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