The power of rich Internet applications (RIAs), can you handle it?


It drives me crazy when I hear these so-called usability “experts” make blanket statements like “Flash is unusable”. Flash, Flex, and Apollo are just tools, and powerful ones at that. My company focuses on solving usability problems for companies like eBay, Boeing, GE, and NBC. We see Flex (and the Flash content it produces) and Apollo as tools of the trade that give us more options to help our clients solve usability issues. We think of Flex as broader palate of colors to paint with than HTML. How could limiting your options make any sense?

One of our clients, an international airline, was losing millions of dollars, frustrating customers and employees, and damaging their brand. Why? It was due to an unusable HTML based application that required excessive training expenses and inefficient data entry at their customer service counters. The challenge for effectiveUI was to create an application that would drastically reduce data entry errors and require minimal training. Using Flex, we were able to provide advanced client side validation, visual help, hot key overlays, auto-saving, and modality (users are able to move between different tasks without losing progress in any of them). The end result was a significant reduction in training costs and drastically improved data entry accuracy.

Another client, eBay, saw an opportunity to better serve their users through a more engaging shopping experience. Using Apollo’s desktop capabilities, file system access, system notifications, occasionally connected functionality, allowed us to think ‘out of the browser’. We developed a UI strategy to give eBay shoppers an enhanced user experience that could’t be accomplished through a browser or HTML. This new application allows individuals to drag images from their desktop right into the application, alert them with notifications even when the application itself is not running, capture and save imagery from the user’s webcam, and create listings offline that publish to the Web once they reconnect.

In order for this new ‘webtop’ application to make sense, it had to be available to all and it needed to work cross platform. When evaluating our options it became clear that to satisfy our requirements Flex, the Flash player, and Apollo were the best options to ensure that the eBay application would be accessible today and relevant tomorrow.

So why do those usability experts drive me so crazy? Because they point to poor usability examples and blame the platform. Its like an architect pointing at a poorly designed house and blaming the power tools.

Manufacturers feel a responsibility to put warning labels on their power tools. Adobe might consider a label for Flex that would read something like:

Warning: Handle with care, may cause severe end user frustration. Developers without common sense are strongly discouraged from designing user interfaces.

I think what the critics are trying to say is “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. Adobe has made a significant effort to “bake usability in” with great components, simple skinning, layout managers, states, and data binding. Flex is a powerful set of tools and components, and with great power comes great responsibility (sorry for the cheesy Spiderman reference).

Top Ten symptoms your RIA has gone bad, according to the team at effectiveUI

  • Skip intro is the most used feature
  • Your mouse pointer emits a trail of pixie dust
  • You need to navigate to get to the navigation
  • Intro music sounds like something from Boogie Nights
  • Looks cool, who cares if you can’t read it
  • Looks like HTML, feels like HTML, why is there a loading screen?
  • The preloader has a preloader
  • Do you really want to punch another monkey to win a prize?
  • 1992 called and wants their GUI back
  • The app looks and sounds like you’re flying a spaceship from Star Trek

  • Five more symptoms your RIA has gone wrong:

  • Was not built by effectiveui (okay, shameless self promotion)
  • Comes in three colors: light grey, medium grey and dark grey
  • Your cubicle is more interesting
  • Emulates an application from your Commodore 64
  • The error messages are in Klingon
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    1 comment
    1. Ask your usability specialist if Flex is right for you. Side effects include satisfied customers, increased revenue, and general satisfaction.

      Practice safe Flex.

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