Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Are RIAs taking enough notice of usability?

A report has crossed my desk talking about how much of the excitement regarding Web2.0 projects is based around Rich Internet Applications (RIAs). Now I'm somewhat taken aback by the fact that certain corners are only just now waking up to the idea that highly interactive applications can be developed on the Internet but that is another story. The main thing that struck me was the discussions relating to AJAX frameworks (I don't think you can call AJAX a technology in and of itself).

There is a great deal of work being produced at the moment using AJAX frameworks to constantly pass messages between the client and the server in order to produce intuitive and adaptive interfaces based on human behavior but the report concentrates on a danger that standards are not being adhered to by these new developments and that user's needs are not being met.

This is interesting and does highlight pitfalls which are appearing with new technologies. My overriding thought though is if you change the year to 2002 and change these technology to FLASH you could pretty much have printed the same piece.

The bigger story in my view is that as new technologies come on board this always results in a period of hysteria when early adopters and standards bodies stop thinking about each other and also stop talking to each other. Early adopters want to push the envelope and standards bodies want to absorb the technology into an existing and understood framework.

On the one hand unless people are prepared to push things as far as they can go then the new tech will take longer to mature, and on the other the danger exists that bad practices will become the standard and will result in a very typical FLASH type argument with opposing armies gathered. One holding the view that the technology is worthless and should be outlawed, and the other holding it up to be the language of their deity of choice.

I’m not too sure what the answer is because I think both attitudes have a lot of merit. Maybe we need a safe use and play use policy so that some projects are understood to be non standard but aim to push the boundaries of the technology itself whilst others ensure compliance and show early quick wins for organisations. The two parties do however need to talk to each other, and the glue that could bind them both together is the user and usability.

I've been involved in several projects over the years that were not just bleeding edge but positively splattered in the new areas they were exploring, and I will freely admit that in some cases (FLASH for instance) we missed out on basic points concerning usability and the longevity of a site, but in so doing we did find out very quickly what the technologies were capable of which placed us in a very good position to know when it was good to use and when it was bad to use.

The point I am making is that it may be a little unfair to criticise the early adopters of RIAs as these people will work out where the boundaries are for the rest of the development community to follow. As long as a sense of usability is kept, then things won't drift too far astray and even if they do, people are still learning things, which doesn't seem like a bad idea to me.

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10 Comments:

At 8:51 pm, Anonymous Robin Harrison said...

As a Flash developer[1] I have to say it has come a long way since the skip-intro and badly animated videos of 2002.

I'm currently working on a Flash application that has replaced a very old Visual Basic + Access application. It could have been built in any number of standard web development ways, but as an RIA it looks and behaves similar to a normal desktop application, whilst being globally accessible.

Flash has come a long way - YouTube and GoogleVideo are powered by Flash, most of the live-election analysis for the UK and USA were in flash too. Hell, someone has just written a Commodore 64 emulator in ActionScript 3 - you couldn't have even imagined bringing that to fruition even 6 months ago, let alone in 2002, with Flash back then. Take a look at the Adobe: Flex Showcase for more actual business implementations using Flash (including applications such as Yahoo Maps).

Regarding accessibility, with Flash 8 you can make your application acceptable to screen readers. Its not there by default, you actually have to do some work to set up what and how you want the accessibile content to work. (See Adobe.com: Flash 8 Accessibility for further illumination).

AJAX is still very new and there is a lot of work to be done regarding accessibility, increases and changes in server load and dealing with large amounts of asynchronous content and events.


[1] Technically its Flex, but its all ActionScript under the hood.

 
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