We should never settle for web interfaces that are "good enough"

We should never settle for web interfaces that are "good enough"

Summary: People started porting applications to the web because it made things easy. But in the process, they lost the richness that made the desktop so compelling. Rich Internet Applications bring together the best of both worlds so that we don't have to settle for interfaces that are "good enough".

SHARE:
TOPICS: Browser
16

A lot of people picked up a post over on Coding Horror asking if web interfaces were good enough based on the fact that people only use a few of the features that desktop applications provide. It's a valuable read and it generated a lot of good discussion, but I think Jeff Atwood (the author) misses the mark. The seminal quote is when he compares the web version of µTorrent to the desktop version:

After spending about a year interacting with µTorrent exclusively through Remote Desktop, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how good the web UI is. It aggressively exploits the latest Ajax techniques to replicate most of the rich GUI functionality of µTorrent in a browser. But the web UI is still a pale shadow of the full-blown Windows UI. There are small but important details missing throughout, and part of the pleasure of using µTorrent was luxuriating in its intense attention to detail, its wealth of well-designed data readouts. Using the web UI is like drinking watered-down beer. It doesn't satisfy.

But does it matter? Despite my nitpicking, I can do everything I need to do remotely through the web UI.

It's a little disheartening to hear that all we're looking for in our applications is "good enough". I think that's part of the rut that we've been stuck in for too long when it comes to software. We haven't spent enough time on design and experience and we've been left with "good enough". We now finally have some great tools and great technologies - Apollo, Flash, WPF/E, WPF, Flex, Creative Suite, Expression Studio, XULRunner, ect - that fit a variety of needs and make it easier to build great software experiences. Yet we're migrating things over to the web where good interface design and a good experience are difficult if not impossible to create.

As I see it, people like web applications because they're easy. That seems to be the rallying call, and Jeff describes it as the path of least resistance. When I talk about Rich Internet Applications and the need to break free of the browser, I don't want to take the ease of use out of the equation. On the contrary, as Anne notes, there's a hybrid approach here that everyone benefits from. Bringing the ease of the web to the desktop is kind of what RIAs are all about. Why shouldn't we want to keep the robustness and the experience of the desktop?

And that's where Jeff ends, by admitting that there is no reason why we should settle. The thing that kills me is that people don't realize we no longer *need* to settle. The future is here and it's Rich Internet Applications that combine the best of all worlds. We just need to spread the word.

Topic: Browser

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

16 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Less is more

    Please, spare us from what a Windows developer thinks is a good interface. When I
    hear phrases like dense data I shudder. The typical Windows interface paradigm is:
    throw as much crap on the screen as possible to show people how powerful and
    flexible your program is.
    frgough
    • RE: Less is more

      I totally agree; less is more in many cases. This isn't about typical Windows interface programming, which has been terrible, but the NEW interface paradigm which takes things from the web and the desktop. I think we're on the same page.
      ryanstewart
  • A web interface is a terminal connection and

    will never match the speed, UI options, or effectiveness of working with desktop
    software. I am not at all opposed to having a web options, but please lets not fool
    ourselves. Someone good with WordPerfect can blow the doors off someone good
    with MS-Word in productivity. They never have to take their hands off the keyboard.
    Put MS-Word on the Web, and it's not even worth comparing.
    LittleGuy
    • RE: A web interface is a terminal connection and

      Great point. And I think as power users come to expect more from the applications being ported to the web, they'll feel cheated. That's where RIAs fit in perfectly.
      ryanstewart
  • Oh those Green Screeners

    [i]A lot of people picked up a post over on Coding Horror asking if web interfaces were good enough based on the fact that people only use a few of the features that desktop applications provide.[/i]

    Just about all the features present in desktop apps are used. It is just that everyone uses his own subset of all the features present in these apps.

    [i]As I see it, people like web applications because they're easy.[/i]

    Web apps are generally easier to use than desktop apps, because there are so few functions in them. Once developers start adding lots of functionality to web apps, (along with slower overall performance) web apps will start becoming as complex as desktop apps. Things should improve on the desktop / RIA front however, as designers are being called to improve on user experiences in these types of apps.
    P. Douglas
    • RE: Oh those Green Screeners

      Well said as always P. I think one of the main "easy" parts of web applications is that you browse to them and they just work. No messy intrusive install, low barrier to entry, but also low functionality. They key is making RIAs on the desktop as easy as web applications in that sense.
      ryanstewart
  • Never settle for "good enough"

    Absolutely insist on "doesn't work at all."

