Usability on the web is a sham

While accessibility and standards are great for the web, the concept of usability has been overblown. "Usability" as we define it is basically the rules for how the web should behave while in the confines of the web browser. But web applications don't have to exist inside the browser and relegating them to these antiquated notions of usability is bad for progress.

Grab your lighters people, because this may get me some flames, but it is something that's been on my mind for a while and the past couple of weeks have shown just how important experience is and how badly the traditional web does it. Humans have always been emotional creatures. We make irrational decisions based on feelings we develop attachments to things for the strangest reasons and we are profoundly affected by external stimuli. Rich Internet Applications are like the passionate, interesting Scottie on Star Trek but the web browser is Spock; technologically sound but devoid of feeling. (You're thinking "Star Trek? What?" Oh yeah, I went there.)

Accessibility and standards are still very important parts of the web because information needs to be available to everyone, but dismissing the next generation of RIAs because they don't fit into the current model is short sighted.For the longest time the web didn't offer anything in the way of a good user experience. It was based on text and used to exchange academic information. Interactivity wasn't ever a part of the mix and the touchy-feely notion of experience was far from the minds of the scientists at CERN (Though in fairness, they were off winning Nobel Prizes). But then more people started checking out the web. It became a marketplace, a communication platform and a social medium. It opened up to regular people and they expected more than the rigid world of text and documents. As this happened, people conjured up the notion of "usability" so that the web could be a more friendly place. We have rules about the way things should behave on the web so that it is more accessible to people. Never mind that from the very beginning the whole system was never meant for real human experiences.

Let me give you an example. The back button. People complain about Flash breaking the back button and how it hurts usability. But how usable is a back button? What other place in our daily lives do we have a back button? There are a lot of "Undo buttons" but no back buttons. A back button is great for the document model where you move from page to page but how do you try to implement a back button for a movie or for an application that evolves as the user interacts with it? You can't. "Usability on the web" has come to mean usability in a web browser, but increasingly we're accessing the web outside the browser. Why should the old rules apply to things that are meant to work beyond the browser? Why disregard technologies that leverage the web in a different (sometimes more effective) way than the traditional browser.

I'm not trying to dismiss the studies and work that have gone into making the web better, because all of those are good things. But a model of text and rigidity runs contrary to how humans think. We’re chaotic and we value emotion. As a result, we are drawn to the parts of the web that gives us those things. That's why Ajax has been so big and why video has exploded. They changed the rules and made things behave more like we wanted them to. But this is only the beginning of what's possible, which is the reason Rich Internet Applications are poised to continue to impact how we use the web. These technologies give designers and developers absolute control over how the world appears to users. They aren't restricted by the rules of a browser model that is 10 years old. They can build the web with multimedia and interactivity that grabs people and speaks to their emotional sides.

Accessibility and standards are still very important parts of the web because information needs to be available to everyone, but dismissing the next generation of RIAs because they don't fit into the current model is short sighted. Good development and design teams can build world class RIAs that are interactive as well as accessible. Trying to imprint usability guidelines that are based on the browser in blanket fashion on the web is going to stifle innovation and make the web less friendly. We finally have the technology to really envelop users in the web and bring them experiences that mean something. That's more powerful than any standard and it's a huge reason why RIAs will be so successful.


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