, i remember switching from Word to iWork just because i found Word became to much… too many features, an annoying ribbon, etc.

  2. I bet you must have a Iphone then, what do you think about the usability of Email applications within Iphone? I was a Microsoft Mobile user and recently switched to Android, I found it’s quite brilliant I can dot exactly I could do with web based Gmail: Add star, change labels,search…etc Now I hardly use my netbook to check emails anymore and because it syncs instantly I now prefer it than text message. I would like to say the UI and functionality makes a big difference.

    • Yep.. an iPhone amongst other Apple products but thats mainly due to the industrial design and feel of the products. I’ll be honest and say i havent used an Android phone so i cant comment on its email functionality but from an iPhone standpoint i rarely use the email other than reading the odd email. I havent used Google’s browser based for a while but from memory i prefer it to the iPhones mail app as i find that restricting.

  3. There always seems to be a payoff, or a quirk though.

    For example, when using Gmail signatures, they only display correctly when used between two Gmail users or in the first email from a Gmail user to a non-Gmail user.

    If replying to a non-Gmail user though, the signature will only appear at the very bottom of their email, which is not where most users want it, especially professional users of the Google custom apps service for businesses.

    I check fairly regularly to see if this has been fixed yet, but as far as I can see, it’s stayed the same for the last 5 years.

    Outlook, Thunderbird, Apple Mail, Blackberry Mail, and so many other mail applications let you put the signature straight after your response, rather than right at the end of the email after the email you are replying to (which can be a long way down if there have been a lot of backwards and forwards emails).

    It’s just beyond me why something as simple as this isn’t an option with Gmail, despite it offering so many other powerful features and fantastic personalisaton options.

    If anyone has figured out a way to do this, I’d love to know!!

  4. Great explanation :). Thought you did a good job in using terms within the article which sum up the user experience of gmail. The one thing i think that gmail does lack is a pretty interface though, its functional and simple and an awesome app to use. Just think they could have done a little more.

    In regards to Fluid i think its more of an extension of iphone culture then a resistance to change. People are becoming used to using x app on there phone to do there banking and b app to use facebook. As a result theres an emergence of this in the desktop market.

  5. HI!
    great article….I think google has done really well with all their apps, including gmail.
    nice and simple to use. But as Kris suggests, it does lack prettiness….it’s almost too simple.
    For me, I use MobileMe so don’t use gmail as much (just use it through iPhone Mail app)… yes I don’t mind paying a bit of money to have the convenience to get everything in one place and looking nice. I would love it if they make it a free service though, but still happy with what I get.
    I figure you are Apple user, do you use MobileMe?

    • Thanks. I have thought about buying mobile me but havent seen enough functionality for what i want to do with it. Have you found it worth the $99 fee? But like you said if its free or intergrated into the rumoured cloud based itunes then i may change my mind. Cloud computing wise i am very keen on the growing trend and believe it is where software is heading… i just hope the interent coverage in australia can keep up.

      • well to tell you the truth, I had to use MobileMe at work in the past…..so it was deducted in tax time as an expense, so I did not mind back then! Now that I do not work anymore, do I think it is worth the price tag…? hmmmm…… I know it is expensive, but I am so used to having it, it is difficult for me to change all of it to google apps! But if I didn’t have MobileMe to begin with, and let’s say if I only own iPhone then I would not go for it.

        Cloud iTunes sounds exciting, and with Amazon going that direction, I guess it is imminent…. Let’s see what Steve gives us on WWDC 😉

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