    Deal with it, Ryan: Gresham's Law rules. If "good enough" weren't the way the market runs, we'd all be using Apple computers and Microsoft would have gone into bankruptcy in about 1988.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • RE: Never settle for "good enough"

      Hahaha, that's a good point. But it's frustrating that we settle for good enough in software so often when that's not the case in other parts of industrial design or the things we interact with on a daily basis.
      ryanstewart
      • Type I and Type II errors

        [i]But it's frustrating that we settle for good enough in software so often when that's not the case in other parts of industrial design or the things we interact with on a daily basis.[/i]

        Keeping in mind that with software the vendor has no liability to provide "fit for intended purpose [1]," customers tend to favor a tradeoff between "great but broken" and "adequate" that gets them [b]something[/b] instead of insisting on brilliance.

        When you consider the reliability math for software, I'm amazed we put up with the tail fins and rococo design that we have now.

        There's an enormous amount of mission-critical software out there that still runs on MSDOS (or equivalents such as FreeDOS.) It may not be pretty, but it [b]works[/b]. How much reliability are you willing to sacrifice for tertiary improvements such as aesthetics? An awful lot of medical and dental offices seem to have made their choice on that, just to name one sector.

        [1] Read the EULA
        Yagotta B. Kidding
  • Too much focus on ability and not usability

    As an industry, we are still very immature in actually making interaction design a common practice in software development; this is even truer in corporate IT environments. A large percent of the software we build today is totally focused on the ability of it to get the job done with permission, speed and architectural excellence. Yet we give very little time to interaction design, making sure that task are easy to do and find for the intended user.

    For example, my wife is just starting to learn about using software for creating and editing music. When she opens one of the applications she recently purchased, she is presented with a complicated UI not meant for beginners or at least presents her with options.

    Now contrast that with her Roxio CD/DVD software and I?m not even talking about the beta WPF based one. When she opens it, a well designed and worded start form appears presenting her with task that have great flow and gets the task done.

    We need to start giving more thought as to <b>WHO</b> we are building software for.
    MarlonSmith
    • RE: Too much focus on ability and not usability

      "As an industry, we are still very immature in actually making interaction design a common practice in software development; this is even truer in corporate IT environments."

      Yes! Exactly! That's the problem. And I'd like to think that software just hadn't evolved yet, but with a critical mass of users and more diverse set, we need to think very hard about the people interacting with our software. We can't just assume it's all techies.
      ryanstewart
  • RIA is inadequate

    Google Maps may be cool, but Google Earth is cooler. The difference between Google Maps and Google Earth illustrates the fact that there is no way that a browser-based UI can provide the powerful UI that a fat/smart/rich client can.

    Another problem with RIA is the fact that it is built on a weak foundation. In the future, the limitations of Javascript and browser incompatibilities will ultimately limit how far RIA UIs can go.
    LynRobison
    • RE: RIA is inadequate

      Lyn, I agree. I'm loathe to refer to Ajax as an RIA technology. I think it's much to limiting. I much prefer richer technologies that enable great web experiences as well as rich desktop experiences. That's how I define RIAs, not the limited JavaScript that most people think of.
      ryanstewart
    • Google Docs & Spreadsheets Good Example

      I consider myself to be a ?run of the mill? user of MS Word and Excel in my job. I recently installed Google Docs and Spreadsheets for a test drive. Prognosis: they are toys. I could not get to first base in re-building typical spreadsheets that I use. The word processor was a joke. MS has now raised the bar higher with Office 2007 ? I took to the new ?Ribbon GUI? like a duck to water two weeks ago when I was issued a Vista laptop at work.

      It?s not clear to me that Google will be able to improve these apps enough to be useful in their current html/javascript technology. Perhaps they will do a Flash/Flex version of Docs and Spreadsheets someday to get some richness into these apps?
      HighBeyond
    • Have you heard about...

      Apollo. Sounds like you are describing it.
      JJSmark
  • The browser experience is awful

    Look, writing an application to work in a browser is the worst way to deliver a UI. Browsers are ubiquitous because all you need is TCP ports 80 and 443 to make them work. But the user experience you can provide with them isn't even close to what you can do with a desktop application.

    In these days of web services, it makes no sense that more companies aren't providing installable versions of their sites that run using Web Services over port 80. Keeping state on a local machine will always be faster, better, and more usable than any browser could ever provide. WPF will help this (check out the New York Times Reader for one example) and Adobe Flex will be a half-hearted attempt at improving things, but there's no substitute for an installed application. If you're using a browser, you're on a down-level experience, and you always will be.
    SBArbeit