“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

How much can we take from desktop design for RIA/AJAX design

I have been following w/ zeal Luke Wroblewskis recent interest and thinking around AJAX-based applications, and the design implications that this new technology brings. He will be at an RIA event soon, so if you are in the Bay Area you should catch it. In his latest article, entitled AJAX & Interface Design, Luke tries to keep us from all falling into the realm of that early flash and java development where we entered a world of serendipity. In that early world, we let our curiousity and exploration out on our users creating an unwarranted backlash against the technologies, instead of against the designers who decided to use them so irresponsibly.

The article then attempts to explain what would be examples of good design and that a lot of good design for web application using AJAX could be taken from good design practices from desktop client design or traditional GUI design. He is totally right on, reminding us that with more richness web-applications resemble more and more the issues already resolved in much of desktop client design.

One area not discussed (maybe not yet; as Luke is pretty thorough and usually gets around to it) is that the context of web-applications has 3 variables which make them invariably different from desktop applications. So this being said, I dont believe that Luke was saying that desktop application design is all we need to be thinking about, but he was trying to bring out issues in the design of AJAX based applications and the use of conventions.

1. The browser itself is one context of legacy that gets in the way of using desktop application metaphors. The issues here are around the use of hypertext (which honestly many desktop applications did use before the web), but more importantly, around the issue of having an application being housed inside another application wrapperthe browser itself. The browser has several supporting paradigms such as bookmarking and a back button that users of the browser have become very reliant on.

2. The context of deployment is also a strong legacy. Where is it deployed. The first context is most effected when the deployment context is on the public internet vs. a deployment that is part of the internal enterprise environment. But the deployment of use is also about how a user brings up the web-based application. Is there an icon/shortcut on the desktop, or does the user actively navigate there through a means that is more directly connected to a hyperlinking navigation style.

3. The last context is the context of the applications purpose and its integration with other software. For example the more closely aligned the web-application is with an integration with desktop software. This happens mostly again in an office environment where there is an expectation that all applications associated with work, look and feel the samei.e. like windows or MS Office. But the opposite is also true, that the more closely aligned the application is to existing web-based solutions and processes, the more the expectation is that the application look and behavior like what a user thinks of at that moment as a web site.

The trick here is that this is an extreme balancing act. Through usability tests that I conducted while at Documentum I learned that in the same breath practically a user will prefer a Windows Explorer navigation tree and view panel combination and at the same time expect both the use of their back button, and for search to work like Google.

Web-application design for the next period is going to require a strong relationship with desktop client designers and design theory and also a lot of ongoing evaluative usability testing. We cannot rely on simple conventional answers that we can repeat over and over as if we have a strong confidence that the answers used in one context will be good enough for even a similar context. Each new design scenario requires a start from scratch mentality, where we must realize that while in the process of inventing the wheel we have to make a lot of accidents to get from a square to a circle.

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